That’s me sorting through resumes. I have four positions to fill at The MTV. Like, soon.
Work is crazy. I lobbied long and hard for my new title, but couldn’t have begun to imagine how different my life would be. As if a laptop, cell phone, digital camera, and iPod weren’t enough for one messenger bag, I now have a Blackberry. I may be wireless, but I’m completely tethered. With golden handcuffs. In other news:
Jason Walsmith of The Nadas called from a recording studio in Texas yesterday. They’re finishing up their new record, “Listen Through The Static,” due in September. You’ll recall that I was gonna’ to tour with them next week. If you keep an eye on my Shows listings, though, you may have noticed that the dates have been dropping one by one. Well, now it’s off completely. Seems the tour fell apart on ‘em. Which is a bummer ‘cuz I was looking forward to hanging out, and of course, playing. Their offer still stands to tour with them (on Meat Loaf’s old bus!) but the timeline is TBD. Meanwhile, Jason invited me to Des Moines to record and perform with them, which I’ll surely take them up on.
I rehearsed with pianist Dan Zola last night. I will tell you this: if you come to our May 14th Rockwood Music Hall performance are in for a real treat. The piano brings an entirely new voice to my songs. And he had a cover suggestion that is not only editorially salient, but it’s downright beautiful. You don’t want to miss it.
My cousin Andrew instant messaged me from Chicago yesterday, which was fortuitous as was thinking of him just a few minutes prior. Anyway, I mentioned wanting to record with him there sometime in June, and he was enthusiastic. Looks like a week in the Midwest is gonna’ be my first vacation of the year. And the foundation of my next album.
So here’s the schedule for the next few days. I’m tired just typing it:
Friday night: Amtrak to Philadelphia
Saturday: Family reunion
Sunday morning: Philadelphia Broad Street 10 Miler
Sunday afternoon: Amtrak to New York City
Monday morning: American Airlines to LAX
Friday night: American Airlines red eye to JFK
Saturday night: Smith Family show at Hank’s
The week after that I have a half-marathon and two shows.
I’ve gotten emails in the past from people saying, in essence, that they prefer I write about what’s going on in my heart to what’s going on in my social calendar, and I can appreciate that. So I’ll try and tell you.
I’m not really sure. I don’t feel as strong as I want to feel, but I do feel like I’m getting stronger. I’ve been working on putting myself out there into new and different situations, and doing so alone instead of with a woman on my arm. I’ve been working on being a better leader, and a better friend. I’ve been working on building peer groups, like The Sunday Singer/Songwriters (which meet for the first time May 15th). And I’ve been working on evolving and expanding my creative base, which seems to be happening.
A friend of mine made a pretty succinct observation the other night. He said that I tend to define my life — success, failure, happiness, sadness — in relation to whomever I’m in relationship with. And, well, right now I’m not in a relationship with anyone. So, if you’ll forgive the comparison, I feel like I’m learning to be myself without someone else, just like I had to learn to be myself without drugs. So I’m kind of without mooring right now. But I know it’s necessary, and it doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s like some kind of limbo. Meanwhile, life goes on at a breakneck pace. Gotta’ keep up. And gotta’ get going …
It’s good to get out.
Tonight was a fairly major aboration. I didn’t work late. I didn’t rehearse with any of my bands. I didn’t watch some art house film on DVD. I went out. To the New York Public Library. To see a bunch of writers perform.
Sounds anomalous, right? Writers? Performing?
The Moth is an organization that brings authors to the stage to perform their works. Tonight’s quintet was at once hilarious, moving, and irreverent. The setting — cultured, creative, substantive, and vaguely-academic — took me back to college.
I was a creative writing major at Syracuse University. That basically means I was an English major who took a bunch of creative writing classes. My favorite, and the most impactful, was a seminar with Tobias Wolff. You probably don’t know his work, unless you’re a huge Leonardo DiCaprio fan and saw his first film, “This Boy’s Life.” The film is based on Tobias’ memoir. I saw the premiere at the Syracuse Carousel Center, aka The Mall. Leo was there. So was Tobias.
The course called for a short story a week. I wrote most of them the night before they were due. Which is pretty idiotic for a class run by a National Book Award nominee. But heck, it was college. And stories were pouring out of my veins. I had nothing but time then. And naivete. And hope: boundless, unfounded, and unfettered hope.
I was desperate for a mentor then, and told Tobias bold-faced that I wanted him to be my mentor. I sent him letters after graduation seeking his sage advices on what to do with my aimless life. “The transition from college,” he wrote me in large cursive letters, “is the most diffuclt of all.”
In those days, I thought I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to move people to think. I wanted to inspire young minds. I wanted to read, write, and lecture for a living. I wanted to be all about words and thought and emotion.
Twelve years on now, I’ve had very little published. Still, I think Tobias would be pleased. I consider his advices every time I construct a sentence. He used to strike a red pen through my flowery verbage. He used to encourage me to be short. And to the point.
More importantly, though, he made me feel comfortable with my aimlessness at a time when I wanted desperately to know my aim.
Well, here I am, writing. Did it, did I, turn out as I expected? No, probably not: no Grammy, no Pulitzer. Did it, did I, turn out as I should? As only I could?
I’m going to Los Angeles on Monday.
Used to be L.A. was something of a break for me, even if I was there on business. Once upon a time, I dated a woman there (she of “Intent on St. Paul” fame). We met at my buddy James’ wedding in Kauai. (Who wouldn’t fall in love in Kauai?) And carried on a doomed but exciting bi-coastal relationship for the better part of 2002-3.
After a few days in the Santa Monica office, she and I would steal away to Palm Springs for the weekend. We stayed at the great mid-century motel called The Desert Star. There were no sounds: no traffic, no airplanes, no crowds. We’d lay by the pool and read Vanity Fair. When it got too hot, we’d go inside and watch Oscar screener DVDs from the motel owner who was a member of the Academy.
I may be one of the few guys who a) isn’t over 65-years-old or b) doesn’t play golf who really digs Palm Springs. I love the desert heat. I love the mountains. I love that I keep ending up there (like Vegas, only better). I mixed “Crash Site” there. And some day, God willing, I’ll have a (very tame) bachelor party there.
So she moved to New York and we broke up. And L.A. lost its luster. Not just because of her. Honestly, the thing that broke my back was staying at The Mondrian and working in Santa Monica. It was a ten mile commute, but it took over an hour. That’s a lot of KCRW. I used to fantasize about living in Santa Monica and riding my bike to work. That I would do. But car culture? No thanks. All that and The MTV made it clear that they wanted me in New York.
But I do love the mountains, and the sea, and the desert. And I do love the sun. And I’ll see my buddies James and Matt, and a whole crew of great MTV colleagues. And I’ll run on th beach. And sure, I’m like Hollywood. So that’s cool. But … but, I dunno’. But I’m digging my home here. It’s taken a long time for me to feel like it’s mine. I finally have my own place, my (ha ha) “big boy” apartment (thanks, mom). I like my little quiet life.
I distinctly remember being a little kid and saying to my dad, “You’re so lucky you get to go on business trips!” And he said, “It’s not a vacation, Ben. You don’t really get to enjoy where you are.”
So … I’m going. On Monday. For a week. And I’m taking the red eye home on Friday night so that I can be back in time for The Smith Family show at Hank’s. I’m tired just thinking about it.
And I know what you’re thinking, ‘You can go to the The Museum of the Jurassic Technology with Michael Penn!’
I won’t have time.
In the end, in the waning hours of this weekend, I am left, miraculously, speechless.
I am, as you might gather, rarely without something to say. And at numerous times over the course of this ridiculously active weekend I have wondered aloud why my gums were flapping at all. What was the point of what I was saying? Just to fill empty space?
Heather and I were driving back from Ikea this morning. We were approaching the Lincoln Tunnel exit on the New Jersey Turnpike, a brand-new chair to match my brand-new couch in the trunk, when I caught myself mid-story and asked, “Why the hell am I ever telling you this?”
It wasn’t something that mattered, it was just a recollection. I was driving back from the Almost Home tour a few years back. I was on the same stretch of road. I’d been driving from days. This particular day I had set out from Carrboro, NC, and was making the ten-hour trek in one shot. And I was in a hurry. U2 was pegged on the car stereo. The windows were down. The sun was setting. And I had somewhere to go: a date. So I was speeding. Big time. At one point I looked down and saw the needle flirting with 90 mph and I thought, ‘You’re going to kill yourself ten miles from home.’ So I slowed down.
This is the story I was telling her. That was the three minutes she’ll never get back. No punchline, no epiphany, no moral. Just the sound of my voice over the hum of the tires.
She pitched in on a major spring cleaning this afternoon. We listened to Smokey Junglefrog and other examples of my musical ephemera as I rifled through boxes of CDs, DATs, DV, beta and VHS tape trying to decide what to throw away, what to give away, and what to keep. Every so often I’d stumble across an old photo and spin off into some distant memory. “All I remember from that day,” I said of a photo of a four-year-old me in red overalls, “Is that my sleeve got cought in my dad’s drill on that same patio. I didn’t get hurt, it just scared me.”
And I realized then that all the stories we tell, all the songs we write, all the photos we take and journal entries we post on the internet, they’re really just some kind of mile marker. They’re just graffiti: “Benjamin Was Here.” And that’s really all we want, right? Some evidence, some confirmation, that we’re really here? That this isn’t a figment of our imagination? ‘Look, here’s evidence! I was six-years-old once! I had a pony tail once! I was blissfully unaware. Once. Next thing I knew, I was doing ninety on the New Jersey Turnpike, trying to get back to some girl. And then I died.’
I am some 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia on Amtrak #138. I am going home. For 12 hours. And I will admit straight up: I have some beers in me. Three, to be exact. And a turkey sandwhich.
Here’s the back story. Michael Penn is playing the Point in Bryn Mawr tonight. (In 28 minutes, to be exact.) I played The Point on the “Summer’s Gone” Tour three years ago. It’s a skip, hop and a jump from where I grew up. So I bought tickets. And I invited an old friend to join me. Ok, an ex-girlfriend.
Optimistically, I purchased an Amtrak ticket for the 6pm Metroliner, knowing full well that on Monday we launch Overdrive with its F ton of promotion. And knowing full well that Fridays are a bear to begin with.
Yeah, so, 5:45 — I kid you not — the sh*t hits the fan. A colleague blows a gasket (on email, no less). A project remains unfinished. Make that three projects. And there’s no way I’m making the 6pm.
I set out for Penn Station at 6:45, reminding myself en route to remain calm and be patient. I get to Penn Station just before 7pm and get a tickety from the kiosk. Miracle! I’m going to make the 7pm Metroliner!
Alas, when I reach the platform, the train is gone. Next train? 8:35pm. Arrival? 9:55pm. Michael Penn’s show? 10:00pm. Fifteen miles from the train station. Ugh.
And here’s the punchline. The long awaited couch is to be delivered between 10-1pm tomorrow. Genious! I get to step right back on Amtrak and head back to NYC!
True, true: I made this bed, I’ll lay in it. But sitting at some Irish pub across from Penn Station trying to problem solve the evening (1- Call will call 2- Call neighbors to leave out key 3- Call Heather 4- Plead for favor), I had to ask myself: why not just cancel? Stay in NYC? Is it Michael Penn? Or the ex-girlfriend?
A few answers occur to me.
1) Momentum. The ball is rolling towards Philadelphia, and I’m going to roll with it.
2) Michael Penn. One great song is worth the trip.
3) Amtrak’s Cafe Car (see lead).
4) The ex-girlfriend. And kharma. Yes, I wronged her numerous times almost fifteen years ago. Now’s my chance to make it up to her, and to demonstrate that, at last, my word is good.
Reason number five (or four and a half) occurs to me on my second beer: Make it up to all of the women I’ve wronged with this one little gesture. My sole motive? No way. I knew she liked good music (it’s why we fell in love in high school!). My unconscious? Probably. Just a little bit, anyway.
Yeah, so I can see I-95 and all of its billboards just out the eastward facing window of the train. I am almost there. Wherever “it” is, and whyever I’m there (or getting there), this is it …
So … here we go.
Post Script, 1:04am: I arrived on time. My friend was waiting in her green Saab station wagon. We made it to The Point in time for Michael’s entire set. I love the guy. He’s like a laser. His focus is intense. He turns a song on a dime, and twists a phrase with grace and wit. But I have to disagree with him on one statement. “I like to think of optimism as the pretty side of denial,” he says. I like to think of optimism as confidence that things will turn out alright. Because they do. Take the couch delivery, for instance. After series of cell phone calls somewhere along the rails (Heather, Christofer, Dana, Heather), I arranged for a friend to greet the (no doubt grumpy after five flight delivery) couch movers. And so, I can sleep in just a little bit.
See? Things turn out alright. You just gotta’ work your ass off, roll with it, and for Heaven’s sake, be optimistic.
When I say I played a blistering two hour set last night, I really mean it. My hands are shredded.
Because I don’t have enough else going on (launching MTV Overdrive, closing the chapter on The Smith Family, three solo shows, a new record, marathon training), I decided it was hight time to get back on The Cock. Cockfight, that is.
You’ll recall, perhaps, that Cockfight is the side project I started with two colleagues a) in an effort to get out my urge to perform the big, loud, fun dirgy, metalic rock that my shows lack (they’re big, loud and fun, but neither dirgy nor metalic) b) because I’ve always wanted to play drums and c) I wanted to be in a band where I wasn’t the front man. We performed at Siberia last spring and, though it was far from perfect (I would say we were a few inches from a train wreck), it was certainly a blast to pound away on the drums wearing running shorts, sneakers, sunglasses and a knit cap. (Big Rock is all about fashion, as far as I’m concerned.)
Anyway, we wanted to get the lead out, and get back on the horse, and see if we couldn’t whip ourselves into shape to perform again and potentially release an EP. And my schedule notwithstanding, I think we can. We re-learned out four originals pretty quickly, and were not short on new ideas. But here’s the downside: I’m not a drummer. So I have these pink little pads on my hands that blister and tear within just a few hours of drumming. My wrists aren’t use to that kind of jarring. I won’t even mention my ringing ears.
Afterwards, walking towards the 2/3 on 34th Street, I decided on a little bit of retail physical therapy to remedy my shredded hands. I bought a stiff, blue jean jacket. All the better to rock out in, me thinks. (And it reminds me of the one I owned in high school.)
I stopped through the corner store for a beer, and in an effort to not consume an entire pint of Ben & Jerrys at ten o’clock at night, picked up a few Good Humor ice cream bars (knowing full well that I would eat both). And I must say that Iwas dazzled with the product’s face lift. That is some packaging! Partnered with a Lean Cuisine peanut chicken dish and “Jerry McGuire” on DVD, well, let’s call it a Thursday. A big mutherf*ckin’ rock candy Thursday.
Rain is in the air. I can smell it. Oddly enough, it smells like the desert: warm, and dusty.
I’m in my bedroom on the sixth floor above West 80th Street. The windows are all open. The sliding door is thrown wide. A strong breeze is blowing in from the west, scattering the Post-It notes, scribbled lyrics, track listings, and postcards across my desk.
I just finished dinner: shumai, a shrimp and asparagus roll, and a California roll. “Friday Night Lights” is paused on my DVD player. I’m listening to Michael Penn’s “Mr. Hollywood Jr.” I’m waiting on one final email from work. I am tired, but I am well.
I ran this morning. It was an August sky: hazy, cast in red. But the trees were in bloom. Central Park was exploding pinks and greens. I ran through Strawberry Fields, along The Lake, over the Bow Bridge, around Bathesda Fountain, through the Ramble, up to Belvedere Castle, down through Shakespeare’s Gardens, up Summit Hill, then home via Starbucks and Andy’s Deli. It was great.
The MTV was harried, as always. The workday was punctuated by a visit to the dentist. I retain two dinky bridges intended to be temporary when they were installed sixteen years ago. Now they’re ugly and fragile and all that’s keeping me from a full-on Hollywood smile. That and ten grand.
I was offered another last-minute show today. I took it, making May the busiest month ever. Still, it’s going to be a neat month. In addition to two Smith Family shows (our last two), I’m going to perform as an acoustic trio (Tony on upright bass!), a duo (with pianist Dan Zola), and solo in a songwriters circle. Then I’m going to start in on my new album.
It really is insane that I’m considering a new album, but I can’t really help myself. I’ve got the songs, they’ve got their context (that is, they have a story to tell), and I think they’re good and worthy. So the current plan is to record in June and July (half in the studio, half at home), play a residency in September, release the record in October, and tour in November.
The new record will include stuff I’ve recorded here, like “Milk & Honey” and “Harder To Believe” (which I’ve taken to performing live). I have the tracklisting all set (though I think it just blew out the window).
Of course, I really have no business releasing a new record, primarily because I can’t afford to. But I really can’t help it. It’s like, as soon as I had ten solid songs and I could tell they had an arc (‘This song will start the record,’ I thought, ‘Then I’ll cover that song and end with this one’), it was all happening in my head. And now I’ve said it out loud. So I have to do it.
For now, though, I have to batton down the hatches. It’s raining on my laptop. And there’s green tea ice cream waiting for me in the freezer.
Michael Penn asked me out tonight.
I don’t have a ton of heroes. You know all about Mr. Rogers. The rest of them are musical: Michael Stipe, Jeff Tweedy, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. One of the perks of my day job is the opportunity to meet some of them. I’m drawn to these opportunities like an insect to a spotlight. But the truth is, I’m equally reticent.
I have a rule that I never visit a venue until I perform there. It’s totally ego, like I have to enter, say, Sin-e or Arlene or Rockwood as a performer, not a spectator. It’s the same reason I try to always carry a guitar pick in my pocket. I know I’m not a full-time singer/songwriter, but it’s my form of reinforcing that denial. Similarly, my approach to meeting my musical heroes. I used to (heck, I still do) dream of performing with Michael Stipe, or recording with Aimee Mann, or hanging out with Michael Penn as peers. Not as a writer (or worse, an executive) from MTV, but as a musician. So far, that hasn’t really happened, and the likelihood is diminishing with age.
Nonetheless, I was thrilled when I heard Michael Penn had a new record, “Mr. Hollywood Jr,” coming out in August. I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands on the advance, to interview him, and catch his performance. But when it came time to commit to meeting him for the interview, I balked. I opted for a phoner instead. True, I was hard pressed to sneak out of the office in the middle of the day. But the bottom line is that, like anyone else, I turn into a fawning fanboy. And it ain’t pretty.
The interview went well. Michael was pacing outside Joe’s Pub in the East Village. He was fresh from soundcheck. “How’d it go?” I asked.
“Well as can be, I guess,” he said. “You know it’ll sound completely different with a few hundred people absorbing the sound and me pulling on the strings nervously.”
“C’mon, after all these years, you still get nervous?”
“Absolutely,” he answered. “Performing doesn’t come naturally for me.”
I was disarmed in under a minute. Performing doesn’t come naturally to Michael Penn? A guy I’ve seen perform a half dozen times, each time flawlessly? His songs are everything Britney Spears isn’t: smart, substantive, sensitive. He’s a PBS mind in an MTV world. And he gets nervous to boot?
Michael went on to disarm — and reassure — me throughout the evening. His performance was breathtaking, but not just because his songs are brilliant, sing-a-long novellas, his lyrics are deep and clever, he has a pitch-perfect voice, and is a spot-on guitarist. No, more than that. He calls his music “folk music.” He closes his eyes when he sings. He tunes meticulously between songs. He banters awkwardly. And he pauses before beginning every song to gather his wits. So admirable. So amazing. So like me. (The awkward and nervous parts, not the brilliant and amazing parts.)
Michael wrestled with Sony Music for years when he failed to produce a follow up hit to “No Myth.” He was so entrenched in legal mumbo-jumbo that he didn’t even own his domain name. Until just last year, Sony owned www.michaelpenn.com. So, of course, when I heard he was back (he was never far: he scored PT Anderson’s “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights,” produced Liz Phair’s album, married America’s Alternative Singer/Songwriter Sweetheart, Aimee Mann, and toured extensively with her), I jumped on his site to see what was up.
Seems that in addition to working on a new album that was somehow steeped in the year 1947, he’d taken some intellectual refuge in a museum called The Museum of the Jurassic Technology. So, you know, I’m a journalist: I inquire. And he says, “I hate to ruin it for you. It’s an extraordinary place. You really should see it for yourself. In fact,” Michael Penn says to me, “Next time you’re in L.A. I’ll take you.” And I’m like, “Michael, be careful what you offer. I’ll take you up on that in a heartbeat.”
So after the show tonight, I walk backstage with his publicist, Mary, to say hello. In fact, I met him once before way back in 1996 when he was touring behind, “Resigned.” Still, I shake his hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” He’s a little distracted, a little scattered. But I don’t blame him. I can’t focus when I walk off stage, let alone when I know I have to go on again in an hour (he performed two sets tonight). And there’s a little bit of a dog and pony thing that goes on with publicists and journalists. Still I had three goals: say thanks, get a photo, and remind him of our date.
So we’re in his dressing room. There are a few few plates of picked over pasta and salad lying about. There’s a pack of American Spirits is on the counter. And I say, “great set,” and we discuss his use of an IFP (in-ear monitor). And I hand him my CD. “Listen,” I say, “I just want you to know that what you do has ramifications. And this CD is one of them. You’re one of the reasons I do this.” And for the first time all night he smiles. And we take an awkward photo. And I remind him, “Next time I’m in L.A…”
“You’re on,” he says.
And I walk out of Joe’s Pub into the New York City night smiling, and singing.
“What if she’s just looking for someone to dance with?”
It came to me like a vision: fresh-baked, still-warm chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream.
It’s the little things, really, the simple things, that sustain me.
I’ve been meaning to integrate digital blips and beats with my acoustic guutar for ages. It’s the impetus that led me to Kevin’s studio to remix “Summer’s Gone” years ago. It’s the reason I got ProTools and a keyboard. And it’s the reason I borrowed Ethan’s Kaysound MC-25. My mom bought it for him from Amazon for ten bucks. And it provides the foundation of possibly my finest solo musical accomplishment to date. Set the rhythm to “Rock,” hit record, and go …
I napped most of my Saturday away. My week was that punishing: Thursday night out, Friday night out, Saturday … in. Between naps, my windows flung wide for the breeze, I recorded, “Untitled.” It sounds like I felt: reflective, resigned, but resolute. I put my new, lyric-less song to bed at 1:30 this morning. Three and a half hours later I woke from a terrible dream. I was battling my way through Central Park with a broad staff, spinning and parrying past evil creatures springing from a dark roadside. I woke clutching my pillow so tightly that my right arm was numb. I climbed out of bed and looked out the window. The sky was slipping from black to blue. My day was begining.
I walked over to Chris and Jen’s at 5:45. The streets were empty. The corner stores were closed. And I listened to “Untitled” on repeat: reflective, resigned, but resolute.
The four of us climbed into the red Isuzu Trooper at 6:30 and pointed ourselves southward to Long Branch. Jen was running the
I’ve been a Michael Penn fan for years. Sure, I dug “No Myth,” on The MTV. But it was a performance of “Long Way Down” on a KCRW live album that hooked me. His word play was clever, intelligent and, well, adult. He may have been garnering some radio airplay (at the time), but his singer/songwriter fare — like wife Aimee Mann’s — was light years from Jewel or Hootie or even, God Bless her, Tracey Chapman. And his musicianship! His songs are — what could be better? — deep and simple. He was onto Jon Brion way before he became Hollywood’s favorite composer (“Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “I Heart Huckabees”). Again, his pop songs are hooky and compelling but in a grown up way.
Way back in 1996, Michael was my first on-camera MTV News interview. He was releasing “Resigned,” his last ditch effort with Sony. He had a buddy along with him at his Fez gig, a little nerdy lookin’ guy named Paul Thomas Anderson. “And what do you do?” a 25-year-old version of me asked.
Michael’s long since been one of my few musical heroes. His records are intelligent and uncompromising. He wrestled with RCA and Sony and (eventually) won. “My dad fought in World War II,” he says. “He’d find it ironic that I spent half of my life at war with the Axis Powers.” More importantly, though, he has been a musical inspiration. His “Little Black Box” inspired my “Crash Site.” His “Bunker Hill” inspired my “Summer’s Gone.” In short, I wouldn’t be me without him.
It’s an unseasonably hot and hazy April afternoon (they’d call it earthquake weather in Los Angeles) when Michael calls me from his cell phone. He’s pacing outside of Joe’s Pub in the East Village. After an eight year hiatus spent extricating himself from his former record label, he’s is in town to drum up support for his forthcoming independent release, “Mr. Hollywood Jr. … 1947.” He clearly doesn’t relish the dog and pony show, but he’s in good, if guarded, spirits as we discuss getting back on the horse.
BW: Hey, man. How did sound check go?
MP: You know, as good as those can go.
BW: You cross your fingers that the sound doesn’t change drastically between the time you check it and the time you perform.
MP: Yeah, exactly. When you have, you know, a couple hundred people [acting as] sound absorption sponges and they can be to probably change the music dynamics of a room. And then you have the energy and nerves of a show sort of making your hand grip your guitar and nervous tension that pulls everything out of tune. All those fun things.
BW: That still happens? After all these years of performing, nerves still happen?
MP: Of course it still happens. Performing doesn’t exactly come naturally to me.
BW: So you’re mid-way through the tour. How’s it going?
MP: Well, it feels good. I mean, there’s a certain exhilaration of the notion of starting over and paying my dues again. It’s good.
BW: Tell me about your new record “Mr. Hollywood Jr. … 1947.” At what point in the song writing or recording process did you discover the place and time element to the album cycle?
MP: Well for at least like fifteen years I’ve been obsessed with that year. I’m gonna say my little rant about it tonight, but for me that year really is like the year everything changed. And it really felt to me just as I was writing these songs that everything that was going on around me sort of in some way there was a string tied to every event to lead back to that year and everything was coming to fruition. And I became so obsessed about it that as I was writing songs for this record, I mean the events and the things I’m talking about are not what the record is about they’re sort of the peripheral of it. It’s about the same shit I always write about and it’s just that every time I was writing these songs, I was putting myself in LA and Hollywood back in that year and to some degree thinking about my father who fought in World War II and came home and was a victim of the black list, which began in 1949 and also just feeling like there were so many parallels between 47 and now in the events that were going on. That it was kinda beside myself that it was happening that it was constantly happening.
BW: How did that manifest itself in the songwriting? Were you half way through the recording process and said ‘I have something here’ or did it color songs that came later?
MP: I guess it has to do more with my song writing process which is like I’m kind of avoiding the concept album title for a number of reasons, not the least which being Aimee did an end run around me. But, truth be told we both kind of got the notion to be sort of free with that sort of idea from The Honeydogs because we could have The Honeydogs record on the united musicians a year or two ago that was a concept album, and a great one. So we’re really more to the point what happened was, when I write, I mean this wasn’t a concept album and all of my records have been concept albums because Free For All was about Los Angeles in 1992 and its dealing with you know, and for me the writing process is always that I sort of picture the scene in my head and it’s just when I was writing these songs and picturing the scene, I usually for me, it was always in this sort of [Raymond] Chandler of Los Angeles as opposed to current.
BW: The hard-boiled detective, the noir kind of lighting …
MP: Yeah, just that the post war … I think part of the key for me was that everybody you know has their trunk fill of trauma and from their lives and leads people to either sort of deal with the issues of their life and their childhood and their upbringing or not deal with them and find ways to push everything out and let it sort of come out in unconscious ways in their relationships and in their life. But thinking about what that extra baggage of having been through war might have done to my psyche, because I’m fucked up enough and if that was in there too I don’t know where my life would be. So that was the world and then just the sort of political stuff that was happening, everything from the National Security Act of 1947, established the CIA and the UN partition of Palestine and you know all the things sort of felt like they were the beginnings of…
My personal take on it is that in the personal world, America became the first country to be in this position to take over the whole world, but didn’t, but really did. And it was just a big bad nature of a slow corporate process that has gotten a tremendous boost by Bush.
BW: Was there any sort of instrumental elements from the era that you found to color the album?
MP: Well, I didn’t want to like use the sort of como-estetics of that year as a guide because for me it’s more in the lyric and, you know, musically I did was these are folk songs, like all my songs are folk songs and I arrange them the way I usually arrange songs which is what does the song want so it goes from this sort of crazy Appalachian dulcimer based thing on “Mary Lynn” to something like “Walter Reed” or whatever so it kinda runs the gamut for me, but the one thing I did do to sort of hopefully gel the thing together within this idea of 1947 is that it’s also the year the transistor was invented, and it was also the year the television went national, so some of the instrumental things kinda of acknowledge that for me to a certain degree. Trying to sort of construct sounds that you know, sort of sound design atmospheric things that sort of hopefully strike a certain mood of what was going on.
BW: And I notice you’ve tracked the CD with two sides, like a record album.
MP: It is an album, which I think is something that has gotten lost and in fact when I pressed up, before we made the deal with spin art I pressed up some advance for friends and what I did was, I actually mastered it so that it was only two tracks on your CD, side one and side two. Because it’s meant to be listened to, this is another little pet peeve of mine is that one of the things CD’s really fucked up and as much as I love iTunes, one of the things itunes is securing the deal on is eliminating the art form of an album. And fifty minutes of music is too much, it’s overwhelming for most people. And I have a memory of these experiences of being in a mood for a side of a record because 15 minutes of music, 20 minutes of music is magical. It can be a total experience into itself. So this record is really is in two acts and even though it would have been stupid of me to have mastered the final record that way, what I did do was indicate on the cover art so you can see where the dividing line is.
BW: To what degree have you considered adapting this in some way to another medium: film or stage or television?
MP: Well, I haven’t considered it at all because I have no recourse to do something like that but if somebody came to me then that’s a whole other story, but we might…it looks like we might do a video of some kind for “Walter Reed” since that’s the chapter I think they’re gonna go with first.
But for me, what I mean by that is somebody who has the tools to do that, because I don’t. I mean, if I had the tools to be able to do that I would certainly have had thoughts about it and if somebody comes along that is interested in doing something beyond a video or something, I’ll certainly be involved and want to sort of dive into it because it would be really fun to explore but I’m not really thinking about it now, I’m just trying to do my job of playing these shows and then get to some more writing and stuff.
BW: What’s the plan for the album? I know it’s been done since last fall. How are you remaining so patient?
MP: Well, you know what happened was the album was originally slated to come out in June, but this record has been done for nine months, and for me, it’s like I needed to figure out what was the smartest way to put it out and I knew I there was no way I wanted to sign another record contract, so I started talking to people about doing a joint venture thing with my label and I was put in touch with these guys at spin art by my manager, and I really liked them and so we finally got that thing settled and it looked like it was gonna come out in June and then I ran into an issue with the cover art because I have a cover that I became very very attached to, it’s actually where I got the title, it’s a painting that I found at a swap meet and I tried to track down the artist and it became a long detective hunt trying to sort of figure out where this guy was, how I could get in touch with him and literally right when I was closing in on where he was and how to get a hold of him, I found out he died the previous week. So then it was another long hunt to find his next to kin because there was no obituary, there was no report about his death, nothing. I finally was on the phone with the coroner of Los Angeles and got the name of the mortuary that he was returned in and they gave me the name of his next to kin. Finally talked to her and she was actually up for it but his estate was in such disarray that the attorneys said that it would just be too long before they could figure it out. So I had to come up with an alternate cover and that became the delay from June till now.
BW: Sorry it didn’t work out.
MP: Yeah, me too. What I think I might do is, if this estate ever clears up I might try to get the rights to it down the line and maybe if there’s a special edition with acoustics durations or something.
BW: How difficult is for you as a songwriter to come back to music that’s been in the can so long, in terms of performance and singing and so forth?
MP: It’s not tough, I mean what’s tough for me is looking back at things and trying to revisit songs that frustrate me and these songs don’t frustrate me and so you know, I don’t think I’d go back to like a song off my first album, “Evenfall,” which was just this sort of goofy rave-up which I just don’t feel connected to anymore. So if I feel connected to it then it’s not a problem.
BW: You have to tell me a little bit about the museum of Jurassic Technology, the link on your web site. Is this jest or is this the real deal?
MP: You know what, I don’t want to tell you until you go visit the place because it’s one of the treasures of Los Angeles.
BW: So then such a place does exist?
MP: Oh yea, it’s there, and truly one of the wonders of L.A.
BW: And to what degree does it relate to or what was your thinking in its relation to your current project.
MP: Well, it’s the brain child of a guy named David Wilson who’s a friend of mine, who is the curator of the museum and there is actually a little bit of a connection to the packaging anyway of “Mr. Hollywood Jr.,” but I again I don’t want to blow the vibe of the place for you because the next time your in Los Angeles I urge you to go. I’ll take you there.
BW: I’m in. You don’t have to ask twice. Now, unpack “On Automatic” for me a little bit. It’s really poppy for the second to last track.
MP: Well you know, optimism is a funny thing.
BW: “P.S. (Millionaire),” on the other hand, leaves us a little more contemplative, melancholy…
MP: “P.S. (Millionaire)” is a literally a postscript in a sense, because it doesn’t have its roots in 1947, it has its roots in right now and it’s sort of like me in a sense commentating on I don’t know, whatever. I mean the initial start of the song, there’s an instrument that I use sometimes called a Marx-a-phone, which is this weird auto harp device that has these keys that bounce on the strings sort of like a hammer dulcimer. And the thing about the Marx-a-phone was when they were selling the things which was in the 20′s through the 40′s, they would sell them door to door and that’s what I’m doing now, and it felt like, that’s where I am now. Now that the record business sort of completely eaten itself and music for all I know may…you know popular music is only 150 years old, you know really since sheet music and it’s as a commodity as a thing, and it could easily go away. And it could be replaced by I don’t know, fucking magic or something as the popular cultural entertainment. That’s kinda where that was, it’s like what does it take, is that what it takes? Then I don’t want to be any part of it.
BW: I imagine it took a certain level of courage to step up and to put yourself back on the stage again.
MP: I’m not aware of it being courage, but I’m aware of it being stubbornness.
BW: I gotta’ ask about those “Acoustic Vaudeville” recordings … what ever happened to those? Are they coming out?
MP: Well, truth be told, they recordings themselves were just not well recorded and I was kind of ok about putting it out in some fashion, but Amy kind of nixed it or Amy’s management kinda nixed it because they thought…especially what it boiled down to is that we switched mic’s for those show’s, vocal mic’s, it was recommended by somebody and when we got the recordings back, they sucked.
BW: I saw one of the early ones at Joe’s Pub, and then later at Town Hall.
MP: That’s when we were really still really Acoustic Vaudeville, because we kinda became acoustic electric.
BW: Speaking of, are you expecting to go out with a fuller band later on in the album cycle?
MP: I hope so. It’s all depending on whether the record actually has some success and there’s money to be spent because you know, there’s an extraordinary expense going out with a full band who’s not sort of invested in the outcome the same way as a songwriter is.
BW: I hear ya’. Well, I look forward to the show tonight, and the one in Philly, and you’ll hear from me when I’m in L.A. next.
MP: Allright, man.
This interview later appeared on MTV News Online