Music Feature: Jay Reatard (NY Press)



Jay Reatard attempts to curb his wunderkind workaholism

By Chris Ruen

Memphis garage-rocker Jay Reatard is a living, breathing misnomer.

When Jay Lindsey was 15 years old he decided to name his first his band The Reatards, then he changed his last name to make the playfully spelled “Reatard” his own. It must have felt all too appropriate. Most feel retarded, at least in the colloquial sense of maladjustment, during those early teenage years. On top of the age’s commonplace insecurities, young Jay had an unstable home life to contend with and few friends to share his adolescent angst with. So instead of going to classes, he stayed home to play music in his bedroom. Jay Reatard didn’t fit in—he was abnormal. He was a “retard.”

But it’s easy to forget the definition of “retard” in its verb form. It means to hinder, slow or delay. And in this real sense, Jay Reatard has been wringing his self-imposed surname with action ever since. By the age of 18, when many of his peers hoped to tour Europe with a backpack, he had already traveled the continent with his own band. In the years since changing his name, Reatard (now 27) has released dozens of records, and he’s been in at least eight bands, most notably The Reatards and the synth-based Lost Sounds. This workaholic even has his own record label, Shattered. Following one’s passions is vital for any artist, but Reatard grew tired of continually recording and touring for so many different projects that involved so many other musicians.

“I was feeling creatively repressed,” says Reatard. “I hadn’t had a chance to make an album that completely represented my ideas.”

He began focusing on solo work, simply labeling it with his own name. In 2006, In The Red Records released Reatard’s solo LP, Blood Visions, a hyperkinetic romp of punk guitar and Joey Ramone–style vocals. For music played with such speed and volume, the album displayed Reatard’s surprising ear for melody.

The tuneful nature of the music is that much more unexpected after looking at the album’s cover, which bears an image of the nearly naked songwriter covered in blood.

“The idea was that I would be this fat, bloody baby being reborn into the world,” says the renascent Reatard.
Though he’d already built a decent fan base from touring with his many Memphis-based projects over the years, Blood Visions gradually gained a new audience of fans and journalists. All the new exposure and momentum paid off when Reatard was touring in New York City one day and a friend in The Ponys, a garage rock band from Chicago, told him NYC’s Matador Records was interested in signing him. Reatard began speaking with Matador, the gold standard of indie labels.

“Then there were eight months of negotiations to settle everything…which were really exhausting. It was like, ‘Hey man, let’s stop talking about this shit and start making a record!’ I’d never gone more than six months without making a full-length.”

Reatard is set to release six, 7-inch singles with Matador this year, which will be compiled on an EP in the fall. Much to his frustration, his next full-length disc won’t be out until spring of 2009.

Though Reatard’s career looks to be ascendant, he doesn’t plan on any major life changes. For one, he has no intention to leave his hometown of Memphis.

“Memphis is pretty vital to the creative process for me. Some bands decide to move to L.A. and then they immediately begin to suck. I feel like if a big city didn’t create a band, a band shouldn’t expect to move to a big city and continue to be nurtured creatively.”

If there is a perceivable alteration in Reatard’s lifestyle, it’s a shift away from his historically scattered musical endeavors.

“Six months ago I decided to try something I’ve never done before—and that’s focus. I figured, I have eight releases this year. Then there’s press and touring. I don’t have enough time to sleep much less to play drums in some crappy punk band.”

Music Feature: Man Man (NY Press)


Philly’s Man Man resists the mental ward with its circus-punk pop

By Chris Ruen

“This is not just false modesty,” Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus) assures me. “I’m such a pessimist about people actually showing up. I’m always really surprised when people come out to our shows.”

Kattner, Man Man’s lead singer and main songwriter, is pleasantly shocked twice over this week: The band’s two headlining concerts in the city, in support of their new Rabbit Habits, have quickly sold out. If quantifiable success is a sign of things to come for this genre-spiting rock band from Philadelphia, it will be well earned after years of scarcity. As Kattner states flatly in the band’s latest press release: “I would say being broke is one of my biggest influences.”

The last time I encountered Kattner, Man Man had played a frenetic set in front of a nearly empty Knitting Factory main room in 2006. After the show, while I conducted a punchy interview with him in the back of their tour van, I sensed his frustration. The path ahead for the band didn’t appear easy.

In the weeks preceding our night at the Knitting Factory, Man Man’s second LP, Six Demon Bag, had garnered critical acclaim from Pitchfork, but the hype didn’t immediately translate to either album or concert sales. Perhaps because simply trying to describe their music invites awkwardness, their name and gimmick of wearing war paint and assuming strange monikers didn’t catch on as some expected.

Undeterred, Man Man began working on material for a new album. There was just one problem: They had no record label. Their two-album contract with NYC’s Ace Fu Records had expired.

“It was an amicable split,” says Kattner. But it left the Philadelphians homeless and lacking resources. This complex indie-circus-soul-jazz-punk band was—to put it simply—penniless.

“We recorded Rabbit Habits on our own time, with our own money. While we were recording we kept running out of money and had to go back on tour. So what should have been about a two-month recording process went on over a 10-month period.”
Though all the touring wasn’t by choice, gradually the name Man Man became better known. After all, five guys in war paint flipping out in manic delight for an hour and a half onstage tends to make an impression. Along the way, Man Man attracted the attention of the ANTI- record label.

“I honestly don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t found ANTI-,” says Kattner. “All I have to say is—in capital letters—PHEW.”

Comparing the band’s situation now to what I observed that night in the Knitting Factory, some transformation seems to have occurred.

“When we’re in the middle of everthing, I have no idea of what’s changed. I’m just dealing with, ‘Fuck, I have to pay rent. Fuck, my girfriend’s mad ‘cause I’m not around ever. Fuck, my girlfriend’s breaking up with me ‘cause I’m not around ever.’”

But on a recent tour of smaller cities, Kattner says he noticed something. “The kids just seemed to be coming out more than ever before. It was freezing in Ann Arbor and there was this line to get into the show stretching all the way down the block.”

Still, life isn’t suddenly perfect for Man Man. Kattner, for one, is still lacking in funds. “That hasn’t changed,” he laughs.

But he seems to enjoy a bit of clarity on why he got himself into this mess of a band—the mess of laboring to make exactly the kind of music he wishes to create.

“You don’t get into music because you want to make money,” he says. “I’m doing this to stay out of the nut house, basically.”

Interview: Director Andrew Bujalski (Cool 'Eh Magazine)


Back in the early days of 2006, 28-year-old director Andrew Bujalski made two New Year’s Resolutions. One was simple enough: visit Maine. Andrew, a Bostonian, accomplished this without significant trouble. The second resolution, however, posed a more serious challenge: stop reading press for his films. According to Andrew, he went on to violate this resolution “hundreds of times over.”

He could be forgiven for this. One would be hard-pressed to find another director, contemporary or not, to inspire such enthusiastic praise and curiosity from the highest echelons of criticism for their first two feature films. His debut, “Funny Ha Ha”, garnered a place on ten top ten lists, including The New York Times and Film Comment. Bujalski’s latest film, “Mutual Appreciation”, earned him a feature in the New York Times, where they may or may not have forever slapped Bujalski with “Voice of a Generation” status. More praise has followed from Variety, Slate, and Chicago Reader. Scott Foundas of Cinemascope wrote, “Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation, which is to say my own, marked by its very lack of definition.”

Bujalski has chosen to cast non-professional actors, including friends and himself, in his 16mm-shot features. Both films were written for former roommates (Kate Dollenmayer and Justin Rice, respectively), and focus on the muddied twenty- something lives of post-collegiates. The characters’ dialogue and actions are disarmingly authentic and, mixed with Bujalski’s visual realism, alternately hilarious and awkward to a degree of brutality.

Bujalski and I met on a cold, rainy evening in the dim, mostly-vacant confines of Williamsburg bar Larry Lawrence.

Photo by: Alexander Richter

As a kid, were there any filmmakers or films that particularly struck a chord with you?
I think that grows and changes over time. I was movie crazy as long as I can remember. Going back to childhood I remember Rocky III was a big one for me, before I understood there was such a thing as Rocky I and II. But by the time I was an early adolescent, I don’t know, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers and all that kind of stuff.

The ’90s indie movies…
Yeah, late ’80s early ’90s: that starter stuff that blows your mind when you’re that age. And a lot of it is still mind-blowing. But those kinds of beginner steps into, “I like stuff that’s different and weird!” And you seek out that stuff.

And then when did it occur to you, “I could possibly do this.”
Well, it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. Doesn’t mean I knew what that meant. And I still don’t necessarily know what that means. I think I’ve been extremely lucky. And “Funny Ha Ha” was made, as I think a lot of first features are, on hubris alone. There was no reason to think we could pull that off.

Any filmmakers or films in the past couple years that have genuinely excited you?
Yeah, but I always blank on this question. I mean, maybe fewer and fewer in a way. Maybe it’s diminishing returns. I think it just has to do with getting older. The older you get, the fewer things are really going to shock you and open your eyes. And I don’t know if that’s because I’ve seen enough that it’s harder to get surprised or if it’s—what is it that Ally Sheedy says in "The Breakfast Club"? “When you get old your heart dies.” And that might be it—I don’t know.

It’s not a pleasant thought.
No, it’s not at all. Every year there are a handful of movies I really fall in love with, but it’s fewer and fewer. Or at least fewer than it was ten years ago.

I have memories of taking my dog-walking money and going to the local independent movie house and seeing weird new movies and feeling so completely absorbed and excited by them—and I feel completely divorced from that now.
It’s depressing. But it’s hard for me to gauge. I mean is the 14-year-old kid today who’s going to the movies alone and seeking stuff out for the first time—is the stuff that’s out there today as thrilling to that kid as whatever was to you or me? I don’t know.

At what point did you decide you were going to shoot with film and not going to use digital?
Well, I think it makes a big difference in how the film feels. To me video is the difference between a piano and the latest, most awesome synthesizer that almost sounds like a piano. Video is at its worst when it’s trying to fake the feel of film. But there are more and more people out there figuring out how to use it for what it is.

Do you fear changing your filmmaking method at this point? Do you plan on changing anything for the next one?
I’d like to retain the methodology as much as I can. I really want to do one more in this vein. It was never intended to be a sustainable methodology. And I think if I don’t squeeze one out now—it’s not going to get any easier. It’s just going to get harder and harder to make films like that.

Do you find it interesting that critics have focused so much on the conversational tics in your movies?
I mean, that’s why I was trying to get myself to stop reading reviews. You can’t help but end up feeling a little bit alienated. Even when someone’s being really good to you. Even when the person seems to get it, there’s still something weird about—

Someone else saying, “This is who you are…”
Yeah, and when you’re marketing a film you’re asked to say, describe your film in two sentences. Part of me always feels like, well I made a big, sprawling, weird thing and if I knew how to do it in two sentences I wouldn’t have had to make a movie. I could have made two sentences. So anything someone writes about it automatically feels reductive. It’s not bad, I just shouldn’t read it, that’s all.

And then this Voice of a Generation thing has started coming up.
That’s the kind of thing—I mean as far as I know the only person who’s said that is Dennis Lim at the New York Times, and I think he did it with a question mark or something. My response to that is always, go and poll my generation. Go and ask everybody in a ten year range of me if they’ve ever even heard of my films, and then whether or not that percentage wants to elect me or not. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

I think the generation tag is interesting, though. I mean, it’s not a generation. It’s a very specific group of people of a certain socioeconomic status, certain educational status. It’s a very specific group that these two movies have been about.
The harshest reviews my films have ever gotten have been from the demographic they supposedly speak to.

Like you got too close, maybe.
Yeah, you know, “This guy thinks he knows our generation. He’s wrong. My friends are much cooler than these people.” A lot of that kind of stuff.

Alan in “Mutual Appreciation” fits a certain archetype of a young person pursuing their artistic ambitions. What many would refer to as a Hipster. Here in New York, there’s a fair amount of disdain of that culture, as prevalent as it is. Do you have any particular reactions to that archetype?
I don’t know…it’s exciting to be young and care about things. It’s interesting, a lot of the press for “Mutual Appreciation” pegs it as a Williamsburg movie or a movie about the Williamsburg scene or whatever. But Williamsburg is never mentioned in the film. The only specific tie to Williamsburg is that he plays at Northsix, which is a real Williamsburg club. But that was also the only scene we shot in Williamsburg. Not to say I don’t know where people are coming from when they say that, but it’s funny to me that that reads to people.

Well, you may not like this, but in a way it oozes Williamsburg. Not saying it was intentional.
Right, but I think you’d find the harshest—whoever leads the life that the film seems to be about is going to be the person who least identifies with the film. The person who says, “No that’s wrong. You got it wrong.”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
I don’t know. It depends.

It does depend. I mean, no one lives that exact life. But, it’s very familiar. When I saw it everything was very familiar to me.
This is a bit of a fantasy maybe, but my dream, your fondest hope as any kind of artist I think is that hopefully something will seem familiar about it to some dude in Omaha. I mean, there are a lot of specific New York cues where you go, “Okay, I know where Northsix is.” But you hope that something’s universal about it.

Do you have any particular views on the youth culture you supposedly speak to?
I don’t know. It depends on the youth culture. I enjoy a lot of it. I guess youth culture by definition is impermanent, sure. Although it’s weird…we’re in an odd—but again I feel kind of stupid holding forth on this ‘cause I feel like I’m not a sociologist, ultimately.

Sociologists…I mean, who cares?

You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to, but no one’s an expert as far as I’m concerned.
Well, it’s hard to imagine someone from my parents generation—I mean, I was a huge Beatles fan in high school and I think that’s probably typical for a lot of people who grew up when I did, and its hard to imagine someone of my parents’ generation being so into something from their parents’ generation. They did a great job of cutting themselves off and starting anew, and we didn’t do such a good job of that. That’s not bad on us, it just didn’t happen and the world wasn’t at that place.

At least one segment of our youth culture is one where people revel in making fun of things. There’s high value attached to that ability for mockery. But there doesn’t seem to be much weight tied to meaning or deeper values necessarily. They seem old world.
Well, I think there are a lot of people out there who want that. I think there are a lot—and you could say Wes Anderson—I think he, in many ways, and I don’t want to read his work any more than I want people to read mine, but certainly somewhere in there, there seems to be some kind of cry for, longing for sincerity. And what does that mean? I don’t know. It’s a topsy-turvy world! So it’s hard to know…

I’m trying to get at—
Well, our parents, hippies or whoever, could convince themselves, “Okay, we’ve totally overturned everything. We’ve got our own music and our own stuff that we like. So we’ve finally gotten to the core of it—the truth.” And then to grow up…See, I just feel like I’m a talking head on VH-1 or something.

I think its interesting that in the face of the utter confusion of your film’s subjects, you’re willing to use realism to simply look at the situation as it is, rather than deconstruct it or try to compare it to something else. And I think that’s significant.
Sure. And I always hope to learn something. Not to go in with a statement and try to take that statement from two dimensions to three dimensions. Rather, to go in not knowing exactly what we’re doing and kind of learn as we go. I mean, the film should hold mysteries for me, and hopefully hold mysteries for anyone who watches it.

It’s got to be incredibly frustrating to make a movie and intimately understand what you made, then have to listen to a bunch of people like me try to tell you what it is.
It’s just weird. But it’s fine. It’s part of the deal. And you’re thrilled that anybody cares.

Both of the films end on relatively squirm-inducing moments and right when the audience is at its most uncomfortable or awkward, you make quick cuts to black and silent credits. Why do you think you like to finish with such abrupt endings?
Endings are tough and it’s always a challenge. I think neither of these stories support conventional resolution. And I’ve seen films where I was on board until a resolution is thrown on—and then I get mad. And I go, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. I bought your story, but now you’re telling me those two got married and now everything is fine?” It drives me crazy. So the question is, how do you make an ending without a resolution? I don’t know, it’s tough to get out of a fictional world, and sometimes I’m just trying to make a clean break. The story ends here and, I’m sorry, but you people are on your own now.

Film Reviews: Iraq In Fragments, Old Joy (Cool 'Eh Magazine)


DIRECTED by James Longley

Contrary to what I suspect assorted art school students, Evangelicals, and left-wing activists may believe, there is no moral high ground, no significant level of superior understanding to be claimed on the issue of the Iraqi disaster, not by any American. Despite its dark days of late, America remains a democracy nonetheless. Therefore we are all fundamentally responsible for the new reality we have created for Iraqis, ugly as this fact is. And never has this reality seemed quite so ugly, paradoxically, as in the beautifully rendered documentary “Iraq In Fragments”, masterfully presented by American director James Longley.

Longley takes turns focusing on stories of all three “fragments” of Iraq: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. The first act centers on an 11-year-old Sunni boy named Mohammed, who struggles to balance the importance of school with that of keeping his job working for a physically and verbally abusive café owner. For the second act we move on to Shiite Sheik Aws, a young religious leader and follower of Muqtada al-Sadr, who struggles to politically organize his fellow Shia in Nasiriyah. The film ends in the Kurdish north, following a father and son, each with their own hopes for the future of Iraq.

“Iraq In Fragments” documents a time, from the fall of Baghdad through the relatively successful elections, now viewed as one of the rosier periods of the occupation, charging the images on screen with the dire knowledge of how much worse the situation will become. In fact, the realities on the ground may be so troubling to American eyes that, by the end, you’ll regret watching the film at all.

And while the documentary ends in the Kurdish north with a measured degree of optimism, even strains of joy, the American viewer’s closer relationship with Iraq overwhelmingly brings on an emotional state in communion with that of the fragmented nation itself: devastation.


From the passenger side of a Volvo station wagon, a dirty, hippie-looking Kurt, played by musician Will Oldham, explains the special quality of a secluded Cascade Mountain hot spring to his old friend Mark (Daniel London).

“It has this otherworldly peacefulness about it. You can really think,” Kurt says, just before taking a particularly ironic drag from his joint.

“Sounds awesome,” Mark replies from the driver’s seat.

Two thirty-something friends from Portland, who presumably met in college, are on their way to the hot spring. This spontaneous 36-hour camping trip, suggested the same day by Kurt, gives Mark a chance to escape the fast-approaching fatherhood staring him in the face at home, while the journey is just more of the same for free-spirited Kurt.

A sad, mostly unspoken tension grows between the two friends, who evidently haven’t spent significant amounts of time together since their glory days. Mark has absorbed a standard kind of Bourgeois-Bohemian mindset, while Kurt still revels in theories of a teardrop-shaped universe and his aging-hippie lifestyle. Most divisive for the friendship is Kurt’s getting them hopelessly lost in the mountain roads, and not seeming particularly concerned about it.
On the way to the hot springs, the friends attempt to reclaim the old, easy nature of their relationship, but to little avail. For a few moments they seem kindred spirits once more, but these are sadly fleeting. The youthful lives they once shared now seem dead—something to be mourned.

But the striking, patient film does provide a way out of the despair, albeit a slight one. As Kurt recounts a dream to Mark at the hot springs, in what seems like just another one of his burnout non sequiturs, a kernel of wisdom emerges. Consoled by a dream character, he is told, “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

Critical Essay: UFO (Cool 'Eh Magazine)




U.F.O. (powerHouse Books) begins simply enough: three white letters stenciled on the book’s pitch-black cover. It’s a black & white beginning, followed by 196 pages of gray matter.

For sake of clarity, let’s start with the black & white.

“I think anytime we get involved in a project it’s about us trying to create a reality of something that’s maybe just more intense than it needs to be, or is,” says Caleb Scott, writer and member of the Combustive Motor Corporation (CMC) artist collective.

“More intense than it needs to be is very well put,” agrees fellow member and photographer Alex Wright, with a touch of collective self-effacement. Caleb and Alex make up one half of Brooklyn-based CMC, the creators of U.F.O. On its most basic level, U.F.O. is a graffiti book exploring the alien-focused work of one New York City graf artist, known as UFO. In dozens of nighttime photographs taken by Alex Wright, the reader is exposed to UFO’s use of spaceships and other extraterrestrial imagery, most commonly an inflated alien head attached to a flying saucer, with propulsive flares at the bottom. Just as potentially interesting as the imagery, though, are the varied locations, sizes and versions of the images. They range from a pencil-drawn tag on an ATM machine to a larger two-color image on a cruddy bathroom mirror, to full-scale, multi-color wall murals.

In addition to the book’s photography, the ideas and history behind U.F.O. images are engaged by the members of CMC via essays, narrative flourishes and in letters written to famous figures in art, science and politics, asking for their response to the graffiti—inquiring as to what it might mean. The letters were sent with photographs of UFO’s work in a painted black box with the addressee’s name stenciled on top in white. For example, the box they sent to Bill Clinton read, in rather creepy stenciled typography, W. Clinton.

“If Art Bell had a blind cousin who never talked to a girl for forty years, this [the boxes] is what he would make,” laughs Alex.

CMC (which also includes producer Chris Noble and visual artist Jack Warren) were initially tied to a gallery and performance space—first in Bushwick, then in Williamsburg. But an eviction from their second location forced the collective to re-think their creative endeavors, moving away from projects requiring physical exhibition space. They produced a few short films, but no major projects. Until, that is, they sat down one evening for an exploratory meeting.

“Chris Noble at the time wasn’t completely in collaboration with us and had the notion of exploring the correlation between graffiti and U.F.O. worlds via this UFO glyph,” says Alex.

“Which is a great idea,” Caleb interjects, “and we kinda jumped on it right away. We thought we were going to make a film. And Alex immediately started photographing them.”

But the film idea, imagined in a documentary form, soon fell by the wayside. “We imagined it as a quasi-documentary of the world that we created,” Alex says. “If you can imagine us running around and hacking out these letters on old typewriters and chasing people around and asking them ridiculous questions. And as things progressed we did some treatments and showed it around.… People were into it—but it’s really hard to get that kind of thing off the ground, and before we knew it became a book. At that point it seemed to suit it pretty well. We were enjoying putting it together and laying it out and it just seemed a natural progression. So we just went from one to the other.”

All four members had been exposed to the UFO glyph during their years living in New York, but maintained zero contact with the artist before or during the book’s creation. Rather, their publisher, powerHouse Books, apparently cleared the book with UFO himself.

“We didn’t want any contact with him (UFO) while we were in the midst of working on this,” Alex says. “We made that clear to the publisher, and they agreed to act as a link where we wouldn’t have to communicate directly. They said they were going to clear it and we said, ‘Do whatever you want, but we’re not doing it.’”

The way Alex and Caleb tell it, they were wary of creating anything that might resemble a conventional graffiti book. Just as important as the graffiti, for the project’s purposes, would be plunging into the world of U.F.O. interpretation—a subculture convinced that flying object sightings, ancient indigenous folklore involving beings descending from the sky and the existence of alien images dating back thousands of years, taken together, add up to irrefutable signs that alien beings have visited before and are giving us clear notice of a grand alien-to-human engagement on the horizon. From the very perspective of this subculture, laughable as it may seem to the modern eye, CMC identifies the contemporary graffiti of UFO as a new, significant sign of past and future visitation, and go about fleshing out this theory in words, images, scanned notebook pages, classified government documents, and in presumptuous letters to the aforementioned intelligentsia (including the likes of Stephen Hawking and David Bowie). An excerpt from Caleb Scott’s letter to Norman Mailer, one of many which went unanswered, ought to provide some sense of the ends to which CMC forced themselves: “The UFO story, timelessly told through the dissemination of a unique set of symbols, offers the possibility, if not the inevitability, of extraterrestrial contact, the ultimate manifestation of numinous forms.”

You may ask, “All this from a few graffiti tags?” Sitting with Caleb and Alex in Caleb’s East Williamsburg apartment, however, it becomes evident that CMC didn’t entirely leave their experimental theatre musings back in Bushwick. Alex: We definitely took on characters to some degree.

Caleb: In that there was this idea of creating these versions of ourselves, in that they would be people who would take this stuff that seriously…The idea that there’s kind of a web of understanding or an idea that has crossed over through time and through different cultures that all talks about this same idea – and this symbol is part of that history.

A: But those are the sort of levels of interaction that we’d like to have in the book, and it sort of takes on a performative element.

C: It’s important for us to keep whatever reality we created – to keep that as present as we can, to keep it a document relating to that as opposed to a satire or whatever – which it isn’t.

A: It’s not ironic, and it shouldn’t be. Because irony is boring.

But despite all of CMC’s efforts to portray their 1950s sci-fi crackpot theories as sincerely as possible, they’ve realized that, post-production, most of their UFO graffiti “context” is fundamentally hard to swallow.

“I showed this book to a writer that I’ve worked with before,” Caleb explains. “A comedy writer. He writes for Saturday Night Live and he was laughing, like really laughing at stuff. And you realize that it’s ridiculous.… There are things in the book that can be viewed as satirical or tongue-in-cheek because we’re making pretty big leaps from here to there. I mean, I guess there really is no truth about it.”

And here any supposed intentions for sincerity break down, as further consideration reveals this book as essentially post-modern, if not pure irony. The book, or project, is at once written by people who do and do not exist. Caleb and Alex are real people, but on the other hand, the deeply held convictions they attribute as “theirs,” admittedly aren’t. Caleb Scott and Alex Wright as they appear in U.F.O. factually don’t exist. And yet they do.

This is what I meant before by gray matter. U.F.O. and everything within its pages surely exists, yet none of it is necessarily real.

So. Where does this leave you the reader, or me the pseudo-journalist / critic? Well, I imagine the same place everyone involved in this project, or anyone genuinely excited by post-modernity, begins: with interpretation.

I can’t say whether or not U.F.O. is a “good book” in the classic sense, but I can say what meaning it might hold. I figured it out after pouring over the book at a coffee shop in Bushwick, in preparation for interviewing Caleb and Alex for this very article. While reading and studying the photographs, I felt entirely absorbed. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t think anything was stupid or tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t know for sure how serious these CMC guys were, and I also didn’t particularly care. If anything, seeing these images of UFOs and reading CMC’s humorless attempts, or rather those of their characters, to figure out what the pieces meant, propelled me into a similarly exploratory mindset. And with each photograph I looked a little harder for the UFO it contained, and also paid more attention to everything around it. Many of the graffiti pieces were in locations I’d passed regularly in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Suddenly my connection to the UFO glyphs, and now my searching for them, felt disarmingly close.

I walked out of the coffee shop, along McKibbin Street, with its graffiti-covered artist’s lofts on both sides, and suddenly I was studying the graffiti outside more closely than ever before. I put my nose up close to the walls, examining each little symbol I could find. I was searching for a UFO. And perhaps that is a piece of what U.F.O. illustrates, intentionally or not. That just as a person can search for meaning, communication, and signs between themselves and the heavens, the same quest can be at play when you’re staring at a faded piece of graffiti, painted over a crumbling brick wall or drawn in some lonely bar’s bathroom. Maybe something about this stuff really is extraterrestrial. But what? Could the assembled glyphs be a profound metaphor for the essence of communication? Man’s search for meaning wherever he or she can find it? The human soul’s desperate need for communion with others?

Or it’s nothing at all.

Regardless, as I continued home down the street, I glanced across at a red brick warehouse. And there was a UFO, peering right back at me, hovering just above a fire escape.

“We’re assuming the pieces mean something more than what most people have ever been willing to accept or acknowledge,” Caleb says. “It’s not just graffiti.”


Music Feature: Jennifer Gentle (New York Press)

Making lemonade while biting the hand that feeds me.



Marco Fasolo of Jennifer Gentle attempts to explain himself

By Chris Ruen

If there’s a key to writing a 500-word music piece—such as the one you’re reading—it’s to keep one’s expectations measured. There’s no space for sprawling exposition, only the facts. Band Y is from Town X and their music sounds like what might happen if Band A and Band C had an emotionally abused child who was obsessed with Band Q. Band Y is on such-and-such record label, their new album has been received with Reaction Z, and now they’re playing a concert in New York. Then throw in a few quotes from the lead singer to keep things relatively interesting.

Given the above parameters, interviewing the musician—in more youthful days an exciting, ego-boosting, potentially revelatory opportunity to engage with an artist—becomes a surprisingly mundane task. Rather than discuss music in an open-ended fashion when the artist may actually say something interesting, you simply mine the subject for information relevant to the article’s seemingly impenetrable structure.

The aforementioned lesson having been learned—quite recently by myself—my lowered interview expectations were put into practice for the first time during my scheduled interview with Marco Fasolo, the sole artistic force behind Italian rock band Jennifer Gentle. There seemed to be plenty of interesting material to discuss. The enigmatic Fasolo was touring in support of Midnight Room, an album he wrote, performed and produced alone in a secluded house in Northern Italy (the previous owner of which had killed himself there with a rifle). Even so, I lobbied to hear his take via the cold, yet efficient medium of email. The chances of a more personal phone interview yielding better material were slim at best.

Seattle’s venerable Sub Pop, Jennifer Gentle’s record label, said no to my dreams of email, so I called Marco one Thursday afternoon, ready to type away at my computer as he spoke. He would answer my questions about the recording process of Midnight Room—a baroque, psychedelic, pop-infused, mysterious romp of an album.

But upon calling the musician, I learned still another lesson: Just because someone sings in English, doesn’t mean they know it particularly well.

Marco, a lifelong resident of Italy, had trouble both understanding questions and articulating answers: two rather crucial elements for an interview. Plus, he was talking to me from a tour van barreling down the highway. I could barely hear him.
I think I heard him say he likes playing New York because of the “great crowds,” and that it was “fabulous last time.” Also, he enjoyed making Midnight Room alone, because he liked having things “under control.” He has an easy time arranging songs. Lyrics are “the hardest thing” for him, and he regularly consults an English dictionary when writing. Singing in English rather than Italian, he said, “came naturally.”

Like Jennifer Gentle’s music, the interview was definitely weird, sometimes incomprehensible, but unique and unassailably amusing. This Wednesday at the Mercury Lounge, Marco and company bring their confounding mix of strange circus psychedelics to town. Be there, just don’t expect to understand much.

Journalism? : Starbucks In Greenpoint (New York Press)

Every Marx-addled writer's dream come true.



Starbucks lands in Greenpoint, loudly and without shame

By Chris Ruen

The area of Greenpoint, Brooklyn stretching west from McGuiness Boulevard to the banks of the East River is an ever-expanding haven for small cafes and coffee shops. There’s Ashbox, Champion, Greenpoint Coffee House, O Solé Mio, Cafécito, Brooklyn Label, Eat Records, Grumpy…and that’s just a casual listing. Ever since the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg waterfront rezoning of 2005, which looks to potentially add dozens of high-rise condominiums and 10,000 new residents to this remarkably quaint corner of Kings County, locals knew change was on its way. Recently, the proverbial cup of Folger’s was served pitch black to Greenpoint-at-large when “Starbucks Coffee” slipped its way into an old movie theater on the corner of Manhattan and Greenpoint avenues and saw fit to surround its iconic sans serif font on the marquee with a set of unthinkably bright light bulbs.

“It’s very obnoxious and in-your-face and tacky,” says Hernando Varela, part-owner of Cafécito, a French-Colombian cafe a few blocks north on Manhattan Avenue. “But hey, I understand they just want to make money and put the word out themselves.”

Not everyone, though, is quite as critical. “I laughed,” Karen Hayes says of the first time she saw the marquee. Hayes has lived in Greenpoint for three years and distrusts the gag reflex many seem to have when it comes to Grande Frappuccinos and green aprons. “I think sometimes people are just being haters. Sort of anti-everything.”
Hayes’ husband, Joe Keating, recently opened Jack O’Neal’s, a neighborhood pub on Franklin Avenue just one block west from the new Starbucks. In honor of Greenpoint’s pre-gentrification days, Joe and his business partner previously considered another name for their bar: Stray Dogs & Hookers.

“It seems to be a typical flagship of gentrification where people see it and think, ‘This means we’re at this advanced stage,’” Keating says of Starbucks. “Part of me had that ‘Oh god’ view when I first saw it. But part of me also thought, ‘Oh god, at least my investment in property in this neighborhood has passed a certain threshold.’ There’s a Jekyll & Hyde about this for me.”

“I’m afraid Greenpoint is going to end up being a bigger planning disaster than any other part of Brooklyn,” warns Robert Guskind Brooklyn editor of the real estate/development blog Curbed.com. “Within five years, quality of life is going to be affected on a fundamental level. The change is inevitable.”

If the new Starbucks indeed becomes the symbol for change in Greenpoint, then the multi-ethnic, artist-friendly “village” life it presently enjoys is very much at risk. In their stores, at their events and in the statement provided by Starbucks Regional Spokesperson, Hope Tannenbaum, Starbucks touts its efforts to build strong communities via the “Starbucks Experience.” Throughout this Experience (please note the capital “E”), “Customers come for coffee, stay for the inviting warmth and return for the very human connection.” But Starbucks must attempt to reconcile this laughably inflated sense of corporate self with the plain reality that fake community sounds nice, sells more coffee and allows their worldwide expansion rate of six stores per day. When a big retail corporation talks about building communities, they’re truly after something a bit less sunny—namely cultivating markets of loyal consumers. Any neighborhood invaded by Starbucks gradually morphs from a shared community of participatory individuals into a top-down Starbucks Community (let’s allow them the capital “C,” for fun) set up for that most cynical of American functions: to sell more, faster…and more! Creative potential is lost and corporate sameness is perpetuated.

People/consumers are left somewhere in the middle to grapple with what’s real—and what’s just another sales pitch.
When I visited Greenpoint’s friendliest new neighbor, I noticed a small dry-erase board with the words, “Today, your barista is… Sara.” Her smiling picture occupied the same space. Next to that it read, “Today, I Recommend… A Venti Orange and Crème Extra Whipped Crème and Orange Zest Frappucino.”

I looked over at Sara, who was not nearly so cheery in person as her picture led me to believe, and I suspected she neither enjoyed drinking nor serving 11-word long coffee drinks.

Minutes later: “I did not recommend that! Who wrote that?” Sara, now standing in front of the dry-erase board, was feverishly rubbing off the “recommendation” with her sleeve, until the “Today I Recommend…” board was totally blank.

“Today,” she said, satisfied with her erasing, “I recommend you go someplace else.”

Five minutes later Sara’s recommendation was rewritten, word-for-word, this time with a little added flair. A “very human connection” indeed.

Essay: Bushwick In Spirit (New York Press)

Now I do live in Bushwick. Not the one they were talking about.



Bushwick In Spirit

By Chris Ruen

In the fall of 2005, I moved to Brooklyn. After living in relative obscurity deep in Queens, I’d now be squarely within the notorious L Train corridor—along with other urban, artsy, college-educated white kids like myself. The first area this demographic (yes, those much-maligned “hipsters”) populated en masse was, of course, Williamsburg.

But I certainly didn’t move to Williamsburg. No, I became a resident of its neighbor to the southeast: Bushwick. At least this is what my new roommate Jane told me. She’d been living nearby in BedStuy for a few years, so I trusted her. We were within walking distance of Williamsburg’s bars, cafes and art spaces, but there was no way our dilapidated, minimally gentrified blocks could be put in the same social strata as trendy Williamsburg.

Simply happy to move monumentally closer to friends and the “action,” I wasn’t quite ready to carry the neurotic burden of living in Williamsburg. And I found satisfaction in telling friends and family I’d soon be moving to Bushwick. The name had an undeniable ring to it, and the air of freshness that accompanies any word, idea or neighborhood that hasn’t already been bludgeoned into banality by the flesh-eating NYC media. I felt entirely content with my new neighborhood; Bushwick would be home.

One day, I lingered in my new subway stop at Montrose Avenue. Trying to orient myself to the unfamiliar lands around me, I studied a close-up MTA neighborhood map on the wall. “You Are Here” highlighted my stop, but immediately to the left of this marker was a word I did not expect to see next to my home: Williamsburg.

Williamsburg? Is that where I’d moved? The map left little reason for doubt. The label of Bushwick appeared well east of my apartment’s location on the map. I seemed comfortably within the boundaries of the ‘Burg.

As my first Brooklyn weeks passed, and the question of where I lived came up in more and more conversations, the mere mention of the hazy line between Williamsburg and Bushwick elicited strains of anger and passion. The token exchange went something like this: “And I just recently moved to Brooklyn,” I’d say. “Oh really,” Young-Person-In-The-Know replied. “Where in Brooklyn?”

“I live right on the L, a few stops into Williamsburg.” At this point, character with cool pants becomes visibly curious and vaguely aggressive, presumably because “a few stops” sounds suspicious.

“Which stop is it?” she’d ask.

And I answered,“Montrose.”

“That’s Bushwick,” she’d resolutely state. “You live in Bushwick.” And while she began to snicker and laugh to herself about how silly it was of me to think I lived in Williamsburg, I would eventually interject, “Well, I thought I was moving to Bushwick, but the subway map at my station pretty clearly states it’s Williamsburg.”

“Was the map made by a real estate company?” the smirking, well-coiffed person in question continued. “That neighborhood definitely used to be called Bushwick. Or is it,” especially mocking here, “East Williamsburg?”

After enduring a handful of these exchanges, frustration took hold. Not being able to confidently state, or know, what neighborhood I lived in annoyed the hell out of me. Why did telling someone where I lived have to consistently spark a discussion in which the other person found it necessary to tell me where I “actually” lived? I resolved to figure this out.

At first, most evidence pointed toward my neighborhood being Williamsburg. For one, the subway map. Secondly, Williamsburg Houses public housing was only one block north of me. On the other hand, and repeatedly thrown in my face by the Bushwick camp, I lived just a half block west of an avenue named Bushwick. Not conclusive by any means, but it sounded damning.

The Not For Tourist (NFT) guide had its own section for East Williamsburg, which I lived soundly within. According to NFT, the boundary between East Williamsburg and Bushwick was Flushing Avenue, nine blocks south of me. Flushing appeared to form the southeast border of Williamsburg, with its northeast border being Queens.

I had two maps saying I lived in some form of Williamsburg, but I couldn’t help question NFT, if only because it’s a commercial publication, not an official one. Maybe the maps were outdated or plain wrong? Or maybe the creeping gentrification had led to the renaming and expanding of Williamsburg to where Bushwick had once stood proud?

I considered these questions on my walk home, walking south down Graham Avenue toward the supposed border of Flushing. And along Graham, well south of Grand Street, I passed a community center, the Williamsburg Community Center.

The final blow to my hopes of figuring out where I lived came from The New York Times in an article published about a music venue/art space called Asterix, which sits three blocks away from my home. In the article, the writer referred to Asterix’s location as “a neighborhood sometimes called East Williamsburg.”

Sometimes called? Even The New York Times was waffling on this. And if they couldn’t figure it out, or display any form of confidence on the matter, then what chance did I have? I’d been in my apartment for a full year and I still didn’t know where I lived. This worrying couldn’t go on forever. So, I gave up. In this same period I’d left my Manhattan literary agency job to work at a coffeehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As I was sucked further into the Brooklyn scene, I started hearing the name Bushwick bandied about more often than Williamsburg. All the underground parties and new art spaces seemed to be “in Bushwick” now. But when I asked where these parties actually took place, my friends or customers either had no idea, or they cited the artist lofts on McKibbin Street, which falls a couple blocks on the supposed Williamsburg side of Flushing. To those who have particular ideas of Bushwick, these lofts—along with the coffee shops, bars and thrift stores on the Morgan stop—constitute the heart of Bushwick. Or somebody’s Bushwick.

Alas, my second year in Brooklyn passed without any new neighborhood revelations. Nearly all the evidence pointed to me living in Williamsburg, while those I raised the subject with merely pointed. Soon enough, the question faded almost entirely from my mind.

Recently, on a day off from work, I strolled down Bushwick Avenue to the aforementioned McKibbin Street lofts and to Potion. I walked through the coffee shop’s glass entrance to find the walls covered in note cards. My eyes wandered to a table where a craft station was set up with a small stack of note cards with “Bushwick Is” typed on each one. The patrons were invited to write or draw anything they liked on the cards. The finished ones covered the walls with alternately sarcastic, sincere and obtuse expressions—all inflected with a deep sense of community and love for Bushwick. And if this hadn’t already aligned Potion with Bushwick, then the 7-foot-high banner hanging from the ceiling that read “Bushwick Open Studios” surely did.

I bought my coffee and sat down with my computer, but had a difficult time focusing. The neighborhood quandary had been shoved right back in my face by the most potent Bushwick believers I could ever hope to encounter. They seemed so sure of themselves. A friendly-looking man with a beard, who I assumed to be an owner or manager, and a young, female barista were speaking with a customer, so I waited for a pause in their conversation.

“Can I ask you guys a question?” I said to the three of them.

“Sure,” they replied.

“As far as you’re concerned, is this definitely Bushwick?”

“Yes!” the female employee shot back.

“Well,” the bearded one began, “Technically this is East Williamsburg.”

This silenced the employee, who walked away and said nothing more.

He continued, “Bushwick is across Flushing, actually. I can show you a map online if you want to see.”

I didn’t need to see. It was enough just to hear a dispassionate voice of reason. His standing as a McKibbin Street barista only solidified the validity of this second opinion. My mind was finally settled. I lived in East Williamsburg, or at the very least Eastern Williamsburg.

Still at the coffee shop, I asked this same bearded man behind the counter why all the Bushwick note cards and the giant banner if he knew full well we weren’t sitting in Bushwick?

“Well, we feel here that we’re more Bushwick in spirit,” he said with a smile.

While this statement initially seemed harmless, it also meant absolutely nothing. Worse than nothing, it’s a shallow, selfish myth. That the “spirit of Bushwick” has anything at all to do with a bunch of white art school grads is, beyond delusional, a little offensive.

But I suppose those so keen on calling East Williamsburg “Bushwick” can be forgiven. Through the years, millions have moved to this city tempting the possibility of making a new life for themselves, aided by the endlessly creative possibilities only New York City can offer. And this fresh group of young “immigrants” is only out for that, their own slice of the Big Apple. Even if the slice is pretty moldy and rotting from the inside out, that’s OK as long as they can believe it’s theirs. A bunch of kids got to claim Williamsburg years ago, but that’s old news now. Bushwick waits for the new ones, right there for the taking. Even if it doesn’t really exist.

Album Review: Deerhunter "Fluorescent Grey EP" (Tiny Mix Tapes)

Reviews for diversity.


Fluorescent Grey [EP]

[Kranky; 2007]

Styles: psychedelics man, repetition, pop, shoegaze, aural explosions, jams
Others: My Bloody Valentine, early New Order, Liars

On their critically acclaimed Cryptograms Atlanta’s Deerhunter used the long-playing format for all its possibilities. Ambling soundscapes drifted, then accelerated, into more conventionally structured tracks, which took their own sweet time to manifest the band’s dream-pop and crashing post-punk tendencies. The brilliant release improved with multiple listens and could only lead the careful listener to wonder, with all the band’s seeming ambivalence about the charms of melody vs. noise: In what direction could they be headed next?

On the Fluorescent Grey EP, recorded during the mixing of Cryptograms, there are few clues to be had. Reviewers who say otherwise are full of it. With four songs clocking in at around 16 minutes, any grand extrapolations would have to be based on over-enthusiasm rather than evidence. Only general impressions can be made of this release, notably that its creators are a rock band of higher than average creative energy, purpose, and talent. Especially talent.

The first track, “Fluorescent Grey,” is a slow burner in the vein of Cryptogram’s later tracks, with singer Bradford Cox repeating, “Patiently, patiently/ Patiently, patiently.” A little more than two minutes in, however, the song takes a quick right turn as a flood of distortion and reverb propel the song toward its subdued conclusion. So goes the rest of the EP.

Many of Cryptogram’s elements are here, but (surely due in part to time constraints) the musical transitions are quick and to the point, as opposed to the LP’s expansiveness. This detracts from one of Deerhunter’s particular strengths: constructing a dynamic, organic listening experience. Everything here is a bit rushed. It wouldn’t stand out so much if the material didn’t seem so ripe for experimentation. No song is more frustrating in this regard than “Like New,” practically begging to be turned into a six-minute-plus dreamed-out jam. Instead, the song is over and done at a mere 2:13.

With Fluorescent Grey Deerhunter display their dual mastery of reverb and loops, and their ability to rock out with the best of them. The jackhammer drums alone on closer “Wash Off” bring to light the real possibility that this band, if the stars align, might just blow everyone else out of the water someday... way out of the water. There are no shocking new directions here, but consider at least one appetite wetted.

Interview: Man Man (Tiny Mix Tapes)

The grand, nightmarish finale.


Man Man
Van Outside The Knitting Factory, NYC
[March 2006]

Philly rock-like outfit/collective/band Man Man came out with their second album, Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu), a couple months ago. I heard the album’s "Tunneling Through The Guy," a brooding, mostly instrumental mind-fuck of a song, in a record store and subsequently walked out the door with my own copy of the LP. The record held up to three or four days of constant listens. Catchy, soulful, challenging, beautiful, cacophonous, acerbic, exciting, and at times disorienting, I began wondering what this music would sound like live.

I saw they were playing a show at Knitting Factory in a few days. Gold. But I was broke – too broke to pay $10. So, I fell back on the ol’ interview-the-band/get-in-free routine and set it all up. It seemed to be working out just fine, until their PR contact abruptly stopped e-mailing me mid-week, stranding me without a confirmation or a guest list spot. The day of the show, a Friday, I assumed nothing was happening. That night I arrived home from work to find a voicemail from said PR contact, who I apparently had to meet at the venue in about 45 minutes. Obviously, I had little time to prepare any questions, and their first album hadn’t arrived from Ace Fu. Though I had very little to go on, on some level I was enjoying the haphazardness of it all.

I got into the venue just fine, but then the band couldn’t talk before their performance, and then an ominous feeling about the interview expanded within me as I watched the show, and then I had to wait for them to load their van (growing increasingly frustrated with each beer consumed), and then Ryan (the band’s lead singer, songwriter, keys player) suddenly wanted to do the interview in the noisy street while they were loading up their equipment. Finally, we ended up in the tour van itself. Me, Ryan, and fellow band member Cougar. "Chang" also made a brief appearance.

And between their exhaustion with having just played a show and then being obliged to talk to some guy who was visibly annoyed with them, no one especially wanted to be there. Still, I tried to make the best of the situation, sarcasm and all....

And what’s your name?

Cougar: Cougar.

Ryan: That’s Cougar.

And that’s legal, right?

R: He’s from the Poconos – anything’s legal there.

(acknowledging that we’re sitting in the van) This is, uh, this is interesting...

R: This is a RENTAL van.

It’s nice, though. It’s a nice van.

R: It’s a RENTAL van.

Right...so, can you talk a little bit about how your band got started? You know, the really boring, basic stuff...

R: Well, we’ve managed to simplify that question, as far as an answer. How this band got started: sperm meets egg, egg goes bad. So there you go, there’s your answer.

Well, who did you have the key conversation with, where –

C: God.

R: The devil.

Oh. That’s an okay answer. Great.

R: That was a terrible answer.

You should all know that I have the lowest expectations I’ve ever had for an interview.

R: Well, at least we’re on the same page. So, I can’t wait for you to ask me questions about Tom Waits.

Oh, the Tom Waits stuff’s coming up. I know there have been a lot of line-up changes, haven’t there? I really don’t know.

R: There’s been some shuffle.

Anything you attribute that to?

R: Well, you know, I’ve said it a million times, but there’s a huge draw to sleeping on floors and not making any money – that’s so appealing. Not being able to maintain any sort of relationships. Hitting rock bottom...all the time. Right Cougar? Cougar’s on board.

C: I love it.

R: He loves it!

What’s your real name again Cougar?

C: Uh, Russell.

Alright, I’m going to ask you a few questions about Philadelphia, as every music journalist is required to do. Are you guys excited, dismayed, etc. by Sylvester Stallone’s efforts to make another Rocky? Or do you not care at all?

R: Cougar’s actually an extra in it. He plays Burgess Meredith’s illegitimate son-

Named Cougar.

R: So Cougar’s actually 60 years old...I mean that’s his name and that’s what we call him (cougar).

I don’t have a problem with the name Cougar.

R: Just wanted to make sure.

I’m curious what both names are. Obviously there are two names.

R: He lives in the Poconos.


Alright, alright, alright, alright. I was going to ask you more about Philadelphia...

C: Rocky?

No, I’m not going to ask you more about Rocky.

R: Hey Chang! Chang! (calling outside the van) How do you feel about Rocky?

Chang: Uhhh, he’s a fuckin’ wimp.

I was going to do this free association thing, but...I don’t know if it’s going to work.

R: Why? We’re game.

Are you?

R: I think so.

We’re gonna do it with both of you guys.

R: We’ll take turns.

So, the game is this: I’ll say a word –

R: We know how it works.

You know how it works?...And then you guys will go back and forth. Okay, ready? CAPTAIN BEEFHEART.

C: ...Me? I don’t know!

You have to say the first thing that comes to your head.

R: Potatoes.

C: Meat-Meaty.

R: Potatoes.

C: Meaty.

R: Potatoes...Oh, oh, so it’s supposed to keep going?

Yeah. Otherwise there’s no point.

C: Mashed!

R: Captain Beefheart...I thought you were going to toss out words and we were going to respond.

No no, the whole point is that I’m NOT involved.

R: Why don’t you jump in?

Okay. We’ll do it for the next one. So, I’ll say the first word and then we’ll do this rotation (CR to Ryan to Cougar, etc.).

R: Round Robin style.

Yeah yeah. Alright: LEGOS.

R: (sigh)

First thing.

R: First thing?

We’re talking subconscious. First thing. First word.

R: First word?

First word, idea...

R: Ah man, I’m failing this one...

LEGOS! Legos!

R: Eggos.

C: Waffles.


R: Bacon.

C: Beefheart.


R: Potatoes.

C: Meaty.


R: Tom Waits.

C: Throaty.

R: Frank Zappa.


C: Moustache.

R: The Residents.


R: Barenaked Ladies.

Alright, this is going to be the last one. We’re going to go in THIS direction (CR-Cougar-Ryan) now. And let’s NOT break the fuckin’ order this time. Okay: SAND.

C: Castle.

R: Wolf Parade.


C: Uhhh, Waiters.

R: Wolf Eyes.


C: Uhhh...Wolf...Cawnal...

R: Is that a word??

I don’t think so. Can you spell that?

C: Aids Wolf.

R: Awww man.

I think we can end with "Aids Wolf." Who do you guys influence most?

R: Who do we influence most? Oh, holy shit. Is this still free association?

It can be whatever you want it to be.

C: Four to six-year-olds.

R: Four to sixty-year-olds?

C: Four to sixty-year-olds!

R: Moby.

We’re going to tie it all together here: If Captain Beefhheart, Frank Zappa, and...Tom Waits....

R: What about ’em?

If they all got together and listened to your album, and then recorded an EP together, what would the EP be called?

R: "We Dug Up Frank Zappa and Got Arrested"... "Unlikely," that’s what the EP would be called. "Never Happening."

I was going to ask about the first album versus this one.

R: I think this one fuckin’ houses the first record. I think it’s way better. The crew is just stronger. I like it more.

When would you say you came up with your voice, or figured it out. ’Cause obviously you didn’t start singing that way – throaty stuff.

R: I can’t really say – I think that’s what it was. I realized my limitations, or I couldn’t sing. So I just screamed. I’m really bellowing – I think that’s where it comes from. But I don’t know. I just like the idea of this music, and also dragging my voice through the dirt.

You know guys, I wish I was more prepared for this interview.

R: Yeah, what the hell? Did you get stoned and just make up these questions? Can we get some shout-outs?

The tape’s rolling.

R: Cougar you got any shout-outs?

C: Can we play the association game again?

R: I got a shout-out for Tong. Islands. I Death.

C: I See Demons.

How do you know Islands so well?

R: Nick’s just a solid guy, so...

...Cool. Hey, well, thanks for the – I don’t know, you know I COULD try to come up with more questions here...

R: You can just e-mail us some questions.

I’m not – I don’t do that.

R: You can call me if you want to.

No, I don’t do that either. Only in person. I only want the full awkward moment.

R: Yeah, it’s definitely kinda awkward. At least you’re sitting in a van with us.

I’m just glad we’re not out back.

R: Wh-what’s going on out back?

C: Noise


R: Oh, I thought you meant something shady was going on out back.

Ummm, there’s obviously a strong performance element to what you guys do – all wearing the white shirts, doing the facepaint and all that stuff...

R: Where are you going with this...?

...is that something you’re tied to or where did that come from? You just wanted that element or –

R: The facepaint thing we don’t do all the time.

I just mean in terms of production value. There are a lot of theatrics.

R: There is?

Tons. Totally, from my perspective. I don’t think it’s a BAD thing.

R: We’re just feeling it, man. The white outfits –

You all happened to be feeling white shirts on the same day?

R: Cougar has the answer for that one.

C: I do?

R: It’s ’cause we’ve surrendered. Uhh, the white outfits were just so you focus on the music we’re playing and not necessarily what we’re wearing. That was the INITIAL idea.

Do you feel like it’s turned into something else?

R: Eh.

Do you always wear white outfits?

R: Yeah.

Oh, okay. I didn’t know that.

R: And so do The Islands. That’s really our kinship.

C: That’s how we know them.

R: We were buying whites in the same store. And I found a shirt that Nick wanted, so...

Okay, I’m gonna fuckin’ end this thing, before it gets any worse.

R: Yeah, you need to get a gun and Ol’ Yeller style this thing.


Interview: The Sea And Cake (Tiny Mix Tapes)

Personal history, thankfully, overwhelms the concept of honest taste.


Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt (The Sea and Cake)
Of Themselves Plus The Sea And Cake
[March 2006]

We obsess over the freshly-named band from Oakland, with barely an EP to call their own, who have produced little yet overflow with promise. These bands allow us to love them not for what they are, but for what they may become. But perhaps more notable is the band or artist who never achieved grand success, is far too old and established for hype, yet consistently leaves room for the fan to imagine what might come next. Proven shape-changers. Although Chicago’s pop-soul-electro-rock-lounge-dance-jazz-sonic-renaissance-men The Sea And Cake will never get adoration similar to what Radiohead, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips receive for their commitment to evolution – a close investigation of their formidable catalogue reveals they just may deserve it. In our self-congratulatory, diverse culture of isolated homogeneity, praised be the artist happy to change, experiment, shift their style or their sound.

I sat down with The Sea And Cake’s singer-guitarist Sam Prekop and lead guitarist Archer Prewitt for a chat before the pair performed a solo gig supporting Sam’s latest release, Who’s Your New Professor (Thrill Jockey). The night before, they’d opened for Stereolab in Manhattan’s posh Town Hall.

How was the Stereolab Show? Was Town Hall a nice place to play?

Sam Prekop: Yeah. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course, I’d heard of the place. I didn’t realize it was going to be a seated theatre kind of thing. Before we got there I just assumed it was going to be a bunch of people milling around, talking – NOT listening to what we were doing. Then we got up there and it was like, dead silence and total focus on every little maneuver.

And every little mistake.

S: Exactly. Magnified.

I wanted to interview you both so I could primarily talk about The Sea And Cake.

S: I like them.

Archer Prewitt: They’re an okay band.

Is there anything you guys would like to say about –

A: We still exist.

No, about your solo careers.

S: No.

A: I just started work on a new one.

When’s that coming out?

A: I don’t know. We just did some touring on the west coast. Solidified some new songs that we’re going to demo.

S: You’re going to do that? Demo?

A: Well, just at Mark’s. We’ll live with it. It’ll be a first.

S: That’s a good idea.

A: Create music, live with it for a little while. And either keep it as is or re-record it with a different take. So that’s fun to think about.

What kinds of differences are there between when you’re working on your solo material versus writing music with The Sea And Cake?

S: For me, when I start, there’s no difference. I mean, the songs will develop and take a different direction just because I know who’s going to play on it. Usually I’m not thinking that far ahead, but when the band comes together – of course they’re totally different bands. The big difference is, the solo band... they’re not around that much to work on the record with. It’s like a week. This last one, I had a bunch of tunes, we put some stuff together in a week and recorded it in a week. And then, they all left. I never saw Archer again. (laughs) I call them up to tour. So then, that’s a big difference. Like, I’m left with –


S: - just a mess. Like, "Did I even ask for this? I don’t know." Whereas with The Sea And Cake everyone has to stay there for a while and singing and shit, it’s just a fuckin’ nightmare.

A: You do a lot of singing at home, though.

S: Yeah but, you know...

A: In the end, we all hunker down on The Sea And Cake projects.

"’We’re doomed.’ He says that a lot when we’re making a record. ’We’re doomed.’" - Archer Prewitt

When The Sea And Cake got started, did you have any inclination you’d be getting ready to record your 7th album someday. Any idea this would last?

A: I did.

S: Not during the first record, probably. Well, mainly Eric (Claridge) and I had gotten this money from Rough Trade. We were in this band Shrimp Boat that broke up, and they were like, "we’ll give you this money to do something else." And I had no idea if I could pull it off. I had no experience of trying to come up with stuff on my own. I think it was like two weeks before we were scheduled to record when I called Archer.

How did you know each other?

S: Well, we went to art school together. But we never really knew each other that well. And Archer’s band (The Coctails) ended up moving to Chicago, were fans of Shrimp Boat and we ended up playing shows together. So it was through that. I think it was some song, what was the sort of jazzier record?

A: Long Sound.

S: Yeah, Long Sound. It was some song on there that I heard. Some guitar thing that I heard. I was like, "Oh yeah, that Prewitt guy. He would be alright." So then it was just Eric, Archer and I playing around with stuff. And we were booked in this studio. And Brad Wood, who was in Shrimp Boat also, played on some of the songs on the first record.

A: Drums.

Did he produce the first record?

S: Yeah. I mean, he recorded it. But his attitude was totally unsatisfactory after a certain point. And John (McEntire) was interning at the studio or something. And we were like, "Hey, okay man we’re fed up with this Brad Wood dude. You want to play some drums?" And at that point he was maybe like 15 or something, really fuckin’ young.

A: 12.

He was nine-years-old.

S: And he started playing with us and he was incredible technically, amongst everything else. And it definitely clicked as soon as he started playing. So, soon after we recorded that first record, we knew this was turning into something. It wasn’t until Nassau that we were a defined band.

It’s interesting that you came out with those first four records so fast. So, what was the vibe of that time? And is there any difference you can perceive between that and the last two albums when you’ve taken more time between getting together to record as a band?

S: Yeah, for those years we acted like a normal, regular band. We played all the time. I’m not sure when the shift happened. I guess it would have been after The Fawn (1997). I’m not sure exactly what changed. I guess probably Tortoise got more popular. John was less available. And that was the first time there was this period where it was clear there was no time for The Sea And Cake to put out a record.

All of the guys in the band make music, but also have some sort of visual art going on as well. When you were young, did you guys decide at any point you wanted to be artists or live this kind of life, go into music? It just seems that all of your lives are full with creating art, be it music or visual.

A: I mean, I always would draw. I never decided to become a musician per se. I messed around with drums. But, I made a decision to go to art school rather than a liberal arts college. I thought, while I do love English and reading and other things, it seems like that’s what I should really do – is make art. Then along the way I was learning drums and messing around, playing in bands. That was just this peripheral thing that slowly presented itself to be something that I felt I got better and better at. I was like, "Wow," I can’t believe this once mysterious realm of my life that I was obsessed with – listening to records - became something I was really involved in and productive in.

S: Um, the music for me was never part of my plans. Kind of a fluke. I grew up thinking I was going to become an artist. My family is very art oriented - teachers and stuff. All these artists around. So that was just part of my make-up. And the music just kind of happened... kind of late.

A: Yeah, I started guitar at 21. In a strange way we both did that.

"At some point I figured out that you have to pay attention carefully, almost slyly, to all the stuff that you don’t realize is happening. You hope you’re listening at the right point to capitalize on the better shit."
- Sam Prekop


A: Yeah I found out later, you started at 21? That’s when I started. And interestingly enough we ended up with similar made up kind of chords that were pleasant to our ears. So when we first got together to jam, I was kind of like, "I don’t know. You probably want someone who can play leads and real proficient guitar." Because the guitarist, Ian Schneller from Shrimp Boat, was a great guitarist. So I was thinking, well, why am I coming to do that with you cause I don’t do that kind of thing. But we started, Eric, Sam and I, locked in to this ensemble kind of thing that we all thought, well this sounds good. It became more of a fabric rather than someone sitting on top. So that was kind of exciting because we all came at it from sort of a self-taught way. But we were very invested in music making - maybe more so at the time.

S: Yeah after art school I stopped making art.

You stopped.

S: Yeah. That was somewhat disconcerting. Started playing ROCK all the time. (laughs) What went wrong here?

But don’t all students go to art school to join bands?

A: No! What happened was I went to art school and just started talking with people who had similar musical interests, then you find yourself in a band.

I feel like you’re musical brothers or something. You both started with separate bands, then The Sea And Cake happened, that became a main focus, you’re doing the solo stuff too, visual art, you (to Archer) played on Sam’s solo record, you tour together. Obviously you get along. You must know each other rather well. Maybe not best friends, but...

A: Yeah, we get along real well –

That’s not my question, but you can talk if you want.

S: Let him finish!

This is all a lead in. This is the snappy segment of the interview. We’re going to play a little game here.

A: Uh-oh.

It’s called, "What’s he like?"

A: Oh no!

S: Damn...

I know, it’s an internet review and you probably didn’t think this shit was coming at you, but I’m always looking to spoil the interview... somehow.

A: (exaggerating his southern drawl) "Wuts ’ee laike?"

Here’s how it’s going to work. I’ll ask one of you guys a question about the other person, and you guys can feel free to refute what the other person says, if you want to.

A: I need another beer.

So Archer, what’s Sam’s most oft-used phrase?

A: (thinking) Oft-used phrase... Well he has a lot of them really.

S: I can’t even think of one.


S: I’m trying to help you out.

A: Umm, can we come back to that one? Oft-used phrase... Yeah I draw blanks on these kinds of things.

Oh man...

A: You’re in a world of pain. Is this going to be broadcast?

Hell no.

A: Thank god.

No worries. Your reputations won’t be ruined by this interview.

A: Uhhh... shit, I don’t know.

How about his most oft-used phrase while recording an album?

A: Oh, there we go. Some context. Ummm... . "We’re doomed." He says that a lot when we’re making a record. "We’re doomed."

Alright Sam, this one’s easier, what’s Archer’s favorite comic book series?

A: He would never know.

S: I don’t know.

A: We don’t talk about comics. He’s not interested (laughs).

Well do you have one?

A: Well, I guess Chris Ware. There’s a lot of people I like, and that’s kind of an obvious one, but...

"I need another beer." - Archer Prewitt

Archer, what’s Sam’s favorite sports team?

A: The Cubs.

S: I don’t have one.

A: He doesn’t really watch – he SAYS he-

S: I glom on to whoever’s winning at the time. The Sox, I was way into them DURING the World Series. Before that, I could care less.

A: I actually found out this year he played a lot of baseball in high school?

S: That’s true. I did.

A: And he was obsessed with it? I had no idea. I thought he was not as interested in sports as I was. And it turns out he was a –

S: No, I played baseball.

A: - a JOCK.

S: Total jock.

Sam, what’s Archer’s favorite thing about Chicago in the summertime?

S: Leaving. To his country house.

Where is the country house?

A: It’s a shack out in Michigan.

S: But it’s not in Chicago.

A: All my friends are starting to think it’s a fictitious place, because I never invite them.

Maybe you should stop describing it as a "shack."

S: I saw it, though. It IS a shack.

A: It’s a shack. But we’re working on it.

Archer, if Sam could be declared king of any land or idea, what would it be?

A: King of any land or idea? ... If he could claim himself?

He would be choosing.

A: I don’t know if he’d be comfortable with a King-ly position.

Archer, Sam would label _____ a genius...

A: Sun Ra.

Sam, Archer has an irrefutable talent for _____. I’d like this to be non-musical.

S: (to Archer) What was that term we saw today? Filling up the page? We were at the Folk Art Museum and there’s this really specific term where you’re compelled to fill up the blank page – I guess marks, in an obsessive manner. Archer’s good at that. And I think he was interested in that kind of thing.

Archer, what was Sam’s favorite band as a teenager?

A: Well, maybe The Clash, for a while.

S: One of ’em.

A: One of many. Maybe Curtis Mayfield.

S: The Police.

Are you being sarcastic?

S: No, I was really into that "Roxanne" tune. Elvis Costello. The Velvet Underground but that’s probably a little bit later. Definitely The Clash. I actually liked Bruce Springsteen a lot.

Last one: Sam, Archer would describe touring as...

S: A shopping spree. (uproarious laughter)

A: What? He’s as guilty of it as I am.

S: We like to take advantage of our worldly travels. We go and see all the art. And we’re really into that - it’s one of the perks. And we like to eat good food. And we like to buy stuff.

A: But we’re picky. It could be a little vintage photograph that’s striking. If you have space and a van at your disposal...

"Well, I keep hoping we make a blues-rock record. And I convince myself that it’s actually happening. And then I hear it and I’m like, ’What the fuck happened?’" - Sam Prekop

Where do put all this stuff?

S: The country house.

The Shack?

A: Oh, The Shack. That has more wall space.

Does The Shack have an Appalachian porch?

A: It’s got a little porch – think there’s some raccoons living under it. It smells kind of like animal droppings. But, it’s cozy. It’s a cozy little place.

Thanks for enduring that segment.

A: The segments over? "Wut’s ’ee laike?"

How do you account for The Biz (1995) being so much more rockin’ than the other albums?

S: Is it? I haven’t heard it in awhile. I want to try to get back to the rock.

I feel like The Fawn had a lot of electronic elements. Oui (2000) had a really strong organic element to all the songs.

A: I think that album was really great.

I love that album, Oui.

A: A lot of people, it seemed, writers had a lot of problems with that record when it came out. There was some good press, but there was also some really strong reaction to it from what I remember.

S: No, it was more the last one.

Well, the last record took another turn that I wouldn’t have expected as a fan. Because the last album returns to the electronic stuff, more strong in some ways than The Fawn.

A: I just remember The Fawn having a lot of generated beats and sampled things that John was comfortable representing him. They were his choices, and it was really interesting.

S: The Biz and The Fawn really reflect John’s studio (Soma) at the time.

Then how do you account for the difference between the two albums?

S: We did The Biz almost all live in a box together on an 8-track tape machine.

A: An 8’ x 10’ room. It was unbelievable.

S: And then John got all this stuff – a computer and stuff. He got all this money to do a soundtrack for a movie. I also remember feeling I’d come to an impasse with guitar. I’d run out of guitar things to do. And I messed around a lot with a 2-bit DJ sampler and a keyboard. I came up with a lot of beginnings of tunes that way rather than guitar. But it’s funny to think back to that. It’s like the dawn of computer albums.

It seems like you’re not sure of what’s going to be happening until everyone’s together. But do you have any idea what direction you want to be moving in now?

A: Ideas start to develop over time. Just through conversations – what the focus might be on in terms of group effort.

S: It’s never like a pre-conceived situation.

A: It seems like we have an idea we try to fulfill, then we all just ignore it anyway.

So what’s the idea –

S: Well, I keep hoping we make a blues-rock record. (laughter) And I convince myself that it’s actually happening. And then I hear it and I’m like, "What the fuck happened?" Over and over, the blues-rock dream is dashed... by... somebody. But, it would be interesting if it was as cut-and-dried as, think of what you want and then do it. In effect, I think that would make terrible records for us. So we don’t really do that. You have to generate that stuff to do something. But at some point I figured out that you have to pay attention carefully, almost slyly, to all the stuff that you don’t realize is happening. You hope you’re listening at the right point to capitalize on the better shit. It’s always this – could it be the wrong jam on that piece of toast this morning that fucked everything up for that tune? But lately I’ve just started messing around a lot in my home studio and playing a lot of guitar.

For the new Sea and Cake record?

S: Yeah. And I’m not sensing a super clear direction yet. I sort of want – and we always say this – a more immediate record.

More immediate?

S: I would like to play all the stuff as a band for a while, and then record it. One of the main differences I think, starting with The Fawn, is that all those tunes were written specifically for a record. Whereas with The Biz and Nassau we played, I mean we knew we were making a record, but we played a lot of those tunes live as a band before they were recorded. So they sort of evolved differently. And Oui and the last one were all written for the record.

I thought Oui and the last record were so different from each other – dramatically.

A: Yeah, I do too.

I thought the last one was almost more of a dance record. A lot of the melodies were classic stuff, but just the sound seemed a lot more hi-fi.

A: I think one thing, which is a great point to get to, is that we strip away a lot more now. I think with the last record we came together as a full band to construct the songs, whereas before it was just Sam, Eric, and I so sometimes it got a little Baroque, in terms of that fabric I was talking about. And when you have the drums slamming away, you can tend to play a lot less because there’s that fourth eventual member – he’s there now. And he’s filling the space that you were trying to fill. So it was great to me to get to that point where you can decide to sit out for a stretch. Things get skeletal and you know the vocals – the thing about Sam is he sings after the music’s made.


A: Pretty much. And he comes up with vocal melodies that really shift the song around. So when you first hear it it’s like, "Wow, the song is really different now. It’s better, but I didn’t expect that." So maybe you didn’t want to be playing something there. And then if it doesn’t mesh, you take the guitar away. So it’s even more skeletal than you even planned. So it’s really – it’s what I like about a lot of music, when things get really elemental.

S: I think we suffer from overly decorating things.

A: I feel like the last two –

S: Ornamented. We just totally contradicted each other.

A: I think they’ve gotten really skeletal and really specific.

S: I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of those records in a really long time. So...

But your impression is that they’ve become more and more ornamental.

S: Well, in a sense. The last record is a lot of post-production. We did take away a lot of stuff, but then adding to what was not much there yet. And Oui was a lot different than that in that that thing was pretty much arranged. We knew what it was going to sound like before we recorded it. And I guess I’m feeling we should do that this time a bit - in terms of being able to really tell that we’re playing as more of a unit, as more of a band.

A: Like the decisions are being made at the time they’re being recorded.

S: More of a real time situation that’s documented. Now, whether or not we can resist adding the tasty... whatever, sample... we’ll see.