Episode 072: John Darnielle

24Sep

“Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods.” That’s the first line of The Magical Bugle, a short story written by a young John Darnielle after acquiring an old Royal typewriter for his seventh birthday. It was a line so good his father taught it to his Freshman composition students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Darnielle has, it turns out, been a writer his whole life, and if that first sentence is any indication, he’s been always been a pretty good one.  Since the mid-90s, he's been best recognized as the frontman and sometime sole member of The Mountain Goats, a southern California indie rock outfit defined by the musician’s intensely emotive vocals and narrative song structures that play out like two to three minute short stories. His early career was also marked by lo-fi recording techniques, with songs often taped directly to a cassette boombox. In 2002, Darnielle released Tallahassee, a concept album relating the story of a embittered Florida couple perpetually near divorce. The singer’s second LP that year, the record also marked the first Mountain Goats record to be performed by a full band.  An arguable disappointment to some of his hardcore fanbase, the record was a perfect manifestation of Darnielle’s desire to pursue new challenges, having taken home recording to its logical conclusion with the equally brilliant All Hail West Texas. Wolf in White Van marks is a similar pursuit in some sense, the novel serving as a manifestation of his desire to perpetually challenge himself,  though Darnielle’s decision to pen a novel likely didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his songwriting abilities — or any mid-70s Cal Poly composition students. Darnielle and I sat down in the Manhattan offices of his publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a veritable shrine to the written word, to discuss the novel, his life long science fiction and the importance of being able to throw things away.

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Episode 071: Mike Doughty

17Sep

In retrospect, there’s probably not a heck of a lot that we talk about here that Mike Doughty didn’t touch upon in Book of Drugs. His 2012 memoir is candid and rock — everything a rock and roll autobiography should be. As evidenced by the name, the book tells the musician’s tale through a series of inebriated anecdotes, including the rise and fall of his beloved 90s electro-alternative group, Soul Coughing. That’s not to say that there’s wasn’t plenty of good stuff left to talk about when we sat down for lunch at a Brooklyn Diner. Doughty has been keeping busy with his solo career in the years since, including a recent crowdfunded effort that found the singer songwriter reimagining a number of hits from those heady Buzz Bin days. Doughty also plays around the city as much as possible these days, a willingness to perform that has made him a regular on comedy bills all over a city — a challenging but welcoming environment he insists he prefers. In fact, it was a recent appearance performing at a friend’s Greenpoint stoop sale that brought the singer-songwriter to my attention once again. We talk about the beginning of his career during the twilight of the record industry, surviving in New York City and how stumbling into a show with then unknown Elliott Smith and Stephin Merritt changed his life and music forever.

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Episode 070: Whitney Matheson

10Sep

“It’s funny how life can change on a dime.” That’s how Whitney Matheson put it, asking whether I was still planning on running this interview. That’s the downside, I suppose, of stockpiling these interviews, though in my defense, these conversations tend to have a shelf life of a bit longer than month. When the news came out last week that USA Today would be pulling the plug on Matheson’s beloved pop culture column Pop Candy after 15 years, the thought of killing the piece never actually occurred to me. We touched upon some really interesting topics during our conversation in a midtown Manhattan tea shop. And in some ways, it’s perhaps even more important in light of Pop Candy’s end. What really struck during the interview was a conversation about a piece Matheson wrote about Seinfeld, which the titular comedian referenced during an interview with the writer. The essay was part of a larger Pop Candy project exploring the ways in which popular culture effects us on a personal level, with Matheson revealing how the iconic sitcom helped her survive a bout of depression. Matheson touches on similar themes in the Pop Candy farewell letter she published on her site today: Every major event in my entire adult life took place while I wrote it, too: marriage, three moves, the losses of loved ones, my daughter’s birth. With each of them, I received a stream of unwavering support from thousands of people I’d never even met.It’s a good conversation about the power of popular culture to connect, inspire and persevere.

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Episode 069: Wreckless Eric

3Sep

1993’s The Donovan of Trash, just might be Eric Goulden as his most unhinged — which is, naturally, saying a lot for a guy who’s borne the “Wreckless” qualifier since the late 70s. It’s rough and fuzzy — a cardboard box was involved percussion at one point in the process. It’s a sort of lost low-fi, shambolic masterpiece, finally back in print for the digital age, alongside its contemporary, the also terrific Le Beat Group Electrique. The reissues, thankfully, shine additional light on period of Goulden’s career that seems forever destined to take a backseat to the early Stiff Records output that gave the world his best known hits, “The Whole Wide World” and Semaphore Signals. The singer took it upon himself to shed even more with a short US solo tour that capped off with an intimate but sufficiently energetic set at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, power through a set on less than pristine instruments older than many of this in attendance. I sat down with Goulden in the short space between soundcheck and showtime to discuss his long and fascinating career on the fringes over a bowl of overpriced New York City chili.

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Episode 068: Sean Nelson

27Aug

Harvey Danger was one of the last of the Buzz Bin bands, in those waning when major labels were still forces to be reckoned with and MTV rotation was all it took to cement a song’s status as a generation-defining hit. Fresh out of college, the band scored its one major hit with “Flagpole Sitta,” the second track on the band’s debut record, which, all told cost around $3,000 to record.  Through some combination of unpopular choices, one major flub on the part of some crew member for 120 minutes and poor choices from above, the band would never manage to recapture such success, in spite of, quite arguably, releasing two far stronger records before disbanding for good in 2009.  In the days since, Nelson’s seemingly tried his hands at everything, playing keyboards for indie darlings The Long Winters, taking on backup vocal duties for the likes of Nada Surf and Death Cab for Cutie, taking roles in a number of films and writing for Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger.  Last summer, Nelson even returned to songwriting, releasing his first solo record, Make Good Choices for the tiny Seattle label Really Records. Nelson and I met up while he was in New York to help a friend work on a musical, also using the opportunity to play an intimate show downstairs at Brooklyn’s Union Hall, along with his new wife Shenandoah Davis, who accompanied him on piano as he worked through solo songs and the occasional Harvey Danger number. We spoke about gauging one’s own accomplishments in the wake of massive success, occupational diversification and how to take a backseat to someone else’s creative force.

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Episode 067: Dave Wakeling

20Aug

There’s always been some degree of confusion over what, precisely, constitutes The Beat. Here in the States, the group has long added the word “English” to its name, so as to avoid confusion with the contemporary Paul Collins’ power pop project. In recent decades, things have only gotten trickier as the band’s two frontmen have pieced together their own versions of the group. If you go see The Beat in its native UK, it will likely be the project led by toaster Ranking Roger and his similarly named progeny. Here in the US, lead singer Dave Wakeling retains the name, heading up a revue of the band’s greatest hits, with a few choice cuts from his followup band General Public mixed in for good measure. It’s a strange thing, of course, to hit the road playing decades old songs without the aid of any original members, but Wakeling, to his credit, puts on a tremendous show each night for packed houses, middle aged women inviting themselves on-stage as the opening notes of “Tenderness” ring out during the encore.  Of course, that he’s still able to tour on songs like “Save it For Later” and “Mirror in the Bathroom” is a testament to some quality in their DNA that has made the music outlive subsequent generations of ska bands, who have come and gone like so many porkpie hats. Wakeling and I sat down in the back of the band’s tour bus to discuss longevity, life, Margaret Thatcher and what keeps bringing him back to the songs that made him famous.

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Episode 066 (Mini): Peter Diamandis

15Aug

A short one this week because, well, Peter Diamandis is a busy guy. Recorded at a financial tech conference in Manhattan, we managed to get 15 minutes alone with the X Prize and Singularity University to discuss what he refers to as “the most extraordinaire time in human history” and the role he’s played in pushing rapidly advancing scientific and technological breakthroughs even further.

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Episode 065: Julie Klausner

6Aug

It’s a hot one out there today. Come, have a seat on the couch in Julie Klausner’s fancy Manhattan apartment, while we discuss podcasting and writing for television series — and I spend way too much time explaining how I’ve just never been into musical theater. Oh, don’t mind the cat hair. You took your Claritin today, right? I’d attempted to sit down with the comedian for some time — at least two podcasts ago. Not podcast episodes, mind you, entire podcast series. Every time I’d asked, she was either living on the opposite coast in a TV show writer’s room or otherwise knee-deep in some other project. On the upside, however, there’s plenty to talk about. When we sat down, Klausner had just finished filming a TV pilot with Billy Eichner, the Amy Poehler-produced Difficult People about two struggling New York comedians. It’s not autobiography, of course — Klausner seems to be doing just fine. And besides, when she’s searching for a more direct method of venting, she’s always got her weekly podcast How Was Your Week to turn to.  Other topics discussed herein include: David Rakoff, my unexpected turn as a Mike Love apologist, the downside of bearing your soul and whether or not Ben Folds is this generation’s Billy Joel.

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Episode 064: Dan Kennedy

30Jul

Over its 17 year existence, The Moth has shaped the age-old art of storytelling into something uniquely its own, a style as instantly recognizable as any music style or movie genre. And like a great song or movie, there’s something in a perfectly executed Moth story that leaves the listener feeling as though they could never imitate such a perfect feat. Of course, if the organization’s show runners are to be believed, just about anyone with a story and the willingness to be coached by a few professionals can do precisely that. And that, really, is one of The Moth’s greatest attributes: the ability to balance populism with transcendence. In some sense, the podcast’s host Dan Kennedy embodies exactly that, at least the way he tells the story: jobless, furnitureless, recently dumped and newly sober, stumbling into a storytelling night so many years ago.  Until I heard perform the story of a magazine-assigned trip to Indonesia to search for an elusive nine-foot reticulated python on the Moth’s weekly podcast a couple of months back, I knew little about the guy beyond what he sounds like attempt to convince a large internet audience to redeem an Audible coupon code. Turns out, just as one would hope from the host of The Moth's weekly podcast, Kennedy is a man brimming with stories — and over the years, he’s gotten pretty good at telling them. In fact, he’s got a few books to his name. There’s Rock On, which revisits the 18 months he spent working marketing for Atlantic Records and Loser Goes First, a memoir of Kennedy’s uncanny knack for stumbling into interesting situations — not unlike the one that brought him to the Moth in the first place. But first a conversation about Roger Daltrey's mic technique.

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Episode 063: Peter Kuper

22Jul

Every time I speak to Peter Kuper, the conversation invariably turns to New York — or, as is often the case, begins there. It’s my own fault. I’ve got this insatiable need to ask fellow residents, artists in particular, what keeps them in the city’s orbit. Kuper is a particularly interesting case study, having left the city — and country — in 2006, for a life in Mexico.

It was, as one might, expect, a multifaceted decision to move his entire family down to Oaxaca, in part an attempt to expose his daughter to another language and culture — and certainly leaving the country at the height of George W. Bush’s second term was seen as a net positive for the oft political cartoonist. A few years later, the Kupers found themselves back in New York, but the experience generated, amongst other things, the lovely Diario De Oaxaca, a sketchbook diary chronicling Kuper’s time in Mexico, immersed himself in the area’s stunning counter-cultural murals. More recently, Kuper returned to the book’s publisher, PM Press, in hopes of helping to anthologize World War 3 Illustrated, the progressive comics anthology he co-founded with fellow New York cartoonist, Seth Tobocman. The process was a touch more complicated, and when we sat down to speak at the MoCCA Arts Festival back in April, the duo had recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. Even outside the long-running anthology, Kuper’s career has long been both fascinating and diverse, from multiple Kafka adaptations and his 2007 semi-autobiographical Stop Forgetting To Remember to an on-going stint as Mad Magazine’s Spy Versus Spy artist. So, you know, plenty to talk about.

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