Today I chat with a rock n’ roll singer and songwriter who has recently released his fourth solo studio album (Yes and Also Yes) not to mentions his first book, a memoir. In The Book of Drugs, the former Soul Coughing frontman writes with a brutal honesty about his family, his struggles with drugs, his uncensored thoughts about the music industry as well as his former band mates. You can find out much more about him here.
Before your book came out, did you give a heads up to anybody who you mention in it (aside from “Hey I have a book coming out!")
Just a handful of people. An ex who I've become really close to in the past couple of years; fascinatingly, she didn't remember any of the stories I told her were in the book, nor could I remember the scandalous tales she thought I'd definitely have included. My parents, which was extremely difficult.
People I wrote about have been trickling in, gradually. There's been some anguish, some comedy, and some strangely moving correspondences.
I know you were working on the book for a long time on and off: what made you finally pull the trigger on completing it?
I would say that, essentially, my bluff was called; I'd been stating an intention to write it for a long time, and finally somebody called up and said, "Here's money." So I was locked in.
You know, oftentimes, fear of success is a fear of being right-sized. You can be an undiscovered genius as long as you don't release your work. When you've released something, you might find yourself just very good at what you do. It may contradict your interior grandiosity. So, there was a lot of fear along those lines for me.
What about giving readings (if anything) do you like more than performing in concerts?
I hadn't really done any, until, gosh, the past few weeks. I was really frightened to do so, because I didn't know what it'd be like. It's been pretty okay, I'm relieved to tell you. I'm drawing on more performance-poetry skills than I thought I'd be. That sounds nightmarish, but I'm not talking about singsongy stuff; I just mean in terms of how to project the words, how to enunciate, and how to punch certain things so they're funnier, or in deeper relief.
What was the biggest challenge when it came to writing/editing the book? Did you anticipate it, or was it a surprise?
Starting. Upon getting the deal to write the book, my editor, very chillaxedly, told me to take my time. So I immediately began to do nothing, and wait for the heavy phone call, "Hey, remember that money we gave you?"
I could work at a pretty good clip once I was started. 1,500 or 2,000 words a day, often. Getting in front of the laptop to begin was difficult, nerve-wracking--even if the day before I had done it and it had gone smashingly well.
I totally anticipated it. Beginning is the hardest part.
How was the creative satisfaction different from finishing the book compared to completing an album?
It's very surreal, having finished a book. One thing that's different is that, after I turned it in, I just kept thinking of more stories to put in there. My editor was super patient with me, but I talked to Kambri Crews, who just wrote a memoir called Burn Down the Ground, and she said that memoirists could keep coming up with new stories forever--you've got to choose, at some point, to just turn it in.
Are there other books (or films or albums) about addiction have you found enlightening?
Movies with drugs in them are often somewhat boneheaded, in that filmmakers love scenes where people use drugs, but, after the scene, the characters aren't high. Like, ooh-shocking-dope-shooting scene is fun to have in there, but, afterwards, dudeman is just walking around like he drank half a beer.
Cases in point: Little Miss Sunshine. Attention is given to his heroin-sniffing, but afterwards, he's not nodding out--he's proclaiming, philosophophizing, gregariously. Entourage. Those dudes did bonghits constantly, and afterwards their eyes aren't slitty, they're totally together, not stoned. The main character being a movie star, I would hope he could get better weed than that.
Jesus' Son--both the book and the movie--really got it right. Billy Crudup's kind of heartfelt cluelessness, in the latter, was amazing. So rare.
In True Romance, Brad Pitt does a stellar portrayal of a pothead. Disoriented, trying not to act disoriented, laying on a couch, just on the border of incoherent, spastic when talking to the non-stoned.
Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever I loved, because he liked getting high--he sings that awesome improvised song about it. Crackheads in movies are depicted as tragic, anguished wretches. They often are, of course, but they start getting high because they dig it.
More books aren't coming to mind--dang, I'll remember a dozen the moment I send in this interview.
Who were other musicians that you seriously envied (or envy?) aside from Jeff Buckley?
Many, of course. I do know, at this point, that envy is an unwinnable game. The guy with $2 billion envies the guy with $5 billion. So, I laugh at myself when I get jealous.
It was strange to me that people expressed shock at my open discussion of my envy for Jeff. Maybe it's unusual to speak openly of it, but it's odd to me that one wouldn't admit to experiencing envy. Is it not normal? Am I the only guy? Or, is envy truly so reprehensible that you have to deny it absolutely? I would think it's an extremely human quality.
Maybe I'm wrong.
Strictly talking lyrics, and not necessarily music, who are some of your favorite writers?
Stephin Merritt, Elliott Smith, Regina Spektor, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver fella), and Paul Simon ("It was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows. The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.")
For me, though, it's important to note that lyrics aren't something to be examined out of context. The lyric is the melody, and vice versa.
Along those lines, I'd call Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins an incredible lyricist, though what she's doing is really spinning a series of disembodied words with disconnected syllables. (I don't want to call them nonsense syllables--they're anything BUT nonsense)
Many lyrics are a series of disconnected slogans, and that can be in itself extremely poetic, and musical. Lyricists tend to get judged on their ability to write a narrative, and I think that's wrongheaded.
What’s your favorite cover art from your/Soul Coughing’s albums?
Haughty Melodic was done by a famous Argentine artist named Alfredo Genovese, in a style called filete, or filetado porteño, a form of decorative lettering unique to Buenos Aires, and deeply associated in the tango/lunfardo culture of the 20s and 30s. We know tango as a cheesy dance, but it came from very dark, lurid world--perhaps not incidentally lousy with cocaine--in the early part of the 20th century.
I let a girlfriend--I'm so angry at myself for being with such a mean-spirited person--pick the photos for Sad Man Happy Man--the CD art, as well as publicity photos. There were so many pictures that caught the feeling of the album, but she picked ones where I'm really weirdly grim. Speaks of how she felt about me, unfortunately.
What’s the last album you bought (or downloaded?)
I'm highly non-album-y. I'm a song person. The song is to me the unit of measurement; it's like a painting.
There are some compilations I love, like the stuff that Sublime Frequencies puts out, and the anthology of old, freaky gospel singles that Mike McGonigal curated, Fire in my Bones.
The last full album I bought was Gotye. I loved "Somebody I That Used to Know". I got the whole album, to be honest, because I was in a hurry, and I wanted to pick through to find the songs I liked on the subway.
What’s an average day like at Yaddo?
They serve breakfast just between 8 and 9, in the stately, ornate mansion (the place was founded by the widow of a railroad tycoon on her estate). I've never stayed in the actual mansion, so I'd walk over from the house I was staying in at, like, 8:50 (you can linger in the dining room as long as you like, they just need you to order your eggs by 9). Loads of other artists are hanging out and talking. The best thing about the place is how fascinating everybody else is--artists in every discipline, and medium, of every age and background, not to mention level of success. There's Pulitzer winners and bartenders all in the same joint.
They give you a lunchbox and a Thermos of coffee that you pick up at a table on your way out of breakfast. I'd go back to the cabin that they gave me, listen to some records--last time I was on a kick for the Sublime Frequencies radio-collage CDs, especially the Arabic ones, and the time before that on the Secret Museum of Mankind series--and then pick up the guitar and mess around til I had something.
I'd eat lunch, write some more, then go to dinner, again in the mansion. I was there at the same time as a great composer named Yevgeniy Sharlat; he would always be playing whatever sheet music happened to be in the piano bench--big full-sized grand piano--in this rather opulent performance hall in the mansion. So I'd listen to him, and then they'd ring a bell to eat.
Afterwards, I'd go listen to more records, or sometimes somebody would do a presentation of their work--a reading, or performance of compositions, or a visual artist would invite people over to her or his studio. Then I'd go back to my studio, listen to more records, and go read stuff from the Yaddo library before sleeping. The library is all Yaddo writers, and it's a rather insane roster: Carson McCullers, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, James Baldwin. I read Strangers on a Train, and it was dedicated to Yaddo by Patricia Highsmith, with this really glowing inscription, dated 1950.
I should point out that the presentation of your work to the other residents is totally non-required. You send your work in when you apply, but, when you're there, you don't have to do a damn thing, if you don't want to. I mean, I go there to work, as do most people, but a minority just read books, walk in the woods. Or get drunk.
When you’re writing a new song, what typically kicks you off?
I keep a notebook of phrases that I think up, hear, or read. And then I spend time writing riffs--either from just picking up the guitar with coffee immediately when I wake up, or stuff I'll record on my phone during soundcheck, or in a dressing room, when I'm just idly picking around.
At some point I'll start sitting down, sifting, culling, see which guitar parts want which lyrics, and vice-versa, and coaxing melodies out of them.
What do you do to procrastinate?
Facebook, then Twitter, then Facebook, then Twitter, then Facebook.
How does it feel to be the 305th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
It feels three-hundred-and-five-tastic!