Monday, February 19, 2007

33 1/3: a conversation with ben sisario

Ben Sisario writes about music and culture for the New York Times. Doolittle is his first book. We spoke by phone on July 3, 2006.

Craig Milley pulls a copy of Doolittle out of his pants, which sounds like a story all by itself, in 1989. Where are you, how old are you and what are listening to at the time?

I am about to turn 15 years old. I am a freshman in high school. I’m living in upstate New York, a small town called Scotia, which is near Schenectady. I was actually out of town visiting a friend of mine in Boston who I had grown up with, and he had a friend named Craig who was a really tall, lanky guy who played the guitar and was really sort of a mad professor kind of guy at age 14. And he kept tapes and CDs in pockets in his jacket and his pants, and he actually stuffed some into his pants, like by his underwear. We were hanging out, at a record store I think, waiting in line to buy tickets or something, and we were talking about music and he pulls this CD out of his pants and it’s Doolittle. It had just come out and he said, There’s this band, the Pixies, and they’re from right here in Boston, and you’d probably really like this. I don’t remember what we were talking about that prompted that, but at the time I was sort of moving out of the U2 and R.E.M. kind of phase of life and into like the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges.

You’re going back and doing your homework.

I was doing my homework. You know, when I was growing up I really devoured Rolling Stone magazine and I remember in 1987 in the 20th anniversary issue they published a list of the 100 Greatest Albums to that point. In fact, I think Craig and my friend Peter had the same issue and we discussed it at length. Maybe it was talking about Iggy Pop or something, I don’t remember what, but he pulled this thing out and shows it to me and I remember just for sort of the hygenical concerns thinking, Okay, you know, I’m not going to grab it from you. But later he played “Debaser” for me, and just the sort of blast of noise and the slicing up eyeballs lyric, the sense of menace in the voice and yet just this fun sort of rock ’n’ roll pop vibe just appealed to me and blew my mind. So that’s when I first heard it.

Obviously this affects part of your life down the road because you end up writing a book about the album, but is it, at the time, a life-changing moment? Does it steer you off in a direction you might not have otherwise gone if you had not run into this 14-year-old mad professor with a Boston accent?

I don’t think so. I don’t think it changed my life. I think a lot of records changed my life in little ways, and if it wasn’t this one, you know, it might have been another one. In the book I try to avoid saying anything autobiographical about my history with the album other than my acknowledgment to my friend Craig for introducing me to it at the very beginning. Because even though it was an important record to me, I didn’t feel like it’s my story that I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about the record and why I love it and why it’s important and why it’s interesting, and I don’t think it’s just because I liked it when I was a high school student. I think that even though that can be a powerful means of writing — and I don’t mean to disparage it at all — it’s not my style. And rhetorically, as a way to convey an argument, I think it’s just not a very strong way to make a claim, especially about historical significance, to say that the reason it’s important is because you liked it when you were 16. So I tried to avoid that. However, it was important to me when I was 16. But a lot of other records were important to me too.

Well, I understand that somebody could take on the 33 1/3 assignment as an exercise. I mean, you could literally pick an album out of a stack blindly and write about it, and coming to the record fresh would be part of the experience. But I’m going to assume that, as with most 33 1/3 writers, there’s a special connection to this album for you or you wouldn’t have gone there.

I agree. And I think if you look at the titles that people have written about, a theme through a lot of them seems to be, whether the writer expressly says it or not, that they were quote unquote life-changing records at a formative time in life, whether in high school or college. For example, of the books being published this spring, there’s three or four on albums from around the same time, and I don’t know all of the writers from this series but I’m guessing they’re close to my age, in their early thirties, so there’s a lot of records from the late eighties. And I think that’s cool. That’s why, you know, this is different from writing about Beethoven, because it does have a powerful personal significance, not only for you but your friends, your contemporaries, your time, and I really like that. I’m also intrigued by some of the books that are definitely not from the person’s time. Like the book on Live at the Apollo by James Brown, which I think is ’62. Maybe it was ’63. I forget. Anyway, it was written by Douglas Wolk, who I believe is in his thirties, and he’s a great critic and writer and it was just a totally engrossing book, and it had nothing to do with “I was there.”

You mentioned that there are albums that you consider to be life-changing. If you had to make a list of albums that you would be willing to write an entire book about, even if the book is only twenty or twenty-five thousand words, would it be a short list or a long list?

I made a list. I assume other people knew in advance when these books first started to come out, but I didn’t. I just sort of saw them in bookstores. And I was just a very envious reader, especially the first handful. The one on The Village Green by the Kinks and the one by Warren Zanes I particularly enjoyed. It just seemed like the writers were having fun, but also really engaging a subject that they cared very much about. And as a writer that’s something you want to do, no matter what you’re writing about. So I tracked down David Barker, the editor, and I wrote him a letter and said, I really want to do one of these, and I gave him a short list. But that list was a sort of a distillation of a much longer list that I had made of albums I really liked, and there were maybe twenty or thirty on that list. And I think I gave him four or five possibilities. Doolittle was number one. Number two was Fun House by the Stooges. The reason those two were so high up there was that not only do I just love them and not only do I feel that they are very historically important to rock ’n’ roll and moved rock forward in interesting ways, but I never get sick of them. You know, I heard Doolittle for the first time when I was 14. I loved it. And I don’t like to listen to albums too much, and yet I’ve listened to Doolittle I don’t know how many thousands of times, but I’ve never gotten sick of it. It just always engages me and it’s always exciting. And Fun House is another one like that where it’s just so invigorating to listen to it. It’s kind of a fearsome piece of work. Both of those albums, I just realized, are albums where the guy screams a lot, screams his head off. Maybe that’s something that appeals to me.

You mentioned Douglas Wolk writing about James Brown, but Iggy Pop’s not exactly of your time.

No. I mean, I didn’t even hear Fun House until I was probably about 18 or 19 years old, although I had heard Raw Power at some point when I was pretty young. I remember that was somewhere pretty high on that Rolling Stone list. And I had a few other records on my list that I gave to Mr. Barker but I didn’t care about any of them as much as these. And what happened was, Barker said, Thanks for your letter. All our books are assigned for the year. If this series continues to do well and we have a budget for more next year, I’ll have a request for proposals at the end of the year.

Give me a time frame on the letter.

This must have been somewhere towards the end of 2003.

So he’s been using the “if we continue this series” line for a few years now.

I don’t know what he’s been telling newer people but when I wrote to him I think there were eight, nine books out. So it was fairly new. I don’t know if they really knew how well it was selling at that point.
There were also murmurs around that time that a Pixies reunion was going to happen. So at the end of the year he sent out a form letter that said, Okay, I’m accepting proposals. Your proposal is due in two weeks, or whatever it was. I quickly banged one out and to my surprise I got the job. This is late 2004 now. The Pixies were in the middle of their reunion tour, towards the end actually. And I had gone to a bunch of the shows.

Did you go to all the Hammerstein shows?

I saw them at the beginning of the tour, before they played Coachella. And then I saw them in New York a number of times when they played the Hammerstein. Actually, when I found out my proposal was accepted the Pixies were, I think, just starting their run in New York. I had interviewed Frank Black a few times in the past and I contacted an intermediary and told them about the book and asked to meet with Frank Black or any of the Pixies to talk about it. And I did. I guess I’ll call him Charles Thompson, as I do in the book.

You write, “When I first sat down with Thompson in New York at the end of the 2004 tour.”


You’d talked to him before, but this is the first physical meeting.

No, I had met him and interviewed him face to face before, but this is the first sort of meeting about the book. And he was into it. He was into the idea of a book about the music, about the album. And he didn’t say so but I could tell in his face, and also just what I knew about the way the Pixies were dealing with the press during their reunion tour, that they were a little leery of reporters prying into their personal lives. They didn’t want to play out of the sort of soap opera aspect of the story.

No questions about the fax breakup. No questions about what exactly went on between Charles and Kim.

I think part of the reason was, you know, it was a painful thing and part of it was that they just got sick of all the questions. And I also think that they didn’t really know how well they were getting along together. I mean, it’s not like they could look back on something that was a closed chapter in their lives and talk about it. They were in the middle of it. And I don’t think they were getting along totally great. It was okay but it wasn’t fabulous. So the idea of a book that validated their work, much as the reunion tour validated their work and their popularity, appealed to them. And Charles was going to have a child in a couple of months after I talked to him, so he said, My wife’s going to have a baby. I’m going to be out of commission for a little while, but call me in a few months and we can figure it out. So that’s what I did.

Was he familiar with the 33 1/3 series at the time?

I don’t think he was.

So that doesn’t play into it. It’s basically your face-to-face pitch.

Yeah, I brought him a few copies of the books. We met at a Starbucks. I gave him the Village Green book, and I didn’t know it, but he apparently likes that record a lot. And he just said, Sure. I mean, maybe I was lucky, but I think that’s a proposal that not a lot of artists get. And I think it must be gratifying to be approached for that reason, somebody saying, I want to write a serious book about your work. And, you know, I talked about my credentials and so forth and I showed him the other books in the series and he saw that they were legit, and he said, Okay.

Do you know whether or not he had read any of your previous pieces about him?

Maybe he had, but I don’t think so. I had had an interesting sort of meeting with him about a year before that I would like not to go into, but it was a kind of funny situation.

He remembered you.

He remembered me. I told him that the only other album that I really would have wanted to do a book about was Fun House, and he smiled. He kind of nodded and he looked at me and I really didn’t need to say too much. I knew he was an Iggy Pop fan. He’s been talking about Iggy Pop forever. I didn’t really know what kind of a connection he had to that record, but he got it.
And I wasn’t saying like, I want to follow you around for six weeks and I want to see how you wipe your ass and how you kiss your wife. I just said, I want to spend some time with you — we can figure out how much — talking about the music, talking about what was going on with the band, what was going on in your life when you put this record together, and I don’t want it to be a soap opera. And I was pretty up-front, as I usually am in anything like this, and I said, You know, that’s not to say I’m not going to ask you any questions about how you were getting along then or how you’re getting along now, but that’s not really my main focus. I said, I want to have some in-depth conversations about this record and that’s it. And he said, Okay, and so we adjourned for a few months, and I contacted him and then we just arranged for me to go out to Oregon.

You went to a number of Pixies reunion shows.

I did.

You’re a writer for the New York Times. Publicists would love to do whatever they can for you so you’ll write about their artist. Are you comped on all of these or are you taking money out of your own pocket to attend these shows?

No, that was all out of pocket. I wanted to go to the very first show, which was in Minneapolis. But I didn’t know anybody in Minneapolis and so I just figured, well, you know, it would just be too much work. They played in Davis, California, I think about a week before the Coachella show. They started in Minneapolis, went through Canada and then came down the West Coast and then eventually played at Coachella. I stayed with a friend of mine in San Francisco and we drove to Davis, which was like a couple hours away, and saw that show. So I saw them at the very beginning of that tour and then I saw them at the very end, and there was a great difference, I thought, actually.

Tell me about the difference.

Well, the first one that I saw in California I didn’t think was that great. It was kind of eerie how much it sounded like the Pixies, though. Really that was my main reaction. I mean, you expect that after, you know, twelve years it’s going to be a little different. You expect that the drummer’s not going to be as good, to be brutally frank there, and that the singers are not going to be able to hit the notes, and that it’s just not going to be as tight and as strong when you’re talking about a band that plays fast songs like that. But, in fact, they were pretty much right on target musically. There was just kind of a coldness to it. There was no interaction between the musicians. However, there was never really a lot of that even in the old days. It was only Kim, really, who had any kind of personality onstage that you could pay any attention to, and she had a wonderful personality onstage. But I don’t remember her saying anything in that first reunion show. She just smiled in this kind of incredulous, big smile. And smoked a cigarette.

She almost seemed surprised on the nights that I saw them.

It was kind of like that. I mean, she just was kind of like looking out over these people — I don’t know if I could say wide-eyed, but there was just something that was not your usual like, Hey guys, how you doing tonight? kind of a vibe. I mean, it sounded good, but it was a little stiff and just a little chilly. And I was very ambivalent about the reunion in the first place. I really had not wanted it to happen because I didn’t want it to tarnish the memory. I didn’t want to see a group that I loved drag themselves out and not sound good and, you know, ruin the memory for me as so many reunions have done. I was relieved that they sounded pretty good and that there seemed to be something kind of honorable about it even though it was clear that, you know, money was a big incentive for them to do it. But it didn’t seem like they were totally cashing in and, you know, making fools of themselves.
When they played at the end of the tour, though, they had been together then for, I don’t know, eight months and they were just noticeably looser and more comfortable and they joked a bit onstage. They sounded much better. There was even a little bit of a weird edge to it. There was a documentary that was made of the tour called loudQUIETloud, and these guys did a really great job with it. They show that by the end of the tour there were some bad vibes popping up again, and part of it had to do with the drummer, David Lovering. They were worried about his substance abuse, and kind of ticked off about him generally. And sometimes that kind of thing contributes to an interesting sound, an interesting interaction between people. I like the way they sounded, I liked the way they played, I liked the way they looked. It looked like they were having a good time. And that’s kind of all you can ask for in a reunion, is that they want to do what they’re doing. And I feel that that’s really not the vibe you get from a lot of reunions. You get this, you know, veiled dishonesty of We’re entertainers, we’re smiling, we’ll do the show, but we don’t want to be here, we don’t want to see you, we don’t want to be up this late, we hate each other. And sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Are we doing this for ourselves? Are we doing it for the fans? Are we doing it for neither? Are we doing it for our lawyer? Who is this reunion for? And I felt more by the end that it was for themselves and also for the fans, and that was good.

If you had met Charles at Starbucks and he didn’t want any part of the book, would you have gone ahead and written it or would you go back to David Barker and say, Maybe Iggy Pop would be the way to go?

No, I was prepared to do the book, regardless. I would’ve been bummed out if I didn’t have access and interviews, but I didn’t think it was essential. I didn’t want to do an oral history. I didn’t want to do a strictly reported book. I mean, my hope and my aim was to have it be a journalistic enterprise that was both reported and critical. I wanted it to be a reported story that would be well-researched and that would get a lot from the horse’s mouth, but it was very important to me that it also have an overarching critical argument, that it would stand up as a work of criticism as well. That was my hope. And I feel satisfied that I met that goal. And, you know, I relied on Charles and his participation to meet that. If he hadn’t participated, I still would’ve been able to write a good book about Doolittle, but I think it would not have satisfied me as much.

Given that this is a new form for you personally, do any of the 33 1/3 books act as a model to show you might want to do in terms of form and structure?

There were definitely approaches in some of the other books that I liked more than others, and things that seemed well-suited to the length. It seemed like a very free form and relationship with the publisher. It was evident just from reading the books that this was the way the writer wanted to write the book. And that came through both in the strong points and in the weak points of some of the books.
I liked reading Warren Zanes’ book, but I didn’t totally like it as a book about Dusty Springfield. I thought it was unsatisfying. But I liked the journey that he went on. There’s a literal journey of him sort of traveling around, but it’s also a narrative journey. I liked that freedom and I liked the fact that in about 30,000 words it didn’t feel like too much. It felt like you could do something quite unusual at that length. I liked the James Brown book, which is a very sort of segmented book, with lots of short sections that cover each song but also lots of other things besides songs. I didn’t want to follow that format, but what I liked about that was that it has a lot of ideas thrown in there. I liked the Kinks book, which was very well researched and very authoritative, and I felt that, you know, if I’m going to put in the time and the effort and put my name on it, I want it to be good. It’s got to have weight to it. I don’t want it to look like, Well, they paid me three thousand bucks so I whipped this off in two weeks and it sucks but, Hey, whatever, you know. I wanted it to be strong. And just knowing the amount of work that goes into a two thousand word article, I knew it was going to be a huge amount of work that would go into even a short book. So that appealed to me very much.
That reported aspect that I like is something that I felt I wanted to bring to the series. Because I’m a reporter, I feel very strongly that even if you’re making, you know, a critical or analytical argument, you’ve got to back it up, and one of the best ways to do that is to actually talk to the people you’re writing about, spend time with them, see how they live and what their environment is like. And you’ve got to check out what other people have said about them too. The goal of writing about music is often writing about the people who make the music. And so that is what I was after.
You know, I liked a lot of the approaches that I saw in the 33 1/3 books. Even if I didn’t want to do an autobiographical book, there is something about that voice that is appealing. A looseness of narrative is something that I think comes through in a lot of these books, and the autobiographical approach, you know, through the lens of an album, is kind of a youthful and provocative way to structure a book and way to write about music. And I liked that. My book is not really autobiographical, but I’m a minor character in it, and I do write about me showing up, talking to Charles, talking to Joey and some of the others and, you know, what I saw, me standing there, me sitting in his car. It’s not supposed to self-referential to any great degree. I think it just kind of worked, and part of me doing it was that it set up a little bit of a face-off between me and Charles Thompson. As a person and as a character, he is a little challenging. In some ways he was the most generous and friendly and open person I’ve ever interviewed. I mean, he didn’t hesitate a minute. From the time that I first talked to him and told him I wanted to do this, he just said, Okay. There was nothing that was off-limits. Even questions that were uncomfortable, he answered them.

But you also call him remote.

Yes, he is remote. His relationship with journalists is very difficult in a lot of ways, and I think it’s not just with journalists. His method of self-representation is very complex. He sometimes would answer questions in a very passive-aggressive way. He will bare his soul in a way, but then he will also sort of put up a screen to prevent you from seeing him. One of the things that he’s been doing for decades now is to insist that there’s no meaning there. And it’s a common thing when you talk to musicians or any kind of creative people. You ask them, Hey, what does this mean? What about this lyric? And they often say, Ah, they’re just words. But if you get into it with them, they sort of drop the shield a little bit. I mean, it’s partly false modesty. It’s partly a way of preventing people from getting too close. But even if they have a canned answer, it’s still an answer, and they’ll tell it to you and you get some kind of insight even if it’s a sort of manufactured insight. Charles’ way of doing it is to make you aware that you’re not getting the insight. He will tell you that there’s nothing there and even if there is, I don’t know what it is. And really put up a hard front with that. And so we got into that a bit, and I think partly because I spent so much time with him we were able to get a little past that. I think we did get pretty deep into a lot of the music and the lyrics, but I just always felt that he was purposefully not being totally open with me. And that is his way. It’s a sort of disconnect that I think is a big part of his personality as a performer. You know, going back to the very early days of the Pixies — I mean, I read pretty much everything written about them, and that’s not an exaggeration because I was given boxes of clips of everything they had, you know, from the very beginning, from even before the time they were famous at all. And writers’ first reaction to them was often, Wow, this guy’s music is so intense, and his scream is so disturbing and so raw that it feels like a really deep cry from somewhere within him, but when you meet him he just seems like this schlubby guy. And it’s a surprise, it’s a shock. It sort of puts the writer on edge, you know, like, Wait a minute. How am I going to deal with this now? This is not what I expected at all. And in fact almost twenty years later that’s pretty much what I was still dealing with.

What about his motivation? I agree that it’s flattering that someone would want to spend time with you to talk about your music, to want to write an entire book about your music, but he’s obviously protective of himself. You call him “a master puzzlemaker.” What do you think he wanted you to come away with? What do you think he wanted out of this experience?

Well, one thing I like about him and about that character trait is that I feel it’s pretty real. If somebody hung out with you for three or four days and peppered you with questions, you’re not exactly going to bare your soul the way you would with your therapist or something, you know what I mean? It’s a natural response to want to keep something private. Even among friends. I think when celebrities give the so-called revealing interview, it’s often phony. It’s often canned, and it’s sort of a practiced response. And even when you get kind of, I don’t know if I should say deep, but like if you’re asking very personal questions about somebody’s music or their work, I think it’s rare or impossible to get the full emotional disclosure that you might get if you were talking to a close friend or a family member. I mean, it’s kind of a conceit of journalism, I think, that when you’re getting that interview, when you’re walking into somebody’s house, seeing how they live, seeing how the guy dresses, seeing how he acts when he orders a cup of coffee at the diner or whatever, that you’re getting, you know, a close read on him as a person, who he really is. You’re getting some, but it’s also an act. And I think Charles is just very up-front about the fact that, look, he’s a performer. This is what he does. After he plays he goes and takes a shit and gets in his car and drives away. And when you interview him, you know, he’s not going to give you everything.

I think we agree with the conceit. And I think we know that when Jessica Simpson or whoever lets Barbara Walters and her camera crew into her house then she’s selling something. But Doolittle’s an old album and your book is not going to have a tremendous effect on record sales. It’ll certainly spur some interest in the work, but Charles can participate without letting you into his house. He can participate without hanging out with you for three days. And I understand what you’re saying about the nature of celebrity, but it would also seem like over the course of three days the guard has to come down some if only out of weariness.

I think it did. I mean, I don’t think I ever got what he would tell his wife on their pillow, but I think his guard did come down quite a bit. You know, when you talk to somebody like that who’s been interviewed many times about the same thing, like most musicians who have been around for a while have, you hear the same thing they told another guy. You hear the same story, and I got a lot of them, but I also got a lot that I think I haven’t read elsewhere.

Is there something surreal about getting into the car with Frank Black? I mean, do you have the moment of, Holy shit, I’m in a car with Frank Black and we’re listening to Doolittle?

I mean, the short answer is like, Yeah, I felt like shitting my pants. The long answer is that I think as you sort of develop your skills as a journalist and do it more than once, more than a dozen times, more than fifty times, whatever, you sort of develop a persona too. And it’s partly a way to deal with some of that holy shit stuff. Because you know that it’s not just what questions you ask, it’s your attitude and it’s what you reveal about yourself that has an effect on how somebody talks to you and how much they trust you and what they’re going to say. So, you know, I have a sort of persona as a reporter, and that is my own shield. I think I was mostly freaked out about it before it happened. I found it very hard to prepare. And in fact, my notebook as I was going into it was embarrassingly short on questions. Like you said, this is music that I really, really liked when I was young. And not just that, but that this band and Charles Thompson were among the first musicians that I really admired in a great way and felt like, you know, I as an adult, or almost adult, was getting what they do. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the way you relate to it. I think that when you’re growing up with music it’s not just a matter of, I like it, I like the lyrics, I think that guy’s really cool, but that I get what this guy’s doing.

You mentioned listening to Doolittle thousands of times and never getting tired of it, and I think speaks to what you’re saying. It’s not only the initial reaction that you have, but the fact that it’s still with you. You have a bond with the album. This album’s important to you.

That made it a little bit difficult to be totally just business about it. Because, you know, there were so many zillions of little questions I could’ve asked, that I found it hard to just write down twenty of them. And so a lot of our interview was not really that much of an interview. It was kind of, So, tell me about Doolittle. Tell me about Joey. What is that that he played right there? What were you doing when you did this song? When did you write that song? You know what I mean? I’m embarrassed to say, but I didn’t have a lot of really great, deep questions for him.

But you’re not in an interview situation.

Right. In a way, you know, I did have the luxury of not having to come up with ten insightful questions that I could ask within twenty minutes. So yeah, I guess. I could let them happen as they happened, and they did. But it was very strange. I mean, I felt more anxiety going into it than I think I otherwise would have.

What came out of Charles’s mouth that surprised you? What kind of reinforced that Holy shit, I can’t believe he just told me that moment?

Well, there were a few details about songs that surprised me but that wasn’t really it. There were a few times, though, that bells went off and I just knew, All right, I got the lead of chapter two or whatever right here. The big one was when we were talking about the song “Hey.” It was actually one of the first songs that we talked about when we got in the car together. I don’t know about you, but when I conduct interviews I often feel that my weakness is that I talk too much. And when I’m listening to the tape afterwards and transcribing it, and I’m thinking like, Shut up. You know, there are too many words in that question. But I was talking about the song and I was sort of telling him what I saw in it, and getting pretty deep into it. He listened, and I think hearing what I thought provoked him a bit to give me some of what was in his mind, and what he shared was a very kind of ugly — he would call it a psycho-sexual kind of thought. And he talked about his parents, he talked about the sort of vibe of the singer of the song. And most of that is in the book. I mean, it goes on for a while and I cut it down, but I felt that that was a point where it wasn’t just him saying the same thing he said to the guy from Spin. I felt like he was sort of showing me something about the song, but really something about himself that I’ve always sort of felt. And I realized this is a really key part to the album thematically and in the sort of characterization that comes through in the lyrics, that there is this kind of frightened, but super-confident in a way, young man. That it’s like being totally fucking insanely excited about sex, but being terrified about it as well. And it’s a young man’s feeling. And I don’t think at age 40, I don’t think he feels that way. But it’s a primal scene and it’s important and I think he really hit the nail on the head talking about it. I mean, I think we could have gotten around to that point without him saying what he said, but I felt that talking about the song in that way -— I mean, the words he used and the strange setting of us on this kind of bucolic two-lane road somewhere out in Oregon, and we’re talking about this sex and death kind of shit — it was good and it opened a lot of things up. That was kind of a Holy shit moment and also kind of an All right, here we go kind of moment. Like, All right, the juices are flowing. Now we can get into some of the other stuff. I’m no longer really nervous about whether this is all going to be a big waste of time.

Because you’re involved in the conversation instead of inside your head trying to think what you’re going to ask next.

Exactly. I now know that it’s going well. He and I have got a vibe together and he trusts me to some degree. You know, I felt better about the interview. I also just thought the goal of this book and I think all the books is just to get some kind of deep understanding of the music, and there it was.

You mentioned that “Hey” concerns the preoccupations of a young man, and Charles is 40 now, and I think his work with the Catholics can probably be seen as a bridge, but it’s definitely a completely different style from the Pixies to Honeycomb and now Fast Man. Can he write Pixies songs anymore?

I asked him that. I didn’t ask him in exactly those words, but I asked him, Can you write songs like these anymore? Shortly before I interviewed Charles, Bob Dylan did an interview on “60 Minutes.” Do you remember this?


A year, year and a half ago.

Ed Bradley.

Yeah. It was a pretty hyped interview at the time. And it wasn’t all that great of an interview, but Ed Bradley asked him that question. I don’t remember the songs he mentioned, but he was like, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Visions of Johanna.” You know, super super super duper Dylan songs, and he said, Can you write songs like this anymore? And Dylan said, No. Which I thought was wrong. I think he still can write amazing songs, as Time out of Mind shows. But I thought it was a good and ballsy question to ask, and so I asked it of Charles. And I’d have to go back to my tapes because I remember his answer was not all that satisfying or fruitful, but I think he said like, Uh, not really. One thing that he said that was kind of interesting was that when he does sing Pixies songs now he’s got to kind of get into character, contort himself a little bit backstage. He still can hit the notes. His voice is still very high and he has good control of it. He does vocal exercises. But it’s not just the pitch. He says it’s kind of more nasally. It’s an attitude. And he’s kind of getting into the attitude to sing them. And he does it, but it’s sort of like it used to be that the attitude was just dying to break out, and now the attitude has kind of got to be coaxed out.
If the question is, Can he write songs of that quality? I believe that he can but I’ve got to say that his recent work I don’t think is up to the same level. It’s been diving down. It’s better than it’s often portrayed to be. I think these last couple of records that he’s made are pretty good.

They’re pretty good, but Doolittle’s great.

They’re pretty good as opposed to great. I feel like that’s almost a different book or something, what’s going on with that, because I actually think that his talents are undiminished. I mean, this is a guy who really can just sit down and write a song, you know, just like that.

Doesn’t the Nashville thing have to be a stage he’s going through? Yeah, it’s good, or it’s pretty good, but I see it as more dog paddling than swimming. It seems almost like a respite.

I agree, and you know, it’s unfortunate because I care about him and I think he has tremendous gifts. I mean, it’s kind of my guess because we didn’t really get into it much, but I think it’s a motivation thing. I think he doesn’t really know why he’s singing now, other than it’s just his job to do that. I don’t know if he ever really had the answer. I mean, I don’t know if he knew why he was singing twenty years ago, but I think he’s sort of been forced to ask himself that question.

Instead of just taking it for granted. He has to have a reason now.

And part of that is a result of the Pixies breaking up, or him breaking up the Pixies rather, and going solo. You’re on the stage, you’re belting out a bunch of new songs and people aren’t going as crazy. Okay, what’s going on here? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What am I going to do next? How am I going to get back to what I did that made people go crazy?

Does he care about that or is he happy with his solo work? He’s made some money now. Does he care about the audience enough that he would rather play to the Pixies audience of 8000 screaming people as opposed to the acoustic shows he’s doing in August? Does he need positive reinforcement enough to try and get back to that place? Do you think he wants the kind of audiences that the Pixies have or is he content to play the music that he seems to want to play right now to a smaller, less fervent audience?

I think he wants a bigger audience. I think anybody would, and he’s had a taste of it. I mean, it’s not like he’s a guy who’s always been singing in front of 200 people and dreams of fame, you know. He has tasted fame. You’re right, he was not playing to the kind of crowds that Madonna plays to every night, but they were pretty big crowds and they did make some good money, and it was a much larger response than they ever had in America before and it was very gratifying to them. But the big question is, Okay, the reunion tour’s not going to go on forever and yet he’s going to keep making music. When he makes another Frank Black album, or tours solo again, what’s it going to be? Is it going to be like the last few Frank Black records that we’ve heard where there’s almost a resignation, not just among the artists but also the fans, of just like, Okay, it’s a Frank Black record. They’re interchangeable. They’re not that great. There are some good songs on there, but you’re waiting for him to play “Ed Is Dead.” My wish is that the reunion will transform his career in some way. It’s a little too soon to know, but I don’t think it’s too soon to predict that it will probably not transform his career in a huge way, and I think it’s because he has made two weird records. And him doing the Nashville sessions, I think, was fruitful to a degree because I think they’re better than his last few. But they’re not as good as, for one thing, the Pixies albums, but also his first couple Frank Black records where I think you can tell that this guy was just bursting with ideas. I think they’re wonderful albums. Even the first Frank Black album is better than the last Pixies album. When you listen to Trompe le Monde it sounds like a half-formed Frank Black solo album. And when he finally did go solo, he did what he had wanted to do and it’s great. And I think it actually holds up pretty well. You know, he describes his albums and songs as like little movies, and I always thought the first Frank Black record is kind of like a cartoon or something.

Okay. I don’t think you used exactly these terms, but basically you said that anybody who has had a taste of that success would want it again, almost as if it was a human nature thing. That would tend to make one believe that there might be a Pixies album somewhere down the road. And that’s going to be problematic if he doesn’t think he can write those songs anymore.

Right. It’s a difficult decision that they will have to make. When I last heard about this, which would’ve been toward the end of last year, what I was hearing from people close to the band was that for the beginning of 2006 they really didn’t have a lot of plans, and Charles was going to write a bunch of songs and sort of decide whether they were going to be Frank Black songs or whether they were going to be Pixies songs. But the bigger question that they were all thinking about was, Do we even want to make a record? What is the future of this reunion here? Because they knew that they couldn’t really ride that wave forever and, in fact, from a business point of view, there were diminishing returns. Not so quickly diminishing, but they tried to book them into some bigger halls the second time around and they didn’t quite fill them up. And to booking agents that is a sign that there is a limit to the appeal of this group and it cools things off a bit.

And without new product . . .

And without new product, you know, I imagine that they would be reluctant to make a lot of bookings because there’s, you know, risk involved. They were also, I think, very conscious of the fact that they were sort of holding their legacy in their hands and they didn’t want to ruin it. They knew that the reunion was going to be successful, but I think they truly did not know it was going to be quite so successful. But they didn’t want to turn into an oldies act and they didn’t want to turn into a bore, like, Oh, here’s the Pixies again. And I respected a great deal that they had another concern, which was, We don’t want to make a shitty album. That they said, Okay, we’d be willing to try something and, in fact, they did have a couple sort of surreptitious recording sessions early on. One song that came out of it was a song called “Bam Thwok” which was supposed to be on the Shrek 2 soundtrack but wasn’t. And then they did a Warren Zevon song for a tribute album. So they tried it and it was okay but it wasn’t great. I don’t know personally what has been going on in recent months, but if I had to put money down, I would guess that they are not going to make a record, because I don’t think they are feeling the fire and I think that they feel that, you know, they have an opportunity to go out on top. I think that they’ll accept dates if they’re, you know, a good offer, but my gut feeling is that they know the limit. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but that’s kind of the vibe I’m getting.

You expressed previous reservations about the band reuniting. You were scared that might tarnish the memory. I’m going to assume that your time with Charles, writing the book, doing the research, were all gratifying, enjoyable experiences. Does spending that much time with this record at all tarnish your memory of this record?

No. The short answer is no. It did not at all tarnish the memory or diminish my love for the music or the people. It was very gratifying. It was fun to immerse in the subject and to immerse in the story and to report it at the length that I reported it.
You like getting into the nitty gritty about the writing process.

I like process. I’m a process guy.

Well, I kind of set down some rules for myself when I was working on it. I had a limited amount of time to do this. The first interviews took place in early April of 2005 and I got most of the other significant interviews done by the end of May, and for the next couple of months I did more follow-up interviews with Charles and with Joey Santiago. We talked about some finer musical points in our subsequent conversations. And I also interviewed a lot of the other people involved with the band and the record, you know, like some of the people who recorded them, people who knew them from back in the day, the guy who owned the recording studio, the mixing studio, that kind of stuff. That was mostly done by the middle of the summer and then I wrote it between August and mid-October with some self-editing after that point.

Do you have to take time off from work to do this?

Yeah, I had sort of squirreled away some vacation time. I took a block of four week and just myself in sensory deprivation and I got the bulk of the book done in that time.

When you’re actually writing the book, like when the computer screen starts off blank and now it has words on it, are you writing without music, are you playing Doolittle or something completely different?

That’s the rule I was getting to.


No, no, no. The rule was to listen to Doolittle as little as possible because I didn’t want to get sick of it. I didn’t want to get desensitized and I didn’t want to get to a point where I no longer could really listen carefully. Do you know what I mean?


That was a very important rule and I felt like I was almost kind of superstitious about it. But for one thing, I knew this album backwards and forwards so like, you know, if I was doing an interview and somebody said, Okay, the chorus on “No. 13 Baby,” we did this and this and that, I didn’t really need to like go back and, you know, listen to it to know how it went. I pretty much knew.

This isn’t a desert island record because you can play it in your head whenever you want to.

Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean, I don’t really need to listen to it a lot. I know it very well. However, when I was really in the thick of writing, there were a lot of research points that forced me to listen to it. I also did pick a few days that were kind of lazy days, where I was like, Okay, I’m going to listen to Doolittle. I’m going to listen to DoolittleSurfer Rosa. I’m going to listen to the Breeders. I’m going to listen to this. I’m going to listen to that. And I took notes. I tried to listen for particular things, but I also tried to say, Okay, I’m just going to listen and I’m going to put my professional ears on. And that was very useful, actually. At a certain point it came down to chords and tempos. And when I was listening to demos of the songs, I had to listen very carefully because I had to compare, point by point, everything about them. And, you know, it’s crazy. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. I think it’s a very useful thing to do with a band that you know a lot about: sit down with an early version or an alternate version and don’t just listen and say, Oh yeah, they changed the end a little bit. Figure out exactly what they did. Because, I mean, if you’re the kind of person who loves to sort of get his hands dirty, it’s a great thing to do. And I did do that with pretty much all of the songs. And actually I think it resulted in some pretty interesting things because it showed what the producer did. It showed how they dealt with the small picture in recording and also the big picture. And it also gave an idea of how the songs developed, because there were some songs that they demoed but didn’t record for several months, and in the meantime they played them live a little bit, and you could hear how, like, they sped up. Or he stopped singing in this way and he started to sing it in this way. It is an instructive window into the creative process.
But to come around to your original question, thankfully it never reached a point of, No, I cannot listen to this anymore. I definitely felt like putting it on the shelf when I was done, but it’s funny, when I turned in the manuscript I had a little get-together with some friends. Not really a party, but I just said, All right, I can finally go out of the house and drink. And so I met some friends of mine at a bar, and we were sitting there and fucking “Wave of Mutilation” comes on the stereo. And they all look at me like, Come on, you put this on? And I didn’t. And I loved it, you know. It was just such a relief. I could’ve been like, Turn this fucking song off, I cannot listen to that one more time. But I wasn’t that way at all. It felt really fresh. I remember, it came on, we sort of tipped our glasses, drank, and then the song was over in a flash and it was just like, Wow. Rock ’n’ roll.

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