Episode 086: Cory Doctorow

30Dec

There are worse places to conduct an interview with Cory Doctorow than the press center above the New York Comic Con show floor. Granted, it’s still fairly low and a bit hectic that high up, but there’s want for conversational inspiration. In fact, if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that 45 minutes is only enough to start scratching the surface.  Boing Boing blogger, science fiction author, digital rights and privacy advocate, Doctorow is one of those rare instances of an interview subject  with whom a few externally imposed conversational restraints might actually come in handy. But as a leading voice in the battle for freedom of information, Doctorow certainly isn’t going to be the one to enforce them. As it happened, the writer was on-hand to promote In Real Life for First-Second, a YA graphic novel produced with Los Angeles cartoonist Jen Wang that tackles the subject of human rights through the lens of online goldfarming. By sheer coincidence, I also happened to receive an email from McSweeney’s, asking if I’d like to speak to the author for his upcoming treatise, Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet age. The best option seemed to be to simply sit down and see where the conversation took us. The result is a free ranging discussion that manages to covered a whole lot ground, while leaving me wishing for just a few more hours.

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Episode 085: Francoise Mouly

22Dec

The Greenwich Village loft space occupied by Toon Books is one part office space, part living comics museum. There’s a row of iMacs where most of the business is done, from filling orders to taking product shots, while just above on a second level balcony, a spool of bubble wrap roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle leans against a wall of bookshelves fit for a small library. There are decades of fascinating ephemera lining the walls, original comics pages, an in-store cardboard cutout for Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library and, most compelling of all, the Gary Panter classic comics head mashup painting that graced the first issue of the RAW’s second volume (1989’s “Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Commix”). It’s hardly a surprise, of course, that so many amazing pieces call the space their home. Francoise Mouly has been here for decades herself, since the days when she and husband Art Spiegelman first altered the course of the New York City avant garde comics community with a nascent anthology aimed at offering a publishing home to unknowns like Charles Burns, Joost Swarte, Ben Katchor and, naturally, Spiegelman, who used those pulpy pages to serialize a groundbreaking first-hand account of the holocaust starring a cast of cat and mice. That the Toon Books office occupies the same space is certainly no coincidence. Like RAW before it, the kids comics publishing company was launched to fill a perceived hole in the comics community in the wake of a media that had arguably overcorrected. Thanks to trailblazing works like Maus, the headline-ready phrase “comics aren’t just for kids” had quickly turned from rallying cry to cliche as adult-focused books rapidly became the norm in the intervening decades since RAW closed its doors. In the 00s, Mouly — by then the art director of The New Yorker — pitched a line of education kids bolstered by Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy masterpiece to Scholastic. By 2008, the idea gave way to Toon Books, an independent entity focused on books by cartoonists like Spiegelman, Smith and Eleanor Davis aimed at teaching kids to read and bolstered by detailed lesson plans aimed at reintroducing comics into a classroom setting.  A half-dozen years later, Toons’ scope continues to grow, including the recent publication of a Hanzel and Gretel adaptation penned by Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman. I sat down with Mouly in the middle of Toon Books' cramped quarters to discuss the company's role in the ever-evolving perception of comics as a educational tool.

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Episode 084: Tom Scharpling

16Dec

It must be around 11PM by the time Tom Scharpling arrives at my apartment, and he’s predictably exhausted. We’d scheduled something for earlier in the evening, but he found himself sitting though four hours of traffic making his way into Queens, making the executive to skip directly to the live podcast he’s appearing on a ten minute ride away.  He’s tired, but ready. This is his moment of triumphant, one of the final few podcast appearances on a victory lap before ending The Best Show’s year-long self-imposed hiatus, resurrecting the beloved public radio program as an internet-only concern. It’s a world the comedian has (somewhat) lovingly ribbed, but later this month, after a dozen-plus years as a terrestrial radio show, WFMU’s former tent pole program joins the ranks of standalone podcasts. Scharpling and indie rock drummer turned comedy partner Jon Wurster have spent the past year piecing together the infrastructure for a proper relaunch, taking a much needed break to pursue other avenues of expression and reflecting on the program’s strange and steady transformation from music-based radio program to one of the purest and most unique pieces of on-going comedy in the last 20 years. The intervening months have also seen a number of Best Show-related projects that have afforded further reflection, including the suitably off-kilter Adult Swim one-off The Newbridge Tourism Board Presents: “We’re Newbridge, We’re Comin’ To Get Ya!” and the forthcoming Scharpling and Wurster Numero Group boxset, which collects 79 of the duo’s best bits over a massive 16 CDs. Even after all that, I still managed to squeeze around an hour or so out of Scharpling to talk social media, success and Donald Sterling.

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Episode 083: Craig Finn and Tad Kubler ( of The Hold Steady)

10Dec

The Hold Steady are just one of those bands — it takes all my will-power not spend the entire interview drilling down on the specifics of all of those story songs that populate the group’s backcatalog. After a decade of listening to everything they’ve ever got out, I’ve got my share of questions about Charlemagne and Gideon and the Cityscape Skins. In a funny way, sitting down with Craig Finn and Tad Kubler is like interviewing the creators of your favorite soap opera — albeit one that has unfolded obscurely, one album at a time over the course of ten years. It’s a soap opera no doubt inexorably tied to the lives of the musicians who create it, mirroring semi-misspent youths growing up in and around the upper midwest. I do have get a little nerd time in, after the recording, asking about the Party Pit, the one location none of the locals seemed to have heard of on my last trip to Minneapolis. A clearing in a suburban forresty area, according to Finn — developments that had never been fully developed, where the local kids went to drink just out of sight from their parents’ prying eyes.  It’s hard to imagine another band getting so much creative mileage from a glorified hole in the ground that had likely been paved over decades before in the name of commercial developments. But, then, that’s precisely why there’s never been another band quite like the Hold Steady.

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Episode 082: Matt Sharp (Mini)

3Dec

I’ve had questions for Matt Sharp since 1994. Hell, I had the guy’s visage on my wall back in the mid-90s, in the form of a blown of poster of the Blue Album, the first pop record of the era that really tapped into sensibilities of an indoor kid growing up amidst piles of X-Men comics. And if Weezer was the quintessential geek rock group of the mid-90s, then Sharp was its quintessential geek, an image he fully embraced for Return of the Rentals, the Moog-drenched debut of the newly band that would establish the bass player as a songwriting force in his own right. I’m not sure what I would have asked Sharp 20 years ago, but these days my questions revolve largely around notions of success: namely, how the musician’s multi-decade career has been impact by his early successes. After all Weezer’s first album put the band on the map almost immediately, and Sharp managed to strike gold yet again with The Rentals’ scoring their biggest hit to date with the their very first single, “Friends of P.” But while the band would never manage to recapture that success, subsequent albums have found the group’s rotating cast of players evolve into something far more exciting: a beloved and ever-evolving indie rock band, reinventing itself with every subsequent release. And Sharp has evolved right alongside them, severing his ties from the music world and moving to the rural south following the release of The Rentals’ terrific but moderately selling sophomore record Seven More Minutes.  Over the years, he’s release heart wrenching solo work, played synths for indie darlings Tegan and Sara and even managed to reconcile things with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo in the face of mounting legal concerns over songwriting royalties. But all the while, the Rentals have represented a sort of homebase, a safe place to which Sharp could return even after years of absence to produce something beautiful, most recently with this year’s understate Lost in Alphaville. We sat down ahead of the band’s triumphant return to New York City to discuss the musician’s idiosyncratic career.

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Episode 081: Mike Watt

26Nov

There’s a whole of confusion when I arrive at the Mercury Lounge. By the time I emerge from the front of the club, on being informed that I was supposed to meet Mike Watt at “the boat,” the I spot the musician limping his was toward me on Houston Street. He’s longer the skeletal figure the late D. Boon described as a dimensionless “serious of points” of course, but the bassist is still a force of nature, now barreling through the crosswalk.  I introduce myself and add that I’m more than happy to go back to the van, but Watt waves me off. “It’s fine,” he answers. “We’ll find something inside the venue.” And for once, I’m disappointed at the prospect of not following a stranger back to a van, the giant white Econoline at the center of year’s worth of road stories, behind whose wheel Watt conducted the lion’s share of interviews for the delightful 2005 documentary, We Jam Econo. We settle in a small alcove, where the instruments are stashed between sets. Watt takes a moment to settle in, compensating for a bum knee exacerbating by chronic touring and then asks in earnest why I’m interested in speaking with him. There’s no false modesty there.  He is, after all, just one-third of Il Sogno Del Marinaio a trio formed with two Italian musicians from a younger generation marking yet another sharp turn in the Watt’s long and winding career path. “Because you’re Mike Watt” seems a strong enough answer, but instead I sit and listen as he maps out the band’s approach in typically democratic language, playing alongside two tremendous young musicians in a situation that requires continual musical growth, nearly three and half decades after the release of the first Minutemen LP. He may be limping slightly, but Watt shows no outward signs of slowing down, music or verbally — and hell, I’ll be the first to admit that for the first few minutes of our conversation, I have some trouble keeping up. As with his music, Mike Watt speaks in a language uniquely his own — a sort of Southern Californian free jazz approach to verbal communication that requires dialing into his very specific frequency. And as with everything else the music does, once you’re tuned in, it’s best to just hang on and enjoy the ride.

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Episode 080: Tim DeLaughter

19Nov

In 2013, The Polyphonic Spree released, quite possibly the best album, a decade into their existence — quite the feat for a band many had written off as little more than novelty the first time its 20-odd members took to the stage in matching robes. But, then, Tim Delaughter has built a career out of defying exception. The Spree itself was one of those crazy sorts of what ifs that artists sit around and discuss but rarely ever deliver on: as much a happening as a band, with two dozen members in choir outfits, born out of the dissolution of Tripping Daisy a damaged 90s psychedelic alternative act that recorded a handful of wonderful records that will forever be relagated to the Buzz Bin of history for its sunshine single “I Got a Girl.” Delaughter’s determination is the glue that’s held his deeply satisfying pop experiment together since 2000 in the face of financial strain and all of the other numerous logistical considerations that come with such a massive operation at a time when similarly positioned groups with roughly one-eight the band members struggle to make ends meet.  The singer looks slightly worse for wear when we sit down upstairs at Brooklyn Bowl in a meeting spot oddly positioned just outside the ladies room before the doors have officially opened. But once the music starts — after a very brief but extremely wedding ceremony between audience members — the band puts on a show with every ounce of energy that defined the Spree in its nascent days. Over the years, unsurprisingly, members of the massive group have come and gone, but Delaughter has maintained his position as the excited and chaotic nucleus. The band has already outlived Delaughter’s previous group, and if Yes It’s True is any indication, The Polyphonic Spree still has plenty of life ahead of it.

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Episode 079: Glenn Tilbrook

11Nov

I first met Glenn Tilbrook two years back in a hotel bar roughly 40 minutes or so outside of downtown Austin, Texas. I was nursing a whiskey after a long day’s work and overheard the older gentleman describing a corporate music gig in a soft spoken English accent. It took me longer than I care to admit that the guy sitting next to me was the frontman of one of the greatest pop group of the last 30 years. I’m also slightly embarrassed to admit that I slipped into interviewer mode a few times during that conversation — and subsequent conversations the following two nights, asking Tilbrook about my favorite Squeeze song, “Up the Junction.” A typically upbeat song musically, the number seems to take an abrupt tonal shift in lyrics roughly halfway through when, seemingly without warning, things shift from white picket fences to alcoholism and broken relationships. “I’d never thought of it like that,” Tilbrook answered. “I’d always just thought it was realistic. Fair enough. And really a pretty solid encapsulation of the musician’s approach to the world — a realist with the undeniable propensity toward perfect pop hooks. Fitting then, that things got a bit real in the tour bus parked just outside of the City Winery ahead of a Tilbrook solo show, as we spoke of matters of songwriting and life.

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Episode 078: Greg Cartwright

5Nov

There are few people around I’d rather sit down and discuss music with for 45 minutes than Greg Cartwright. Beyond the laundry list of excellent bands he’s fronted, from The Oblivians to The Reigning Sound (and the dozens in-between), the Tennessee musician makes no bones about being a huge music fan himself.  That fact has manifested itself in countless side projects like The Parting Gifts with Ettes singer CoCo and records like Dangerous Game, which saw the return of Shangri-Las singer Mary Weiss after a number of decades away from the music scene. Cartwright’s deep love of music affords him an impressive level of insight when it comes to discussing his own output over the years — and almost invariably leads us down all manner of musical rabbit holes in the interim. I sat down with Cartwright backstage at The Bowery Ballroom to discuss his near decision to retiring The Reigning Sound name and the band’s subsequent return to recording with the newly released Shattered, which finds him playing with a number of recent recruits and a new-found lease on life for one of rock and roll’s most exciting groups.


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Episode 077: Jillian Tamaki

29Oct

In amongst the throngs of costumed chaos that the Jacob K Javits Center on the Saturday of New York Comic Con weekend, we find a reasonably quiet corner to sit down and discuss life and art with Jillian Tamaki — “reasonably,” of course, being a nice way of designated that rare spot where one can talk without shouting. Maybe there’s some metaphor to be explored there about finding oneself in amongst the pop culture sound and fury that is the contemporary comics scene. And Tamaki has certainly carved out a place for herself, rising to prominence in the indie comics and YA scenes with Skim, a collaboration with her cousin, writer Mariko, that landed the duo on all manner of year-end best of lists.  The two Tamakis joined forces again for 2014’s This One Summer, a teenage coming of age story that has once again landed the cousins in critics’ good graces. We had about 40 minutes before Tamaki had to rush off to a signing with First-Second, but we managed to cover a lot of ground, from collaborating to teaching, to surviving the Comic Con chaos. The questions about Adventure Time, sadly, will have to wait until next time.

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