Andy Kaufman: 30 Years After His Death (or Presumed Death)

Aside

In honor and remembrance of Andy Kaufman, the great performance artist, comedian and self-proclaimed “song-and-dance man,” on this, the 30th anniversary of his death, I give to you the complete, extensive interview sessions I shared with the major players surrounding the release of last year’s debut and posthumous comedy record, Andy and his Grandmother. Released by Drag City, the LP/CD/MP3 was a collection of over 80 hours of Kaufman source material and ideas recorded on microcassette from 1977-79. Referencing his intent to make a experimental comedy record from his ramblings, practical jokes and provocative phone pranks, Rodney Ascher and Vernon Chatman edited the 80-hours down to 48 minutes of strategically arranged soundbites that they hope maintain Kaufman’s desired attitude, delivery and overall product. The following interviews were conducted for a story published on August 30, 2013 and can be viewed here: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/kaufmans-last-tape

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This second installment of interviews is with compiler and producer of the record, Vernon Chatman. Besides his work on Andy and His Grandmother, Chatman is also known for his work as a standup comedian, television writer (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock Show) and he is currently a producer on Louie C.K.’s FX comedy Louie.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Vernon Chatman

 

So, let’s get into this. How did you get involved? How was this project presented to you?

Dan Koretsky from Drag City just called me up and said, “Hey, I have an interesting project for you.” And he explained the situation: There’s 82 hours of these microcassette tapes and Lynne doesn’t want to go through them, but wants someone to go through them to put together the album that he was sort of working on. It was a daunting, giant project, but I couldn’t resist. It was also wrong. From the outside, my immediate reaction was “of course,” but beyond that, was there something wrong and flawed about this? Especially since I never met him. It was something that seemed impossible to fully succeed at. I like impossible things and I think Andy always had an aura of impossible, and he worked with the impossible as one of his tools and tricks so I just thought, “alright.”

 

What was the reasoning that they ultimately selected you? How taken aback by it were you?

I’ve done some projects, and I’ve done a bunch of comedy that fucks with what is real, and fucking with people aggressively. I did a strange project with Drag City and had a good relationship with them. They knew that I was a guy who did comedy and was interested in the weird ways of putting it together. It was called “Final Flesh.” It was a bizarre movie. I’ve also spent a bunch of time editing over the years—editing as a way of building something.

 

I talked to Lynne a little bit and she said that she would pick up one of the cassettes every now and then and play it, but would you say you are the first person to ever hear these things all the way through in their entirety?

I think so. I think Dan Koretsky listened to them as well. I’m not sure if he listened to the entire thing, but I think that he did. Then it was just me and my editor Rodney. I think we are the only ones who totally went through them. I doubt even Andy himself went back and listened through the tapes. That was one of the main things, just getting a glimpse of somebody on a real time level for such a long period of time is one of the closer ways that you’ll even be able to get a sense of somebody long-dead or long-supposedly-dead was like.

 

Tell me about the time frame. When were these presented to you and how long did you decide to take with them?

It wasn’t a decision to take way too long. I can’t remember, but I’m thinking it was three years ago. It was a long time ago. It took a really long time to go through the tapes and it took a really long time to just start assembling and mixing and trying the various orders and choosing just what ultimately stands out and what’s an interesting blend of what’s there and then trying to spending enough time assessing just what it was that Andy was going for within this. It just took forever.

 

Were you the one who digitized them?

No, I think it was Dan Koretsky or someone working with him who did it. So while he was digitizing it he listened to it a bunch.

 

So were you ever presented with the actual box of tapes?

No. The closest I have to that is just some sort of photocopies of the labels.

 

Yeah, tell me to what extend he annotated the tapes. Were there any notes?

He notated to an extent that made me forget the idea of relying on that at all. It was mostly scribbles and it was just bullet point things to remember. It was clear—I never went to them for reference once I realized the pattern of what was on there. It wasn’t like “Use this! Use This!” There weren’t directions on there. It was pretty clear during the tapes what he was most enthusiastic about, whether he more focused on something that was more presentational or if he was just giddy about what was happening and aggressively driving down the line of torment or whatever kind of comedy he was doing.

 

Were there any permissions that needed to be granted from anyone on the tape?

You know, I don’t know the actual process that it went down, but we bleeped out any names that might have been recognizable to some people, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any issue. Almost everyone on the tapes was very aware of it. The process of the whole experiment wasn’t really a hidden tape recorder thing, it was more of “Hey check this out I have a tape recorder” and dragging them into whatever strange thing he is going to spin around them and get them wrapped up in, the confusion to the point where they forget that there’s a tape recording… or they’re increasingly angry that it’s being done.

 

I didn’t know too much about who was on the tapes, so when I talked to Lynne, I just assumed that she was one of the women on the tape. But I was totally mistaken. So, I guess what was the time frame of when the tapes were recorded? Is there an exact beginning and end?

It was 1977-1979 and I think that there are clear records on the tape where you know what time of year, what month and then there was one time where he had a tape on and he was going around New York City and messing around with people dressed like Santa Claus. Then there was the time he was messing with Santa Claus as a Tony Clifton type of guy. Then he was messing with a Hare Krishna guy. Then on New Years he went to Times Square– he went around making speeches and made an event of the moment. Those were certain moments when we knew where he was. Then there was a time, maybe all of June, so it was 30 days and in the height of his effete, so that tape was on and everywhere he went he would be recognized and he took a month off just to meditate.

 

That being said, was it painful to take certain things out and were there things that you wish made the final cut but would have changed the tone or ideal of his record?

Hopefully the balance is right. There are definitely certain things I went back and listened to and put on a podcast and thought “wow that was funny, why didn’t we put that on the album?” There was a thing where he did a goofy voice and went to the Empire State Building and he was talking like this the whole time and asking silly questions. And he would keep saying “King Kong, King Kong” and he was tormenting people for a really long time, and there were so many great really funny reactions. Lynne even mentioned that she thinks he probably wore a costume for that and put on a big overcoat and glasses. People eventually threw him out. It was really funny, but for me it never quite filled in the picture, you couldn’t really get the sense of the context for it. And there were a few things where he messed with people in the foreign man voice, which is so iconic and people really identify with him. I thought this is exciting and this is before Taxi and he’s doing that character and confusing them, but nothing like that made it either. The weird thing is, the points where he was being the most unlikable, shall we say, I made sure NOT to steer clear of that because it would make him seem unlikable. Sometimes when he’s being really aggressive and pushing people to the point where they’re upset—people he’s close to like friends, and people he’s not close to—I just thought that is so in him, and it’s such a driving point of what makes him so entertaining, and also he so often went into those things that I thought those tapes should offer the side of him that you didn’t get to see in other places. Certainly the intimacy of talking to a woman after he had a one- night-stand with her and pressing her to explain for the tape-recording audience what it was like for her and how she liked the sex, and just dragging her deeper and deeper– asking for the details, insisting it would be great for the album. It was really intense. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t preserving some precious legacy or view of this loveable guy, I just wanted to include what he thought was entertaining, and what I thought was entertaining even if it’s somewhat complicated.

 

That being said, it’s billed as a comedy record. It’s what he would think of as a comedy record, but as far as what you get out of it, it’s almost as much as a documentary of his life being his work. Was that always his concept for the record?

It’s hard to say. I really didn’t want it to be a documentary or a biography as far as a celebration of the man’s life. I wanted it to be a piece of entertainment. He didn’t call himself a comedian, but he certainly thought of himself as an entertainer. He was certainly interested in entertaining. I certainly wouldn’t call this a comedy album because he didn’t call himself a comedian. But he did work in these formats and I think when he says it on the tapes that he’s making an album. I mean he wrote screenplays, he wrote television, he did variety shows, he always worked in familiar formats and worked within his version of what he finds entertaining. In the end you know he did it in the form of wrestling, things people never messed with. This was about following what his intentions were, and his intentions were most clear when he was doing something that was really entertaining and he would get excited about how good it would be on the album. That’s really what I thought should go on the album. Intrinsically that’s going to be a look into how he operates, because the strange line between the shifting line or circle or whatever between his life and his entertainment, and him being in character or out of character, or him being on or off. It’s all of these things. There’s a strange non-line there. That’s part of the entertainment. But in terms of getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse– behind some famous person– that I don’t care about. I don’t think he cared inherently fucking with that stuff.

 

Did he give any cues or even notes to himself on the cassette or is it just material. Like on the record there are dogs and car horns blocking names. Is that something he suggested within the tapes? Or is that something to protect the legalities?

That was totally whatever lawyers got together and thought was the smart thing to do because of these women. So we had to bleep it, but me and Rodney thought lets have something in the spirit of Andy. Even the bleeps are provocative and irritating and childlike and almost insulting to the two women.

 

How much did you labor over sequencing and how to order it to create a mood?

It’s a little bit in the order that it happens chronologically, but mostly the stuff at the beginning was in the very few takes. There are a few things that build upon each other. We have the woman he had the one-night-stand with, and then there’s the other woman that he had a strange relationship with, that he may have been dating, and then the he eventually wants the two women to fight. Those kinds of things build to something. And that woman’s reaction to these tapes… well, I don’t want to give the rest away but, the last track… we went through a lot of versions and we wanted to have a lot of variety.

 

How difficult was it to determine who these people were and if they were reoccurring?

Yeah, it would be a funny thing where he would be having this conversation very early on where he was saying how he needed to get laid and this woman on the phone was naming names and he would say “yeah bring her by, bring her by” and “I’ll have sex with all of them. If you bring 20 women I’ll have sex with all of them” “Really”, “Yeah okay, I’ll set you up,” and he says, “no do it I’m serious.” Then like a minute later you realize that it’s his sister that he’s talking to who is setting him up. So obviously they were very close. He was himself with everybody. He would talk about those kinds of things in the same way. But then again when he talked to his parents he’d call them “mommy” and “daddy”. He’d come home and say “Mommy do you have any ice cream?” It was very, very kid-like. He spent a lot of time talking to his grandma. He was very sweet to her but also loved to push her buttons and drive her crazy, just like you know he did when he was 7. It was precisely the same. You could tell she liked it, but she dreaded it, and you know he was very much of a golden boy with the family. You have this really nutty kid who never changes. He always keeps that childlike sense of messing around his entire life. Then there are other times you can tell it’s he manager George Shapiro, or Bob Zmuda and there are people who I knew or knew what they sounded like. Then there were total strangers. Sometimes he would call a critic that wrote something that he didn’t like or call a fan that had written him a letter and have them come out and spend the day and the next phone call would be from the woman who you hear a lot who was curious why he cancelled plans with her to spend all day with this fan he had never met. He would say, “I made her whole day; I was very important to this girl.”

 

Did you receive or seek out any advice from Lynne or Bob about how to go about doing the record?

I didn’t rule the idea of that out in the beginning. But at the end of the day it felt a little purer to just have it dumped into my head and shake it all out and filter it out. There were questions that I would want to ask, but I would have to put so much in context that the person would have to listen to the whole thing, which they didn’t want to do anyway and it would take forever. So, between me and Rodney, who also listened to everything, we played a lot with the sequencing. It’s a gamble, but it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

 

Did you meet the people at all? Lynne or Bob?

No, I still haven’t. It’s still a very isolated thing. But I am very happy that they liked it, I’m crazily honored that they asked me to do it.

 

Are there any ideas to release or would you be into releasing the whole thing now that it’s digital?

I guess I feel like that’s not my decision. His intentions for the tapes seemed pretty clear, which was to make an album. Other than that, that’s a personal decision. I doubt he’d be against it, but I guess it’s not my call.

 

With the prevalence of this tape recorder don’t you find it strange that it wasn’t in his biographies or mentioned anywhere previously. Do you find that strange? Had you heard of these tapes before this project was presented?

I don’t think so. I don’t remember if it’s ever mentioned in any of his books. It’s 82 hours over the course of 2 years, so it’s not like him and the tape recorder are inseparable. And Lynne wasn’t around at that time. It’s kind of interesting because it was just a fly on the wall or a drop in the bucket of his life years, to me it kind of makes it all the more interesting that it wasn’t some extraordinary event. This is just how he lived. He wasn’t behaving differently with the tape recorder or without it. He could put on a costume and mess with people for two hours whether he had a tape recorder or not.

 

To your knowledge did he ever shop the idea of a record around or was he thinking of doing it after his death?

No, it’s so hard for me to say, but based on what I heard on the tapes, he said he had a record deal with Columbia records. I have no idea if that’s true. I get the idea that it’s not. I don’t know his intentions. There were conversations with his manager where he talks about the tapes in relation to his death and having these tapes as a record of what lead to his death. The intentions of when it’s done or when to do it, I don’t know.

 

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Andy Kaufman: 30 Years After His Death

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It was 30 years ago and a day that Andy Kaufman passed away. And despite three decades without him, his legacy lives on through the work of others. He pushed the limits of comedy through both innocence and seeming insanity. Decades ahead of his time, both the edgiest of comics to the most mild-mannered performers of today all seem to take a page from his life’s work– whether they credit him or not.

In honor and remembrance of Andy Kaufman, the great performance artist, comedian and self-proclaimed “song-and-dance man,” on this, the 30th anniversary of his death, I give to you the complete, extensive interview sessions I shared with the major players surrounding the release of last year’s debut and posthumous comedy record, Andy and his Grandmother. Released by Drag City, the LP/CD/MP3 was a collection of over 80 hours of Kaufman source material and ideas recorded on microcassette from 1977-79. Referencing his intent to make an experimental comedy record from his notes-to-self, practical jokes and provocative phone pranks, Rodney Ascher and Vernon Chatman edited the 80-hours down to 48 minutes of strategically arranged soundbites that they hoped maintain Kaufman’s desired attitude, delivery and overall recording aspirations.

Over the next week I will publish three exclusive and unedited interviews with those special people who have had a rare glimpse into the life and work of Andy Kaufman. Our first in-depth conversation is with Andy and His Grandmother editor, Rodney Ascher– one of the only people to have heard all 80 hours of tape that went into the final condensed recording.

Excerpts of the following interviews appeared in a story for Esquire published on August 30, 2013. The edited story can still be seen here: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/kaufmans-last-tape

Enjoy!

 

Hello? Is this Rodney?

Yes it is.

Rodney, this is Nolan calling from Esquire, how are you?

I’m good; I was expecting your call.

So I guess, starting at the top, how did you become part of this project?

Well, in a lot of ways, it was just really good luck. I think my understanding was that Lynne [Andy’s girlfriend at the time of his death] took the tapes to Drag City who had worked with Vernon [comedian and co-editor] before. He clearly had a sensibility that complimented Andy Kaufman. Me and Vernon have some friends in common and at one point were talking about collaborating on a project that never came to be and at one point he started contacting me. I’m not sure why he chose me to be a partner on it. We never worked together except on that, and nothing that got passed around together. I guess he thought that I would get it.

What was your exact role in this? What were your responsibilities in the project?

I was the editor. I was the guy who had all the recording in my computer. Vernon had gone through the tapes and logged most of them. He had indicated which bits seemed liked the best ones. So I would pull them and put them together and find other things that I thought were promising—pre-developed ideas that I thought were interesting that I wanted to put on there. Me and Vernon, and I don’t know if there was anyone else, who listened to all 80-plus hours, but we really took some time with it and we studied it for over a year. Certainly when he sent them over I was working on a graphics project, so I was spending most of my days in Photoshop or doing other work. It took a lot of time and it required a lot of brain. I had five or more hours to a day that day that I was chipping away at pixels. I would notate parts that really stuck with me. In a way I would like for the whole thing to be available streaming some way because it would be a completely different experience. For me it was like time travel. It could be a birthday party where he took his tape recorder with him for three hours it would be on the table and you could hear voices going in and out, and you would find the narrative. There was no point where the characters would be introduced, you would just have to know who they were in the context and maybe twelve hours in you would finally hear somebody’s name. It’s incredibly satisfying. For me, just being able to listen to all 84 hours was the reward for doing the project.

To what degree was there knowledge of these tapes before they came to light? Was there a general knowledge that these tapes existed to anyone outside of his closest friends?

I’m a pretty big Andy Kaufman fan and I’d never heard of them. After I started working on the project I went back and read some of his biographies and you’d never hear about them. And that’s weird to me because it was very clear to listening to the tapes that he always had this recorder with him everywhere, and he was always making himself a pain in the ass with it. So I would have expected if he was doing an interview with his friends or people he worked with in those days they would know he had that tape recorder with him. You know, I don’t have bachelor’s degree in Andy Kaufman outside of this project, but I’ve never come across any reference to it anywhere. Have you?

No, I hadn’t heard anything about it until this project came to light. So when did knowledge of these tapes become available? And who had them?

Well I’ve never spoken to Lynne. I’ve only worked and talked to Vernon. I’ve talked a little bit with the Drag City guys as well. My understanding is that Lynne always had them and was aware of them in general, but never really listened to them all. But, on her to do list, was to get this record that he had intended made out of them. Maybe she just had a casual conversation with someone at the record label. Are you going to talk to Lynne? From what I gather, is that they were always somewhere, maybe in storage and she had the problem with figuring out how to get them out there. Maybe it was on her “to do” list. I think our project started right after that book of letters, you know. So maybe it was on her “to-do” list after that.

Was there any sort of permissions of people involved to get the tapes made available? I guess she would be the main person.

Again, that’s something out of my responsibility. Outside of Vernon producing it and Drag City, I don’t have any ideas what they did. I thought this was amazing and this needs to make it to the record and then there’s Vernon who would say “there’s a part where Andy and Bob were in a taxi cab and we should take that out.” And maybe we would clean up the digressions and put that together. There are maybe 20 tracks on the record, but on the rough cut there were probably 40.

As far as editing, one of the tracks seems spliced together. Is that something that you guys did, or is that something he did before on his own?

With that kind of stuff, we would take cues. There wasn’t a written document on how to put these things together– but what was really interesting is that when he was working with Bob Zmuda, there were parts of the recording where he would say what his vision was in putting these things together. The tapes were all raw, but within them there was a lot of talk about things that he wanted to do, and we would try to follow up with that as close as we could.

What about the horns and the dogs that cover up the characters’ names? Is that something that he wanted to do?

That happened after the fact, but we did it the way that he we thought he would have wanted.

So he wanted to keep the names out of it essentially?

I think– and Vernon would have more to say about it– I think that he wanted to keep an emotional quality to it and this particular set than a particular person. There’s a ton of stuff on the tape that had a lot of documentary value and wasn’t necessarily funny. Vernon had a really good focus and thought that we were here to make the comedy album and that this is recorded for, and not to create, a biographical documentary. I’m sure the tapes have that biographical value to someone who is creating a documentary type of project.

Well, after saying that, would you even say that this could even be billed as a comedy record? It’s not a straightforward comedy record in the traditional sense. Even with Andy pushing his own comedy limits, don’t you think people would even question to what degree this is even a comedy record?

He even talked about that on the record. He talks about it conceptually and that there’s something funny about presenting it as a comedy record while its actually emotionally much more complicated than that. Even the idea of presenting it as a comedy record is part of the joke.

He talks on the recording about perhaps having a deal with Columbia records to release a comedy record. Was there any validity to that?

I heard that multiple times on the record, but I haven’t come across any documentation or paper work– nor have I read anything about that. I don’t know whether that was something to fool people he was documenting or whether there was a contract. I have no idea.

How hard was it when it came to sequencing and segueing each segment into each other? And beyond that, were you trying to keep a certain tone throughout?

We tried a couple of different sequences, and it was about creating an ebb-and-flow in a way. When you talk about the difficulty of it– in the course of the record he talks about making a record called Andy and His Grandmother, and I think there’s another section, which may not have made the record, or it might be in “I Want Those Tapes,” where he throws out another idea for the title of the album. Each of which suggested a different conceptual version of it. Arguably each could have been a separate album. He could have picked one or the other. Also, a lot of the stuff develops chronologically, like the relationships with these women. I think that the sequences, a lot of them, are dictated by the chronology of what happens. There’s also some stuff intermingled with it, like with the evolution of the relationships with the women on the record.

Are there any specific things that didn’t make the record that you’d like to reference? Or things you wish made the record?

A lot of the ambient stuff was really interesting. He was in New York City in 1979 on New Years Eve and he goes through 2 or 3 hours and you hear the jostling of the crowd and the ball drop, and that was another thing that was like time travel. It’s like “Wow, I’m in New York with Andy Kaufman on December 31, 1978,” which wouldn’t have made for any track to listen to—it’s a 3 hour ambient listening– but to me it was amazing. To be able track the travel on the calendar from this day– then he goes back to LA. There were a lot of things that were documented and we know the dates. There was the meditation retreat he went on and the hours before it he would talk about going there and the hours leading up to going there. And then he would get there, so when you listen to it in the long form, you’re tagging along to his life in some ways. And there’s a funny bit that Vernon did on a podcast about a trip to the Empire State Building and he was doing the “Foreign Man’ character, and he was messing with people in character. There were also parts I liked where people would realize who he was, but it never quite made sense that it made it to the record– but for me, it would be very dramatic.

Do you know exact timeline of these tape recordings?

Not off hand, but they were labeled. I believe it was about two years– maybe 1977-79.

It must have been interesting how many times he had to change the tape– because you can’t fit much on those little recorders.

Each tape side was about an hour. They were labeled things like “Tape 22, Side 1.” Sometimes there was an entire hour of nothing. Like sometimes he turned it on and left it on and there would be just a couple of voices and I would listen to the whole thing and see if there was anything on there. It was a mystery factor of what was coming up next. Vernon had a jumpstart on me, so he listened to the first half before I started and then I caught up.  

Did you just get the digital versions or were you able to see the tapes and how it came to Drag City?

I only got the audio files. Somewhere along the way I got to see the JPEG file of the cassettes and the hand-labeled day and cassette number on them.

That was my next question… were they notated at all by Andy? Did he include any notes?

I didn’t see any paperwork or transciption of paperwork, but there are parts where he says, “Oh this part would be really good like this, or I can see it going like this,” because he has these conversations with friends and family about the tapes. There’s that track where he tells his girlfriend, “Hey this conversation would be really great on the record.”

Who is the narrator on this record?

That’s Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live. That was recorded to just put things in context a bit. Conceptually there was something about it being stark, but it was just to help people along a bit. By recording something today by a contemporary, we are not trying to pretend that the narrator was recorded back in the 1970’s. We tried to make that clear.

How did it feel to be one of the first people to hear these recordings?

It was incredibly exciting and a great privilege. A couple of strange accidents resulted in this coming my way, but it was very frustrating because I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. We tried to keep it very quiet until the project came along. So, I was on this time travel with Andy back to the 1970s and it was like seeing an incredible movie or reading an incredible book that nobody else knew existed. And besides Vernon I didn’t and couldn’t talk about it with anyone.

What was the last thing that was on the tapes? Did he do them til the end of his life? Is there a sense of closure at the end?

No, it ends in ‘79 and he died a few years later. There wasn’t a very satisfying ending. He says, “I have now finished the recordings and we are now going to have my friends edit them.” I’m not sure what the last part, but there wasn’t some climatic satisfying ending.

You wonder why he decided to stop if it was such an important part of his life for so long.

Yeah, it could be the question of clearly wanting to make the record, but there was probably also some sort of process he had to take to work on new material. Did he look back at the tapes that were such an important part of his process? Did it become less important? Did he look at the tapes and say, “Jeez, I already have 83 hours, there’s gotta be a record in there somewhere. Either way I didn’t find a tiny bow at the end of it.”  

What do you think the perception or the ultimate goal of these recordings is? It will obviously surprise people. Is this closure?–Or does this prove to be yet another facet that no one knew about in an already complex man?

There’s that and there’s also the great quality of just—you can’t underestimate the great quality of how influential he was and how our culture has gone. You look at comedy today and look at the special that he did for ABC, it looks like what Zach Galifianakis did for “Behind Two Ferns” or some of the fantastic stuff you see on Adult Swim. He did it 30-years-ago, and he didn’t do it on a weird cable channel at midnight. He did it on one of the only networks at the time– on the level of that certain conceptual post-modern sensibility we are still working out permutations of. These tapes take the real life and shows how it mixes into his performance. There’s certainly perhaps an uncomfortable quasi-TMZ quality, but again, that’s where our culture has gone since. There’s also that taxi ride stuff. There’s a Borat-quality to that. He was exploring so many different styles of form that are still relevant at what people are doing today. It was so forward-looking. Like a lot of the best artists, he makes it seem so effortless, and when he does it, it seems so natural and inevitable. Of course he would do it this way because no one else would do it.

More information about Rodney Ascher can be found here: http://www.rodneyascher.com

The Hold Steady: Yesterday’s Kicks and Tomorrow’s Bruises

hs3 Over their ten-year career, the Hold Steady strategically amassed a catalogue of songs often centered on a recurring group of characters. Formed from the amalgamation of acquaintances and fictional figures, frontman Craig Finn introduced us to tragic heroes and fallen friends caught up in the life of the party. His skillful wordiness and spoken- word delivery embraced witty double entendres, juxtaposing modern day jargon with scholarly diction as he portrayed the ups-and-downs of the down-and-outs. And somehow he always seemed to stay positive. With their recent release of Teeth Dreams, the band’s sixth studio record and the first on their own Washington Square label, Finn’s songs seem to have naturally evolved from the post-adolescent after-party to the inevitable adult hangover. These are cautionary tales and proof that yesterday’s kicks become tomorrow’s bruises. As an aging songwriter with a repertoire of decadent characters, Finn acknowledges that his narrative had to change and that those on the continual stumble from the straight and narrow will inevitably fall. If rock music becomes classic rock by finding a sound, surviving the party and embracing maturity, then the Hold Steady may be well on their way to being considered “classic rock” in an indie-rock generation. If their message seems heavy, their instrumentation is even heavier– any somber sentiment quickly finds solace by leaning against the towering guitar solos that were hinted at before, but now actualized in skyscraping realities. The guitars have finally soared to reach Thin Lizzy heights, while Finn’s lyrics are still born to run like the Boss. I was privileged enough to catch up with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn days before the release of their new record Teeth Dreams, and just weeks before the band’s very recent shows in the Northeast.

hs2 Where are you guys at now?

We’re in Brooklyn. We leave for tour tonight. Our first show is in Portland, Maine tomorrow.

So tell me about Teeth Dreams. I’ve always had teeth dreams and it’s definitely my most recurring dream theme of all time. You even take it a step further and talk about having tooth dreams about other people. I find that especially intriguing.

Yeah, it’s funny, since we named the album Teeth Dreams… as soon as the title came out there have been a lot of people that have come to me and said, “God I’ve had those dreams too.” And actually I’ve had teeth dreams, but I haven’t had tons of them. I’ve had them where I’m brushing my teeth and they fall out. Which I think is fairly common. When we talked about naming the record, we did some searches on Google and found a ton of stuff on teeth dreams. Supposedly they’re caused by anxiety, but people will tell you specifically about money and personal appearance, but I think it’s just a lack of control in general. But you know, I came up with “last night her teeth were in my dreams”—someone else’s teeth and I thought that was funny and I was re-reading Infinite Jest and I realized there was a scene in there where one of the characters is explaining his dreams to his brother and he’s been having dreams about teeth and they’re someone else’s teeth. In his dreams, not only do someone else’s teeth keep showing up, but then all these bills for them. So he was not only getting these other teeth in his dreams, but being asked to pay for them which kind of amps up the idea that they might be about money.

Was that something that connected these songs? A unified anxiety?

Yeah, we started talking about it. When we started writing the record I was thinking a lot about anxiety. I met this doctor at a cocktail party and he’s a general practitioner in New York and he was saying over half his visits are because of anxiety. People are thinking that something is wrong with them, but it isn’t. I thought that was kind of interesting. I don’t know if that was true 20 years ago or 40 years ago. Then the New York Times has an anxiety column. So I started thinking, “Jeez are we living in particularly anxious times?” I’m not sure. I think we do. I think we’ve just gotten so self-aware about our anxiety and so respectful of it that we almost nurture it. And obviously the pharmaceutical industry has some sort of influence over that.

You’ve had a lot of reoccurring characters in your songs. Are these new characters in any way? Has the songwriting changed?

I think some of the characters are the same. I’ve just gotten away from mentioning so many proper names. I wanted to explore a more elliptical thing. I think a great short story like Carver or something like that, it’s just as much about what they leave out as what they put in. I thought maybe always explaining who it is and what exactly they’re doing might end up hindering putting their own wholesome dreams and lives into the songs. I wanted to create a little more space for people to inject themselves into this world.

But when you get down to it, were these reoccurring characters real people that you knew in your life, or accumulations of many people?

They don’t relate 1-to-1. I’m from Minneapolis and a lot of these songs take place there over the course of the Hold Steady. People from Minneapolis always ask me, “Hey is that character this person?” They’re not any one character, but they are certainly the type of people that I knew and I might take a little bit from somewhere and a little bit from somewhere else. But they weren’t ever one specific person.

It seems like this time around, instead of talking about the party, this seems like the hangover from the party and more of cautionary tale.

It’s definitely the darkest Hold Steady record. While the others had been especially hopeful and maybe positive and optimistic, this one may hold back on that optimism a bit. But you know, the last song on the record, we put a coda on the song. We knew we were going to end with that song, but the way we handled it was just so bleak. I mean I liked it, but it was like we can’t end things this way. Let’s give them a little bit of hope. Writing this record, I wasn’t in a particularly bad place or anything– I just wanted to explore that part of it a little more. And just being fascinated with this idea with anxiety and the idea of mental health and the way we treat it nowadays and the way we deal with our neurosis.

Would you say that by getting older it’s harder to hang on to these characters and narratives? Has your songwriting changed partly due to that?

Yeah, I think that… we started the band ten years ago and for the past ten years I’ve known a lot of people close to me that have struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. It’s a pretty common thing, you know. I’m 42– when you’re 32 you might still be going along and having a good time, but at some point it starts to drag you down. It might be a change in perspective a little bit. At the same time, I’m drawn to and I’m trying to write characters that are a little older. I think that’s a challenge and it always has been. Rock and roll is often about a teenager and a convertible. But it’s also rock and roll so its 50 to 60 years-old now, so it doesn’t have to be. Great artists like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have written great songs about adults. hs Talk about starting your own label and how that came to be. Has that presented new challenges for you and the band?

Not really. The big thing is we did this covers EP for a fanclub thing. We needed some way to get it out to the fans. So we thought should we start a label? As this industry changes and more and more people hear music digitally, it allows us to in the future to escape album cycles and maybe put out more regularly. There’s a big gear up to put out an album and find a publicist and it allows us maybe in the future to put out music in smaller portions, and maybe be a bit more agile when it comes about. It’s yet to be seen what it will mean, but that’s the idea.

You talk a lot about unified scenes in your music. Is that something you’ve seen change over time? Are there still unified scenes like there used to be? Is it still alive and well in certain places?

Well, the record industry is certainly not alive and well. How many records you can sell in the age of Spotify is certainly very diminished, so I wouldn’t say the record industry is alive and well. But the music industry as a whole, people look at the licensing of music differently than they used to. You used to get in a lot of trouble if you gave your music to a car ad or something like that. Now it’s more accepted. But the last thing is that the live thing is always healthy. If you can get people to come to your shows, you can be okay. I always thought that the live shows had always been the crux of it because even if you’re selling a lot of records, there are still 4 people that are going to handle the money before you get it. There’s the guy in the store, the distributor, then there’s the label and maybe it gets to you, but not much. That’s a lot of hands. With the live show they pay you and you pay your agent. So you touch it first. In that very simple way the live show is always the biggest component of it.

You have always had a crazy amount of energy on stage and listening to the records versus seeing you live, you are an unsuspecting energetic frontman. Have you always been that way? Is it hard to conjure up that energy night after night?

I have to work on it a little more at [age] 42. I have to think about what I eat and drink—especially since I drink a little more than I used to. At the same time there are nights when I’m pretty sluggish when I get on stage, but it’s pretty easy for me to get into it with the loud music and the fans and the celebratory vibe. I get into it quickly. I’m not always great before or after a show, but it’s pretty easy for me to get into a good place while we’re playing.

You’ve spent a good amount of time in Boston, but with few exceptions your characters are very much Minneapolis based. Did you not find any inspiration here? Do you still have a little Boston in you?

Well, I was born in Boston. My parents lived in Massachusetts. I went to grade school in Boston and went back to Boston College. I spent some time there and there are parts of it that still fascinate me and I still have friends there. It’s definitely a part of my life, but I certainly don’t know it as well. If you put me in a car, I would definitely get lost. Whereas in Minneapolis I know it like the back of my hand, so that’s why I feel much more comfortable setting songs in Minneapolis. But I still do have love, a lot of love, for Boston.

Is the RAGE EP still available or was that just a limited time thing to get on?

I think you can still get it. It was a fanclub thing, but I think you can still get it on the website. If not we’ll probably re-release it. The big thing is it was for the fanclub. A friend of ours passed away and he was the unofficial leader of the Unified Scene Fanclub. He was kind of the center of it. He passed away suddenly, December 2012, and he left two kids behind, so the idea behind the RAGS EP was to raise money for the foundation for his kids, but for us we were able to formalize the fanclub and know where everyone is and how to get a hold of them.