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11 January 2013

Pop culture Buddhist George Saunders on realism in fiction, working in America

Several years ago, I conducted a memorable interview with the writer George Saunders. My editors titled it “Mean Snacks and Monkey Shit,” which wasn’t a half-bad way to draw in eyes. Saunders continues to be one of my favorites. I think of him as an American Beckett. Or, as I said in the interview’s introduction “cerebral like Samuel Beckett, simple like Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts'” — and I think that nails it, or at least nails something otherwise difficult to articulate about his fiction (that it’s heady without ever falling into the alienating traps of abstraction), while not-quite connecting with some of the other amazing elements of his work & person, a kind of Buddhist approach to the manias of contemporary life that is only revealed when you find out that, well, yes, he’s a Buddhist who’s figured out a way to find peace with pop culture.

Anyway, I still like him — and so, apparently, does the New York Times, whose magazine printed one of those “anointing this year’s cultural meme” kind of profiles in last week’s edition, titled, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” (well, at least that’s what it was called on the web).

Premature prognostication?

Link bait for guilty upper middle-class intellectuals?

Better that he be recipient of such praise than a ?

All those things. Here were two excerpts from the interview parts that struck me. The moment he faced down the possibility of being cubicle worker bee for the rest of his life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And this one, about the pointlessness of realism:

The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

I still suspect CivilWarLand in Bad Decline may be my favorite in his bibliography, in that way that first kisses leave the sweetest memories. But it’s all good.

Anyway, read the magazine piece, k.

Also, Saunders did an interview on Letterman once, like five years ago. He tells one story about sneaking into a Chicago Bears game, another about working on the line at a slaughter house. It’s not fantastic television, but his humanity is palpable.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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21 September 2012

Billy Corgan on the Community Function

May I grab a moment of your increasingly internet-fractured attention span and focus you on this interview between T. Cole Rachel and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on, ahem, the “state of the Alternative Community” — communities being something I care about a great deal.

Here it is thanks to Stereogum. (Thanks Stereogum!)

Here is an excerpt I particularly like, and bold-face on the parts I really really like:

“Once I entered the world of honesty, circa 1992, there was sort of no going back. It’s a nice fantasy to think if someone got me some media training, I would have avoided a lot of these controversies that are really meaningless and continue to be meaningless. Secondarily, I think there’s something to be said for being principled. Like I think of Lou Reed as being principled. I think of Neil Young as being principled. There are those actors in the world for whom the principles they live their life by, in the long run, mean something. And I think that the principles that I live my life by do mean something and will look better in hindsight. Because when I was at South By Southwest … first of all, in alternative rock music, generally speaking, there have been very few bands in the past 10 years that have made OK Computer-level records. I guess you could say Arcade Fire made one, but there’s been a real scarcity in great, A-level work that crosses over into the mainstream. That’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. And if anything, you could say that technology should afford the ability to make ideal records even more easily than we used to be able to make when we had to do it all on tape. Secondarily, the main alternative voice for at least seven years now, and you could argue possibly longer, has been Pitchfork. And they have not produced the level of movement commensurate to their power. So what does that say to me? That system doesn’t work. Now it might work for the kids down in Wicker Park or Echo Park. It might work for the guy with the handlebar mustache. But it doesn’t work overall in the way that the Stooges work, the way that the Velvet Underground worked, or the Cure worked, or Depeche Mode, or pick your fucking any band that made it across the divide from being underground to being iconic. Read more »

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3 September 2012

New York Music Trade Mission to Hong Kong, China and Korea

Hello! Brassland is one of the beneficiaries of a federal grant to bolster independent music overseas. Long story short, they’re sending me to Asia this September. (I leave tomorrow!) Here are articles about it in Billboard and the New York Times.

If you’re in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul or Beijing, or know some interesting people who are, please get in touch. Here are my dates:

Sept 6 > 8: Seoul, South Korea
Sept 9 > 11: Shanghai, China
Sept 11 > 13: Hong Kong
Sept 13 > 15: Beijing, China

This music industry trade mission was organized by A2IM with the support of the New York State and the Federal Small Business Association. Some more details here, and I’ll try to add more info here as I have it.

PS – This is an (almost) exact duplicate of this event post. I couldn’t figure out how to make that version appear on the front page of this website & added this to make sure casual site visitors would take note.

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6 August 2012

Deep thoughts on Jason Noble

Jason Noble died of cancer this past weekend at the age of 40. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the influence his art had on my path in music and my path in life. Below I’ll reproduce a long interview with him and his frequent musical collaborator, Jeff Mueller — which I conducted in 1995, but published in 1998 in the Jaboni Youth zine I did throughout college.

Rodan: “The Everyday World of Bodies” (1994)

First some perspective on his importance to my present day self over fifteen (!?!) years after I met him. Way more than other musical influences — the influence of Jason Noble was one that I lived rather than one which I acquired through clicking links on the internet or picking up albums in record shops. I was in my early twenties when he was in his slightly less early twenties. I got to see his projects evolve in the flesh at a most receptive age. Discovering the music he made in groups like Rodan and Rachel’s wasn’t just research into the history of music — it felt like a kind of mentorship at a (very slight) distance. I had the privilege of watching him living a life in art, hearing how his musical interests evolved over time, and learning that as your interests shift you could still maintain an unquestionably strong dedication to making art in a way that was humble, fearless and true. In this age of Spotify, there’s dozens of places you can start exploring his music — and I’d recommend starting with the album that made me fall in love with his work, Rodan’s Rusty (1994, Quarterstick/Touch & Go) — but this download of Rodan’s early demo tape Aviary, is another excellent way to begin.

It would require a long stretch of contemplation to fully unpack what I admired so much about Jason, what drew me so strongly to his music in those years. But rather than pretend I can come up with a comprehensive list on the spot, let me just dive into some uncollected thoughts. I remember how he seemed to be at the center of a Lousiville, Kentucky music scene that was disconnected from everything else going on in the world. I admired how he and his peers in projects like Slint, Gastr Del Sol, Palace Brothers and The For Carnation created their own universe. I particularly admired the frission of unlike sensibilities in his own musical projects — classical but punk, composed yet unleashed and, always, both beautiful and idiosyncratic. I was drawn to his sense of personal style and sensibility — how the almost forgotten art film he starred in, Half-Cocked, seemed to translate the wandering American possibilities of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Robert Frank’s The Americans into the modern age. I was emboldened by the fearless way that Jason absorbed and reformed the art he loved — from Neil Young’s epic 70s rock to hardcore punk to minimalist classical music to Egon Schiele. There was no anxiety in the way he integrated his influences. He just listened and loved and regurgitated those influences in new forms. “When it comes right down to it I guess we could be confused as having too many interests,” he told me back in 1995, “but I’ve always thought if you didn’t exercise ’em you were just kind of scared of them or something.” I liked how Jason was proud to be a “lifer.” He wasn’t making art to get rich or be cool or get girls; he was making art because he had to. And I liked the way his most profound insights about that life quest were stated with humility.

In any event, when I was coming up in the music world with my own little clique, what Jason did had opened up a lot of room for us, rooms we’re still exploring, space we’re still coloring in. And his help was also literal. I can’t recall all the dates or the bills, but a few of our artists’ earliest shows were opening slots for groups from his Louisville clique. I know it’s hard to imagine a co-bill of The National and David Grubbs today, but it happened. And though no one knew it at the time, the final show by Rachel’s was a co-bill with Clogs at New York’s Merkin Hall. Most excitingly, Rachel’s didn’t exactly “break up” in the traditional sense — it’s just that all the members, who continued to collaborate in various iterations afterwards, got busy with other creative possibilities.

Frequently, it’s obituaries which seem to pull me back to blogging. Odd that, but not dissimilar to the way death will make music fans around the world re-examine an artist’s discography. If this blog post gets you to check out Jason Noble’s recorded history for a few hours or even days or weeks, my job is done. Let this be the beginning of your own exploration of Jason’s work, and of your own creativity, rather than an end.

Without further adieu here is the interview. And just so I don’t give the misimpression that Jason was some po’ faced artiste — it’s hard not to take yourself too seriously when writing about someone’s death — I’m also going to reproduce the photo that accompanied the Q&A, a shot of Jason being fearlessly groped by Jeff. It was a pisstake, but it gets across one of the important things about Jason. That, for him, art was a way of grabbing life by the balls.

In 1992, Jeff Mueller, Jason Noble, Tara Jane O’Neil, and Kevin Coultas, all members of Louisville, Kentucky’s vibrant punk rock scene, joined forces to form the band Rodan. These four youngsters, all in their early twenties, were not particularly skilled at playing their chosen instruments. Rodan, however, did not take the easy path. Read more »

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17 July 2012

Summer mornings

Things you notice when…

…insomnia strikes.

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