October 14, 2015

Interview: Xavier Rudd -A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought

Australian musician Xavier Rudd has been singing and performing for more than a decade now. Best known as a kind of one man band, appearing on stage surrounded by an array of yidakis (digeridoos), a guitar across his lap and his feet pounding out the rhythm with a stomp box, his latest album, Nanna, released in May of 2015, saw him working will a full band, The United Nations, for the first time.

While there have always been hints of reggae in his music, Nanna, saw him embrace the genre whole heartedly to great effect. While he's never been shy about throwing his heart and soul into his music before, it seems reggae has given him the means to take everything to a higher level. Anyone who has been listening to his music for any length of time will quickly realize how this album was a natural progression in his musical evolution.
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Currently Rudd is on his second tour of the United States and Canada with United Nations and I was able to catch up with him on the phone on October 12 2015. Considering how some of his material deals with the mistreatment of indigenous people, especially the Aboriginals of his native Australia, the irony of talking to him on what's called Columbus Day in the US (Thanksgiving in Canada) wasn't lost on me.

This is the third time I've talked to Rudd over the course of his career, and each time I've come away impressed by how open and sincere he is. There are plenty of musicians and actors who after they've made it big throw their names behind causes, but those whose output is a organic extension of their beliefs are few and far between. With Rudd you quickly realize the music and the beliefs are one. There's no disconnection between who he is and what he sings about. Even better is how well this translates into music that moves both your heart and feet.

The time constraints of the journalistic interview don't allow for much more than scratching the surface, but hopefully this little introduction to Rudd will encourage you to both check out his recordings and go see him in during his current tour.

How has the transition been from basically a one man show to a band? What have the differences been?

I guess musically the biggest difference was I got use to taking up real estate by myself on stage and in the music; making sound as fat as I could. I had to learn to keep my parts thin but creative - to give enough room for everyone else. The playing in the band, and all the members, such a powerful and interesting experience, something I've always wanted - and this was something, special. The connection to the others while playing was great. It may not last for a long time, probably just this album, but I've felt really honoured to play with these people.

What is it about reggae that appeals to you so much?

I've been always liked it, the bass, the vibrations, and the expressions of unity and all love. I love where it puts people and how brings people together. It's also a good platform for expressing various thoughts and ideas. I've brought people from different cultures together, from all over the world, for this band - our ancestors decided to have a cup of tea together - that music was the right platform for this meeting.

When you're bringing that kind of story, the story of struggle and rising up and displacement in modern culture - bringing that discussion to a musical forum - reggae is a good base for that - a good easy base. It's like being able to talk to grandma because she's soft and easy, while you can't talk so much to grandpa because he's hard and stern.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your songs from?

Life in general, spirit. I never sit down and try to write a song, they just come through me. They'll come through thick and fast and almost write themselves sometimes. I don't write them down, the ones that stay with me are the ones that stay with me and become songs. The same thing with the lyrics. They are usually attached to part of something on my personal journey - or spirit.

Why are the themes of respect for indigenous peoples expressed in your songs so important to you?

Honestly, I think it's because my great grandmother disappeared. No one knows what happened to her- she vanished - we don't know what that story was. It's a big black hole in my father's family. I genuinely feel there's been an old woman with me since I was a little boy. Her spirit rests somewhere inside me.

I went to Canberra (capital city of Australia) to a register of Aboriginal people and I put her name into a computer. The only listing I could find was for a woman who was murdered in 1951, the killer was never found. I don't know if that was her or not. A lot of aboriginal people just disappeared like that.

I think a lot of my music comes from that space. My understanding of Australian society and the oppression of a people.

At this point I mentioned to him how the day before our interview I had come across an article about one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movements in the US from the 1960s, John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute upon accepting their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The picture shows a third man as well, a white man, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.

It turns out he supported and encouraged them, and joined them in wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. As a result he was shunned by the Australian government when he returned home, and in spite of owning the Australian record for the 200 sprint to this day, he was erased from their history books and never allowed to compete again. It wasn't until 2012, six years after his death in 2006, the Australian Parliament apologized to his family. In 2006 Carlos and Smith travelled to Australia to be pall bearers at his funeral.

Rudd wasn't familiar with the photo, nor did he know who Norman was, but he thanked me for the information. All of which led us to the next question about West Australia and its current treatment of the Aboriginal population

Is the grab for indigenous homelands still going on? Have the people been evicted?

It's still going on, it's all about natural resources. Western Australia - is one of the last great wildernesses areas of the planet - we were able to band together and stop one of the biggest gas operations a while back - but under that same land there's everything you can think of resource wise. The Western Australia (state) government, I got in trouble for saying in a Canadian paper they're corrupt, so let's just say they're dodgy government, is all about resources - all about land grabbing. They've been using political moves to trick or convince aboriginal people to give them their land for development. People were moved forcibly from their homelands, with comments made to the press about rampant alcoholism and abandoned home to make it seem necessary.
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How do you deal with what seems like so much antipathy towards the changes your music expresses? You sing about people coming together and all the time politicians are playing up fear and hatred to win elections

I don't really care. (We laughed) My interests are deeper thing that. My interests are in creation, our earth is a lot stronger and greater than we give her credit for. Politicians and what we do are small little grains of sand in creation. Sure I get frustrated and upset by what's going on around but doing something like sitting with a tree, keeping connected to the planet, helps remind me of what's important.

There was a time when we were energetically connected to the land in order to survive. In a lot of people's minds that seems like a fantasy, but it's what reminds us of our place in existence. If everyday one or two humans connect to the earth and remember this, there's always hope. She will take care of us if we let her, the planet is a big thing - its much bigger than you can hope.

You know I was in San Francisco and was in Golden Gate Park and the Blue Angels were doing an air show. They were doing their fly pass and it was really loud. They were doing their acrobatics, and they're really good, and all these people were standing and watching them. But I couldn't help thinking these things cost I don't know how many millions of dollars and were the types of planes which dropped bombs on people.

They flew through in formation and then flew out again, and while people were waiting for them to come back a flock of birds flew through in perfect formation - one of them dived down to scoop up a fish. I remember thinking, no matter how expensive those planes are, none of them can do that - dive down and pick up a fish. Nobody else seemed to notice the birds.

So I saw Surfer Dude a few years ago, and was surprised to hear your music in it. How did that come about?

Matt (Matthew McConaughey) contacted me and asked if I would do some music for the film. I chose some songs from various places, but to be honest I sort of lost interest in the project. There was this music producer who added stuff to my songs which hadn't been there to begin with and I ended up never even seeing the movie. It was an experience.

(Me:The best part of the movie was Willie Nelson as a goat farmer) I never got to meet Willie, but I do like Matt and Woody (Woody Harrelson who was also in the movie).

And that was all we had time for. We had talked briefly about me having seen Peter Tosh in 1980 and the Toronto reggae scene of the late 70s and 80s and touched on a few other areas of mutual interest, but that was about it. Xavier Rudd is one of the most genuine people I've spoken to, and he believes what he says with his heart and soul. However, in neither his music nor his words do you ever get the feeling he's preaching or trying to convert you. This is just who he is.

Information on the rest of his North American tour can be found at the tours page of his web site, but he's currently making his way up the North American West Coast. He' almost done in the States (Austin, Dallas, Taos, Denver, Park City, Portland and Seattle October 14-21 respectively).

Then he hits Canada going West to East with two shows in Vancouver (October 22 +23rd) and two in the British Columbia interior (Duncan (24th) and Nelson (26th). Then he's on to Calgary (27th), Edmonton (29th) in Alberta, Saskatoon Saskatchewan on the 30th and finishes with the Prairies in Winnipeg Manitoba on the 31st. November sees him in Sherbrooke Quebec on the 3rd, St. Casimir on the 4th and Montreal on the 5th. The 6th and the 7th sees him in Toronto and Ottawa respectively than back to Quebec again to finnish off in Quebec City.

If you have the chance go and see him you won't regret it. The music is great and it will be an experience you won't forget.

(Article originally published at as Music Interview: Xavier Rudd - A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought)

August 30, 2015

Interview: John Lydon - Truth, Integrity and What The World Needs Now

John Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited (PiL) is one of the seminal figures in pop music history. In the 1970s he and the Pistols stood the moribund music industry of Great Britain on its head and planted the seeds which would influence countless bands at home and around the world.

PiL was formed in 1978 after the Pistols imploded. While the band has gone through line up changes and experienced a close to 20 year hiatus, both it and Lydon have continued to produce continually challenging and exciting music throughout their history. Mercurial and intelligent Lydon has taken great delight in defying people's expectations both musically and personally for his entire career. An icon for iconoclasts and nose thumbers everywhere, he continues to be the unpredictable and brilliant figure who burst like a comet on the music scene forty years ago.
Interviewing someone like Lydon is a difficult proposition. Not because he's difficult, but because he's one of those people who you'd really like to converse with without being constrained by a question and answer format. Like his songs, thoughts spill out of his head, and it feels churlish to try and impose any sense of order on him. However, after our few opening exchanges - mistrust of technology and our common problem with inverting numbers - we began with some questions about PiL's forthcoming release, What The World Needs Now

What The World Needs Now, was it recorded on PiL's own label? Why your own label?

Yes, this is the second one we've done on our own. We'd all had enough of large record companies, getting the boot to the back of the file and so on. I wasn't able to do any music for almost two decades because of contractual disputes which was hard. I had to buy my way out of the former label. There were a lot of people there who I loved and admired, but it was just too much. But my childhood illness (spinal meningitis which caused him to lose his memory and be hospitalized for six months) taught me to cope with the cards life deals you. Everything you endure and work through makes you stronger.

The great thing about no label is there's more lack of control. Nobody breathing down your neck saying you can't do this and can't do that and you have to finish this now - can't have an accounting department telling you what to do. It kills spontaneity and creativity.

We have a work lab, that's what I call going into the studio, where we can create freely and do the hard work of turning accurate emotions into music and words.

Sounds like when I was working in theatre in the 80s, there were theatre companies who called themselves Theatre Labs

Yeah, I can see that. A few years ago and I tried something new for me and did some theatre. I was offered the role of King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Years ago I might have sneered at theatre, but now I really respect the way theatre people look out for each other. I made some great pals there, but the show never happened - money pulled plug.

All you can do is laugh at this sort of stuff. Comedy is the best way to deal with the up close and personal issues and the things which can run you down. Clowns who speak truth are a great way of dealing with what the world throws at you. Look at the cover of the new CD, every culture has one of these clown figures who keeps people honest.

It looks like a Hopi Koshare

Yeah that's where some of the inspiration came from, but the tricksters are in almost every culture and it was supposed to reflect that. Of course you can see its wearing my shoes. (laughs)
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Title of the new album - What The World Needs Now - aside from another fuck off as you say in "Shoom". What does the World need now?

Everybody has an answer to that, fill out the postcards and send them to the appropriate person. That song is a requiem for my father who died a couple of years before we did the recording. He knew how to annoy people and get them thinking and make them laugh at the same time. I was trying to reflect what that was like. Some of the language in this song might bother some people, but we were working class and this was how we spoke. We used every word in the dictionary, except the Latin ones. (laughs)

I'd like to ask you about some of the other songs on the new album starting with "Double Trouble". I remember you writing something in Anger Is And Energy (His recently published autobiography) about fixing a toilet which features in the song's lyrics?

Yeah, that was some of the inspiration for the song. Its a discussion on domestic issues. How if there's no humour when you're dealing with stuff it can bring resentments further on down the line. Little things can affect you in a much larger way. But's a matter of learning self control and stop trying to control. Sometimes an irrational argument is the most powerful tool in a relationship as it allows you to see how ridiculous you're being.

I am my own worst critic. I want to be right in the world. Get away from the world of snakes - I don't need to be part of lies. Story of my life - I don't like lies. Comes from my illness when I lost my memory and had to rely on adults to tell me what the truth was. When my memories returned I could tell who lied and who had told me the truth.

History is my favourite subject and I've loved reading about stuff like the American Civil War. But I found out that much of what I've read hasn't been completely honest. The stuff in so many books covers over opinions. I've taken to reading letters people wrote to each other during the time period I'm interested in - gives you a much clearer idea of the reality of a situation.
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PiL is in the process of not lying to each other which makes for a healthy work lab. Eliminates ego when you know people are going to call you on shit. Nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

C'est La Vie? There's something troubling and sad about this song - where did it come from?

It's a song of regret, a sad song. Sometimes I go through those periods in my life and I have to respect them. I don't want to push them under the carpet. It's important to be able to see yourself for who you are, to be properly introspective..

"The One", what's that about?

Teenage angst, feelings of anxiety, septic spots on the face and all that. Its me sharing my spotty moments. Musically it reminded me vaguely of glam rock which makes sense as I came of age during glam rock. Hey did you know T-rex is British street rhyming slang for sex? Mark Bolan was really smart and funny. All the girls were dancing to the music and I'd try and be cool and come across as a fool. Imagine a rap group now a days doing a song about feeling insecure.?

I used to really like rap in the late 70s - Grand Master Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, but now...

Yeah me too - did a song ("World Destruction" in 1984) with Afrika and became friends with him. (long for song title)

I was really impressed by your enunciation and vocal range on this release.

I've always been one to properly emphasize my words. While some might think I exaggerate I don't like singers who mumble. I don't want to listen to mush and if I don't want to listen the lyrics become irrelevant. What's the point of a song if that happens?

In Anger is an Energy you describe your songwriting process when you were with the Sex Pistols, free form improvisation/stream of conscience as the music inspired you. Have you changed this in anyway or do you still work in the same way?

I tend not to write down a lot in advance, write most of what I sing in the studio. Panic and stress of the situation bring out the lyrics. Somebody will drop an instrument and it will inspire something, a phrase will inspire a song. Don't fantasize in songwriting. try to keep it real. When I first started with the Pistols I was writing about the politics of the time - and since then it's been whatever else I see disenfranchising people.

And then my thirty minutes were up. I could have kept on talking, mainly listening, to him for hours. I did briefly ask him about Malcolm Malaren, former Sex Pistol manager, right at the end, and all he would say was now Malcolm is dead he won't say anything about him - "It's not right to speak ill of the dead" - and regrets having done so previously.

John Lydon is one of those rare figures in public life who aren't afraid to speak their minds but who is also aware of the consequences of both their actions and words. He dedicated Anger Is An Energy to integrity, and the lasting impression you get coming away from talking to him is how important that is. Whether in his music or in his personal life Lydon is a man who cares about being as honest as possible no matter how much it hurts, especially with himself. We could use more people like him. What The World Needs Now will be released on September 4 2015 digitally, on CD and on vinyl.

(Article originally published at as Interview John Lydon -Truth and Integrity in Life and Music)

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur

Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.

You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?

Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

June 12, 2013

Interview: Willie Nile - The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet

The BBC called his last album The Innocent Ones "stunning...The rock and roll album of the year", Rolling Stone Magazine included it in their"Top Ten Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011" list, and USA Today called the album's "One Guitar" the number one song in the nation. Yet most of you have probably never heard of him nor recognize the title of the album they're each raving about. Hopefully that's all about to change. For after more then 20 years since his last contract with a major label, Willie Nile's next release,American Ride, will be coming out June 25 2013 on Loud and Proud Records and will be the first artist released under the label's new deal with RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music.

I had interviewed Nile back in 2008, but we had conducted it via email so I hadn't had the opportunity to actually talk with him. While an email question and answer exchange ensures accuracy, it's impersonal and doesn't give you much of a chance to get to know the person you're interviewing. To be honest most of the time you don't get to know a person even when you interview them over the phone. You're usually one of many people they're talking to over the course of a day which means you're usually limited to something like fifteen minutes for the interview. Barely long enough to ask them a couple of questions about their new album/tour/book/movie and them to dole out the same pat answers they've given everyone.

Thankfully that wasn't the case with Nile when we talked. Not only were there no time constraints, it was far less an interview and much more a conversation. Sure we talked about his new record, signing with a label and all the sort of stuff you're supposed to on one of these interviews, but I found out more about him from the way he talked about these things than I did from the answers he gave. Nile is one of those rare people who are exactly like you think he'll be after listening to his songs. Compassionate, intelligent, aware and a genuinely considerate and caring individual.
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Most of us, when you ask us how we're doing, will answer with the expected and safe, fine. When Willie asked me "How you doing? as we started our interview he was really asking. So I told him. When I reciprocated with the same question he started by telling me it was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, in New York City and how "It was a great day to be alive". But, there was something else and it soon came out. He was in mourning as a close friend, Rob Morsberger, who had done the string arrangements for Willie's last release, The Innocent Ones had just died from brain cancer.

Instead of talking about himself or his own work, Nile spent the first few minutes of our interview telling me about his friend and what a great singer/songwriter he had been. He then proceeded to tell me a story which from another person would have sounded like, look what I did, aren't I special? But in Nile's case it was an opportunity to tell me about somebody else's generosity. He told me how he had gone to one of the final concerts Morsberger had given and how it made him think Randy Newman should really hear his music.

So he had gone home and spent a couple of hours trying to compose an email to Newman's publicist which would be intriguing enough to be passed along to Newman. Nile doesn't know Newman, and even felt like he had to include his CV thinking Newman might not have heard of him. However, it didn't prevent him from trying to help his friend gain some recognition for his work. When he told me how Newman had left two messages on Morsberger's voice mail the next day, it was with awe and respect in his voice for Newman. There wasn't a hint of pride or self promotion. He told me this story because he had been genuinely touched by Newman's generosity.

Of course we did finally get around to talking about his new album. Initially he had raised the money to record the disc through crowd source funding, using PledgeMusic. He had been making plans for distributing the disc on his own when Loud & Proud had approached him. I asked him whether or not he had used crowd source funding before, what he thought of it. He had used Kickstarter to help fund The Innocent Ones, but basically he'd been paying for all his previous recordings out of his own pocket. However over the years, his fan base has been growing and he has a very passionate following everywhere he goes.

"It feels like a big family when I tour" he said."Not only does everybody have a good time at the gigs, everybody also seems to connect to the music and it affects them personally. After each show I hang around and sign copies of CDs and say hi to people. They come up to me and tell me how the music is special to them or what it means to them. I had one guy, a young guy, come up to me after a gig and ask me to sign a copy of the CD to a friend of his who had died about six months ago. His friend, Ramon, had been a big fan and this young man told me it would have meant the world to him to have a CD signed by me." He paused, and when he continued I could tell he was still moved by the awe I heard in his voice as he said, "If you can help somebody it's a nobel thing to do. When music touches people it's wonderful. If its real it can be either as a party or something better - a source of joy and salvation. If its real it will be something meaningful to everybody who listens"

Well his music must touch a lot of people from all over the world, because he reached his goal at PledgeMusic in four days. Following the successful campaign to raise money for its recording Nile had originally planned on releasing the disc in April. However all that changed when Tom Lipsky, president of Loud & Proud approached him.

"The president of the label approached me about signing with them. He really believed in the music which convinced me to sign. The music has always sold itself and was doing well, but a partner will make it work even better. I believe they can take it to another level. When I went into the studio I knew what I had - I always have all my songs ready before I record, in fact I've already got the material for my next album written. Another one to add to the collection."

The sense I got from Nile was being with the label means he's able to breath a little easier. He can focus on his art a little more and not have to worry quite as much about money as he has in the past. Talking to him you would never know this guy has been in the business for what must be close to 40 years now. He sounds so enthusiastic and excited. He was fairly bursting to tell me about a quote Bono had written about the new album. It wasn't because he was boasting or showing off, but because he was so excited about his music and the fact people were enjoying it. "Its a ride alright...on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few America's here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unravelling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America." He read the quote out carefully and slowly to make sure I copied it down accurately, all the while sounding like a kid who's been given the best present in the world.

All of which brought us to the album itself. I asked him whether or not there was a theme tying the CD together saying the title track, "American Ride", reminded me somewhat of Jack Keourac's cross country, road trip odyssey,On The Road, and was he perhaps inspired by the Beats. He was delighted with the comparison.

"The Beat poets continue to inspire me today, Bob Kaufman, Alan Ginsberg - great poets. I knew Alan. I did a reading at St. Marks Church with a group of them upon the republication of Keourac's American Haiku. I don't usually do that sort of thing, but I found out Ed Sanders of The Fugs was going to be there and I had loved the Fugs so I thought it would be great. But it was the Beat strain of poetry and music, American music - big band jazz, blues, be bop, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie - all the music which inspired the British invasion - can be traced back to the Beats. It was the music my generation grew up with. All the music and places in the song "American Ride" are American music - Motown, New Orleans, Memphis - all these sounds have gone into my music and so many other people's music.
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The connection really came home to me when I was touring in London and we played the 100 Club. The place back in the 1970s where The Sex Pistols and The Clash played. There we were on stage with pictures of the Sex Pistols and The Clash on the walls playing and we were joined by Graham Matlock, original bassist for the Pistols, to play "People Who Died" (a Jim Carroll song covered by Nile on American Ride). They we were playing a song by one of the great modern American poets/musicians in a London club with a British musician surrounded by images of great British rock and roll bands."

He then turned back to the idea of there being a theme to the album. "I didn't put American Ride together as a concept album. It looked like there was a theme after the fact, but that's just the way it turned out." He paused for a second, "I'm all about giving - my mother always used to say it's better to give than receive - and I wouldn't walk into the recording studio if it wasn't going to be something special - if there wasn't going to be something to give to people. When I was making the album I was mindful there was different types of music on it. Songs about war, songs about love, dance songs - but any collection of songs needs to fit together somehow. It's more about the journeys we're all on and celebrating them. We need to be doing the best we can for each other. Bobby Kennedy said, "We're a compassionate people - we can do better".

There were a few songs in particular on American Ride I wanted to ask Nile about, and I brought them up now. The first one, "God Laughs", has the potential for being controversial with lines like "God fornicates". I wondered about his intent with this song.

"It's not meant to offend, I wrote it with a sense of humour - didn't censor myself and tried to make it real and evocative, but it came from a place of love. I was playing this song in Spain, the audience was having a great time and after the gig a guy comes up to me and asks me to sign a copy of the CD. (Nile obviously was selling early copies of the disc at shows in Europe before signing with Loud & Proud). It turns out he was a Catholic priest and he said the song really inspired him. It meant the world to me that this man who had devoted his life to spirituality and God appreciated it. So no, I hope people aren't offended by it, but I hope it makes them think about things."

Before talking to Nile I hadn't realized "People Who Died" was a cover of a Jim Carroll song. To me it sounded awfully aggressive and angry for what is basically a listing of people the singer knows who died.

"It was Carroll celebrating his friends. I wanted to bring what I thought was a masterpiece back to life. I talked to bunch of Jim's buddies who had known everybody in the song and they got what I was doing. The band really kicked butt on it and we made it a celebration of the people who are mentioned. Its defiant all right - a party song looking into the abyss and shaking your fist and dancing at the same time. I also wanted to do something for my brother who passed so I changed a couple of lines to add the bit about Johnny my brother and dedicated it to him. I'm sure Jim wouldn't have minded."

Another song which I saw having the potential for being misunderstood was "Holy War". I asked him if he was worried the song might make people think he has issues with religions and how they can be used to manipulate people

"I'm at peace and centred with all religions and accepting of them all and the different sides of faith. This is more of an angry prayer for peace than anything else. From the Crusades to the present lots of wrongs and lots of people have been killed in the name of different faiths. It's a taking to task of anyone who hides behind the cloak of religion. People need to understand we can all do better and we need to hope we can do better." He paused for a second, and then repeated, "It's an angry prayer for peace".

While the majority of the tracks on the disc are uptempo, if not out and out rockers, the second last song on the disc, "The Crossing" catches your attention for its simple folk sound. It's a reminder of Nile's Irish roots and why I once referred to him as the troubadour of New York City. It sounds like it could the story of his family's immigration to North America.

"I wrote it thinking about my ancestors, but its also about everybody and anybody. All those who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families and a tip of the hat to those earlier generations who made that journey. Its also about the personal bridges we all have to cross to make a better life for ourselves as individuals. Its about taking the risk of journeying into the unknown just as much as its about the risk of trying to create a new life in a new world."

By this time we had been talking for quite some time so I figured I should wrap it up. So I asked him what was next for Willie Nile as a way of bringing things to a close. Typical of the way our conversation had gone, he told me a couple of stories, both of which tied in with how he feels about his career and his life to this point.

"The songs are coming to me and the stuff I'm doing now I think is as good as anything I've ever done. You know my journey has been up and down and I've learned from it. I think I'm finally fulfilling what I hoped to when I started out. There have been some great moments along the way." He laughed, "Back in 1992 I was opening for Ringo Starr and his All Star band. When the last night of my section of the tour came around, Ringo found me back stage and gave me a big hug and thanked me for opening for him. I was covered with Beatle sweat (laughs) I'll never wash again...He then invited me out on stage to join everybody in the encore - "With A Little Help From My Friends". I got out on stage and there was Rink Danko (bass player from the Band) and we sort of looked at each other and grinned - as if saying look where we are.

My albums are what they are because of the journey I've taken. I'm not bitter because I'm not rich and famous, I never wanted to be famous. (laughs again) Rich maybe, but only because what I could do with the money. The fact that there are people out there who have championed my work (Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshead have expressed their admiration for Nile's work) makes me feel great. Music is to be shared just as life is to be shared and I've had the opportunity to do both with a great many people. The material is already ready for the next album and I feel like I'm doing some of the best work of my career now. As long as things keep feeling like this, I'm not about to stop anytime soon."

We said goodbye then, wishing each other well. While we talked about a lot of different things over the course of our conversation, the impression which stays with me most is of having talked to somebody who loves what he's doing and is genuinely grateful for being given the opportunity to do what he loves. When he talks about the famous people he knows or has met, it's not because he's trying to impress you, but because he wants to talk about how wonderful they are and how he's been lucky enough to know them.

Willie Nile is one of those rare people who makes you feel better about the world just by talking to them. His music is a celebration of life in all its diversity and is able to strike a chord with people from all over the world. His new release, American Ride, will be available on June 25 2013 and after listening to it you'll understand why so many people appreciate him. What you may not understand is why you haven't heard his music before.

(Article first published at as Willie Nile, The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't

You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How on Blogcritics.)

April 15, 2011

Interview: Steven Erikson Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence

For the best part of the twenty-first century Steven Erikson's and Ian Cameron Esselement have bewitched and amazed readers with their joint creation of the world inhabited by the Malazan Empire. As the first of the two authors to publish books in the series, and the first to finish his contribution to world building with the publication of his tenth and final book in his "The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence, The Crippled God, Erikson's name is the one most still identify the series with.

Over the course of reading the series I've read little bits and pieces of quotes from Mr. Erikson about the series. However, to be honest, I have avoided sitting down and reading any of the interviews he's given or delving too deep into any of the other background material that has surfaced on the web that either he or Mr. Esslement have let slip. At one point I made a half hearted attempt to see about interviewing him through his publisher in Canada, Random House Canada, but part of me didn't want to hear anything about the hows and whys of the series from his point of view while he was still writing it.

Somehow or other it just didn't seem right. As a reader I think I might have thought that asking questions about the series while it was still in progress might have taken a little bit of the magic out of it. Spoiled the illusion that perhaps this world they created could really exist outside of the two fevered brains which had cooked it up. My reviews of both author's books have reflected this as they lacked anything approaching critical objectivity and usually ended up being somewhat incoherent peons of praise as I was usually at a loss as to how to stretch "Holly Fuck what a great book" into something resembling review length.

Like a glutton waiting for a particularly lavish meal to end, but for whom anticipating each course makes up a great deal of the pleasure, any hints as to what was in store for dessert would have been a deadly disappointment. However with Mr. Erikson finished his contributions I found myself wanting just that little bit more, so emailed him to see if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that had occurred to me over the course of reading his books. Here then are both the questions I emailed him and his answers. Hopefully they will not give anything away for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading his books or finishing the series, but will give all of you a deeper appreciation for what he has accomplished in their writing.

Why writing? What is it about the media that attracts you and when did you first start becoming interested in writing?

From early on and throughout high school I was being directed towards painting and illustration. I was sent by my school to life-drawing courses taught at the city’s art gallery, and I spent most of my free time drawing (especially during Math and other subjects that baffled me). I was reading fantasy and SF at the time, ever since I was about twelve, and had initially been drawn to those genres by the cover illustrations, in particular those painted by Frank Frazetta. This was where my ambitions seemed to reside. Increasingly, however, my efforts pushed me towards a kind of visual narrative. I toyed with the idea of doing comic books, but it seemed like a lot of work (this was in the time before computers handled the formatting tasks, etc – I recall using Letraset for the first few panels), and I wasn’t quite as nimble with India ink as I was with ball-point pens (me dipping a quill while doodling in class would not have gone over well).

When I entered university a friend tracked me down and invited me to a partnership doing a cartoon strip for the campus newspaper. I did a few editorial cartoons as well. We then schemed to produce a spoof edition of that campus newspaper, and this led me into writing mock articles and the usual juvenile attempts at satire. From there we ended up co-editing a magazine for the Faculty of Arts (the mag was called "The Sophisto", stolen from A Clockwork Orange). This led to quasi-journalistic writing of the offensive variety (I remember a phone interview my co-conspirator conducted with Barbara Amiel (future wife of Conrad Black) that really ticked her off).

As that endeavour was wrapping up, with booze-spiked coffees at faculty meetings, and us putting a sign up on our office door (GO AWAY), I saw in the local city paper an invitation to a short-story contest, and decided to try for it. Won second place, a hundred dollars and the adoration of a gaggle of very old ladies.

Finishing my degree in archaeology I wrote up two more stories along with the second-place winner and applied to the Vermont MFA in writing program and got turned down. So I applied to take an undergraduate (BFA) in creative writing at the University of Victoria a year later, and got accepted.

Illustration led me into narrative, and words were much faster for me than drawing.

Have there been any particular writers, styles, or media that have influenced your writing? Who what and why?

Influences can be pernicious. I recall reading George MacDonald Frazer’s The Pyrates and writing everything in pirate vernacular for six months thereafter, including memos at work. The thing is, one takes it all in, and hopefully when it comes back out it’s all a mishmash, which eventually becomes your ‘style.’ I remember fellow students in the writing programs I was in taking up the styles of famous writers and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much is actually learned by doing that. The only thing that teaches a beginning writer is writing, and in as many unique voices as one can manage. We all have our peculiar rhythms, and learning to write is learning to see and hear one’s own rhythms (once you know them you can then mess with them, experiment, etc). This ‘finding’ process is often what frustrates beginning writers, to the point that they end up quitting. It’s not ego that drives one so much as it is faith, and the early twenties for most of us is not a time when faith in oneself is at its strongest. What drives someone to write? Is it all the books seen in bookstores? Is it all the books read followed by the dream and conviction that I can do just as well? The desire for recognition, validation, fame, wealth? To be honest, probably all of those things came to the fore at one time or another, but dreams are not tickets to entitlement, and the end goal may not be what one first dreamed about – no matter. It’s all down to work in the end. You could take ten writers and task them all with the same subject on which to write about; even the same plot; and no two will be alike.

You will see that I pretty much avoided answering your question. I could offer up lists, but those lists would consist of writers and books I like or once liked: but it’s just a list, not a guide book to understanding, or, heaven forbid, following in my footsteps. But, before people jump, it’s not a position of arrogance I’m taking, but the opposite. Influences are down to tastes, but I well know that my ‘list’ is constructed as much from what I haven’t read as from what I have read, and if anything only highlights my deficiencies.

I could note that I am presently reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Why? Because it’s fun and perhaps more significantly, it justifies my buying a Kindle.

I've read that the Malazan Book Of The Fallen evolved out of yours and Ian Esselemonts's love of role playing gaming. Can you give me a quick overview of how that evolution happened. (I spent many an afternoon in smoke filled basements with others playing versions of Dungeon and Dragons back in the early 80s and only ever came out of those games with headaches - so there must have been something different about the way you guys approached these things then we ever did. Ours usually degenerated into drunken/stoned, bleary eyed, silliness)

The first game I ever played was run by Cam (Ian) on a dig on Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. We were bored rigid. We got stoned, and when the wolves attacked to mark our first effort at fighting, my character threw away his weapons and climbed a tree; another player’s character hid under his shield. Later on, yet another player tried to backstab a ranger NPC, but being a Halfling only managed to prick the back of his leg. Not an impressive first outing.

When Cam and I ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, we started gaming in earnest and you’re right in guessing that they were unusual games. We were both in the writing program at the time, and narrative was uppermost in our minds: these sessions were as much storytelling as gaming and often involved little more than protracted conversations between characters – finding their voices, acquiring a sense of their histories, their world-views, and all the conflict born of those world-views clashing. When scraps arrived they were brutal and irreversible for the characters, and we liked that. A lot. We burdened those characters with bitter memories, with old pains and open wounds; we made them tired of living but unable to give up. Not your typical game, I guess.

Later on, when I ran an actual group, I carried all that over, and the players often ended each session looking shellshocked.

When a reader picks up Gardens Of The Moon they have the feeling they're entering into a story that's been going on for some time. This goes against almost all the traditions of narrative in Epic Fiction, which usually has a static beginning, middle and end. Why did you elect to work from the middle, backwards and forwards, out, so to speak, and did you run into any significant resistance from editors/publishers along the way because of that decision?

Eight years of resistance. We did it because we’d gamed a history that provided the foundation on which to build new tales. Also, as archaeologists, we were well aware that in history there is no real beginning or end: it just goes on. The old lesson we had drilled into us in our writing workshops was that a story begins with a crisis of character, and we began our novels with that in mind. We could do that because we had a sense of the backgrounds of these characters – we’d been them for years, after all – and it’s that sense that gave the crisis meaning, each and every time (at least for us, and for it to affect others it had to affect us first – what followed then was simply the challenge of communicating what we felt. When it works, we and the reader share something, and if there’s one single desire behind writing, it must be that one).

I have to ask - you did work from an outline right - you didn't just wing it and hope for inspiration along the way? If yes, what form did the outline take and how detailed was it?- I have visions of a huge flow chart covering the wall of a fair sized room filled with circles and arrows and notes.
Steven Erikson 2011.jpg
I had a big chart for Gardens of the Moon, but all it had was chapter listings made up of sections defined by character names, and then a square box that I filled in once the section was done, physically tracking my progress. I had notes in a notepad, and I still do that in a chaotic, confused way. No physical outline, then; just the one in my head, which consisted of big scenes loosely arrayed in a particular order, and from that the driving need to move from one to the next, and to make sure that the ‘filler’ provided as much as was needed to give those big scenes the impact desired. Mostly, what drove and drives me still is the sheer pleasure of writing: the telling of a tale.

In the midst of writing a scene, I would on occasion hit on an image that I would mentally flag, and file away. And I learned to trust in my instincts on when next to riff on that image (or word choice) to create a kind of resonance. This was how I was taught to write short stories, and I extended that across novels, and then across all ten books. Even now, only a few months after the series is done, I look back and am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all in for so long, across so many thousands of pages. I don’t myself understand the creative process well enough to say: this is how it’s done; this is how I remembered everything I needed to remember (besides which, I obviously didn’t remember everything, as inconsistencies did indeed arise from time to, uh time). All I can say now is: I remembered the stuff that was important to me, in the telling of this tale. I did that much, at least. How I did it, I’ll never know.

You created numerous different civilisations and societies for the series and I wondered if you could explain your process in developing them. Were they based on ones from earth's history, did they just spring out of your imagination, was there any specific intent behind some of their characteristics? The Letherai Empire for example with its extreme version of free market social Darwinism and organisations like The Patriotists.

If you can steal but leave no clues, no tracks ... well ... no, it’s not even that. Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society’s relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment). There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency – even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean. To create a fictional culture in fantasy (quick guide), begin with the environment. Plains, boreal forest, mountains, steppes, flood-plain, dry, wet, warm, cold, coastal, mineral rich, fauna poor – the more details you decide on, the tighter the potential characteristics of the resident culture. Next: choose technology level and principal sources of subsistence. These will further shape that culture: farmers, fisher-folk, whalers, raiders, herders – when it comes to food procurement, we’re all rather limited. If, say, it’s a hunting culture, well, it’s not likely to be a populous one, is it, since no wild environment can sustain a large, sedentary population of predators such as people. If it is a herding culture, and you have steppes, well, best expect a mobile boom and bust cycle for that culture (see Mongols) involving rapid, violent expansion followed by fragmentation and assimilation into the more materially established sedentary cultures they may have conquered – a civilisation that can vanish like dust in the wind (Huns). If you want cities you need to work out what feeds its denizens ... outlying farms, mercantile wealth (if in, say, a trading crossroads like Constantinople), harvest from the sea – and in each case you should refer to the technology level. If farming, do the farmers irrigate and if so, where does the water come from? Related to the seasons and weather patterns – is it in fact situated on a cusp of potential disaster should drought strike, or is it relatively stable as with, say, The Nile. For comparison on how the two shape their cultures, do a compare and contrast between ancient Egypt and the Mayans of Central America. Fairly similar in terms of technology – how much did the need to appease capricious sky gods affect the almost psychotic sacrifice frenzy of the Mayans, compared to the sedate, generally passive culture of Egypt?

What other factors might impede that culture in its pursuit of quality of life? Caste, class systems, indenture – who’s pulling the strings and how firm is their grip? The Mayan priests might have felt on top of the world (on top of the pyramids, too) but when the environment collapsed so too did their power base. What forces are at play resisting progress? Religious dogma, social institutions (slavery), indolence? Is there any social mobility? How fares its arts, its centres of learning and philosophy? Is it warrior-based? If magic exists, how does it work and what does it do to shape the culture using it?

All anthropological, I suppose, and geographical too. It’s why I always started with a map, because that told me so much of what I need to know about the resident civilisations. Obviously, the question of the role of magic was a central one that needed answering early on: we chose an egalitarian structure, based on hard work – not gender-based in any way – and from this we posited civilisations that could not impose gender-based hierarchies in terms of access to and exploitation of power. This, as you might imagine, opened things up considerably, which was most pleasing.

I was fascinated by the system(s) of magic you created for this world. A system which seemed based on a person's ability to channel an aspect or characteristic of a particular god or goddess yet wizards weren't necessarily priests and vice-versa. How did you come up with this system and why did you elect to use it.

See above! We wanted something malleable yet mysterious; so instead of devising a single or handful of paths to magic, we created a multitude of paths, and then embodied that theoretical theme in the Warrens (made the metaphor real), which is why when people ask us about the magic system we mostly just shrug. It defines itself. It is exactly what it looks like: multiple paths to magic. For us, that’s all we needed, and we could adjust all we liked for each character using it – potential applications are endless, unconstrained, forever fluid. It became a dynamic system where even the attempted impositions (Deck of Dragons, cults and priest-hoods) had a tendency to slip from the grasp of the users. We’re not into ‘systems.’ We never were. We like things much messier.

Psychologically, we wanted magic to have the effect of napalm descending from the skies to hammer into the ground peasant soldiers. It’s ugly, terrifying, unpredictable.

In the books there are a strata of people who appear to exist on a plane somewhere between the gods and mortals, ascendants. What was the purpose of having this type of hero class of character?

Inspired by two things: on the one hand, this was all Homeric, incorporating the ancient bronze age/iron age proto-Greek sense of the pantheon and its mix of Olympian and chthonic deities, including demigods, Lapiths and forces of chaos – all of them as venal and petty-minded as our regular mortal affairs. On the other hand, we role-played characters in the old ‘powering up’ fashion consistent with all fantasy games. They had to have the potential to achieve something, if they so chose. The interesting is that, in the games, we ended up with so many characters who ultimately chose not to ‘ascend.’ And that was brilliant, and from these individuals came the real story of the world, as we have and are telling it. Because they were just like us.

Was there any particular pantheon of gods in our world which inspired your depiction of gods and their relationship to the mortals who worshipped them? How would you describe that relationship?

The key was giving those gods personalities, not just ‘aspects’ or ‘themes.’ Make them old, yet some older than others, some almost forgotten, others ambitious and young, some remote, others not so remote. As personalities, they were then open to specific relationships with their followers, sometimes benign, sometimes malicious. Many gods in our own world were worshipped to appease, lest vengeance and terror descend. That was not a benign relationship, was it? Its fuel was fear, and the notion of getting direct attention from a god was, for very good reasons, terrifying. By extension, exploring such relationships in fiction can also address how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us, to the vagaries of happenstance, fate and bad luck. Cause and effect is central to our intellect, and for those causes we cannot find, we invent, and so persist in a lifelong dialogue with indifferent nature.

We spend a great deal of time among soldiers and on the battle field during the course of the series and you don't hesitate from describing the action in graphic detail leaving us no doubt as to its grim reality. Yet most of the lead characters, those we come to admire, are soldiers who take part in those battles and I was wondering if there were any message in particular you were trying to deliver because of that, and if so what it was?

All too often in fantasy fiction we’re stuck with the rulers, the leaders, and we see their machinations in a generalised sense of victory and loss, even good and evil. Until Glen Cook, we rarely saw the brutal consequences of all these toffs vying for dominance. When approaching our own novels, we wanted to emulate Cook’s ground-up approach, covering the entire social strata from the lowly street urchin to the gods and everyone in between. History is, as you mentioned, a thing that flows in all directions, and we liked the idea that even though shit always flows down, on occasion some poor bastard is going to rise up from the muck and throw a handful back upward, hopefully straight into the face of one of those toffs. There is always an implicit commentary in medieval-style fantasy, whether the author intends it or not – that has to do with inequality, with purity of blood and nobility of form, with who the heroes are and just how beloved they are when the last battle’s won. For the majority of people, feudal life was misery; yet here we get again and again all these tales about high-born elites – granted, some authors make a point of highlighting just how well-meaning and benign those rulers are. The fact remains, however, that they take as a birthright their right to decide who lives or dies among their subjects.

For myself, I’ve had my fill of those implicit assertions on inequity, and some central threads of the Malazan Book of the Fallen made a point of addressing that.

I have to ask - where did Kruppe come from. He's an absolutely brilliant character and I'd love to see more of him elsewhere. Any hope of that happening?

Character I rolled up, and on spur of the moment elected to make him ... the way he is. I believe he makes a return in Cam’s novel set in Darujhistan.

There were quite a few loose ends left behind with the conclusion of the tenth book and I was wondering if you were considering filling them in, or will that be Ian Esselemont's job with his books set in the Malazn Empire?

Cam will cover some of them, but not all, nor should anyone expect him to. We’re comfortable with threads left dangling. No history is complete and if people are left with questions, well, how like real life is that?

I can't think of a more appropriate note to end this on save to say thank you to Steven Erikson for taking the time to answer my questions. Now when will Ian Cameron Esslement's next book be released?

(Article first published as Interview: Steven Erikson, Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence on Blogcritics.)

April 30, 2010

Interview: Mike Bonanno Of The Yes Men

My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awe struck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "Free Market System" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Haliburton in specific is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "Chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.

After reviewing their DVD I e-mailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting a no for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules - working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time, so I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my e-mailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.

Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno

1) Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?

We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time,  the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.  

2) So how did you settle upon this as a career choice - As a child did you say to your parents I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it... although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids. 

3) What brought the two of you together?

The Internet!

4) Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do - so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?

Well... the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think its worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough? 

5) What would you call what you do?

We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 
6) The chances of shaming someone - or something - like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim - so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?

Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and Hud, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina.  And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well... 

7) What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?

We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something... put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted...
8) When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US - our politicians would never even dream of saying something like let the market forces fix a natural disaster - they would be run out of town on a rail.(Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies) Why is it do you thing Americans as a whole accept Free Market capitalism so cheerfully?

I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all... one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy... all the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird cold-war hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud. 

9) Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.

I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas- but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at world war two to see that there were plenty of american companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans - even after the invasion of Poland - simply because they were in business together. Its pretty sick! 

10) I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it - that nobody asked well - why the hell aren't you?

But people do ask this all the time... the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice... especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water." 

11) Did you consider the fact that releasing the DVD The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?

We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore... but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved. See this for more info. 

12) On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?

Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate... there have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!  

13) How do you fund these activities - travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events? Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?

We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs... at least the getting to events and what not. And increasingly through speaking engagements. 

14) I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.

The way its done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.  

15) There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, today (March 23rd) that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be doine to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?

The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. Its either that or revolution. 

16) With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations - like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation - that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?

There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster- with much MORE certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
17) On a more cheerful note - what's next for the Yes Men?

The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab! 

Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work - doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos - you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from You Tube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.

(Article first published as Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men on Gonzo Political Activism and Troublemaking for a Cause at

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
Stranger To History Cover.jpg

You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

October 3, 2009

Interview: Rahul Ram Of Indian Ocean

Earlier this month I reviewed a DVD by the band Indian Ocean who make their home in New Delhi, India. Watching Live In Delhi I was struck by not only how gifted the four members of the band were musically, but by the fact that although the music sounded familiar there was something distinctly different about it as well that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It wasn't just the fact that those songs with lyrics weren't sung in English, or the drummer stepped out from behind his kit at one point to play percussion instrument called a gabgubi, or the fact that the percussionist sat cross legged behind his tabla and other instruments. It was like eating a really delicious dish made up of recognizable ingredients but what made it interesting were spices you couldn't identify; there was something more to it than what met the eye, or in this case, the ear.

Over the course of an almost hour and a half long conversation that I had on Wednesday September 30th/09 with Rahul Ram, bass player for the band, we talked about everything from the history of the band, the type of music each of them had been playing before they were in Indian Ocean, how they go about writing their songs, and what types of music has influenced them. As we talked it became clear that there was no simple answer to the question, what makes Indian Ocean sound like they do, but rather it's a combination of all those elements above. Maybe there are certain ingredients that have a stronger influence on the sound than others, but you'll have to listen to their music and decide that for yourself. For now, read what Rahul has to say about himself and the rest of the band; Amit Killam (drums, gabgubi, recorder, vocals) Susmit Sen (guitar) and Asheem Chakravarty (percussion,tabla, vocals).

Can you tell me a little about the band's history and how you ended up with your current line up?

Well, Susmit and Asheem have actually been playing together since they were in collage in 1984, but they didn't form the band until 1990. I think they went through something like three bass players that first year until I joined them in 1991. I had known Susmit when we were both in junior school. He hadn't been interested in music then at all, so when I ran into him in 1991 and he told me he had a band I was really surprised. They had made a demo in 1990 - I think Susmit had sold one of his guitars to pay for it - but nothing much came from it.
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Where did the name Indian Ocean come from?

It was actually Susmit's dad who came up with the name. It was before I had joined and they were sitting around one day talking about names for the band and his dad was sitting at the table eating, and he said, why not call yourselves Indian Ocean?. They all liked it and the name stuck.

Now Amit didn't join you until 1994 right?

Yes that's right, our drummer had left the band, and we saw Amit playing in a rock band and we really liked him and so asked him to join. He was still in college at the time so he's quite a bit younger then the rest of us. I think he was twenty-one then, and I was thirty, thirty-one when he joined.

When did you put out your first recording?

It was actually before Amit joined us, in 1993. We got a recording contract with HMV and put out a cassette - this was in the days before CDs had come to India. Typical for a first album we called it Indian Ocean because we couldn't think of anything else to call it. HMV did absolutely nothing to promote it, and in the end we went to them and begged them for twenty copies which we took around to the various media in Delhi asking them to listen to it and review it for us. Nothing much really came of it - I think we did one concert before Amit joined us in 94.

How about since then - you've released four more CDs and the DVD now haven't you?

Yes, that's right. In 1997 we released Dessert Rain, in 2000 Kandisa, Jhini in 2003, and Black Friday in 2005. The DVD, Live In Delhi, came out in 2008.

Black Friday is the soundtrack from a movie isn't it?

That's right. Black Friday was about the bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993, and although both the movie and the CD were finished in 2004/5 they couldn't be released until 2007 because they both named people who were involved in the bombings who had not yet gone to trial. So the movie and the soundtrack couldn't be released because they were afraid it would influence the public's opinion such that it wouldn't be possible for the accused to get a fair trial. Funnily enough the movie was based on a book, but the defence didn't seem to care about whether that was published or not. I guess they didn't figure as many people read as go to movies in India. (laughs)

(Anyone interested in a more in depth history of the band check out the story so far link at their web site)

Can you tell me a little about each of your backgrounds musically - what type of music were you each playing before you joined Indian Ocean?

Well I was playing bass in a rock and roll band since I was in junior school. I guess I started back in the late seventies and just kept playing ever since. Asheem has the least Western background of all of us as his mother was a folk singer so he grew up surrounded by that type of music. He decided he wanted to play tabla and he taught himself. He learned by watching and listening to all the music that was being played around him in his house.

We're all from Northern India so we grew up with that style of music around us all the time. Its different from the Southern classical tradition because it has far more room for improvisation in it, so I'm sure that's effected all of us and the way we play. Of course Bollywood music is the other big influence on all of us, as its everywhere and you can't help but absorb it. Amit, is the one who knows the most Bollywood music of all of us though, and he'll come up with these truly awful songs and start singing them to us - it's horrible. He'll say -"hey listen to this" and start singing some really bad song he picked up somewhere.

He's a great drummer though, from the first time we saw him play we knew we wanted him to play with us. A friend of mine says what's so great about Amit is he automatically makes whoever he plays with better. There's just something about him and how he plays that pushes you to be better and he plays so well that you can't help but sound good. He's from Kashmir originally and his family moved here (Delhi) when things started to get really bad there in the 1980's. (The province of Kashmir has long been disputed territory between Pakistan and India and in the 1980's there were constant skirmishes between the two sides including terrorist attacks) He originally wanted to be a guitar player, but eventually decided on drums. You mentioned the gabgubi that he plays in your review of the DVD (The gabgubi is a percussion instrument with either one or two plucked strings. To play it you tuck it under your arm and pluck the string(s) with the opposite hand while taping the skin with the other) Well there's a version whose name ends up translating into English as "armpit child" because of the way you have to hold it.

Like I said earlier Susmit didn't even start playing guitar until he was in collage. Like most people his family listened to music, but there were no musicians in his family, so for him to decide to do this was very different. It was his father who got him his first guitar, and he got him a Martin. Susmit is very interested in Hindustan classical music and trying to play it on guitar so has worked a lot on evolving the means to play that type of music.

You've already mentioned some of the types of music that have influenced the band, but have there been any bands, musicians or styles of music that have been a big influence on you personally. When I first heard you I immediately thought of Weather Report

Oh yeah I love them. I remember the first time I heard Heavy Weather it was great. Aside from them musicians like Al Di Meola, Jaco Pastorius, and Victor Wooten are all guys I listen to and really like. We all have different influences, but one that we all have in common, because like I said earlier you can't live in India without hearing it, is Bollywood. It's playing everywhere, on the buses, in taxis, on the radio, in stores. I don't think as a musician you can help being influenced by Bollywood whether you want to or not.

Is there a particular part of India where the band is most popular, or do you have audiences all over India?

Our audience is pretty much spread through out India. It was between 1995 and 2001 that we started getting known throughout India, but it wasn't until 2005 that we became really popular. We had thought that we could make it without having to do any work with Bollywood, but it wasn't until a video of one of the songs from the Black Friday soundtrack was released in 2005 that we really broke through. What they did when they couldn't release the whole film was make up a video out of some clips from the movie and of us performing to a shortened version of the song "Bandeh". MTV and places like that make you do that to your music if you want to get it played. Much like radio over here in North America you can't have a song eight minutes long, so they cut it down to make it fit. It went on to be a hit and as result we started to get more gigs.

Initially we had only been playing in the major metropolitan areas where there were populations of ten million people or more, but when that song became a hit and everybody began to hear it we began to get requests to play everywhere and were offered more money as well. The good thing was that people would come to hear the Bollywood hit, but then really like the rest of our music too. However without that one song we wouldn't be anywhere near as popular today as we are now. Film music is still the key to success in India because it's heard by everyone everywhere. We currently have a couple of film projects in hand, and are in fact sitting on an album release called Bhoomi - which translates as "Earth" into English - until they release the movie. It's been ready since 2007 so we're starting to get a little impatient.
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How do you come up with your new material - does one of you come up with an idea and present it to the group and you build around that, do you each write songs and teach them to the others, or do you have some other way of doing things?

All of our songs are created through jam sessions basically. We'll get together and sit around in a circle facing each other and improvise around an idea. However we work in a different way then most North American jazz musicians whose improvisations are chord based in that ours are scale based.

I'm not a musician so you'll have to explain the difference between them for me

It's simple really, with scale based improvisations it means you can only use the notes contained within a certain scale, which means you don't play any harmonies. Listen to someone like Coletrane playing "A Few Of My Favourite Things", and even when he's playing the familiar tune (he hums a few bars of "Favourite Things" from The Sound Of Music) he's also playing chords that harmonize with the tune but which are from a different scale. The way we work is a traditional style of arrangement taken from Indian classical music where musicians can play anything they want as long as they only make use of the notes in a particular scale.

What about lyrics - I know not all of your songs have them, but some do

We don't write any of our own lyrics. Some of them are from traditional folk tunes and are sung in their original language, while the other lyrics have been written by either Sanjev Sharma or Biyush Mishra. Biyush wrote the lyrics for the songs in the Black Friday soundtrack, while Sanjey has written the rest of our original songs. All of our original songs, whether by Sharma or Mishra, are in Hindi.

How does that work with Sanjey when it comes to writing the lyrics - do you send him tapes or something?

Well he lives in Mumbai, so we could send him the tracks by MP3 if he wanted but he likes to watch us play the music he's going to write for because he says he wants to look at our faces while we're playing so he gets some idea as to what we're thinking of and what we're feeling while playing the music. So I'll let him know when we have some music ready that we would like to have lyrics for and he says while I'll be in Delhi in a few months and I can come by then.

Why don't any of you write your own lyrics?

Well, truly, none of are really that good. (laughs)

What's been the reaction to your music like in other countries - do people expect you to be an Indian band with sitars and tabla?

The reaction has been great everywhere we play. The first time we played in America was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002 that was organized by Yo Yo Ma. He had a band that came on right after us, (The Silk Road Ensemble). He really liked what we were doing. He said we had taken Indian music where he'd like to take traditional Chinese music and expressed an interest in working with us. Idiots that we were we never followed up on that.

Everywhere we've gone we've found people to be open to and appreciative of the music we play. In Russia we were really surprised at how much older Russian ladies were enjoying the music, they were bouncing up and down and having a great time.

What is it about touring and playing live concerts that you like so much - you've played something like 600 shows in twenty different countries haven't you?

Well first of all we get to see places we never would have seen otherwise. For instance New Zealand, it was beautiful and inexpensive. We stayed on there for a while after our last show and travelled around. However, I just love concerts the most no matter where they are because I feel really alive when playing in front of an audience. With our songs being improvised to begin with, when we play live we can change things. I mean nothing is written down so there's no way anybody can give you a hard time for changing the way you do something. That way you can play the same song 600 times and never play it the same way twice. Of course with improvisation there has to be a fine balance and you can't get self-indulgent otherwise you mess up the song.

You're just finishing up your seventh tour of the US is that right

Yes, our first time was in 2002, but after that we didn't come back until 2005. After 9/11 the American government imposed some really ridiculous restrictions on bands coming over from our part of the world. Before they would give you a visa they would want to know things like the seating plans of every place you were going to play in six months in advance, and they would want the tax returns for the previous five years of anyone who was going to book you. It would also cost $3,000 to apply for the temporary work visa and there was no guarantee you would be given the visa just because you applied and even if you had all the paper work filled out. So promoters had to be willing to book you to perform even though there was no guarantee that you would even be allowed into the country. Now who is going to book you under those conditions. Of course we found out later that not many of these restrictions are enforced, they're only there to discourage those who aren't serious about applying. We've now hired people over in America to take care of this for us so it's much easier now.

Is it any easier to get into Canada

Oh yes, all you need is a letter from the venue booking you saying that you are playing there and you can get your visa in three days.

Right now you can only buy your music in North America on line, are there any plans for getting formal distribution in place in the future

Yes we are working on that now, we've been meeting with various companies over here, to see about working something out. We're going to meet with somebody from Cumbancha in Boston, but it's going slowly.

What's next for Indian Ocean

Well like I said we are waiting to release our new CD, and we have lots of other music we want to finish off and we would like to do some more recording. Pretty much more of the same.

It was then that Rahul realized it was 12:30 pm and he was in danger of missing a train if we didn't say good bye. So I quickly thanked him very much and wished him well. I hope that you've been able to get a better impression of the type of music Indian Ocean play from reading this interview. However you really can't appreciate their sound without giving it a listen. All of their CDs are available for download through I-Tunes of course, but if you're like me and prefer hard copies of material you can buy all their CDs and their DVD at the Indian Oceanon line store based out of Canada. Make sure if you order the DVD to request the right format as it comes in both PAL and NTSC and in order to play over here it has to be NTSC. The prices are listed in rupees but it's a Canadian based site so don't worry about that. Of course they still have a couple more dates left to play in the US so you can always catch them live in Philadelphia on October 3rd at Harrison Auditorium at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in Boston on October 4th at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub at 472 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, in New York City at BB Kings Blues Club 237 West 42nd St, on October 9th, or the final stop on their American tour before heading out, the University of Cincinnati at the Kresge Auditorium on October 10th.

After watching their DVD and talking to Rahul, I'd say it would be well worth your while to check them out live if you have the opportunity to do so. If not make the little extra effort involved to pick up one of their CDs, you won't be disappointed.

I'd just like to thank Rahul Ram for taking time out of his day to talk with me about the band and their music. Someday I can hope they might even come to Kingston Ontario - stranger things have happened.

July 27, 2009

Interview: Xavier Rudd

It's not very often that my health problems interfere with my life, but this past week I had reason to rue them for the first time in a number of years. As a treat to celebrate our wedding anniversary I had purchased tickets for my wife and I to go and see one of our favourite performers when his tour stopped in Toronto Ontario for two nights. Unfortunately as the day drew nearer it became obvious there was no way my body was going to be able to stand up to two and half hour trip by train that it would take to get to Toronto. I put off the inevitable for as long as possible, but in the end I surrendered and we gave the tickets to a young couple we know who appreciated the music as much as we would have. I figured the only thing worse than not going, was not going and having the tickets laying around the house reminding me of the disappointment.

A part of me knew all along we wouldn't be making the trip, I've not been able to make a trip of that length since 2002, so how could I have thought now would be any different. I guess I had hopped that when the time came for us to make the trip somehow it could happen because it would have meant so much to us. You see, there's something about Xavier Rudd's music that I've connected to it on a personal level, in a way that I never have before to any musicians work. My wife summed it up best when she said, "he always seems to be able to articulate how I'm feeling about the state of the world with his music."

Rudd released his first CD, To Let, in 2002 and has since produced four more discs and toured the world extensively. The Australian born multi-instrumentalist's initial albums and tours saw him performing as a one man band. Sitting behind a stand holding his three Yidaki (an Australian Aboriginal instrument named for the hunter who not only discovered it but whose spirit now resides within them, its better know by the name Europeans have given it, didgeridoos) he would play either slide or regular guitar, keep the beat with a stomp box and small percussion instruments, play some harmonica, and of course sing. Over the course of the three discs that followed To Let; Solace, Food In The Belly, and White Moth; Rudd's music gradually became both more musically and thematically complex, a period of development that culminated in his most recent release, 2008's Dark Shades Of Blue.
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When it had looked like I would be travelling down to Toronto to see Rudd in concert I contacted his Canadian publicist to see if I could set up an interview. Of course that fell by the wayside when the trip fell through, and I had to settle for fifteen minutes on the phone with him. It's a somewhat frustrating experience trying to engage a person in conversation when you know you're working against the clock as you have to keep curtailing topics in order to cover any ground at all. However fifteen minutes turned out to be plenty of time for us to talk about the current tour, Dark Shades Of Blue, his music in general, and even touch upon his wife's (Marci Lutken-Rudd) art that served as cover for Dark Shades Of Blue.

A conversation like this, if you're lucky, gives you a series of glimpses into a artist's soul and from that you try and piece together a picture of the person behind the music you've been listening to and appreciating. With Rudd, something you quickly realize is there is no separating the man from the music, for as one changes the other follows. I had started off by asking him whether the harder edge that can be heard on Dark Shades Of Blue was indicative of the direction his music was going in. I had noticed over the course of his two previous recordings that each had become progressively edgier and this one had gone even further down that road.

Xavier's answer took me by surprise, because it's not too often your going to find a musician who is willing to admit, "I don't think too much of where the music comes from it's just something that happens." Now lest anyone thing he's saying he doesn't think about his music, he's talking about inspiration here, not the music itself. You see the music he's working on now has moved in a completely different direction from what was on Dark Shades of Blue - in fact he described it as "Light and bubbly, and much brighter" Part of that he attributed to two South African percussionists he just started working with who have brought a different perspective into the mix. The other thing though is that he also sees Dark Shades of Blue as being the culmination of a journey that he had begun even before the release of his first disc.

"I was going through a really profound time and this (Dark Shades Of Blue) was a more personal album than any of the others." He continued by saying that after ten years of being in the music business he had felt like he needed to take time for self-reflection which made the disc much more introspective than anything previous. "I needed to go into the dark rooms inside myself and clean off some of the dusty shelves and this was the result."
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Now, in case your worried that this sounds like a bunch of self indulgent twaddle, you only have to listen to the disc once to know that the last thing this guy is going to do is engage in a fit of public naval gazing. Sure he might have been re-evaluating where he was at the time, but the material has universal appeal. If you've ever spent anytime looking inward you're sure to be able to identify with a great deal of what's being expressed on the recording. Anyway, if you were at all worried about him getting overtly serious, don't be. Rudd has to have one of the most irrepressible spirits going - it may have feeling the weight of working nearly non-stop for ten years while working on Dark Shades Of Blue but now...

"I'm coming down the other side of the mountain on two wheels" is how he described it. "What I'm doing now is not only brighter and lighter, its also sweet and spicy, full of life. Having the two new percussionists cross my path right now has been great. Before setting out on this part of the tour I had taken six months off, and that was the longest break I had taken in ten years from either touring or recording and so it really feels like something fresh is happening."

That might have sounded silly or funny coming out of someone else's mouth, but there's something about his excitement and sincerity that evoked an image in in my mind's eye of him popping a wheelie at the top of a mountain and riding down on two wheels in the bright sunshine of a new morning.

If you look back to when I was talking about the instruments Rudd plays, I've mentioned an aboriginal one called the Yidaki. It was Rudd who told me the story of the instrument being named for the person who discovered it and also asked that I refer to it by it's proper name. Aside from the fact that he plays an Aboriginal instrument, he has featured both Native Canadian (Marci is a Canadian) and Australian singers and musicians on a couple of occasions on his discs, and some of his songs have been about their circumstances. So I was interested in finding out if his song writing had been influenced by either Native Canadians or Australians.

It turns out the influence is a lot more direct than I thought as he is of Aboriginal descent through his father's family. Now I've met more then my fair share of folk who are something like 1/32 native blood who try and make out that it gives them some sort of special connection to creation that makes them superior to the rest of us. What I heard in Xavier Rudd's voice, first when he talked about Yidakis - asking that I make sure to call them by their proper name in this article - and then again when he talked about the cultural inheritance passed down to him through his father - was respect. Respect for how they give voice to the spirit of their country and for part he plays in letting that voice be heard through his music.
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One of the ways he lets that voice be heard is through touring and Rudd tours a lot. Part of that is of course because he's from Australia and if he wants people elsewhere to listen to his music he has to spend time in North America and Europe. With the music industry it's very much a case of if you're out of sight, you're out of mind. However, when I asked him about the difficulties involved with having to be out on the road so much he simply said: "I know a lot of people would give anything to be in the position I'm in. I feel blessed to be doing this and touring is a part of it all". Naturally that led me to asking him about touring and performing...

"A concert is like a ceremony", he said, "people come to the shows to celebrate the good stuff in their lives and use it as an opportunity to let go. All the energy they produce I channel and give it back to them so that it becomes a real exchange between us. It's a very powerful situation that shouldn't be taken for granted by looking on it as only an opportunity for making money, which given the nature of this industry is something that happens far too often." (The tickets I bought for the Toronto show were the most expensive at $32.00 each. Compare that to the close to the $100.00 your liable to pay for anyone else and you really begin to appreciate his commitment to keeping his music accessible to as many people as possible.)

My time was running out and I'd already dropped a couple of questions I had wanted to ask Xavier by the time we got to this point. I had been really intrigued by the artwork his wife Marci had contributed for the cover of Dark Shades Of Blue so I quickly raised the topic of her work and any interconnection there might be between their two fields. While they don't work at the same time there's still a connection between their work according to Xavier.

"Her artwork was important during this time because of what it meant in regards to our journey together and she selected the piece that was used for the cover." Unfortunately we didn't really have time to explore the question of Marci's art work much more than both Xavier and I to agreeing on how wonderful it is and for him to add, "While we don't directly inspire each other there is a connection between our work because of the energy we both bring to what we do and how its part of us."

So then there was only time to ask what was up and coming for Xavier Rudd and to learn that he was going into the studio in October with the two percussionists from South Africa, who are currently on tour with him, and he's feeling incredibly rejuvenated and "ready to be busy".

Fifteen minutes isn't very long to spend talking to anybody, and you sure won't get to know them intimately in that time. However after spending fifteen minutes on the phone with Xavier Rudd I feel like I have a clearer image of the man responsible for creating the music that has moved me more than anybody else's in the past five years. He's touring across Canada and the US for the rest of the summer - check his web site for the remaining dates - and if you get a chance to check him out do so. Only, do me a favour and don't tell me about it, because I really don't want to know what I missed out on.

January 22, 2009

Interview: R. Scott Bakker - Author Of The Prince Of Nothing & The Aspect Emperor

The last time I had interviewed R. Scott Bakker it was in reference to his book Neuropath that was due to be released. To say that Neuropath was a departure from his previous books - the epic fantasy trilogy The Prince Of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought) was an understatement, so we had lots to talk about at that time.

However, his latest novel, The Judging Eye is not only a return to epic fantasy, but a return to the world he had created in the previous trilogy. The Judging Eye is the first book in a new trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, that picks up a couple of decades after events described in The Thousandfold Thought. So the questions I e-mailed to Scott to answer focused mainly on the forthcoming series, as well as specifics to do with aspect of the books that piqued my interest in particular.

Like his books, Scott's answers are though provoking and intelligent, so enjoy the read.

Can you describe the evolution of what is now I presume going to be a sextet - the three books that make up The Prince Of Nothing and the new trilogy The Aspect Emperor - Had you always visualized six books, or did it gradually take on a life of its own?
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The entire sequence is titled The Second Apocalypse, which in its initial conception way back in the 1980's was to be a trilogy consisting of three books, The Prince Of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor, and The Book That Shall Not Be Named. The Prince Of Nothing, of course, turned into a trilogy in its own right, as has The Aspect-Emperor. The final book will likely be a standalone or a duology, with the second book containing a massive omnibus.

The amount of detail that you provide your readers when it comes to the world you've created is incredible - the history and the various cultures in particular. Was there any specific time period in our own history that you used as a springboard? What's the overall impression you were going for?

Epic fantasy is unique as a literary genre in that it strives to tickle its readers with a sense of awe. The thing I realized long ago–in my teenage D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) days as a matter of fact–was the importance of believability. From that point, I strove to create the most believable world I could–the world that ultimately evolved into Earwa. It’s literally been twenty-five years in the making.

In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy we witness society, for the most part, through the eyes of four characters who are outsiders; Drusus Achamian - as a schoolman (sorcerer) is considered damned by society, and even among schoolmen he is an outsider because his order believes in something no one else does, Esmenet, a prostitute, Kellus, and Cnaiur the barbarian. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and what opportunities did it allow you as a writer?

Great observation. I initially chose my characters because of the generic types they represented–the sorcerer, the barbarian, and the whore–not because they were outsiders. The fact that they were outsiders, of course, afforded more than a few dramatic opportunities. If you think about it, The Prince Of Nothing is a kind of ‘rags to riches’ narrative: I had to have rags (disempowerment) to make the rise to riches (power) dramatic. And now, particularly with Esmenet in The Judging Eye, you have the dilemma of someone bred to subservience finding themselves forced to rule.

I've always loved words just for their own sake, the layers of meaning that can be found within just one word, a sentence, or how you can change meanings just by repositioning one or two letters. The system of magic that you introduced us to in the first trilogy, especially as practised by Achamian's school, reminded me of that and I wondered how and why you devised it.

Humans are born essentialists, which is to say, we generally think things and people are what they are by virtue of their intrinsic properties or characteristics–their ‘immutable essence.’ We think that the way things appear to us are what they are fundamentally–and given the invisibility of ignorance, we generally encounter few reasons to think otherwise. No matter how narrow, how stupid or peevish, our perspectives always strike us as exhaustive.

This (combined with the logical function of language) underwrites the intuition that words have ‘essential meanings,’ that a passage of scripture, say, has one fundamental reading (which always magically happens to be our reading). So for the longest time essentialist interpretations of language ruled the theoretical roost.

In Earwa, however, essentialism is true, words have pure meanings, significations unpolluted by the contextual vicissitudes of circumstance. The idea is that if you can speak from the all-seeing perspective of the God, then you can literally rewrite the world. The different Schools of sorcery are based on the way in which these essences are mined. In the Anagogis, concrete metaphor is the primary mechanism. In the Gnosis, conceptual abstraction is the royal road to sorcerous power. (Both of these are what I call discursive magics in that they are linguistic and compositional, and as such quite distinct from intuitive magics like the Psuke).

Why did I design the world this way? Because I think epic fantasy has to be believable to succeed (and the fact that my fantasy theory of magic has interested a few real occultists (!!) suggests I succeeded). I’m certainly not an essentialist myself. I’m actually starting to think that language as we experience it doesn’t exist, that it’s a kind of epiphenomenal smoke. But the fact is no one knows what the hell language is...

You've allowed nearly twenty years to pass in the world of the books before continuing with the story - while this allowed certain things to be established - Kellus as Aspect Emperor over all the world of The Three Seas - it also left large holes in your reader's knowledge of events leaving them to pick up the information through second hand sources rather than being first hand observers and making them sift through a variety of perceptions to form their impression of the state of the world. What was your intent with disseminating information in that manner?

Since history in the real world is interpretative and fragmentary, I think this approach actually makes the world more believable. This isn’t a license to be lazy–quite the contrary–since you have to continually gauge the way each fact (and I introduce more than a few contradictions) you give will contribute to the reader’s sense of the whole. When you get this right, you can generate and sustain not only some cool atmospherics, a real sense of epic gravitas, but quite a few message board debates as well!

In the first books Kellus was an active character who we saw the world through, but in The Judging Eye he is no longer a character, merely somebody we see through other people's eyes. Why did you make that change?

The original plan was to have Kellhus progressively disappear as a viewpoint character as he gained power throughout The Prince of Nothing. The problem, it turned out, was that all my draft readers began to believe him, rather than continually conditioning everything he said and did with what they had learned from their initial glimpses into his manipulative psyche. So I was forced to go back and to add several viewpoint sections to remind them what Kellhus was up to.
The reader is on their own in The Aspect-Emperor, I’m afraid. This is a lesson I learned from Hawthorne: if you want to create the intimation of power and transcendence, it’s far better to draw down the veil than to lift the skirts. I presume this is why all the ways the Bush Administration has saved America from further terrorist attacks seem to be ‘classified.’
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The Judging Eye of the title can be seen as referring to a talent that one of the characters introduced in this book, Mimara - Esmenet's daughter from when she was a whore- possesses, the ability to see a person's nature - evil or good. Yet in spite of her ability to see these absolutes you've still left a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to good and evil in the book, why?

The thing about fantasy worlds–what makes them fantasy worlds, you might say–is that good and evil are more than projections of human self-interest. But think about a world where good and evil not only exist, but can be intuitively apprehended by everyone. Almost all conflict–and by extension, all narrative–turns on our inability to resolve our incompatible moral claims. If Earwa didn’t share the same problem, it would be so conceptually alien as to be unrecognizable. A hard place to tell interesting stories about, for sure!

I've often wondered why people who claim to be the reincarnation of somebody or other always say they are princes and kings but never somebody mundane like a slave. So I find it interesting that in Achamian's dreams that it's when he starts reliving mundane details of his forerunner's life that he realizes an important change is occurring. Did you have any particular intent with making the mundane and personal memories that come to Achamian in his dreams important, or is it just because they were different from the world changing events he and other sorcerers of his school normally experience in their dreams?

The relationship between the epic and the mundane is something that I’m deeply interested in, which is why I explore it throughout The Prince Of Nothing as well. Academics and literary writers generally regard spectacle with suspicion or outright derision–unless it happens to be more than a century old. I just finished reading a piece by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail (Canadian Newspaper), where he describes how unbearable he found The Dark Night–because of the spectacle, it turns out. I’m sure that for him his disdain feels entirely obvious and natural, and that given time he could cook up numerous aesthetic rationalizations for why he dislikes spectacle.

I actually think this attitude is not only self-serving and pious, but socially pernicious as well. It’s no coincidence that literary specialists only came to regard spectacle as a kind of ‘opiate for the masses’ around the same time literacy rates boomed in Europe and North America. Humans have a hardwired yen for the spectacular, so if you want to distinguish your tastes from the general public, all you gotta do is turn your nose up at it. The next thing you know we have a literary culture a la Russell Smith, where our brightest, most socially and psychologically penetrating writers waste all their creative output on people who already share their values–become high-end entertainers in effect.

And where the masses harbour a defensive contempt of the mundane. (It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the media ignored the fact that Obama’s single biggest liability wasn’t his race but his intellectualism).

From the very beginning, I’ve looked at The Second Apocalypse as an experiment in bringing criticism, writing that actually challenges, back to mass commercial culture. I see myself as part of larger sea change, one which integrates rather than segregates criticism and community. The Russell Smiths of the world need to be disabused of the self-congratulatory illusion that they are doing something critical with their artistic output, as opposed to simply confirming the educated assumptions of the educated classes. The so-called ‘literary mainstream’ is simply where we lock up our cultural rabble rousers where they can do the least amount of damage. The fact that they write books that would curl an evangelical Christian’s toes if they were to read it means nothing. Challenging is as challenging does. I’m no more clear on the ‘essence of literature’ than the next guy, but it strikes me as painfully obvious that literature–real literature–reaches out rather than in, that it bridges differences rather than reinforcing them.
And I can think of no better way of reaching out than with genre and spectacle.

You first introduced the ancient race of beings, the Nomen, in the books of the first trilogy, mainly through Achamian's knowledge of history and his dreams/memories, but Kellus also briefly met one in the first book. In the The Judging Eye not only does Achamian take one for his companion, but he enters into the ruins of one of their former retreats deep within the ground. Where did you draw your inspiration for the creation of the Nomen from?

Tolkien’s Elves have always exercised an almost totemic power over my imagination, and the Nonmen are simply my way of exploring that fascination. Psychologists will tell you that we are inclined to see individuals as belonging to moral orders, to see some as essentially better than us, and others as essentially worse than us. The tradition in epic fantasy is to concretize this with various races.

But where the Elves of Middle-earth have dwindled, the Nonmen of Earwa have fallen, the idea being that the very things that once made them better have reduced them to depravity over the ages. The result, I hope, is an associational palate quite distinct from the one you find in Tolkien, a sense of something glorious that has become ingrown and dark–something halfway between ruined and rotted.

As I hope The Judging Eye makes clear, the Nonmen will figure large in the events to follow.

I've been trying to avoid mentioning any particulars of the events in The Judging Eye, but I have to ask about Cil-Aujas, the ancient retreat of the Nomen. The journey through it reminded me of a cross between Dante's Inferno and the trip through The Mines of Moria in The Fellowship Of The Ring. If neither of those, what did inspire your descriptions of those events and the environment?

I reread both several times in the course of writing the Cil-Aujas chapters. There’s the ‘journey through the underworld’ component to be sure–which is a classic saw of the ancient epic. But there’s also a concretization of the past involved as well. In Cil-Aujas, you actually pass through the layering of history, plunging deeper into the atavistic bowels of Earwa’s past. But the bottom line is that I’m an just old, dope-addled D&D addict. Dungeons, man! Dungeons! Like many writers, I’ve had a life-long love affair with my fear of the dark.

R. Scott Bakker's fantasy isn't quite like anybody else's that you'll ever read, and I hope that you were able to catch a glimpse of what makes him so special through this interview. I didn't bother asking him what he had planned for the future as its pretty obvious he has his work cut out for him over the next little while. I'd like to thank Scott for taking the time to answer these questions, and encourage you to start reading his work. It's an adventure you'll not soon forget.

January 21, 2009

Interview: Reginald Hill - Creator Of Pascoe And Dalziel

It's hard to believe that their first appearance was back in 1970, but that's the year that A Clubbable Woman introduced the world to Reginald Hill's fictional Mid-Yorkshire's Odd Couple of police officers Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Numerous awards for crime fiction, and a television adaptation later, Reginald Hill and his creations are still going strong, much to the delight of anybody who enjoys intelligent, humorous, and challenging writing.

I've been an unabashed fan of their misadventures since reading a copy of that first book (sometime after its initial release date) and have happily devoured each new title as it has made its appearance on the market whenever I've been able. What has kept me, and I assume the millions of others who keep reading Mr. Hill's books, coming back is that you never know what you're going to find between the covers of a Dalziel and Pascoe investigation.

Not only have the plots for each book always been a notch above the usual you'd expect from the police procedural genre, but Mr. Hill has never allowed his characters to descend to the level of predictability. Where other authors have been content to keep presenting the same collection of mannerisms and passing it off as a recurring character, Pascoe, Dalziel, and their colleagues, have continued to fascinate by their refusal to be predictable. Although you can be pretty sure that you'll end up buying if you head off to the pub with "Fat Andy", don't count on being able to anticipate anything else about him.
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So when the opportunity arose to pose some questions to Reginald Hill about his work and his two most famous constables, I leapt at it. As Mr. Hill and I are divided by an ocean of water and a few time zones, it was easiest to e-mail him my questions about his creations and have him e-mail back his answers. So what you are reading are his answers as he's written them, not my stumbling efforts to try and transcribe a phone conversation. For those of you familiar with the series I hope that this interview provides you with answers to some of your own puzzles about the history behind of the characters and the books they feature in. If you have never read anything by Mr. Hill, let alone one of Pascoe and Dalziel's investigations, maybe this will pique your interest sufficiently to give them a go. You really don't know what you've been missing.

With the publication of A Cure For All Diseases (Price Of Butcher's Meat in America) how many Dalziel and Pascoe novels does that make? Obviously when you wrote A Clubbable Woman back in 1970, their first appearance, you could have no idea that they would become as popular as they have, but when did you first have an inkling that you might be spending a good portion of your life writing about them?

21 full length novels, plus a couple of novellas and some short stories. After the first (A Clubbable Woman) I had neither inkling nor intention that there would be any more. The second (An Advancement of Learning) was a campus mystery that needed a couple of cops to investigate the crime and it occurred to me that like the TV chefs I had one that I’d prepared earlier, so out they came again. But when I found myself wondering what was going to happen to the Peter Pascoe/Ellie relationship which I’d left dangling at the end of that story, I did begin to get that inkling – a most appropriate word as I was writing everything longhand back in those days.

Where did the idea for Andrew Dalziel come from - and does anybody not from Great Britain ever believe you when you tell them it's pronounced Dee-ell?

In the first book, Andy D was intended as a foil for Peter P – the antediluvian, steam-age, seat-of-the-well-scratched-pants cop against whom the new age, university educated whiz-kid would shine. It didn’t quite work out like that! As for the name’s pronunciation, it has I think become the shibboleth by which the series’ hard-core fans identify each other!

You've written novels not featuring Dalziel and Pascoe, but you've never strayed too far from what people would call mystery stories or thrillers. What is it about the genre that first appealed to you and that still inspires you?

I should have thought my two historical novels, two war novels and two sf novels were quite a long divagation from the mystery genre, but yes, my main track has been along the crime route. I have always been a great fan of the genre, but I think that creatively the its initial attraction was that it provided something interesting to be happening while I explored my characters and said what I wanted to say! In other words it provided (sometimes literally) a skeleton to support what might otherwise have been a somewhat flaccid narrative. Soon I began to feel, and still do feel, that it is such a varied and variable format that it can contain almost anything. To the essential narrative dynamic of nearly all good novels – what happens next? - it adds the intellectually intriguing question – what really happened in the first place? And because its so elastic a form, it readily expands when I want to focus on matters perhaps peripheral to the main whodunit themes, such as animal rights protest, the First World War, or medieval mystery plays! One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep going with D&P for so long is that knowing them so well means I can hit the ground running, and don’t have to spend too much time rebooting them every time I start a new book. This gives me space to stretch out in any direction I fancy. Of course I have to be sure to provide enough basic information to involve new readers, but I know from my mail as well as from personal encounters that my old readers are a lively adventurous bunch, ready to go anywhere I may take them so long as the company remains good!

Which comes first the crime, the criminal, or how to go about solving it? You write stories where you already know the answers to the questions that most of your characters are trying to figure out - so I was curious as to how you go about putting all those pieces together

It’s not quite true to say that I know all the answers when I’m writing the stories. Like most novelists, I often find the process is a voyage of discovery rather than the simple tracing of a path to a known destination. Often I have set out for the land of spices and found myself making landfall in America instead! Anything can be a starting point, a newspaper paragraph, a conversation overheard in a pub, a dream, a good idea for a title, an urge to write about a certain topic – sometimes the crime is there from the beginning, sometimes I stumble across it during the journey – and frequently the point I start from becomes irrelevant during the writing and the last thing that I write in the book is the first chapter. It’s an organic not an architectural process. No blueprints, and sometimes the looked-for rose turns out to be a cauliflower after all.
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Andy Dalziel came pretty close to snuffing it in Death Comes For The Fat Man (did you ever seriously consider letting him die?), and, even if he's reluctant to admit it, it's fairly obvious that his near death experience has changed him somewhat in A Cure For All Diseases. He's always hidden surprises under his gruff exterior - even though sometimes it's been an even gruffer interior - but to see him have moments of introspection was a bit of a shock, and I wondered what inspired you to push him down this road?

Certainly not. It would have been like killing an old friend! Obviously the experience has left its mark on him, and, being a bright guy, he wants to understand why he feels as he does, what he can learn from it, and where it is going to leave him. Throughout the books I’ve been at pains to portray Fat Andy as a man with much more going on inside than he ever cares to show. All that happens in A Cure For All Diseases is that for the first time his situation permits him to speak directly to the reader. In the next book (Midnight Fugue, out later this year) Dalziel is back at work and discovering what most people discover if absent from their job for a while, or when they retire, that no one is indispensable.

Why did I push him down this road, you ask. Because, like all my character, I hope, he’s not a fixed point. He has to develop, change, and, yes, get older. Bit like me, I suppose. With the first third of my life behind me, I suppose I may be getting a tad more reflective….

A Cure For All Diseases, is much lighter in tone than the two or three that proceeded it, was this a deliberate decision on your part, or was it just the way the story worked out?

Is it? I suppose so, though I always like to have a bit of a giggle as I go along. In the case of "A Cure"…I’d like to think its tone might owe something to its origins in Jane Austen who mingled mirth and high seriousness more deliciously than almost any other writer.

As the series has advanced you've gradually been introducing two new members of the Mid-Yorks; Hat Bowler and Shirley Novello, giving each of them gradually larger roles. When you first introduced them did you have long term plans in mind, or has having them available as cast members, so to speak, suggested ideas for putting them to use - as each of them have now had a "starring" role and are now given more to do in each subsequent book

I hate creating characters simply in terms of their function. No matter how brief their appearance, I like to know them as people. Even dear old PC Hector had to be more than just a clown. While I don’t have usually long terms plans for anyone when they first appear, if they “live”, then obviously they aren’t going to simply vanish after a single appearance.

The character of Fanny Root has been popping up to plague Peter Pascoe for a number of years now, and although the dynamic of their relationship has changed radically since he saved Peter's daughter, there's still the feeling that Fanny is Peter's personal Albatross to bear and perennial blind spot. Where did you get the idea of coming up with a character who plays this type of role in Peter's life, and what did you hope to accomplish with him?

Franny Roote was a very early creation, appearing in the second D&P novel over thirty years ago, God help us! I was fascinated by him and though he was obviously out of commission in jail for several years, I often found myself wondering what he would do when he came out. So I decided to take a look – that’s the great thing about being a writer – we have free access to everyone’s private life! He’s a very laid-back, cool kind of chap, and thinks it would be rather amusing to gently haunt Peter Pascoe, but he is in the end hoist on his own petard and finds that Pascoe has come to mean great deal to him also. He is a spirit of mischief, and in some ways he’s even a match for Dalziel, who like to think he sees through him, yet finds it very hard to lay a finger on him.

I'm curious as to why the American edition of your latest book has such a radically different title from that released in Canada and Great Britain? Considering the story line I thought A Cure For All Diseases was a highly appropriate title

My American publisher assured me that for reasons I still fail to understand, A Cure For All Diseases would not signify anything to an American audience. Across the border in Canada they had no such problem. In fact given the choice of the two titles, they opted for A Cure… nem con! What the American choice does have going for it is that it’s a direct quote from Sanditon. I’d put it on my list of possibles when I was still looking for a title as I wrote the book, but nobody over here liked it and as the book developed, I could see it wasn’t really suitable myself. But in New York they seized upon it with glee, and I hope that sales figures will prove they know their market!

The idea of Andy Dalziel attending a "health spa" was funny enough on it's own, but to find him plunked down in the midst of a town filled that's billing itself as a centre for "New Age" health treatments brings the words Bull and China shop to mind. What inspired that particular combination?

This really all came out of JA’s (Jane Austen) Sanditon, the theme of which was clearly going to be absurdities which always dance attendance on the new, whether it’s in art or fashion or healing or anything. It’s time alone that tells us what works and what is merely daft. There is real healing going on in my Sandytown, and that’s why Dalziel is there. But all the alternative stuff’s there too, a lot of treatments that mainstream medicine would like to dismiss out of hand, but which are proving remarkably resilient. With Dalziel in need of somewhere to convalesce after his explosive experience, this updating of 19th century Sanditon to 21st century Sandytown seemed the perfect place for him. He too, remember, is in a somewhat ambiguous state!

At some point even Andy Dalziel will have to consider retirement, have you given any thought to what the future might hold if that ever came to pass?

As those who have read my novella "One Small Step" will know, next year, if I am spared, I will have reached a time that seemed so far ahead back in 1990 that I was able to imagine Andy Dalziel coming out of gouty retirement to investigate the first murder on the moon. How I will reconcile this with his continued presence in Mid Yorkshire as a very active head of CID I have not yet worked out. One thing I am certain of - my lively, imaginative and hugely intelligent readership, having come thus far along this always winding and often perilous path with me, will not be daunted by whatever outrageous explanation presents itself.

Perhaps it has all been a dream….

I don't think we have to worry too much whether Reginald Hill will be able to figure out some innovative means of reconciling his truth and fiction. As he's proven so many times in the past he never seems at a loss for an inventive plot. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for answering the questions I posed with the same intelligence and humour that he brings to all his writing.

January 11, 2009

Interview: Author Indu Sundaresan

When I began editing the on line magazine "Epic India Magazine" a little over two years ago I had read very few books by Indian authors. Since it was meant to be an arts and culture magazine I figured that was a situation that needed to change. Thankfully India is now probably the largest English speaking market for books in the world, and it's becoming increasingly easier to find works written by Indian writers.

With each different author you get a new perspective and a fresh voice telling you another bit of the story that is India. One of the things that comes clear from those writing about contemporary India is that she is a country going through a period of painful transition. While shining office towers and IT companies might be common place in downtown Mumbai, so are three generations of one family living in a shack without running water a mile away in the same city.

In her collection of short stories The Convent Of Little Flowers Indu Sundaresan gave us glimpses of lives that have felt the brush of change, and also showed how powerful the forces resisting change can be. Known for her historical fiction, these stories were her first foray's into her native country's current circumstance and I was intrigued as to what brought about her change of venue - so to speak.
With that in mind I contacted Ms. Sundaresan and she very generously gave of her time to answer my questions about this collection of stories, her writing, and her life in general. If you haven't all ready read any of her work, I hope this encourages you to at least pick up her collection of short stories if not one of her novels

You were born in India and came to the United States to finish your studies, can you fill in some of the biographical details from before you came to the US, and maybe explain how it is you ended up staying there, or if it was always your intent to emigrate?

My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, so I’m the proverbial “army” brat and spent most of my childhood moving around India, from one base to another. When I finished my undergraduate degree in economics, I decided to apply for graduate school, went to the University of Delaware, and ended up with two graduate degrees. I don’t know that it was my intention to stay on here in the US in the beginning. But I started writing fiction very soon after, and have found a community of writers through classes and conferences that I would not have had access to in India—being here in the US is a blessing for my career as a writer.

Did you find that you had a period of adjustment that you had to go through when you first arrived in the States, and was there anything you found particularly difficult to acclimatise your self to?

In the beginning, it was all very new, very interesting, thought provoking at times. And I am a writer (though I didn’t know it then), so I watched and listened, took notes in my head, never really let anything shock me too much.

Perhaps the funniest thing to happen was the day I landed in NYC. As I was wheeling my luggage out of customs and immigration, tired from the long flight and somewhat disoriented, a man leaning on his cart whistled and said, “Com’ere, baby, give us a hug and a kiss.” I remember that I laughed and shook my head and ran out of the terminal, but that was my introduction to America!

How did you first become interested in telling stories - in writing?

Not until I had finished graduate school and had a story in my head. I decided to write a novel, so we bought a computer and I wrote one. And then I wrote another novel, and then I wrote my first published novel, The Twentieth Wife. I don’t recall being intimidated by the process then, though I know now just how difficult it is, which was in some senses advantageous to me—I tell this story of my beginnings of a writer as a very simple tale, and it was thus. I didn’t think I couldn’t do it, so...I wrote my novels.

There's a long tradition of story telling in India, one generation passing along the stories they learned to the next generation. How do you see yourself as a writer fitting into that tradition - if at all?

My father and my paternal grandfather were storytellers, and they loved having an audience. I remember that my father would make up bedtime stories for me, two sagas about a horse named Silver and an elephant named Jumbo. He also told my sisters and me stories of the kings and queens of India when we went to visit all the forts and palaces around the country, but at bedtime, his favourite trick was to tell us only part of the story and then switch off the light, leaving us to think (until the next day or until he was free again in the evenings) of how the stories ended, or how the plot resolved itself. My father taught me how to tell stories in my head long before I came to put them down on paper.

In the afterward to In The Convent Of Little Flowers you make mention of how either a news story or a casual remark was the inspiration for some of the stories. It sounded like this wasn't a way you had worked before, where have you previously found your inspiration for your work?

The stories of In The Convent Of Little Flowers are contemporary, so their sources are those you mention.

My first two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are based on the life of Nur Jahan, a seventeenth century empress of Mughal India. Her story I stumbled upon while I was in graduate school (though I ought to have known this better from my school days; I was an indifferent student of history). One evening, homesick for family and friends in India, I went to the university library, typed in “India” in the subject keyword at the computer, and went to the section that housed books on India. I returned to my apartment with an armload of books, one of which was a book on Mughal harems and Nur Jahan. It wasn’t until I had finished my first two unpublished novels, that I began to think of what I had read about her, checked out that book again, researched her life more thoroughly and wrote The Twentieth Wife and its sequel.
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When Deepa Mehta was filming Water - a movie about the harsh ways in which widows are still treated by some elements of Indian society - she was attacked (literally) by extremists. Do you worry about any, or has there been any, backlash in regards to some of the stories in this collection

Some of the topics I describe in this collection are, by their very nature, somewhat taboo in Indian society. But they exist. And I would like to think that there is a growing awareness and openness in India today that will allow some thought, some dialogue about the stories because we all will have to confront this either within our own families or in our communities at some point in our lives.

Having said this, I did not put Convent together for the controversy; I rarely analyse my fiction thus before I write, or indeed after I have finished a story. Consequently, most of the stories in Convent were written from a strong emotion, whether anger, upset, outrage or pain and sorrow at what I had heard/read. This (the emotion) has always been the most basic premise of all of my work.

Once I have the idea for a story, in whatever form, I’m methodical in studying the best voice for it, whose point of view should be predominant, what tense to use, how the story should be told—in other words, the craft is what interests me. Then I write, continuously and steadily, until the story is done. And then I revise, send it out to friends, read their comments, revise again.

When the book is done, I hope (as I think all writers hope) that the emotion still carries through the stories, that it affects my readers as much as it did me, that it causes them to think—this is all I ask from my work.

Do you find that living outside of India has changed your perspective of the country and if so how has this shown up in your writing?

The distance from India has given me the ability to write about India. It’s a personal thing, other displaced Indian writers tell fluid stories about the immigrant experience in the US (or elsewhere), something I still find difficult to do for I live the life and find myself unable to find an adequate perspective for this.

I love my homeland, love the history and living away as I do, use my writing to find my connection to India.

In recent years there seems to have been an explosion of English language writers from India/Pakistan. Is this something new, or is it just that the rest of the world is finally noticing?

It’s new, in that even if writers have been writing stories, it’s only in the past twenty years or so that we are being published internationally on such a large scale. And people are reading, listening to what we have to say about India.

Some of the stories in In The Convent Of Little Flowers deal with the social situation and status of women, and others with the social hierarchy known as caste. Why do you think it necessary to write about these subjects?

Again, I’ve never analysed the stories from this point of view. The social status of women, the prevalence of the caste system, these are inherent in Indian society, changing slowly with the times. Most of the stories in Convent deal with the ordinary people facing somewhat extraordinary conditions in their lives and learning how to deal with them—I would say this could happen anywhere in the world. I set my stories in India, and having done so, to provide a complete and full picture, these are issues I must address in the story-line. My intention though, first and foremost, is to be a storyteller.
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While there were some genuinely shocking stories in Convent, the ones I found most moving were the ones showing people overcoming the conditioning that has kept them trapped - "The Most Unwanted" for instance. What do you hope that your readers take away with them from those stories as compared to the other ones?

We’ve all heard these stories before, and I’ll address “The Most Unwanted” specifically where a grandfather struggles to come to terms with a grandson his unmarried daughter brings into his home, and all the impact it has had so far on his life. I thought deeply about Nathan, the grandfather, about where his prejudices came from and how he shatters them by the end of the story because the child puts his head on his lap to sleep.

If I were to continue “The Most Unwanted” beyond that point, the end of the story, then Nathan would never again in his life doubt his decision to accept his grandson. He would defend both the child and his daughter ferociously and in doing so, will force the people around him to accept his decision.

We’ve heard these stories, and assume that they always happen to other people, so the question then for me was how someone would react when it happened to them and I think it depends so much on the specific situations and histories of the protagonists.

If there’s anything I’ve hoped for in this collection (apart from wanting to keep its emotion as close to the source after all the revisions and edits), it is that people will think about my characters, their circumstances, what they are battling and how they win or lose.

Your previous books have been historical epics, set anywhere form Mogul times to the last days of colonial rule, and this collection was set in modern India, have you given any thought to where you want to travel to next?

I just completed my fourth novel, Shadow Princess, which takes me back to the Mughal India of my first two and picks up the story-line after the end of The Feast of Roses. I’ve always wanted to write this novel, and so this story was definitely next in line for me—though I’m not done yet, still working on revising and editing this novel which has a tentative publication date for end of 2009.

I have a vague idea for my next book right now, though it’s still too early to take my head out of Shadow and research this more thoroughly—I expect to be doing this over the coming year.

I just wanted to thank Indu Sundaresan again for taking part in this interview and encourage you once again to at least pick up her collection of short stories, if not one of her novels. In The Convent Of Little Flowers was my introduction to her work, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for more of her work.

December 21, 2008

Interview: Francis Jocky - Songs For The Soul

As anyone who has done any amount of interviews with professional performers will know they usually follow a pretty cut and dried formula. You're told what time to phone the person, and how long - usually twenty minutes - that you have to talk to them, and you know that you're one of about forty people that they are going to be talking to that day as they play "promote my product". Sometimes though you get lucky and have the chance to just talk to somebody - have a real conversation instead of feeding them questions which they respond to with stock answers.

When I was told that I could spend some time talking to Francis Jocky about his new release, Sanctified and his career I wasn't sure what to expect. He had just released his first disc domestically in North America and he had been spending the week filming television shows and doing radio spots promoting it, which made it pretty likely that the interview could end up being the typical question and answer deal.

Thankfully that wasn't the case, in fact we went all over the place, and the list of questions I had prepared to ask him became gradually more and more irrelevant. One way or another we covered all the ground I wanted to cover with them, but it came out through the course of conversation as we talked about music in general, his music in particular, and about the new disc, Sanctified as well. I did start off by asking him to talk about himself, but we were soon diverted by his dropping quite the surprise on me.

So sit back and enjoy eavesdropping on my conversation with an extraordinary musician and artist, Francis Jocky.

It's always a good sign that an interview will go well when the first words out of the person's mouth that you're going to interview are along the lines of "I'm so glad to speak to you". I was rather taken aback by that as its not the usual reaction one expects from an interviewee. If that surprised me, the next words out of Francis' mouth took me even more aback.
"When I read the review you wrote of me two years ago (for Mr.Pain) it was like you had known me for twenty years" Francis continued.

Well, so much for any pretence at maintaining a professional attitude, because I spent the first ten minutes listening to this wonderful voice at the other end of the phone piling me with some of the nicest compliments I've ever had. Yet I also realized as I listened to him that it was more than just him complimenting me, it was the voice of a person who was frustrated by the music industry's attempts to pigeon hole him as an African musician. "They don't understand that I love all styles of music - that it doesn't matter to me whether its a country song or anything else - if I like the melody I like the song. A good song is a good song no matter what it is."

Now you hear this a lot from people, but not often with the same sort of intense passion that I could hear in Francis' voice, and it made me curious as to where this came from. He had already told me that he had been born in the Cameroon, central West Africa, not a country I'd ever associated with being a hot spot for international music.

"When I was younger my parents used to travel to Europe and they brought back many types of music for us to listen to. I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne."

Okay wait a minute - Bob Marley, sure - but Randy Newman and Jackson Browne. An eight year old kid in the Cameroon even knowing who Jackson Browne is let alone listening to and appreciating his music stopped me cold. Hell most people I know in North America don't know the name Jackson Browne. When I passed this along to Francis he laughed.

"I know it's funny. I went to see Jackson play in New York - he has a new CD out now, (Time The Conqueror) and is playing shows - and I went backstage to see him and ask him to sign a copy of my CD. I talked to him for thirty minutes. He was surprised too when I told him that I was a musician and that Late For The Sky (one of Browne's early releases) was what inspired me to become a musician. I was nine when I first heard it and I was just learning piano then, and there was something about his songs, even though the lyric are about many different things, even songs about cocaine, but still there was something very spiritual about them. They are songs that I can still listen to now years later and feel the same things that I felt then, enjoy the same way."

"You know", he continued, " When I'm trying to compose now - the songs they have to come from the heart - I want to be able to listen to them three years from now and still like them as much as I like them now - and this is what I learned listening to Jackson's music."

While we had a great time comparing notes about Jackson Browne's music and laughing about the songs we liked, like I said I don't know many people who listen to him so it was nice to talk to someone else who does, I attempted to get us back on course and talking about him instead. We had left him at eight years old listening to Jackson Browne -

"When we moved to Paris, I was about thirteen or fourteen when my family moved to France, I discovered Jazz music, people like Theolonius Monk - and although I had started learning piano in Cameroon, listening to this music pushed me to learn more and more and expand my talent.

I was really surprised though when I got there, you see I didn't know about Black radio and White radio. I quickly found that out though when I asked people about a Dolly Parton song that I had liked and they looked at me funny - like what was I listening to that for. But I listen to and learn from all types of music, and still do. Like when I was playing with Jon Anderson or when I had listened to Stevie Wonder's music... It was listening to Stevie's music that I learned that a great song has to say something - it can't just be a tune or a nice melody, but there has to be a heart to it."

So you're probably all ready getting the picture that Francis isn't your ordinary pop musician, what with his wide range of musical influences, but even more unusual is the fact that he holds a PHD from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Since we had made it to Paris I couldn't resist asking him about it. He laughed, as if it were not really any big thing

"Well you see, when I told my mother I wanted to be a musician, she said fine but finish your education first. So there I was going to university during the day and playing in clubs at night. The PHD was easier because you don't really have to go to school too much - you just have work for three years on a thesis. Now my teachers wanted me to do something on American Policy, but I wasn't really interested, and I wanted to do it on Zimbabwe and South Africa. This was in the nineties and there was still apartheid in South Africa while Zimbabwe had Black rule. Well they weren't that interested in that, but compromised and said why not do something about the UN, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

They weren't too happy with the result because I wrote mainly about South Africa and Zimbabwe, and very little about the UN, but they had to accept what I had done because of all the work I did. Of course all the time I was working on it (the PHD) I was continuing to play music too."

As you can tell, Francis hasn't taken everybody's idea of the normal route in pursuing a pop music career, and that has included having to deal with challenges that have sprung up because of his background and where he has been living. Early on in his career he elected to sing his music in English - I assume because so many of the people he listened to growing up were singing in that language. Living in Paris that decision created a problem for him.

"In France seventy per cent of the music on the radio has to have French lyrics which meant the chances of me getting my music heard on the radio there weren't very great considering all the other people in the world who are more well known than me who sing in English. I think because they are a small country surrounded by so many other languages that they are scared of losing their culture. But at the same time that makes them lose track of the big picture beyond their borders. So a record company might not want to sign me to their label because I sing in English and they don't think they'll get much radio play in France, but they don't stop to think about international performances and radio.

I have to be able to write in the language I want to for me to be able to believe in my lyrics properly. It's like Nina Simone, you listen to her and she's living in her lyrics. She gives you what she has inside. You hear her sing only one note and its so powerful - because she sounds like she is going to die in that note - surrender herself completely. I want to be able to do that with my songs, and you can't do that if you're not doing things in exactly the way that's most right for you."

Earlier on Francis had mentioned that he had worked with Jon Anderson of Yes. This was another way in which his career has been different from others as he has chosen to do collaborations with others instead of merely focusing on his own work - I was curious as to why he made the decision to work with others.

"I love their music - there's no way I would say no" Implying what kind of fool would say no at the opportunity to work with people like Bono, Jon Anderson, and others who Francis has worked with in the past.

The funny thing about working with Jon Anderson was that he wanted me to play keyboards - I said Jon, Yes has songs that are twenty minutes long - I don't know half the songs - how am I going to do them. He said don't worry you'll be fine. We were also going to be doing new material and I had some specific ideas on what I would like to see happen with Jon's voice. A lot of the time on Yes's songs his voice gets lost among all the other things going on, so I wanted to put it up front - keeping the music simple with a solid groove and let the world see what his voice sounded like in the foreground.
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I learned a lot about improvising from that time - especially playing keyboards (laughs) but Jon liked what I was doing so much that he wanted me to be composing all the time, so I was writing ten songs a day and we were working with them. At times I would just improvise on the piano and he would start to sing and we created songs that way. It was one of the best learning experiences I had as a musician and working in a studio."

That seemed like a good cue for asking about the production of his most recent release Sanctified as I had noticed quite a number of differences between it and his first record Mr. Pain. I had also been curious to find out about the inclusion of Andrew Blakemore as a co-lyricist and how that worked.

"With Sanctified I composed all the songs at once, which was different from Mr. Pain because it contained songs that I had written from various points in my career. I wanted the production to be much simpler - I wanted it to be almost naked - no production at all if possible. That honesty I mentioned hearing in Nina Simone's voice was my inspiration. Emotion is real - I'm looking for integrity when I make music - that's my goal in everything. You don't do music to make money - you do it because you are inspired to do it, are moved to do it, and the only way you can be true to that is by ensuring that you're as honest as possible with everything that you do.

Andrew writes songs for Janet Jackson and I've always admired and respected his work. I write the lyrics first and then have Andrew look them over to see how they can be made into a better song. I trust him to understand what it is I'm trying to say and I don't have any ego about them, because all I care about is them being a good song. So even if Andrew says start over again from the beginning I will. It's great to work with someone who understands what it is you want to do and doesn't try to impose something else on you."

" I was going to sign with (I'm leaving out the name of the label to save them from looking like assholes), a label I had really admired for the people who had recorded with them in the past, and they had been happy with what I was doing. Then all of a sudden they want me to do African music, they say they want me to become the next Hugh Masekela (South African jazz trumpeter). I was very confused, I mean I like jazz but I don't play it. Then they started worrying about the lyrical content of songs on Mr. Pain, that "Tell Me Why" was too political because it questioned Mr. Bush about the invasion of Iraq. This was a couple of years ago, before it was as popular today to be critical about the war, and they didn't think anybody would play it on the radio.

"All these people say to me - Why don't you do African music - well why don't African music do me? Why don't you sing in the language of your own country? You know, there are over two hundred different dialects spoken in the Cameroon - which language do they want me to sing in?"

Well, I said interjecting, the problem is that many people over here seem to forget that Africa is a continent not a single country, and they don't realize that there's no such thing as "African music". Asking you to sing African is a stupid as asking Bruce Springstien to sing North American or Bono to sing European, but people don't get that.

"I don't care where a song comes from, I listen to the soul in it. I do music for all people to listen to, not just people from here or there, so this makes no sense to me when they say do African music."

I could almost see him shaking his head at the other end of the line, and remembered what he had said at the beginning of our conversation about how happy he had been reading my review, that I had understood what he was trying to do, and hadn't cared about anything about the music. I wondered what he would like people to take away after having listened to his music

"When I listen to music I want it to fill my soul, I want it to speak to my soul. When it comes down to it all we really have our souls and sometimes you need to feed your soul. If my music can speak to one soul, that would be great, that's what I've wanted to do right from the time I first heard Jackson Browne's songs and they spoke to that place in me. It doesn't matter what language they're in."

Talking about souls naturally led me into asking about the title of the newest disc, Sanctified. It's not normally a word you hear associated with pop music, outside of gospel circles, so I wondered what it meant to Francis within the context of his disc.

"My daddy was a preacher, so I have a lot of respect for people's religions and beliefs and I don't want to offend anybody with that title or the way I use it. But I'm using it as a metaphor for passion - the emotional power that happens when you love for instance. It's not specific to any belief, but it comes back to my desire for music to fill the soul."

"Some people have questioned me about the picture on the cover of the disc (Francis is wearing Angel wings and playing guitar) and wonder what it signifies. The truth is that it was from a campaign to raise money for the fight against cancer in France, and all of us who took part were considered as angels for donating our time so we all had our pictures taken with wings, and then the pictures were sold to raise more money. I thought the picture worked with the title so that's why we put it on.

I believe that God is everywhere, even when you love, and music, no matter what the subject, lets me express that belief."

One of the things that I had felt when listening to Francis' music this time, was that there was a spiritual quality to what he was doing similar to the connection between Indian musicians and their music. When I mentioned that to him he agreed that it was the "same feeling" and added how peaceful it was for him to be doing music.

We were both starting to wind down by then, as we had been talking for nearly two hours, but I think he summed up a lot about himself and his music in his final few sentences.

"They call me an enigma (There's worse things they can call you Francis) (laughs)"That's true, but it's because all my songs are different, and my music comes from all over. I can't just play one type of song or I get bored and I won't be true to what I want to do."

Francis Jocky is going to be very busy now, as aside from promoting his new disc Sanctified (The release party is this Sunday, December 21st/08 at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St. NYC starting at 7:15 pm) he's also just become the cultural ambassador for a new charity, All For Africa, and his first duties will be performing at the All For Africa Barack Obama Inauguration Party this January in Washington DC. He'll also be popping up on your television quite a bit over the next little while as he just did a recording for Fearless Music that will be shown on Fox TV and LC2 International TV has just finished a documentary on him and the disc Sanctified.

I hope you enjoyed listening in on my conversation with Francis, he really is as unique an individual as he sounds in this interview, and his music is a reflection of those qualities that distinguish him from others. The industry may think of him as an enigma because he doesn't fit into one of their neat boxes for easy packaging, but there's nothing puzzling about the quality of his music and the depth of his passion for what he does.

November 6, 2008

Interview: John Trudell: Activist, Poet, Musician - An Umined Mind

Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process
The intelligence of each arriving human generation
Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs
Of the industrial society each human generation arrive in
The human beings are individually and collectively mined... John Trudell; "Somewhere Inside My Head"; Lines From A Mined Mind Fulcrum Press 2008.

Huh? That was my reaction when I first read those lines from the introduction to the collected writings of John Trudell, Lines From A Mined Mind. What is this crazy on about with his "Mined Mind" shit. But you know the longer I stared at it, and the further I read on into his introduction and then his poetry, it actually began to make sense - at least around the edges.

You see I may not ever really fully understand what it means to be a Mined Mind, because my mind has been so successfully mined already. I like to think of myself as being an outsider, separate from the mainstream of society, if only because of my career choices in the past - the arts - and the fact that my political and religious affiliations tend to be along the lines of "none of the above". However, simply the fact that I'm willing to make those choices at all, keeps me playing the game and being sucked into the maelstrom of our society. My mind has been mined because I believe that by doing what I do it makes me different, maybe even superior, to a great many people out there. Yet just the fact that I think that way, comparing myself to everybody else, means that I'm still just as much a part of it as everybody else because its the yardstick I measure myself against.
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Okay so I'm not doing anything to help you either understand what the hell it was he was talking about or giving you any insights to just who this guy is - which is after all the point of this exercise. It's supposed to be an interview with John Trudell - writer, lyricist, and former political activist - yet I'm babbling on about belonging or not belonging to society. Well you see people like John - they don't have a choice - when you're own government declares war on you for simply asking to be treated the way everybody else is treated, you get the hint real fast that your presence is not appreciated.

Now that's bound to change the way you look at things, and get you thinking outside the lines that make up the carefully constructed boxes that were supposed to think inside of. Talking to John made me realize just how big the gulf is between somebody whose really free, and what I think of as being free. I don't know if that's going to come across in what you're about to read - it pales in comparison to what I remember our conversation sounding like - but I hope by the end you come away with a clearer picture of John and a better understanding of where he's at, and the mining process that's being carried out on your mind on a daily basis.

Can we start off with some of the typical biographical details - where were you born and all that.

I was born in 1946 near Omaha Nebraska and split my childhood half and half between living in town with my parents and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation just outside of Omaha with my grandparents. I dropped out of high-school because it wasn't working for me, and at seventeen I joined the navy. I did my four year hitch, even though it wasn't really right for me, and got out in 1967. I did a couple of years of collage after that, but that didn't work out because of some political shit, and I was denied something that I should have got credit for.

This might be a stupid question, I don't know, but how would your experiences as a child have been different than your so-called typical kid growing up in the suburbs?

Well, like I said I travelled back and forth between the two worlds, living half my time on the reservation and half my time off it, and what I saw as the major difference between the two worlds was that while everyone on the reservation was poor, there was a real community, one that had common roots and a culture that tied it together. Off the reservation, in the non-native world it was more about competition - more emphasis on material stuff and class distinctions.

You know back in those days the emphasis was on finishing high school and getting a good job, no talk of university or collage for us, right, but I never felt like I was fitting out there - that's why I tired the military, and I don't regret that either, but it was all part of looking for a place where I fit. It was only on the reservation where I felt that sense of belonging - that's where my cultural/social peer group was.

I was just curious, up in Canada we had the Residential School system and as late as the 1970's kids were still being taken away from their families - wasn't there the equivalent in the States

Yeah, the boarding schools, but they weren't happening everywhere, and my dad kept me out of them - he also protected me from religion, so I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff I know some other people had to put up with.

What galvanized you to become politically active?

Well like I said I didn't feel like I fit anywhere in the non-native world. You know - no matter what you did, a job, school, whatever, you would have to be subservient to authority if you want to get ahead, and I just wasn't into playing that game. So when I went to Alcatraz (The All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans from 1969 -1971) it was like getting back to my community - the place where I fit best.

You were part of the All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 69-71 and them Chairman of AIM from 73 - 79. Those were some volatile years for the politically active Indian - Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Shootout, Anna Mae Asquash. Reading about it - it appears to have been a time of great hope and excitement mixed with fear and confusion. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on those years and are you able to give your assessment of it in general?

Our grievances were just, but the American government declared war on us and fought us for all they were worth. There were great highs and great lows, but we were motivated by good intentions. I know some tribes are better off now because of what we did, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was that our energy and our spirit was rekindled. There was a revitalization of who we were as a people.

Our confusions were those of any human searching for identity, of any human being searching for a way of being. Now when I look back on it I see it as part of my life experience where I might not have realized the lesson I was learning at the time, but at some point I got it.

From reading biographies about you there's the appearance that you became a poet and song writer over night because that's when you first started doing it professionally. Prior to the early eighties when you started recording, had you ever given any thought to music or poetry being part of you life

Nope - never. It wasn't anything I had planned on doing. I started writing in 1979, although I'd always been influenced by music, it wasn't with the intent of doing music. It's just that back in 1978 I knew things were going to change - activism had served its purpose and I could see it had run its course. Then the fire, when Tina, her mom, and the kids died (In 1979 just after John Trudell led a protest against FBI headquarters a mysterious fire burnt down his home killing his wife, her mother, and their children) that was the final severing point for me - the world would never be the same after that. I was falling through realities and writing became something for me to hang onto.

How did you get started with music - you released your first album Tribal Voice in 1983 on your own label - how did that come about, and what kind of music was it?

I had met Jackson Browne around this time, and was just hanging out with him. Now that I was spending time in recording studios and hanging out with musicians I began wondering what these lines I'd been writing would sound like set to music - you see I don't think of myself as a poet or a song writer - I write lines. I decided that I wanted to use the old music - the drum and the singers and set the lines to what I knew best then. Jackson produced and we made Tribal Voice.

It was after that that I met the Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis - actually I don't think of him as a Kiowa guitar player, just one hell of a great guitar player. Anyway Jesse introduced me to electric music. He wrote music for my lines and we put out our first album in 1986 AKA Graffiti Man. I was still doing the spoken word thing then and Jesse took me out on the road with a band and got me playing in clubs so I could learn what the heck it was like to be a musician, 'cause I didn't know anything about doing that sort of thing. We did that for three years until Eddie died.

I interviewed Martha Redbone a while back, and she said that as a native pop musician one of the hardest things she faced was overcoming people's expectations of what she as a Native woman should be doing musically. What's been your experience with this like?

I just blow it off - no insult to anybody or anything but I can't be anything other than what I am. If people have expectations they just have to deal with them... I'm me and that's who I represent - I can't claim to represent all natives or anything like that, the only ones I might represent are the ones who agree with what I'm saying.

I know, there's this whole Fascism of Romanticism thing going on - people have created an image they want natives to fit into - some sort of fantasy ideal that makes us easy for them to say - that's what they are, but you know that's not reality. I happen to be native and male, but I am who I am and that's how I participate in reality - as a human being - rather than as a race or a sex.

When I reviewed Lines From A Mined Mind I tried to explain what you meant by a "Mined Mind" but I'm not sure how clear I was on it - can you take me through it?

Well you read the introduction right (Me: Yeah but you know I'm still not sure whether I got what you were after) Okay they've got us believing that believing is thinking, but the reality is we're not really thinking cause believing is accepting without thinking about it. Because we're not thinking we end up focusing on our fears, doubts and insecurities. The "being" part of human is being mined and that allows us to be programmed by the beliefs they tell us is thinking.

If we ever want to use the power of creative thinking we must become focused on the conscious power of thought. It's also got to be an awareness that's beyond just the self - it's a recognition of the power of intelligence in of itself without anything tied to it. It's all about energy, because thought is energy, and when you take energy away from humans we're flat - we're mined out.

You write about a variety of topics in your poetry - what does it take for a topic to inspire you?

I don't really think in terms of being inspired you know, sometimes the lines just appear, sometimes I have to go hunting for them. I'm not really that sure what sets the line in motion, sometimes I'm inspired by desperation when I start (laughs)

Your work stands on its own as poetry, yet you perform a good deal of the verse collected in Mined Mind as songs. What are you looking for the music to do with your lyrics?

As an art form music has its own value, but like I said I'm not a poet or a song writer - I write lines - I guess you could call me a liner (laughs). What's great is that they work with music. The way we work as a band is that I write the lines first and then the guys in the band take them and we find the right texture to go with them. That way the music becomes an extension of the lines.

I've always really liked spoken word 'cause we can all talk and we are all used to being talked too. (laughs) There's something really direct about it though - I'm not really sure how it works, most of what I do is based on hunches, I'm just glad when it does work.

What do you hope that listeners, or readers take away from your work?

I don't believe in hope - hope is a sedative - it's something you do instead of doing something - you sit around and "hope" things will get better. You know when Pandora was given her box of evils by the Gods and told not to open it, and she did anyway letting loose all the evils on the world, the last of the things that was in that box was hope!

Okay let me re phrase that - what do you want people to take away from your work?

Hah, whatever they can get out of it - I want it to make sense to them you know - Hell I'm crazy so it's always a relief when people get a little something from it you know? (laughs)

We wrapped it up after that, mainly because my head was spinning with the various stuff that we had talked about. Talking to person who genuinely doesn't give a fuck, who is really free, can be a very confusing thing for the rest of us who are still hung up on the various things that are built into the system that hold us back and keep us in check. I'm sure there's lots of you out there who are going to dismiss what he says as bullshit, and I guess that's your right to do so. However I hope that some of you will be able to get an inkling of what's going on in a genuinely un-mined mind. Don't worry about being confused - in fact take it as a good sign - when things stop making sense it's the first sign that you're starting to think clearly.

September 9, 2008

Interview: Grayson Capps

I first heard of Grayson Capps by accident when a distributor sent me a catch all of CDs to review. Buried in amongst them was this disc called Songbones, which turned out to be a collection of songs that Grayson had recorded along with a friend at somebody's studio one night after hours back in 2002. Some of these songs have shown up again on his releases since that time, If You Knew My Mind and Wail & Ride, but I had never heard any of his music before and I was blown away.

I contacted Grayson's label, Hyena Records and asked them if they could send me out any of his more recent releases, I had been thinking of Wail & Ride, and instead they sent me out a promotional copy for his soon to be released disc - Rott 'N' Roll - September 9th/08. This was the first I heard of Grayson playing with his band the Stumpknockers and as a unit they were even more powerful than he had been solo. Sometimes when a guy's music sounds so potent solo it loses some of the edge that it might have had when a band is brought in, almost as if it gets watered down to accommodate the other musicians.

That wasn't the case here as Grayson seemed able to hold on to his intent whether he was playing solo or with a full band. I was captivated by his ability as a story teller and his uncanny ability to bring things to life through song. You really felt like you were being plunked down in the middle of something when you listened to what he was offering, and that if you closed your eyes you'd find yourself wandering through the lives of the people and places he was singing about.

When the people from Hyena offered me the opportunity to chat with Grayson about his music, I took them up on it and connected up with Grayson in mid August. He was visiting family in Kansas when I caught up with him and we ended up talking about stuff for about an hour. I think the people from Hyena might have expected me to talk about his new release, Rott 'N' Roll, and we might have a bit, but we mainly ended up talking about his music in general.
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We ended up jumping around all over the place - I'd ask a question and one of us would get distracted and change the subject to something else - so I've tried to round up all the stray bits of conversation we had and plunk them in as answers to the questions they seem to fit the best. So Grayson, if you end up reading this and it doesn't quite sound the way you remember it sounding that's why.

Grayson had just returned from a two or so week tour of Norway, and I had wondered about that so I figured I'd start us off with that, and we went from there. I'd just like to thank Grayson for taking a hour out of his time with his family to talk with me, and Kevin over at Hyena for setting this up.

You've just come back from a rather extensive tour of Norway - while I know quite a few musicians have followings over in Europe - Norway is a bit off the beaten path - how did you get hooked up there?

It was two or three yeas ago, some guy, and I can't exactly remember his name now, really liked my music over there and invited us over to play, and they really liked us so we've been going back ever since. We've already played two weeks over there this year, and probably will go back again. You know it works out pretty good for me money wise too, 'cause the way the economy is over there, they pay two to three times what they pay back home in the States. As long as I can get out of there without buying anything I come out ahead. Everything is about two or three times more expensive there as well.

It's really cool over there though - it's so beautiful the fjords and all, and the people are friendly - so we like playing there. It's weird though too 'cause they have a different way of looking at the world than I'm used to - I think it comes from them being pretty much self sufficient - they've got their own supply of Oil from the North Sea oil so they don't have to rely on anyone for anything it seems.

I've read the biography that you've published on your web site, and your early years sound like they could be the subject of one of your songs. What do you think you took from those years that continues to influence you today - creatively and otherwise?

They really made me who I am today - formed me I guess you could say. There were always all these people around, friends of my father, and friends of friends, who were full of ideas and creativity. It was like a community who would be always involved, and they'd all feed off of each other - sparking ideas and inspiring each other. You'd get late night sessions of people sitting around drinking, but reading poetry to each other and singing songs instead of just partying right. I'd like to emulate that sort of environment now, if I could - minus the chaos and the staying up all night drinking, I've got a family and the two just wouldn't mix - but the community of like minded people who can inspire each other ...

There's so much from those days that's till sort of boiling around inside of me, adventures in the past, that are waiting to come out if I could just find the time to write it all down. Finding the time to write is hard when you're on the road, it really gets in the way, and we must have spent over two hundred days touring last year. You're the first person in the bar and the last out every night and you're doing five shows a week in different towns... it really starts to wear on you. Where are you going to find time in there to let your mind relax enough to bring up the stuff from the past you want to write down?
My father was a big fan of writers like T.S. Elliot and others like that, poets who didn't forget about the journey that people took to get the place they are when you see them. So when I look at people now I wonder who are these people - especially the folk that most of us would rather not look at. The guy in the park sleeping on the park bench with the bottle in his pocket wasn't always there - what was his story - what brought him there? I really believe their problems are an extension of what is wrong with society, and so I try to look at them in those terms too - what is this and what's it mean?

You were a theatre major at Tulane University, but music seems to have had other plans for you - What happened?

Yeah I went to New Orleans as a theatre major but a university education really opened my eyes as it exposed me to so much more of the world than what I had seen to that point growing up in Lennox Alabama - there's far more to the world than you realize when you're from a small town and starting to see it through the eyes of other people like you do at a university is an eye opener. Of course so is New Orleans itself...(laughs) bars and brothels...

It was a teacher of mine in the theatre department who probably planted the idea of music, as he said something along the lines of rock and roll being the new theatre. A couple of friends of mine and me started to do open mich shows, and I guess we were quite a bit different from everyone else that did these things. Instead of just learning some songs, we would put together a whole show. Being theatre majors we would rehearse the shit out of anything before we got up on stage. You can do anything you want on stage and in a bar, so we had a great time.

But it wasn't until I moved into the house on South Front Street that I started to get serious about music and began focusing on song writing full time. That's when we did Stavin' Chain and I got my first real taste of the music business. But that was too much music and not enough show, and I need to find that balance between the two.

"A Love Song For Bobby Long" is not just a song, it's also the name of a movie that was based on a book your dad wrote about two of the people from the time of your childhood. You said you wrote the song in defence of Bobby Long - what did you mean by that?

Bobby was handsome like Al Pacino, and he was like that guy Anthony Quinn played in that movie...damn I can't get it to come, you know he's full of the zest for living and...(Me: Zorba? in Zorba The Greek) Yeah, that's it - he was like a real to life Zorba the Greek - he showed you the potential for what life could be by living it to it's fullest. Of course he also was a great example of how not to live your life too as he ended up burning all his bridges and pissing everybody in his life off.

You know a lot of people thought Bobby was a fool, but he played the fool, and that was an important lesson, cause by playing the fool you can rid yourself of ego. You've gotta get past your ego to be a good performer otherwise you're not going to be honest in what your doing. (laughs) I remember when I first told my dad about wanting to go to Tulane to study acting he said well let's see what you can do. Get down on the floor and lay there kicking your arms and legs screaming I'm a dying cockroach and see if you can make me believe it.

He wanted to make the point that you had to be willing to get beyond thinking of yourself at all if you were going to be a performer. You have to be able to look completely ridiculous, and not be afraid of it, that way you stop thinking about being yourself, get rid of your ego, and just be what you are performing - an archetype instead of a cliche.

So you know, although Bobby ended up alone and drunk in a V.A. hospital, and I guess in most people's eyes he was a failure, he was a good teacher and there was far more to him then what most saw.

You were living in New Orleans until Katrina, and have since moved to Tennessee. Others who I've talked to who have lived and worked in New Orleans at any time in their career talk about the indelible effect both the city and the hurricane had on them. What type of effect do you see the city having had upon you

I lived in New Orleans for twenty years before I moved out to Tennessee. I don't know how much I was influenced by the music of New Orleans to be honest, it's funny how so many people out here who aren't from here, act like there from New Orleans, and I was never really part of or embraced by that scene. If anything New Orleans influenced the way I see characters and my way of looking at life.

For the first time in my life I was a minority when I lived there, and I liked that. It created a tolerance for people that you don't find anywhere else, it's like you get used to seeing people naked. It has to be the least judgemental place I've ever been.

When you grow up in a small town and everybody knows you, they want you to stay like you are, and you can't grow because of that. New Orleans on the other hand embraces growth and that was incredibly liberating. It's like this great boiling broth where everybody is in the same soup but it keeps mixing and creating something different each time you taste it.

I remember after the hurricane and everybody saying it's going to be the death of New Orleans, well you know the day after the winds and everything died down some gay guys were out parading in their panties, (laughs) and I knew no matter what happened the spirit of that city couldn't be killed.

Ever since Katrina you've been living down in Tennessee. Has this changed your music?

To be honest I've not spent all that much time here in the past two years. Last year, like I said I was pretty much on the road all the time, 240 shows or something like that. I'm changing that now, so I'll just be playing on weekends and spending more time here. I'll have a couple of weeks in September and October where I'll be overseas - the UK and Holland but that will only be for a week or two week at a time.

Moving from New Orleans to Tennessee has made me write more about the country. When I write it's a journey of self discovery, a song will usually come about from me trying to figure out a problem I have - if it offers a way out - growth - then I'll keep it. Having children and living here in Tennessee have made a difference in that it's got me out of wallowing in my own stuff. I don't know, but before it feels like I was in a damaged state of mind, and coming here has renewed my focus on what's important. It's like I said earlier about finding a way to have the community of like minded people without the chaos - well it feels like that's what we have here.
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We recorded the latest (Rott 'N' Roll) almost all live, and it was great because we could feed off each other's energy, and what's around us. This was the first album where it was just me and the band, Stumpknockers, and it was great. The first two were me and some studio musicians, so with me and the band it was a different thing as we all had our own stakes in it. There was the sense that we were doing something together that made it a lot more fun.

What, if anything do you wish to accomplish with your music. Is there anything you'd like your listeners to walk away with after listening to one of your records?

I wanna change the world (laughs) They say that poets say in words what people can't express and I look on that as something to work towards. You can express a lot in a song or a poem - all the dreams you want, all the magical possibilities in the world, yet what it comes down to for me is trying to achieve honesty - it's the hardest damn thing to do. There's parts of me at times that can say fuck it, but I've got to remember what it is that's important. You can feel it in waves, it's like little magical moments, and every so often you get it - your truth. If you tell your own truth, people might not get it in quite the same way, but they'll get it on their own terms. It's all about finding common ground where you can meet them.

The world today teaches people that they need shit; material stuff like clothes and cars and other sorts of shit. Truths remind people of what they know and have forgotten because of the distraction of struggling to get all the shit that they've been told is important.

I was really struck by how vivid your songs are - I find that I can imagine just what the place looks like if I close my eyes while listening. Is that a conscious effort on your part to do that - or does it just happen in the process of creating the song?

That goes back to my theatre school days and the stuff we used to do in class. Who, what, where, why, and when - all the questions you ask yourself to make a place real. So when I start to write something I do that and put myself in a place. If you're keeping all that mind you're just going to be able to convey it. I remember one of the exercises we used to in class was one person had to get up in front of the rest of us and imagine what room of the house they were in. They couldn't do anything but sit and think about that room and the rest of us had to figure it out simply by looking at them. It was amazing how many times we were able to figure that out from just looking at the other person.

It was around this time that I started hearing the sounds of family in the background, and we'd been talking for a good hour already so I figured we should wrap it up and I'd let him get back to his visit. We talked a little about the possibility of him coming to play in Canada, and then we said our good byes. Looking back at what I've written out it sorta seems inadequate, but maybe that's because words on a page just don't do justice to either the man or his music.

Even over the phone Grayson Capps is a three dimensional figure, filled with a vitality that just doesn't show up here. I hope this interview offers you a little peek inside his head, and if you've not listened to his music before piques your curiosity enough to go out and pick up his new CD Rott 'N' Roll that's being released on September 9th/08. For those of you who already know Grayson's work, well maybe you've just got to know him a little better than you did before. Thanks again to Grayson Capps, and his family, for sparing me time from his vacation to chat and I hope you can make it up to this part of the world sometime.

September 7, 2008

Interview: Willie Nile - The Troubadour Of New York City

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to review the new DVD by Willie Nile. Live From The Streets Of New York. It had been years since I'd really listened to any of Willie's music, and the DVD brought back in a rush all the reasons that I'd listened to him years ago. Honest, passionate, and intelligent rock and roll without any of the pretensions that seem to have to crept into people's music these days.

Yet he's more than a rock and roller, as he's been bitten by a muse who lets him look at the world with an eye full of mischief and an ear for the absurd. His songs spring from the streets of New York City, but he's not blind to the rest of the world. The music might ring with a New York accent but his songs speak to everyone.

The other week I sent him off some questions through e-mail about him and his career and what you're about to read are his answers reprinted verbatim. I hope reading this interview will inspire you to check out Willie again if like me you lost track of him for a while, or if you've never listened to him, that you take the time to do so now. You won't be disappointed.

You mentioned in the DVD Live From The Streets Of New York that you were originally from Buffalo NY. Can you tell me a little about those early years and what influenced you to pursue a life in music

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family where with older brothers buying rock and roll records and playing music all the time in the house as well as having a lot of classical music played so there was a wide variety of things to be heard by our small ears. We had dozens and dozens of international visitors, exchange students, Buddhist monks, Indian poets and governors, you name it. They came to our house, some for dinner, some for a few days, some for the summer and some for a year. It gave us all a pretty cosmopolitan world view. They all had different languages, customs, clothes, attitudes, etc., yet you could see how people could live together and get beyond the differences. It was interesting to see from such a young age. On top of that my father was a great storyteller. Somewhere along the line I started writing poetry and when I learned to play the guitar I started putting the words into songs.
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What was it about New York City that made you decide that it was the place you needed to be in order to do what you wanted to do?

It was where the beat poets were from. I was into Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat sensibility. New York was also where the record companies were and it was closer than LA or Nashville. I had a bunch of songs I'd written and wanted to make a record. I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo in the summertime and sleep in the park when I was in high school and I found it to be a magical place. I felt free in the city.

You arrived in New York City in the 1970's - it must have been quite intimidating to show up on your own and try to find your way as a musician - did you have any contacts or had you made any arrangements before hand? How did it end up coming together for you?

It was pretty simple for me. I wanted to record my songs and the record companies were in NY. It also felt like Paris in the 1850's and London in Dicken's time. There was a timeless quality to it that I liked. It was definitely intimidating at first but I got over it after a while.

New York by 1977 was a hot bed for new music, with Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, as well as guys like Lou Reed who'd already been around for quite a while - where did you fit in amongst all that?

It was an amazing time. I'd been living in the Village since 1972 and there were a lot of old ghosts from the 60's in the air. There was a pretentiousness in certain quarters that I found ridiculous. One day I was looking in the paper for new places to play I saw an add for CBGB OMFUG. It was on the Bowery and not far from where I lived so I took my guitar and wandered in. At that time it was a Hell's Angels hangout along with a lot of Bowery characters. There was a flop house above it. I asked who to talk to about playing there and was told. "Speak to Hilly." I waited for a half hour and Hilly never came out. While waiting and looking at the jukebox I saw one record on there by a "Hilly Kristal." So I proceeded to pump about five dollars of quarters and played the song over and over until Hilly finally came out of his cave quite annoyed to see who was playing his song so many times. I think he got a kick out of some wise-ass doing something like that so he let me play there. This was when the bar had a jazz pianist as the entertainment and just before Television started playing there. I played in front of a bunch of Hell's Angel's and Bowery Boys. It was great fun. I got to remind him of that story on the last night at CBGB's. I'm glad I got to see him before he died.

As for the scene that developed shortly afterwards, it was incredible. I used to go see Patti Smith and Television all the time, The Ramones, you name it. It was inspiring and original and it rocked. It was a welcome relief from the tedium of the music that was being played around that time. It was original music played from the heart by a bunch of outcasts and Dead End kids. I used to call friends up on the phone at midnight from the back of CBGB's and hold the phone up and say: "Listen to this... you gotta come hear this, come to New York." It felt like The Cavern Club in Liverpool back in the day when The Beatles started happening. They were great days.

You opened for the Who during their 1979 tour of the United States - how did that association come about?

I'd heard through my record label that Pete Townshend was a big fan of my first album. I didn't believe it and thought it was just record company hype but when we played LA on that first tour, The Who's management came to the show and after seeing me play invited me to open for The Who on their cross-country tour in the US. Naturally I said yes. I was a huge fan. It was magical to see them play night after night. I had never played with a band live before that tour so to be playing in front of 20 - 25 thousand raving Who fans night after night was pretty interesting. I had a great time.

I was interested to hear you describe yourself as a troubadour at one point on the DVD, just because that's not a word you hear people describe themselves as very often any more. What do you mean by it in terms of your music and your approach to it?

Someone who travels from town to town singing songs and telling stories would be considered a troubadour in days past. I guess that's close to what I do. I write what moves me, in one way or another. It helps me get a hold on some of the madness that goes on in this world.

One of my favourite songs on the Live From Streets Of New York DVD was "The Day I Saw Bo Diddly In Washington Square". I know you co-wrote that with Frankie Lee, but it, "Back Home", and "Streets Of New York" all struck me as being distinctly Irish influenced. How much if any do you think that heritage influences your writing style?

I love Irish music and my family roots are Irish for the most part so it's not surprising that some Irish influence would get in some of these songs. Irish music has passion, spirit and soul and if there's any of that in my music as well then that's okay by me.

There are a couple of songs on the DVD, "Cell Phones Are Ringing (in the pockets of the dead)" and "Hard Times In America", that are obviously political, but you're more than just a political songwriter. Where do you find your inspiration for material?

I just write down what comes to me from everyday life. Sometimes it's a love song, or a bar band rocker, or a minstrel fairy tale, or a poke at some phony who needs a good sock in the jaw, or a lowdown dirty rock and roll song that can ignite the masses to revolt and take over the planet and make it a better place for people to live in.
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With Cell Phones, I live not too far from the World Trade Center and was in town on 9/11. I watched the towers burn and felt the shock and horror, as did everyone. I was on one of the first flights out of town a few days later on my way to Spain for a tour and was struck by the concern and compassion the Spanish showed night after night with their questions. They really cared about what happened and how people were doing. So, in March of 2004, when the Madrid train bombing happened I immediately checked to see if my Spanish friends were okay. The next day in one of the NY papers one of the headlines read: "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead". Apparently there were some 190 body bags lined up along the tracks and cell phones were going off in the bags. People were looking for their loved ones. It went right through me. It gave me chills and made me angry. That people could do this to one another in this so called 'modern world' really pissed me off. I wanted to fight back in some way. I think we, as a race of people, are capable of much more than this. It's bullshit, all these religious zealots running around praising their 'god' and then killing some innocent people. All sides are guilty of this recklessness. We've got to find a way to get more compassion in this world. So I just started typing away on my computer and wrote the song straight out. It was my way of fighting back. When I sing it live it's surprising to hear so many people singing along with the outro chant "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead" in defiance of all this madness. It's heartening, I must say.

When you write a song, do you have a specific intent in mind before you start, or do you just let the muse take you and then run with it?

Usually I just let the song happen to me. I just go by my instincts on whether to pursue an idea or a phrase or a line of music. If it feels like it could be something I'll just follow that and try not to get in it's way.

What's all this that I read about the 2006 CD Streets of New York being a comeback CD? Had you not put something out for a long time before that?

I think it was 6 years since the last one was out (Beautiful Wreck of the World). I guess I just take too long between albums. I don't see any of it as a 'comeback'. I just take my time and do it when it feels right. I'm just now finishing up a new album for a release in early 09. Can't wait to get it out there.

Earlier I asked you about what it was about New York City that attracted you in the first place, and it's obvious that the city means a lot to you now. Are you able to articulate what it is about New York that makes it so special for you?

There's an electricity to this town that is intriguing to me. It's a cosmopolitan city where the rich and poor and everyone in between wander and roam about amidst canyons of concrete and steel. I've heard that Manhattan is built on a certain kind of granite that is a strong conductor of electricity. When you leave the island you can feel a certain quietness come over you.
There's always interesting music and art and food and crazy people and people who think they're normal but aren't, you name it, it's here. It's the concrete circus where everybody gets a chance to do the do.

What's next for Willie Nile - are there more CDs in the works, any tours on the horizon etc?

There's a number of shows booked till the end of the year. The web site lists them (Willie We're also putting together some tours for next year after the new album comes out. After we finish this new album I intend to make another one right away. The songs are still coming and it's never been more fun so I plan to take advantage of the time and record as many things as I can. Here's to making music and magic and maybe stumbling across a little inspiration here and there...

Well I can't think of a better note to end this interview on than that, so thank you Willie, and I'm glad to see we won't have to wait as long between drinks this time.

August 27, 2008

Interview: Richie Havens

Sometimes when you get to know somebody only through what you see of them on a movie screen or hearing them sing the impression you form of them turns out to be completely erroneous. However there are those rare people who, when you do actually get the opportunity to meet or talk to them, turn out to be just what you thought they were. Richie Haven is such a man. On the morning of Tuesday August 26th I was fortunate enough to spend just over a half hour on the phone with him and it turns out he's the gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and humorous person that I had thought he was from seeing his pictures and listening to his music.

The hardest part about interviewing Mr. Havens was remembering I was interviewing him and to not get so wrapped up in enjoying our conversation that I forgot to take notes and write down his answers so all of you would be able to read what he had to say. I hope that a little of his gentle spirit is able to shine through "the flat, unraised words" that I've transcribed from our conversation, as once again I find this medium far too inadequate to do my subject justice.

After the initial greetings were over and I verified that we were going to have slightly more then the twenty minutes that you're normally allotted for these types of interviews, my query of whether I was going to be first of millions for today was answered with a gentle laugh and an assurance that I was actually second of only a few, we began. It seemed to make sense that we talk a little about his recent release -Nobody Left To Crown so that's where we started - but be warned - both of us (maybe it's something to do with being a Richard) turn out to share the same predilection for deviating from the subject under discussion and getting fascinated by something else. Anyway without further ado -Ladies and gentlemen - Mr. Richie Havens.
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When you were putting together Nothing Left To Crown did you have a particular intent in mind about what you wanted to accomplish with the album.

I was trying to actually align it with everything that's going on today in the world, the total surroundings if you would. In some ways it's a reflection of all the questions that were being asked a long time ago that we still haven't been answered. There's also a certain amount of wanting to let others know, those who are just becoming aware and not knowing what the world involves that there are questions that need to be asked. In some ways it was a catch all type of situation, with bits and pieces of of the whole picture in an attempt to show how it all works.

In some ways it's also about trying to avoid the making the same mistakes over again, learning from them - retreating from that aspect of ours selves and finding new ways of being and doing.

At this point I apologized to Richie for any pauses on my part - and told him it was just me trying to keep up in my note taking. I recounted that the very first interview I had done was with Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers and had used a tape recorder. I had fallen in love with his accent and just enjoyed listening to him answer my questions only to discover that I had forty-five minutes of white noise - so I no longer used tape recorders.

(laughter) I was waiting for that (laughs again) But you know, getting caught up in beauty, in the awe in the world, is a good thing.

Not when you're trying to do an interview with somebody

(laughs) No I suppose not.

Speaking of which - I wanted to ask you about two of the songs from Nobody Left To Crown, ones that happen to be favourites of mine, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who and "Lives In The Balance" by Jackson Browne. What was there about each of those songs that attracted you and how do you see them as being pertinent to today's world

Those two songs, in fact any song that I do, have first of all moved me in some way. It's like I hear a song and the light comes on because that person has articulated something in such a way that there's no way it could be any clearer. It's been like that right from when I first started out though.

Do you know Freddy Neil? He wrote "Everybody's Talking About". Well I used to travel up from Brooklyn to the clubs in Greenwich Village, and you have to remember I was singing doo wop songs with my friends in Brooklyn, and I heard Freddy singing about "Knocking The Walls Down" and I thought to myself - can he sing that in public? Isn't he going to be arrested or beaten up or something and hauled off stage? The songs were all about the need for change.

To this day I still have feel an awe for the songwriters who can write those tunes that show how it's possible to make a choice in how to live your life - they built a platform that can be built upon. So it was those songs, the songs that moved me that I first sung. (laughs) It was funny how that came about, because, you know, I would be sitting in the audience singing along with Fred and a couple of the other folk playing in those days, and Freddy said to me why don't you get up and sing - you've been singing them - harmonizing - in fact, you know them just as well as I do. The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughs) (If you go to Richie's web site there's a specific page where he explains his playing style) I went from singing Doo Wop and having four guys to harmonize with to having six strings to harmonize with.

It all comes back to the awe again really - my awe for the guys who can create those songs that illuminate things in such a way that it shines a new light on a subject so that you might say I never thought of that. So when I'd hear them, they would inspire me to sing them - it's like the songs came to me.

I've always admired the way you interpret other people's music, and I was wondering if you had a particular process that you go through when you prepare an interpretation?

Well, no, I don't have a particular process, what I try to do is let the ring of the writer shine through when I sing someone else's material. It's like I'm the vehicle for their message and allowing it to flow through me. Of course I use my own tuning like we talked about, but I really don't make any conscious decisions about them aside from that - I just sing them because they were powerful enough to make me want to sing them and I hope that comes through - how important I felt the song was.

You know I never think I'm changing anyone else's song, and I'm always surprised when someone says to me - wow you really perform that differently from so and so - because that's never my intent.

This is sort of a silly question to ask someone whose performed and sang as many songs as you, but is there any one in particular, or even one performance of a song in particular that stands out in your mind

(laughs)Well it's not as odd as you think, because I've been thinking a little along those lines. I've been thinking a lot about that first trio that I performed with, you know the guys who were at Woodstock with me. I've been thinking of maybe doing some work with them and trying to show the connection between the music of the fifties and the sixties. For me that's an important connection because of where I came from in the fifties, in Brooklyn doing four-part harmonies with my buddies on street corners, to where I went, which was singing in folk clubs in Greenwich Village.

You know we all like to sing the songs that appeal to us, and writing songs that work for our voices, yet it's the songs that have changed me, the ones that have made think about their messages are the ones that have had the most impact, and are the most important. You know I never thought about changing the world with the music, except maybe on some deep and personal, almost subliminal level, for individuals. If someone would say to me after hearing me perform a song, that they'd never thought of something that way before - then I would feel like I'd accomplished something. It was always especially nice when they would come up to me afterwards and say they'd never understood something until they had heard me sing it. That always surprised me, cause like I said I never saw myself as doing anything different than the person who I'd heard do the song in the first place.

I'd love to go back and do a compilation album of the songs that changed me, as they are the ones that are most important to me.

Speaking of things important to you, I wanted to ask you about a project you started up a few years ago, The Natural Guard, and wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about it

Well the Natural Guard was almost like a test of the things I went through as a young person. I was always thinking about things, and asking questions about things that nobody else I knew was interested in, and there was nobody there to answer those questions for me. So I was just curious about whether or not there were others, kids now a days who were experiencing that same sort of thing. Kids ask a lot of questions and there aren't always the people around to answer them, and this was to be a way to help them find the answers.

It was also to show them that through involvement they can make change, so we'd put out the idea to them that their community is the most endangered environment and they were most endangered species and can be done about that. We didn't want to force anybody to do it, because for so many of them school is enough of a prison already, and we figured if they didn't want to be there they weren't going to be able to accomplish very much. So in the first program we had eighteen kids between the ages of seven and thirteen.

There were quite a few people who said they didn't think it would work, because the older kids would soon get bored of working with the younger kids, but it turned out that the older kids became the teachers for the young ones, and helped them out. We adults stood aside and let them make the decision as to what they wanted to do for their community - the first one was in New Haven Connecticut - all we there for was to provide them with the tools to accomplish the what they wanted.

It was quite amazing how well it worked out - you know kids are great - they went down to the mayor's office and said we want more trees for our neighbourhood, and they got them, because whose going to say no to kids right? But more than that is how they learned what they were capable of - that they were able to make a difference just by being who they were and caring. That first group did so well that they were recognized with a Points Of Light award by Hilary Clinton. It was wonderful - I was so happy that what I felt would work really did work.
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What's really wonderful is that I recently heard from one of the young women who was involved in that first project and she's gone on to become an environmental lawyer. That was really a great feeling to hear that.

Well I've probably taken up more of your time than I should already, but if it's okay I'd like to ask you about the movie I'm Not There which you had a small part in

That was a lot of fun... You know when I first heard about what he was trying to do, with the different personas, and different people playing different aspects of Bob, I wasn't sure how it would work, but it ended up being amazing. Knowing Bob, I don't know what else could have really captured him in the way this movie did.

When they introduced me to Marcus, and said this is Woody, I was sort of taken aback (laughs) What do you mean Woody? Woody Guthrie? Yet it all made sense too because of who Bob was and what he went through. There was so much pulling on him all the time that I'm sure it really did get to the point for him that he be wondering where he was and am I there, or I'm not there. Marcus was great, you know, they had him learn six Dylan songs for the movie, and he had to learn how to play guitar too, because he didn't know how before, but I had great time doing our song.

(Me: Yeah I really liked it, on the DVD in the special features they have the complete version of that, not just the edited version in the film.)

Really I didn't know that, I'll have to get the DVD so I can see that. I was sort of disappointed that it was cut in the movie, although I could understand why of course.

Wasn't Kate Blanchate something else though, she was so him it was amazing.

(Me: I know, I'm old enough to remember Bob from that time, and I've seen pictures of him from then, and it was amazing. What really got me was her use of her hands - that was so exactly like him - especially the scenes at the piano)

Putting a woman in that place, to give a female version of self, was brilliant. We were able to see things that might not have come out any other way, just because it was a woman in that place. There's something about women and the way they can change something about themselves without making a big deal about it that allows us to see things that weren't there in them before. That's what Kate did with Bob, brought something to him that none of us had ever seen before. It was exceptional.

Working on that movie was wonderful and I really think it did justice to Bob (Me: I thought it did a better job of telling the story of that period of his life than the documentary Bringing It All Back Home) Yes, I think so too, and I'm really glad that I was involved with it - You know there's a club I play in and it's near where Marcus lives, and he drops in and sits in with me on stage for a few songs, and I really enjoy that. He's got so much natural charisma that kid that you could put him on stage with Barack Obama and he'd put him in the shadows (laughs)

Well I guess I really should be letting you go, but I have to ask what you have in store for the future - you're off to England I know this week (Richie: Tomorrow) but are you going to be touring in support of the new album or do you other things you'll be doing?

Well to tell you the truth, I'm glad not to be touring in support of the new album. I'm actually already starting to work on the next one, I've got a couple of songs in mind for it that I'm working on. One thing always does lead to the next thing though. Albums are often just like pieces that are cut off from the fold, and you don't stop because an album is finished. Although starting a project again is a challenge because of that arbitrary nature of them. I'm just leaving myself open for things to come through. I'm also keeping up with the folk under four feet tall, children, and have become involved with literacy programs for children, so a lot of energy goes there.

Well thank you very much for this, and have a wonderful time in England

Well thank you and maybe we'll see you up in Canada sometime.

There it was, my few precious moments with Richie Havens. I don't know how successful I was in capturing just how gentle a spirit he truly is, while still being incredibly passionate about life and his art. I hope you are able to appreciate just what a rare treasure this man is from my words. If you can't the deficiency lies in my pen (or keyboard as the case maybe) and not in the subject matter. The world would be a lot better off if there were more people like Richie Havens in it

July 9, 2008

Interview: Elizabeth Pisani Author Of The Wisdom Of Whores & HIV/AIDS Advocate

A few months ago I wrote a review of Elizabeth Pisani's book The Wisdom Of Whores which recounted her work combating the AIDS epidemic in South East Asia. In the book she talked candidly about issues that most people are still afraid to speak about openly when it comes to the disease. A great deal of what she talked about is the need to ensure that the world doesn't become complacent when it comes to the issue of AIDS prevention.

As more and more drugs have come along that can extend a person's life once they have contracted the disease, and money is being poured into searching for a vaccine, less and less is being said and done about the nitty gritty of AIDS prevention. Most political and religious leaders would rather talk about how much money they are spending on a vaccine instead of talking about making sure intravenous drug users having clean needles or transgendered prostitutes have condoms.

Even sillier are the ones who start postulating about how things as unrelated as Global Warming, are causing the virus to spread. While there is some truth to the fact that poorer countries are hit harder by AIDS, economic factors are not the major contributor to the spread of the disease that people would like to think. For the disease to be transmitted it still requires an exchange of blood to occur between an infected and an uninfected individual. Unprotected sexual activity and sharing dirty needles are still the two main reasons that the disease is spread.
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Elizabeth Pisani called me from London England on Tuesday July 8th to talk about the Wisdom Of Whores. She had just retuned from a three week tour or the United States promoting the book there. When we had set up the interview she had suggested waiting until after she was done with her book tour of the United States so we could talk about the reactions to the book. Things didn't quite go as planned, as you'll see, and we ended up having a rather free wheeling discussion about the state of HIV/AIDS prevention and policy around the world.

You've just finished an extensive book tour of the U.S. for Wisdom Of Whores, and you're still among the living, but I'm guessing it wasn't without its moments

Well to be honest, there was almost no public reaction at all. (laughs) Which in itself says something. There seems to be a huge amount of reluctance on the part of the media to deal with confrontational issues.

Well what about reviews - the New York Times and the other big papers - nothing?

Nothing - there was only one review that has been published in the mainstream press since the book was released at the beginning of June. That was in the Philadelphia Enquirer, and it was a very positive review too. There has been quite a bit in the blogsphere though, and I had some radio interviews on National Public Radio (NPR), but that was it.

Even in cities like San Francisco, where you'd think they'd notice a book about AIDS, there wasn't anything at all in The Enquirer or any of the papers. I did have a meeting with the head of one of the grass roots organization in San Francisco, and that was good. He and I don't always agree on everything but I have immense respect for the work he and his people have done.

So no, there are no real "Moments" to talk about that happened in any of the public meetings. Interestingly enough though the book is selling better in the States than it is in Britain where I've had all sorts of press. It was strange to go from being in the pages of The Financial Times to nothing - but there it is.

Where I did get some reactions was in the private meetings at places like the World Bank, The Gates Foundation, and USAIDS.

Well that was a question I was going to ask you a bit later on - so I might as well ask it now. What has been the reaction of places like that to the book

I was scheduled to give a sort of brown bag, lunch time talk, with questions and answers at World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. I had been told not to expect many people, maybe ten or fifteen, but it ended up being standing room only - so about sixty people, which was quite wonderful.

What was the subject of the talk?

The interaction between prevention and treatment, and how we in the AIDS profession are still getting it wrong by not focusing our energies where they are truly needed which is on the high risk groups; men who practice anal sex, the sex trade, and intravenous drug users.

I don't get it - way back in the early days anybody I knew who was aware of the disease knew those were the people most at risk, and we also knew how the disease was transmitted - why is it still so hard for people to get that message?

There are really two issues at hand here, one is partially the fault of us in the AIDS industry and the other is the concern over the stigmatization of those in the affected groups. Unfortunately there is a very real concern when it comes to the latter; by saying men who have anal sex, people in the sex trade, and intravenous drug users are the ones most at risk for transmitting the disease you set them up as pariahs. As these are also people who already exist on the margins of most societies, or are a minority already subject to harsh treatment, labelling them most at risk for transmitting the disease increases the chances of them being ostracized.

Knowing full well that politicians weren't going to want to put up money for gays, sex trade workers, and needle users, the threat to people outside the high risk groups was stressed in order to secure any money at all. The trouble is that the money isn't being spent on the areas where it's most needed. It's all very well and good to have programs for people in the low risk groups, but if we don't spend the money on those most at risk what are we really doing to stop the spread of the disease?
For example in the Bronx, the borough in New York City, they've just announced a program where they are going to test everybody over the age of fifteen for the virus. That includes people who have been widows for twenty years and the celibate - people who are at no risk of getting the disease. We already know who are at most risk, and wouldn't the money be better spent on testing them, providing them with treatment and setting up programs to stop them from spreading the disease?

In New York City one in four of gay men who are coming in to be tested are not only HIV positive but they are already in the throes of full blown AIDS - which means they are waiting for symptoms of the disease to show before they come into get tested and by then they are at the most infectious. There's something seriously wrong with that, and its because we're not doing enough to work on prevention.

In Canada we just had the recent furor over a safe injection facility in Vancouver British Columbia - Insite - that the federal government was going to close, but thankfully a judge in British Columbia ruled they couldn't because it provides a health care service. The attitude from the government was one of - I don't care about junkies

Right and that's the vicious circle people working in the world of AIDS are dealing with. If there was ever an under serviced area in the world right now it would be the East side of Vancouver. I've seen some pretty bad spots in the world and that's just horrible. The people there are trying so hard to do something but they have so little to work with. Insite is only able to cope with 5% of the people injecting on the street.

Here's an irony for you, when the people opposed to Insite found out that figure they tried to make it part of the argument against keeping it open by saying, well they can't be doing much good if they're only servicing five per cent of the population. Of course all that means is they don't have the resources to do any more.

Well you can make statistics say anything can't you?

Oh yes, you can torture numbers to say what you like easily enough, but it doesn't change the reality of the situation. We know that there are only very specific circumstances required for the HIV/AIDS virus to be spread; an infected person, and uninfected person, and an exchange of bodily fluids. So obviously you have to prevent the spread of bodily fluids from the first to the second.

Yet, I was at USAIDS saying just those things while I was in the States and the director says to me: "I never thought of it that way before". Maybe I'm a little too Pollyanna, but I hope that by constantly keeping pressure on the people delivering services that we can at least get them to spend the money in the areas where it's needed. Go ahead and do all your studies and set up your programming with the other groups, because of course its needed, but don't do it at the expense of the people who are at most risk of contracting and spreading the disease. Unfortunately that's the situation we are currently in.

Even before I read your book I had the impression that people are very defensive when it comes to AIDS prevention - and any critical evaluation, no matter how constructive, is treated like an attack. Is this a valid impression and if so how did this fortress mentality come about?

I'd like to say it's not true, but unfortunately it does exist. There are two types of people who get involved in HIV/AIDS work; those who give a shit, and those who are there because that's where the money is. Those of us, like me, who are in because we give a shit want to to believe we know what works. We know the communities we work with and how to best reach individuals within it - who is going to react positively to what incentives to use what prevention methods. I think if we didn't have that belief we wouldn't be able to keep doing what we are doing - you have to have the feeling that you're making a difference otherwise how could you keep on doing it?

The result is we only want to hear good news, we don't want somebody like me coming in from the outside saying well you know this isn't working because of such and such. It's so hard to get funding for programming that you fear that anything negative that comes up will adversely affect the programming you know that is working well, or that you believe should work.

For example I know, I firmly believe that there is a co-relation between preventing the spread of other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS but the data just doesn't add up. No matter how I look at the statistics I can't prove that working on one helps the other - yet I know that it has to be true.

Of course the second group of people, those in it for the money, want to show they are doing a good job so they can keep on getting their funding and have jobs for themselves.

Recently there's been talk by the Canadian government of refocusing the direction of their HIV/AIDS funding away from grassroots organizations towards putting it into research on a vaccine. To be honest I'd never even heard talk of a vaccine before this - how realistic a goal is that?

The vaccine has become the latest pet project, the Gates Foundation has been sinking a lot of money into it. While I wouldn't say we should give up on the vaccine, it's so far been a very disappointing failure. Of course it's very safe politically, because you don't have to say anything about the money being spent on anything controversial like needle exchanges in prisons, but it looks like you're doing something. If I may be so bold, for the amount of money that Canada would be putting up, it wouldn't really accomplish much and would be better off spent elsewhere. Huge amounts of money are already being spent on it by Gates and the World Bank

Yeah well Gates has more money than our GNP, so if he's putting money into it what difference would our few dollars make?


How are other countries dealing with the three high risk groups. Especially countries that we in the West might consider resistant to talking about sex and drugs

Well one of the biggest success stories working with the sex trade was in Cambodia, where the government had worked out an arrangement with the brothel owners so that condom use was being promoted among all the workers. Unfortunately the US government, under pressure from the International Justice Mission (IJM), who I call Cops For Christ, threatened to remove Cambodia from their donor list if they didn't crack down on the sex trade in the country.

Cambodia did have a serious problem with child prostitution, that was simply shocking, and that needed to be dealt with, but instead of just targeting those specific cases, the government was forced to close down the whole system. The result was that the all the brothels were raided, the girls were raped and had all their savings and gold stolen from them by the cops, and the trade has been driven underground where there is no government control or regulation. It hasn't stopped the sex trade

(In her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Ms. Pisani goes into details about the events in Cambodia and the problems the IJM create where ever they go. The girls they "rescue" from prostitution have no means of making money and are dumped on local service agencies who don't have the facilities to deal with them. IMJ are despised and distrusted by the local police and the sex workers for making the problem worse not better. The girls are forced to take re-education courses - like sewing - for six months during which time they are not paid. There are many cases of them using ladders and rope made out of their bed sheets to escape the shelters they have been sent to after being rescued. As one prostitute put it to the author "Look, if I could afford to be going to school for six months without pay I wouldn't be selling sex".

The final tally is that by the end of 2005 fewer then 1000 girls had been successfully rescued from a life of prostitution, and the IMJ had received five million dollars from the Gates foundation to fight prostitution and the HIV/AIDS it was supposed to spread. On the other hand the Cambodian government's program had ensured that an estimated 970,00 Cambodians had used condoms when they bought sex by the same date.)

The real big surprise is in Iran, where they have set up needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran so that anybody who needs a clean needle has ready access to them. They also have needle exchanges in prisons there.

It's been reported in the Western media that Iran claims they don't have any homosexuals

Oh, most of the Middle East is still really bad when it comes to the issue of Homosexuality. In fact in Egypt they arrest anyone with HIV/AIDs because they take it as a sign that you're gay, which is illegal. I thought we'd grown up somewhat and were beyond that. It was just as bad in Africa where up until a short while ago in the sub-Saharan area they denied they had any homosexuals at all. Of course there homosexuals are probably no more at risk than heterosexuals when it comes to contracting the disease as it's so widespread.

Africa has obviously been the worst case scenario for the AIDS virus. At one time people were predicting that India was another Africa just waiting to happen - do you know have any information about that situation?

I've not worked on the ground in India since I was a reporter so I don't have any first hand experience but I do know the data and some of what's been going on there. UNAIDS, on the last World AIDS day - December 1st/07 - actually revised the projected number of people infected with the virus downwards by two million, from five to three million. It was a classic case of not looking at the right groups and using misleading data to base their estimations on.

The data that the figures had been based on was collected from a couple of hospitals where all the difficult cases were being referred to, and these hospitals had a large number of pregnant women coming to them with the infection. From that information they postulated that pregnant woman were a high risk group for infection across the country. At the same time they were almost completely ignoring the people in the high risk groups. This of course skewed the original tally badly - it take make it better politically to be able to say that pregnant women were at risk, but it meant nothing was being done for those who really needed treatment.

At one point there was only one web site providing information for people in the sex trade and something like two for homosexuals and one for intravenous drug users - or is that the other way around - at any rate this in a country of close to a billion people.

Thankfully, this is one country where Bill Gates, bless him, has done something useful. He offered the country 110 million dollars on the condition it be spent on prevention programming for high risk groups. When the federal government dithered and held their hands up in horror, he by passed them and went directly to state and municipal governments who gladly took the money and began implementing programming. What's even better is that other states have seen the success they've had and are creating programs based on them.

So now that you're no longer in the sex and drugs business, what are you going to do now for excitement?

Well I don't really feel like I've completely left the business, what with the book and all. I'm still out talking to people about the issues and I'm still doing the occasional consulting work, and reviewing articles for journals. To be honest what I miss is the most is the number crunching - the excitement of discovering something new or finding the proof that what I believed to be happening was actually happening.

Well this didn't turn out quite the way we planned - I still have a hard time believing there's been so little notice given the book in the press and there was so little reaction at all in the States

Well there was one good story I can tell you, it was during a radio call in show in Illinois on the NPR station. I took this one call from a gentleman who was very much in agreement with a lot the things I had been saying. At one point he said, well wouldn't it make sense to legalize prostitution? What was really surprising was he was a State Senator for Illinois.

Thank you very much for this Elizabeth

Your welcome.

Well I have to say that I had had visions of hearing tales of Ms. Pisani receiving death threats over the phone and being denounced from pulpits across the South or something similar when we set up this interview. Here she was, a woman who took great pride in saying she worked in sex and drugs going to the country who ties foreign aid to their version of morality. The fact that the book is being completely ignored is probably even scarier than it being the subject of debate or her the object of hatred. Although I'm not sure if it's as scary as hearing that the director of USAIDS had never thought about the correlation between how the disease is spread and how to prevent it from being spread.

The good new is that people are buying the book in spite of the lack of acknowledgement in the press that it's been published. In the United States the book is being distributed by Norton Books and in Canada through Penguin Canada. If you're interested in keeping up to date on information pertaining to HIV/AIDS you can check out Elizabeth's web site.

June 12, 2008

Interview: Scott Bakker: Author of Neuropath & The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy

A couple of years ago I stumbled across an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) of a book called The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker in a used book store. I picked it up and was immediately hooked by the author's use of language, and his willingness to go deeper into his character's feelings and motivations than the majority of writer's I'd read, let alone writers of Epic Fantasy. So far there have been two other books in the series called The Prince Of Nothing - The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandth Fold Thought, and the epilogue to part three gave an impression of more to come.

So when I received a letter from Mr. Bakker back in late February, early March, asking if I would like an ARC of his forthcoming book, Neuropath, I assumed it would be somehow associated with the previous three books. When I wrote back that I would be thrilled to receive an ARC I mentioned how much I had appreciated the first three books of the trilogy, and was looking forward to more of the same, he replied with the warning that Neuropath had nothing to do with the previous books, and was in fact somewhat of a major departure from it.

He wasn't kidding about the departure bit, as Neuropath is a very intense crime thriller that explores aspects of human psychology that are very disturbing. Especially in regards to what he postulates is possible with surgery to control human brain functions to eliminate our control over what we believe we are feeling. The ability to surgically alter our synapses so that we will inflict pain on ourselves in the mistaken believe that we are experiencing pleasure has implications that are too frightening to even consider.
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After I had read Neuropath, its release date has been pushed back to nearer the end of June/08, so don't expect a review until probably the third week of this month, I contacted Scott and asked him if he would consider answering a few questions about his work and Neuropath specifically. He very generously agreed, so I sent him off a list of questions by e-mail and the answers you're reading here are verbatim copies of what he wrote in reply. We were both careful to avoid giving away anything that would spoil Neuropath for readers, so you can read the interview safe in the knowledge that it won't give the story away.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time to do this interview, and I hope you find what he has to says about his work as interesting as I did.

I always like to find out why it is people do what they do, so how about you. Where does the creative impulse come from for you, why writing, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

I have no clue. I was the kid who debated the reality of Santa Claus in grade two and three, then the reality of God in grade five and six, then the reality of meaning and morality in grade nine and ten. No joke. I was an irritating, pompous, inquisitive little bugger - and perhaps not surprisingly, I grew up to be an irritating, pompous, opinionated big bugger! Novels just seemed to be the most natural way of expressing those facets of my character.

Writing is one of the few careers where you can get paid for being an asshole. Reviewing is another.

If you didn't answer this already - why fantasy and science fiction?

Because they were what captured my imagination in my youth. I discovered D&D, Penthouse, Black Sabbath, and Mary Jane at the tender age of fourteen - a potent cocktail as I'm sure you know! Our brains don't finish coating neurons in the myelin sheaths that so accelerate signal speed until our mid-twenties. The reason for this, they think, is that the pre-myelinated brain is much more plastic, which is to say, much easier to program. This could be why our youthful hobbies and fascinations leave such an enduring stamp on our adult imaginations.

I'm not sure if I've ever escaped 14. I really need to trade in my wardrobe though. Nothing worse than male camel toe.

Both the Prince Of Nothing trilogy and Neuropath have a lot to do with brain functions - In the former it's the way in which people reason and the latter the technical way that process works. Where did this interest in how and why we think come from?

Well, brains don't come up much at all in The Prince of Nothing. In fact, you won't even find the word 'mind' anywhere in the books. It's all about souls, as it should be, given that the setting is pre-scientific. What both share in common is the question of autonomy, or freedom. The Prince of Nothing explores the relationship between beliefs and manipulation, and the way the "feeling of freedom" seems entirely disconnected from the fact of freedom. I'm actually amazed by the number of people who think the characters that Kellhus manipulates are fools - I always want to pop into the conversation and quiz them on their own beliefs! What makes ideological manipulation so insidious is the way it bypasses our sense of autonomy. It's always the other guy who's 'so obviously' been duped. The fact is we're all manipulated all the time. You. Me. Everybody. Simply by virtue of those beliefs we inherit without question.

Neuropath, on the other hand, primarily explores the relationship between the brain and the question of autonomy.

Do you see any relationship between the methods used by Kellhus in the Prince Of Nothing series and Neil in Neuropath?

There's actually quite a sharp distinction between the two if you think about it. They seem similar insofar as they both defect from conventional morality, but Neil is by far the more radical of the two. There's a 'good' for Kellhus, which is simply what most effectively allows him to achieve his goals. He is the perfect practitioner of 'the end justifies the means' rationality, or what philosophers call instrumental rationality. For Kellhus, the only thing that makes acts good or bad are their consequences. Since we seem to be hardwired, and are definitely socialized, to think that certain acts are good or bad regardless of their consequences, this makes him seem ruthless and unscrupulous in the extreme - nihilistic.

Neil, on the other hand, has done away with good and bad altogether. He literally exists beyond good and evil.

There's quite a difference in style and form between Neuropath and your previous work - from Epic Fantasy to Hard Science. What kind of challenges did that present you with when it came to writing the new work.

Nothing really in particular. I found Neuropath both easier and more difficult to write simply because of my preferences as a writer. There's just something about creating a world whole cloth, as opposed to writing across a world that already exists. I think I'll always be a fantasy writer first and foremost for this reason.

With Neuropath, the challenge I set myself was to create a story that could carry a substantial amount of information without sacrificing narrative momentum, and to write in a style that was as kinetic as an airport thriller without sacrificing the kinds of multiple subtexts I love layering into my prose. A tall order, I know, but then I think I got some kind of aesthetic death-wish thing going. It's a good thing I don't live in a dictatorship.

Electric Shock treatments and aversion therapy have been used as means of behaviour modification in the past on people. What's the relationship between those methods and the ones described in Neuropath if any at all?

In principle, none. All behaviour modification comes down to brain modification, and this can be done using electrical shocks, chemicals, training routines, therapy sessions, magnetic fields, radiation, scalpels, or coat-hangers. But then this is million dollar question, isn't it? What earthly difference should it make, whether we use old-fashioned techniques as opposed to the ones explored in Neuropath?

Think about all the commercials you see. Very few of them provide arguments, which is to say, reasons why it's more rational to sit down with a Whopper than it is a Big Mac. Commercials actually aren't trying to convince you of anything at all. Instead, they're trying to circumvent rational decision making, to condition populations to make them statistically more likely to pick their product. They're literally rewiring your brain, neurologically 'branding' you. And they're enormously successful at it, despite the fact that so many of us like to think ourselves 'immune' to advertising. Since our brain is largely blind to its own processes, we're never actually conscious of what these commercials do to us - they simply seem to fall through us without effect. One after another, an endless train of them. When we do go for a Whopper it's not because anyone forces us to, but because we simply 'feel like it.'

Modern advertising is literally predicated on mass manipulation, on training you the way we train animals, and yet we have no problem whatsoever with this state of affairs. So the problem can't be the fact that we're manipulated, because we are all the time. The problem has to be the way we are manipulated. As it stands, the only manipulations that we don't like are the ones that we can easily see. Who cares if someone's pushing our buttons, so long as we can pretend otherwise?

But if that's our criterion then we're in a whole heap of trouble.

The problem is that our culture spoon feeds us this out-andout magical notion of who and what we are. So when the ad man cries "Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!" in self defence, we're inclined to let him off the hook. Why? because it's an appeal to our magical self-conception. Since ignorance is invisible, we assume that all we can see of ourselves is all that there is - or most of it anyway. Everyone says, "No commercial gets the best of me! I'm a tough-minded, critical adult!" But the truth is, the stuff we can't see composes the better part of us. Which is why the corporations keep ploughing billions into mass associative conditioning, and billions more into what has come to be called "neuro-marketing." The day is fast approaching when they stop training us like animals and start tweaking us like mechanisms.

Education, in North America at least, systematically avoids teaching us anything about our myriad weaknesses and limitations as believers and decision-makers - and the results, I would argue, are nothing short of catastrophic. Take drug addiction, for instance. Simply because of my socio-economic background, I happen to know many people whose lives have been destroyed if not snuffed out altogether by drug addiction. And the common thread between all of them is that they assumed they were in control, from the beginning, and in some cases, all the way to the end, when they became little more than crack or meth or alcohol acquisition mechanisms.

And why shouldn't they assume as much, when that was the magical bullshit that was being drummed into their heads from kindergarten and up? You can't have a healthy respect for your weaknesses if you don't know a lick about them. You can't make informed decisions.

(In case you actually do believe in the magical self, then I invite you to argue with the science, not me. On the technical side, I would suggest Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will, or David Dunning's Self-Insight. There's a small explosion of popular books that deal with our cognitive shortcomings, such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of It's Own, Gary Marcus's Kluge, or Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational.)

How do you see the science described in Neuropath relating to cognitive psychology theories of how the environment we experience as a child shapes our future behaviour? Is it along the lines of recreating the effects of learned behaviour by mucking about with the brain - or is that overly simplistic?

Only in a retail and incidental way. The real link between the cognitive psychology in the book - all the little factoids about how dumb we are - and the consciousness science is the dilemma this puts us into. If even half of what cognitive psychology tells us is true, then we really have no reason to think that any of our philosophical attempts to blunt the obvious implications of the science - that nothing is what we think it is - are anything more than 'comfort reason' - self-preserving rationalizations.

I know it's early yet, but I'm curious as to what people's reactions have been to the claim by one of your characters in Neuropath that humans are nothing more than a series of programable reactions triggered by the stimulation of different parts of the brain? How much basis in fact is there for that claim?

I was immensely pleased to receive an enthusiastic email from Thomas Metzinger, the co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and the author of the landmark Being No One. When I asked him if he would be willing to blurb the book he declined, both because he found the book so disturbing to read, and because he thought I was covering ground that the bulk of humanity was better off not knowing about! I finally convinced him, though, by jumping up and down and going, "Please! Please! Please!"

Nothing else works with philosophers.

On the other hand, I was dismayed to learn that at least one of the "future facts" I pose in Neuropath has come true. Apparently, Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute devised an experiment where he and his colleagues were able to determine, via fMRI scans, what their subject's choices would be seconds before they were conscious of them. Freaks me out just writing about it.

There's going to be people who deny this stuff come hell or high water, just as there's people who can't abide evolution or the heliocentric solar system. Truth be told, I'm one of them. I believe there has to be something to my experience of free will, but all the credible evidence is piling up on the other side, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. All I can do is stomp my foot and say, "No! It just can't be."

Because if it is, then nothing fucking matters.

Maybe I'm slow but I can't seem to understand why anyone would find the contention that stuff doesn't happen for any reason it just happens is anything to get so upset about. Or I have misunderstood the premise of the "Argument" - the great debate between the central characters of Neuropath?

Well, if you're religious you're certainly going to be troubled by it - that is if you don't simply dismiss it. There's actually a running discussion in cognitive science circles about what does or does not trouble different individuals. Some, for instance, really don't care if their will is free or not. Out of the people I know who don't believe there's such a thing as free-will, morality, or meaning, some walk around perpetually bummed, and others just shrug and say, "Pass the joint."

I actually had an e-mail exchange with Richard Morgan on this topic. He says he's okay with the illusoriness of it all, so long as the illusion functions the way he needs it to function. My answer was that this was like having a wife who sleeps around town, but being okay so long as she goes through the spousal motions at home. For me, the first function of this rich, wondrous, experiential life I lead, is that it be true.

Like you, the absence of objective purpose 'out there' doesn't bother me, so long as I can make my life meaningful. It's this latter that's at stake in Neuropath.

Here's the thing. For about five centuries now science has been scrubbing the world clean of anthropomorphisms, the projection of human psychological categories on the natural world. When the crops fail, only fundamentalists shake their fists at the heavens anymore. During this time, the sheer complexity of our brains rendered us immune to this 'disenchantment,' as Weber puts it. We stood apart as the world's only meaningful thing. Humankind, the great meaning maker - just think of how many narratives you've encountered where you find a protagonist struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world, usually via romantic love (a form I play with in both The Prince of Nothing and Neuropath).

Those happy times are gone. The human brain is finally passing into the province of science and its technical capabilities, and guess what? it's disenchanting us as well. The greatest anthropomorphism of all, it turns out, is ourselves. We are the last the ancient delusions, soon to be debunked.

"I think, therefore I am" has morphed into "It thinks, therefore something was."

Some people are probably going to be disturbed by the graphicness of Neuropath, and I was wondering if you could explain why you thought it necessary?

Because it's a psycho-thriller! And because I've been so desensitized by so many B horror flicks that I think I've lost the ability to tell what's graphic and what's not. I felt like I was holding back - being coy even.

What's next from you - are you going to go back to the world of The Prince of Nothing, where you left us sort of hanging with the epilogue, continue on in the vein you started with Neuropath - more hard science, or something new altogether?

The Judging Eye comes out this winter. I'm presently working on the second book of The Aspect-Emperor, which is tentatively titled The White-Luck Warrior. I'm also working on a second crime thriller entitled The Disciple of the Dog. At the rate I'm going I should have both books completed by next spring.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time in his schedule to answer my questions, and I hope what we talked about has intrigued you enough to make you want to pick up a copy of Neuropath when its released in your part of the world. In Canada that will be sometime latter this month - June/08 - and you can check the Penguin Canada web site for the exact release date as I'm sure they'll be letting us all know soon enough when its for sale. If you're in the States, and don't want to pay the shipping costs, it looks like you'll have to wait until winter of 2008 to pick up a copy.

With The Judging Eye, the first part of The Aspect Emperor, a new trilogy picking up the characters from The Prince Of Nothing trilogy twenty years later, due out this winter, and it's sequel scheduled to be finished Spring of 2009 we won't be lacking for new work by Scott Bakker, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is a good thing. No matter what anyone else might think or say, I don't think you can ever have enough of a good thing.

March 31, 2008

Interview: Stephanie McMillan Creator Of Minimum Security

Last winter I received my first introduction to the people that inhabit Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security when I reviewed her collaborative effort with writer Derrick Jensen As The World Burns: Fifty Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial and found my first cartoon hero since Snoopy - Bunnista. What's not to love; with that cute little X instead of an eye - a memento from having survived an animal testing facility- his cute little arms, his grenade launcher, and his great do it yourself attitude. Bunnista isn't one for sitting around waiting for somebody else to make a statement about things - nope he'll be right there with as many explosives as he can cobble together and let the world know what's what.

After that introduction I wanted more and discovered that an anthology of Stephanie's work had been published under the title of Attitude: Featuring Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security and discovered just how good she was at being a cartoonist and not being afraid to speak her mind. Now it just so happens that I agree with just about everything she has to say about the mess that the world is in and what really needs to be done to even start making amends. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the few places in the mass media where you can be guaranteed reading the truth on a regular basis.

Wanting to learn a little bit more about the person responsible for what is now my favourite comic strip I contacted Stephanie about doing an interview. The upshot was that I sent her a handful of questions and she sent me back the answers that you can read below. In addition to the answers, Stephanie also sent me the following handy biography that will give you all sorts of information about her.
Stephanie McMillan.jpg
Stephanie McMillan was born in Fort Lauderdale, FL where she still lives. she earned a BFA in 1987 in film (with a focus on animation) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her cartoon, Minimum Security, is syndicated online by United Media and appears five times per week at
Since 1992, her cartoons have been published in dozens of print and online publications including Z Magazine, Monday Magazine (Canada), Clamor, City Link (South Florida), Megh Barta (Bangladesh), Al Eqtisadiah (Saudi Arabia), Asheville Global Report, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Casseurs de Pub (France), Working for Change, New Standard News, Tribuno del Pueblo, American Libraries, Comic Relief, and Anchorage Press.

Stephanie is the illustrator and co-author, with writer Derrick Jensen, of a new graphic novel about the global environmental crisis, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 225 pages).

A collection of her cartoons, Attitude Presents Minimum Security was published in 2005, edited and with a foreword by Ted Rall. Her work is also included in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists (2002), as well as in various textbooks and several books in the Opposing Viewpoints series by Gale Publishing Group. Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.

She is a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, as well as a founding member of Cartoonists With Attitude, a group of ground-breaking social commentary and political cartoonists formed in 2006, many of whom appear in NBM Publishing’s Attitude series of books edited by Ted Rall. You can find out all sort of other things about Stephanie at her web site if you want, but for now here's the interview. See you at the end of the ride.

When did you first start drawing, and was there anything that you remember in particular that got you started

Stephanie: I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I remember bringing drawings home from pre-school and proudly showing them to my dad, who pointed out that hands and feet only have five fingers and toes each, respectively, and not the ten or twenty lines I drew radiating out from each limb.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to draw cartoons - what is about that medium that appealed to you?

Stephanie: In fourth grade I fell in love with Peanuts and decided to become a cartoonist. Their personalities fascinated me -- the deep melancholy of Charlie Brown, and the defiant independence of Snoopy. I always marvelled at how Schulz was able to create distinct, subtle expressions with such economy of line, how just a couple of dots and curves could effectively convey worry or exasperation. By copying Peanuts at that age, I learned how to draw facial expressions. I think my characters still owe a lot to that early influence.

You have very strong opinions on social/political issues, how did they evolve?

Stephanie: At about age 12 I realized that I’d been too young to understand or participate in the social justice and anti-imperialist movements of the late 1960s. Growing up in the subsequent period of political stagnation, it frustrated me a lot that I’d missed that important and exciting time. I spent many hours as a teenager daydreaming about starting a commune, and thinking about what a fair society would look like. When I was a senior in high school, an older relative gave me the book Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, which made me (unwillingly) think about -- and fear -- the possibility of nuclear war. I started writing about it for the school paper, and going to meetings of liberal anti-nuke groups.

I immediately realized that the actions they recommended – writing letters to local papers and politicians – were a useless waste of time. I didn’t know what else to do though, until outside one of these meetings I met a communist who talked to me about revolution. I was astounded and thrilled – the idea of revolution hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’d thought it was a relic of the long-distant past, and here was someone telling me we could do it too. I jumped right in.

When did you make the decision to combine the two; politics and cartooning?

Stephanie: I went to film school, where I studied animation, because it was very important to my parents that I get a college degree, but already my heart was in political action. I spent my twenties as an activist, and rejected the idea of being an artist. It felt frivolous to draw funny pictures when the revolutionary movement was so small and fragile and needed every ounce of energy we could give it. Instead I took a series of crummy jobs (warehouses, factories, retail shops) to keep me alive so I could do my real work as an organizer. I worked to defend abortion clinics from Operation Rescue, worked against the detention of immigrants, against Star Wars and other cold-war moves by the US, against police brutality, and on a lot of other issues. What I wanted was to help take these struggles out of the realm of loyal opposition, and tie them into a movement that recognized the whole capitalist system as the underlying problem.

After about 15 years of this, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle revealed that a healthy and vibrant opposition movement had developed, and I felt that it was ethically okay for me to stop being an organizer (other people were doing it far more effectively), and do what I’d always wanted to do, create art as my way of exposing and opposing the system. So I started drawing cartoons.

Initially you started out by doing the single box cartoons, and now you do a recurring strip - how did that progression come about?

Stephanie: At first they were actually multi-panel vertical rectangles, pretty wordy and elaborate. Stylistically I was influenced by the cartoonists I admired: among them Ted Rall, Ruben Bolling, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. After a few years of that, I switched to single-panel political cartoons because I thought they’d be easier to place in papers. Then after the US attacked Iraq, in spite of millions of people all over the world protesting the moves toward war, I became so depressed that I stopped drawing altogether for about nine months.

Eventually I understood that it’s not acceptable to surrender or give up, and I picked it up again in the form of a character-based strip. I chose that form with the idea that it would be more effective to present political points using ongoing characters whom readers might identify with, and stories that would be more compelling to follow in an ongoing way.

You've created four very distinct human characters for Minimum Security , and one very angry rabbit - where did you draw your inspiration for them from? Any friends or family to
be found amongst them in some shape or form?

Stephanie: They’re all mixed up and combined from parts of myself and people in my life. Nikko, for example, was initially inspired by my brother Nick, whom I love to tease for the TV programs he likes (Nick is much smarter though, and cuter). His sister Kranti and I share a few personality traits (only the positive ones! Ahem. I’m not NEARLY that cranky...and I do wear clothes). I have a good-hearted friend who’s a little silly like Bananabelle, and the name Bananabelle came from my cousin’s pet sheep. Javier’s name came from an activist I’ve admired, who started a community garden. There are even parts of myself in Bunnista... or rather, there would be if I had more guts.

Creating a daily comic strip must be difficult - what's your process for working on the series - writing a whole bunch of strips in advance - like the Celebrity Dodge Ball sequence for instance did you sit down over the space of a few days and power through it, or do you only work a few days in advance of your deadline?

Stephanie: Though it can vary somewhat, in a typical week I write five comics on Monday or Tuesday, draw them on Saturday and color them on Sunday. The hardest part is the writing, and I don’t typically get very far ahead. I often sit at the blank page, agonizing over what should happen and how to possibly make it funny, with a growing dread that the clock’s running out. With longer sequences, I usually have a general sense of what will happen, but don’t actually write them out until the week I draw them. They run the week after they’re finished.

Which comes fist the dialogue or the illustration? Or is it simultaneous?

Stephanie: I write out the scripts first. One of the best bits of advice from an editor I ever got was many years ago, and it was this: write everything that absolutely must be in the cartoon ... then cross out half the words. They turn out much better when I remember to do that.

It's probably safe to say that Minimum Security is socially relevant and politically opinionated - where do you find your inspiration?

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, everywhere. The entire planet and pretty much every form of life on it is being killed right now by industrial capitalism. The need to stop that from happening is tremendously urgent. There’s a lot to be upset about and to address: the imperialist wars and the relentless determination of the US empire to expand, conquer and destroy. The exploitative nature of this global economic system, where a few live on the backs of the many, and suffering is considered normal. The unfathomable levels of pollution that are driving extinct 200 species a day, and making us all sick.

Have there been any cartoonists, artists, or people in general who you would say have influenced your work, and shaped your thinking the most?

Stephanie: Sure, so many. I find artists of many genres very inspiring visually. Some of my favourites are great cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Winsor McCay, Gahan Wilson, and the others I’ve mentioned, political artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, pop artists like Keith Haring and Yoshitomo Nara, and folk art from Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. I’ve benefited from reading a broad range of thinkers and writers, including Howard Zinn, Chellis Glendinning, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Jerry Mander, Wallace Shawn, Krishnamurti, Vandana Shiva, and Derrick Jensen.

As The World Burns was a collaboration with Derrick Jensen - how did that work. Obviously you supplied the artwork, but did he write the story and dialogue and then you created the illustrations - or did he give your a narration and you created dialogue and visuals that complimented it.

Stephanie: That was a fun, great process! We talked a lot throughout about how the story should go, and he’d send each part to me as he’d write it. He wrote it mostly in the form of dialogue, with some description. I wrote a few parts as well. At first I tried to keep up with drawing each section as I received it, but I quickly lost ground and it took me a few months to finish the drawings after he’d finished the writing.

You don't mince any words in your comics and are usually very direct in your opinions. Have you experienced any problems because of that, and how's the reaction to your strip been in general?

Stephanie: People usually either really like it or really hate it. Many readers have said that it expresses things that they’ve thought about or felt, and that they found it validating or strengthening. That sort of response is actually the reason I draw – I want to help expose the hypocrisy and false claims of the system, and encourage resistance to it.

I also get my share of hate mail and criticism. I’ve even heard about a couple of blogs out there dedicated to ripping Minimum Security apart. Sometimes a right-wing blog will send a flurry of angry messages my way, but they die down pretty quick. I just delete them. Overall, the positive far exceeds the negative. I think many people want more art that challenges the status quo, and they appreciate it when they find it.

What's the future hold for the folk at Minimum Security - any chance of live action or even another full length graphic novel?

Minimum Security is currently on the web site of United Media ( If it does well there, and develops enough of a growing audience, then it’s possible that United will syndicate the strip for print as well (currently I self-syndicate it in print, and United syndicates it in electronic form). I would like to do another graphic novel (or more) with these characters, perhaps a sequel to As the World Burns. There are no current plans for animation, but it would be great to do that too. Mainly at this point I’m trying to get it into more print publications.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer my questions, and I encourage everyone to stop on over to and get a fix of Minimum Security five days a week (Monday to Friday). Even better, why not pick up one of her snazzy Bunnista T-shirts or The Little Green Book: Bunnista's Book Of Quotations at the Minimum Security Shop.

Oh for those who were wondering, the title Minimum Security comes from something an inmate said on being released back into society when asked on how it felt to be free again. He replied that he still wasn't free - he was just in minimum security.

March 19, 2008

Interview: Robert Scott - Co-Author Of The Eldarn Sequence

Many years ago, well in in the fall of 2005 anyway, when I had just started reviewing books and was still only reviewing ones that I had bought on my own, I stumbled across a book called The Hickory Staff by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon. It was the first book in a trilogy called The Eldarn Sequence and I thought it was great.

I e-mailed the authors and sent them a link to my review not really expecting anything in return, so was pleasantly surprised to receive a thank you note from Robert Scott. (Quotes from that review have now ended up on the back covers of both the second, Lessek's Key, and third books, The Larion Senatores of the series) The result was that we arranged that I would send him some interview questions and we'd publish the result on line.

A month later his co-author and father-in-law Jay Gordon had died. Robert and Jay had started working on the series when Jay had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS is one of the nastier ones out there as the victim's system gradually shuts down without them ever losing awareness. If you're really unlucky you can linger for a long time, suffering horrible pain and completely immobilized.
Robert & Jay.jpg
Jay had always loved Epic Fantasy, so although neither had ever attempted this type of writing before - Robert had been a Classical Guitar player and a history major in University and Jay a technical engineer - they began to create their new universe. When Jay died in November of 2005 Lessek's Key had been handed in to the publishers, but The Larion Senators had only been roughed out leaving Robert to finish the series on his own.

When The Larion Senators was published last fall, I asked Robert if he'd like to do a summation sort of interview and he agreed. Unfortunately he had also just started a new job as a high school principal, and was swamped with work, life, and trying to actually write non-Eldarn related material. Somehow though he found time to answer these questions, and as usual is very candid about the whole process.

If you've read the trilogy I'm sure you'll find the conclusion of Jay and Robert's epic, as interesting as you did the final chapter of The Eldarn Sequence itself. For those who haven't read the books I hope it encourages you to do so, as they are a great read. There are some spoilers included in this interview - but only in a general sort of way and won't really spoil the story for anyone - but Robert is nice enough to point them out anyway for those who care about such things.

The last time we talked Hickory Staff had been released for about three months, Lessek's Key was with the publishers, and you were gearing yourself up for writing The Larion Senators. "Senators" was the only book you ended up having to write almost completely by yourself. Did you find that easier or more difficult?

Robert: (Spoiler warning!) Working on the Eldarn books with Jay was one of the most important things I’ll do in my lifetime. I’ve had a few years to think back on it, and while it wasn’t Tuesdays With Morrie, it was something special. I didn’t think much about it while we were working, but looking back now, I am staggered at how much Jay suffered without complaining and how the Eldarn stories provided him with a much-needed break from the emotional and physical exhaustion he faced each day. Starting The Larion Senators, I had a significant pile of notes, mostly driven by un-addressed story or character strands we’d left unresolved in Lessek’s Key. Jay and I had discussed the end of the series, even before we knew how The Hickory Staff would wrap up, and I endeavoured to stay true to that original vision. A few times along the way, characters took the story in a different direction, but that had been happening for years, and I didn’t think Jay would object too much – as long as Steven and Gilmour ended up on Jones Beach as we had planned.

) I'm sure that you anticipated there being a difference without having Jay there at least to bounce ideas off, but did you run into anything that you hadn't anticipated?

Robert: By the time Jay died, he was communicating via blinks and eye movements – selecting vowels and consonants from a laminated grid pasted to a cut up cereal box. It was brutally slow, but one could see that he wanted to be heard and understood. He was less concerned with my progress on Lessek’s Key and more interested in the evolution of the Jay M. Gordon Foundation. When he felt up to it, though, we worked. I told him about wanting to add a few chapters on Steven’s adventures at sea, and we spent a few days pouring over books on eighteenth century sailing vessels and deciding how Mark Jenkins might harness the Larion spell table on a ship. I think Jay trusted me to stick to our plan: writing a traditional epic, like the novels we read in the 70s and the 80s, books that started us down this road thirty years ago. So, no, I didn’t really run into anything I hadn’t anticipated, but as a fledgling scribbler, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate! I confess that the bit about the carrack was something I added in the end. I wanted to bring some closure to Brand Krug’s character, and Stalwick Rees was just such a buffoon, I had to get a bit of extra mileage out of him. I wasn’t expecting him to be so pitiable, but by the time that carrack chapter was finished, I was pleased with Brand and Stalwick – that was unexpected.

What was the hardest thing technically about writing this without Jay's input?

Robert: The technical aspects were probably the easiest. From the earliest drafts of The Hickory Staff, I did the writing – Jay was unable to type; he lost dexterity in his hands early on. The tough part about finishing the series was communication. We tried all manner of strategies to ask and answer questions. Often, my wife or I read passages to Jay, and he asked questions, pointed out inconsistencies, or made suggestions about characters or plot dilemmas. But progress was slow. We were patient, and Jay was a trouper. He was trapped in that bed, trapped in that body, and it was the least we could do to wait while he blinked out his thoughts. If he didn’t have editorial comments to make, Jay would select “OK” on his communication board, and we’d move on. He trusted Jo (Jo Fletcher: Editor from Orion books) and me to finish the series according to the original vision, and, for the most part, we did.

I don't think I can imagine what if must have been like trying to write "Senators" on your own considering the history of the trilogy, and the reasons for writing it in the first place. How difficult was it emotionally to work on it?

Robert: Actually, it was easy. The story was something I had to finish. It was bigger than Jay or me by that time, and I owed it to Steven, Hannah, and Mark to see them home safely – or to see them dismembered by a grettan! There were plenty of emotions wrapped up in the process, but few of them slowed me down. If anything, the motivating stress had me looking for more time, more hours sequestered in my basement scribbling the next chapter. Jo Fletcher was instrumental in seeing the series through to its end. She checked on Jay every week and made certain that Susan knew how the books were doing. Knowing that The Hickory Staff and Lessek’s Key were selling in bookstores, airports, and drug stores around the world, Jay was always up for a planning session. I kept my nose down, writing and editing, even the weekend we were in town for Jay’s funeral. I admit that when I finally had copies of all three books side-by-side, I took a few minutes just to sit and look at them there on the shelf. It was a ten-year commitment; I was glad to see it through. I’m not sure I’ll ever amount to much of a writer, but I know we did something important in finishing those books.

At the end of book two, Lessek's Key you had plot line and characters scattered all over two worlds, did you ever have any concerns about how you were going to be able to pick up all the pieces and tie everything together neatly by the end of "Senators"?

Robert: No. Most of the wandering our characters did over the course of the first two books (much of which we were chastised for by readers who didn’t believe it would ever come together) was deliberate. I knew I wanted Steven to pull together an array of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and concepts when he faced the final challenge on Jones Beach. When The Hickory Staff was released, I received plenty of e-mail from people who were either angry that we had left so many plot and character lines hanging or were tentatively trusting that Jay and I would eventually tie things up. It was the same when Lessek’s Key ended as well. We dealt with most of Nerak’s baggage but still hadn’t addressed the entity that had possessed him. We established a few things early in The Hickory Staff that linked directly to that entity. I was pleased when I finally received e-mail from readers who had stuck with the Eldarn books all along. People were happy to see that unexpected bits of story lines or characters’ experiences came around two books later. The map of symbols, characters, story lines, and questions is a 12-foot section of butcher paper I had hanging in my basement. There are so many arrows, circles, lines, and scratch marks all over it, I’m sure that given another year or two even I won’t be able to decipher it.

I know I'm going to regret this but here goes – throughout the trilogy the character of Steven Taylor is obsessed with Maths and what starts off in the first book as an amusement becomes something he has to master if he has a hope of defeating the minion of evil and controlling the Fold – Do the maths he uses have any basis in reality and what did you have to do to come up with it? (Somebody could get the impression that you're a high school principal or something with comments like "the calculus you never thought you'd use in real life")

Robert: Steven’s maths obsession is perhaps my favourite part of the Eldarn series. From Malagon’s lock box, to Egyptians squaring the circle, telephone and calculator keypads, Larion timepieces, and trapezoidal deductions on Jones Beach, I love every line of a story whose hero is a math geek. How many epic adventures end in a sword battle, a David-and-Goliath fist-fight, or a square-jawed Horatio standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his square-jawed colleagues? For my money, it’s too many. Yes, I suppose that’s the high school principal in me showing the colour of my biases, but hey, fire me; I’m a teacher at heart. Given the state of math instruction and assessment in American public education these days, perhaps we could use a few more epic heroes who, when their lives are on the line, rely more on their mathematics knowledge than their ability to rig a brick of C4 inside a villain’s Cadillac. There are a few elements of Steven’s character that I’d change if I were ever to do it all over again. His obsession with deductive reasoning in mathematics isn’t one of them. As a side note, readers should check out the list of people I acknowledge in each book for ensuring I understood enough maths to write those sections. My own math knowledge is abysmal. I sometimes cheat off the diners at the next table when calculating the tip at a restaurant. Figuring a three-dimensional trapezoidal volume equation with multiple variables is a couple touchdowns beyond the y = mx +b I barely mastered back in 1984.

One of the things that impressed me the most was how the character's developed over the course of the three books. Was that something you and Jay had plotted in the before starting out, or was did they develop organically along the way

Robert: We knew with a few of the characters that we wanted them to do more of their development later in the series. Writing 750,000 words of continuous narrative, Jay and I introduced characters in The Hickory Staff who didn’t emerge as key players in the story until well into Lessek’s Key. Those decisions were deliberate. I joke often with readers kind enough to e-mail their questions that they can chart our characters’ critical developmental turning points back to the most recent death. Versen or Brynne’s death, for example, represented key moments when Jay and I allowed secondary characters – Brexan, Sallax, and Mark – to evolve. By Senators, pushing our main characters to evolve much more would have seemed contrived. So instead, we introduced new players – Captain Ford and his crew or Major Tavon and her officers, for example – to act as catalysts for what was brewing in the final act.

As a writer was there a process you used for developing a character. Take Garec for example – he takes a long and complicated journey through the trilogy coming to grips with what he is capable of doing as an archer. How did you go about plotting his development? Did you deliberately decide to have a character who knew it was necessary to kill people to win the war, but hated the idea that he was good at it – and he became that archetype?

Robert: Garec and Mark are two of my favourite characters because of how they developed over about seven years of planning and editing these books. As for Garec, I knew I wanted him to be a trained killer who, in Book 2, wrestles with what he’s done. I hadn’t known at the time that I needed him to get shot and nearly killed. But when Jacrys shot him at the end of The Hickory Staff, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Garec’s character to shift significantly. His return to killing, facing a cavalry charge by himself, was another moment, late in Book 2, when it seemed appropriate to shift him back for the final act. He picks up his bow and serves the Resistance with the same brutal accuracy he had wielded in Book 1, but he has changed. The Garec we know in The Larion Senators is only a shadowy reflection of the young killer we met early in the series. Again, developing these characters was a study in how and when to share details of their personalities. We played them pretty close to the vest throughout The Hickory Staff, largely because we were nervous we wouldn’t have anywhere to go with them in Lessek’s Key. (This truly pissed off a lot of readers, and were I to do it over, I might try something different.) Looking back now, I’m happy with how Brexan, Mark, Sallax, and Garec all emerged as key players as the series wound its way through Eldarn.

The end of The Larion Senators is wide open in terms of potential for what could happen next in Eldarn – have you any plans to continue the story. I know I'm curious as to what could happen to the world next – and what happens to certain characters – aren't you?

Robert: Due to a variety of circumstances, I am taking a bit of time off from Eldarn. I accepted a job last summer as a high school principal and have been buried to the neck in deadlines, parent complaints, teacher grievances, and student mutinies ever since. It’s a great job, and if I didn’t love it, I would have leapt from the roof of the building by now. My students are half fascinated and half bemused at the idea that their principal writes epic novels, but I think I’ve inspired a few potential scribblers to get busy and stay busy writing. As for books, I’ve finished a collection of short stories for young readers and am into the second volume of that series now. I needed to do a bit of writing that my own children could read; dismemberment, sex scenes, grettan attacks, and off-colour, Eldarni profanity are a bit edgy for grade school kids. So I created a new character, a fourth grader whose misadventures rival any white collar felon in corporate America. I enjoy writing the stories, and the local school children howl when they read each new tale. My agent has the first collection now, and I’m hoping for good news on that front in the coming months.

I’m also working on a magical realism piece. It’s a mystery/thriller – in first person – that has evolved into a science fiction/horror novel. After 750,000 words of epic, third-person storytelling, I am ready for a change, just something to stretch my legs a bit. Then I’ll get back to Eldarn. I anticipate finishing a draft of the mystery piece this coming summer and will decide then what happens next in Eldarn. I did keep the far portals viable. I don’t know why, except that I believed eventually someone needed to go back to Eldarn, if only to sweep up the damned mess we’d left there. I like the idea of a story that jumps back and forth between Lessek’s early experiences and Milla’s efforts to bring order back to Sandcliff Palace, especially one in which Milla’s decisions now somehow impact Lessek’s choices thousands of Twinmoons earlier.

10) A while ago you had mentioned to me you were working on a non- Eldarn novel, and had already started some rather extensive research (including attending a ritual disembowelment – or was that an autopsy). I seem to remember that your father was a Police Detective and you had been fascinated as a kid listening to the details of his cases over dinner. Is that the mystery/crime/thriller/sci-fi sort of novel you're working on?

Robert: That’s the one. It’s based on the most grisly, terrifying, unbelievable story my father ever told around the dinner table. Our house was the place all the neighbourhood kids wanted to come for dinner, because my father invariably regaled us with hideous stories of true crime – things from Frank Miller’s worst nightmares. What appalled us most was that Dad’s stories were true; he had the photos to prove it. I’ve never seen a graphic novel or read a Stephen King story that truly captures the essence of what happens when some raging drunk takes a chain-saw to his wife’s lover, or when five mob killers boil their lawyer in a bathtub (two examples from my sophomore year in high school). It’s astonishing, and any New Jersey homicide detective could write (and illustrate!) a book that would have the heartiest of us pissing ourselves. Looking back on it all – Dad’s long retired. He works now for a mortician; that’s poetic justice for you! – the most frightening aspect of those stories was that the killers were generally someone who lived across the street, or worse . . . down the hall. Rarely did a lunatic drifter terrorize a beach-front town. But the local pharmacist or Kiwanis Club treasurer did it all the time!

My current novel is loosely based on the worst of the worst, the one time when my father came home with orders from the state medical examiner to remove all his clothes and burn them in our yard before coming anywhere near us . . . nope, not making this up. Granted, I’m stretching an ugly criminal case into a magical realism piece with elements of horror and science fiction, but the fundamental bits of the story actually happened. And it’s a tale that’s just begging to be told, a real testament to homicide investigators everywhere.

I'd like to thank Robert Scott for taking the time to answer these questions for me, and I hope you enjoyed this conversation with him. For those who haven't yet had an opportunity to read The Eldarn Sequence you can pick up copies of the three books at any on line retailer or book store near you. Although this marks the end of Robert and Jay's story, it doesn't look like it means the end of our visits to Eldarn, and I look forward to the return.

March 7, 2008

Interview: Chad Stokes Urmston Of State Radio

At the beginning of February I reviewed a DVD, Dispatch Zimbabwe: Live At Madison Square Garden, and it was my introduction to the three young men who had been involved with the band Dispatch. As those folk who were loyal followers of the group know the individuals had gone their separate ways back in 2006, and this was the first time they had played together since then.

As I had been really impressed by what I had seen on this DVD, I was interested in seeing what each of theme were doing "post-Dispatch". Chad Stokes Urmston had played guitar and some bass for Dispatch and is now fronting his own trio, State Radio. I contacted their management team and asked if I could get a review copy of their new disc Year Of The Crow and maybe talk with Chad.

Thanks to State Radio's management people and Chad himself all the above was able to happen. It should have been easy, I was supposed to phone Chad Wednesday at 3:30 in the afternoon, and I got him at the second number I was given to contact him at. Unfortunately the connection wasn't the best and we kept having to start over again as we'd get cut off periodically. In spite of the technological difficulties, we managed to get through the questions I had for him, and have a pretty cool conversation too.
Chad Stokes.jpg
What I really enjoyed about our conversation was that it was obvious he genuinely believed in what he sang about, and that he is that person who sings with compassion, anger, sadness, and hope about the world. It might sound like a cliche, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him, and he felt like the type of person who I would have a good time hanging out with.

There was something we needed to clarify before we really got underway. In the Dispatch information I had received with the DVD listed Chad last name as Urnston, but with all the PR stuff I received with the State Radio Disc his last name was given as Stokes. So the first question I asked was simply what's your name

Chad: "My mIddle name is Stokes and I use that now because it's easier for people to say and handle then Urmston - but I still consider my name to be Chad Urmston.

Can you give me some biographical detail - I don't know much about you - Your background where you grew up. There was something about growing up in a progressive hockey playing family

Chad: (laughs) I grew up on a farm in Sherborn Massachusetts. - chicken, pigs, sheep, and grew up hearing Hendrix and Hair - 60 - 70s music. But the biggest influence was this place called the Peace Abbey, run by a man named Lewis Randa, dedicated to teaching people about peace and those people who advocated peace - Mohammed Ali,John Lennon, Mother Teresa have all visited it at one time or another.. In 1999 I took part in this march where people from the Peace Abby hauled a one ton grave stone - on a caisson, (a cart specially designed for the grave stone) - for the unknown civilian killed in war, all the way to Arlington Viginia.

I didn't do the whole thing, but it was really wonderful experience. We'd sleep in fields along the way, or sometimes people would see what we were doing and appreciate it and invite us to spend the night with them. When we got there, the night before we camped out near the Lincoln Memorial - a buddy and me went for a swim in the reflecting pool that night (laughs). We thought we might get arrested and handcuffed trying to take the caisson into Arlington cematary, so my friend and I greased our wrists. We never did get handcuffed - the cop stopped the procession on the bridge and took the caisson away.

What's really cool is that its been all over the world now. I think it went to the French embassy after the cops took it, and I know its been to Viet Nam and Britain. (There are two stones, one is permanently set up in Sherborne Mass. and the other tours the world to help honour the memory of civilians killed in wars all over the world.)

I also did a year of school at N.Y.U. in New York City, and it was an eye-opening experience as there was always some sort of action taking place. I took part in some of them and it was exciting, a feeling of doing something that was not just about you.

I think I read something about you playing trombone when you were in high school or middle school, was that your first instrument - where did the idea of doing music as a means of expressing yourself come from...?

Chad: I've always loved music, but I don't know if I ever thought of it as a career or anything like that right away, or when I first started playing. My sister got a guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and I would steal it from her and start playing. You know classic rock songs, that sort of thing. The first time I wrote a song was I set music to a poem my mother had written when she was in her twenties, and that was the first time I had the idea that it was something I was interested in doing. I never really planned it, it was something that just happened, and I kept doing it.

When I got to University I actually first joined Pete's (Pete- Bass and guitar player for Dispatch) band as a trombone player. Obviously that changed, Brad joined us (Me: And the rest is history) (laughs) But I played trombone all the way through high-school, and it was fun. I was part of a group who were seen as pretty odd - you know the low brass section - and we had a great time.

Obviously your stay in Zimbabwe had a huge impact on you...How did you end up in Zimbabwe? Do you think it changed you, or did it more help provide you with a focus for what you wanted to do?

Chad: I had a friend who lived in the town next door whose father was a Pastor, and they had spent some time in Zimbabwe when he was younger, and his family knew people over there. At the end of high school I didn't want to go off to University right away. It was pretty much an impulsive decision to go - we could stay with friends of his family over there and it sounded like a good idea

When was that?

Chad: That was in 1994

Were you doing anything specific - like you weren't with any organization or group or anything?

Chuck: No we just went over by ourselves and were staying with the people my friend's family already knew. For about the first month we would just walk around - go into the townships and meet people. Sometimes I would take my guitar along - you know things like that. But after that I started looking around for things that I could do that was more constructive. It became the choice between just hanging out or actually making a contribution, asking yourself what I can do? It was still informal, but I got involved and taught some school, played soccer, and got to know the people.

Being there took me out of myself. I saw all that these people had to deal with; AIDS, poverty, and it wasn't nearly so bad then as it is now either. I was really impressed by the fact that in spite of their world being filled with problems all the people I met had a generosity of spirit that really stood out, a refusal to be brought down by circumstances.

It made me want to do something with myself that was respectful of people like that, worthwhile or that could make a difference.

Have you been back since

Chad: "No, but I really want to. I made a really good friend over there, Ellias and I found out that his son was really badly hurt - stabbed in the side of the head over a bag of sugar - that's how desperate things are right now I guess - and he's getting better, but still having trouble with one side of his body. I'd really like to see them and see how their doing

Let's get back to music again. You wrote songs for both Dispatch and now State Radio - What do you see as the differences between the two experiences - both in the actual process and any changes in direction your focus might have undergone.

Chad "Some bits of music can't be controlled, you just write what comes. When I was with Dispatch I would write songs, and than pick the ones that I thought would work for the band. I pretty much do the same thing now, select the stuff that I think will work best for Chuck and Mad Dog. I probably keep in mind what they bring to the band when I'm writing now, knowing that I'm playing with them.

I also think there's less of a filtering process now then there was in the later days of Dispatch, and less censoring of political content. With Dispatch there were three of writing songs and it was pretty free flowing that way, but it also started to make things difficult towards the end. You have three very creative people working, each of us writing material that we want to play - it can't help but create tension. We were together for eight years...

That's a long time, and with three creative people there's bound to be lots of growth, and a desire to do things ... explore your own ideas. It seems like you guys had the brains to know that and were right to let it end

Chad: "It was still hard..."

Where do you find yourself looking for inspiration for material - or do things just sort of jump out at you from the headlines and you say I've got to write a song about that.

Chad: "From everywhere really, the Internet, other Artists. Sometimes you go out and you've had a conversation in a bar or something and a topic comes up, and you go home and start looking it up on the Internet and you find out all this information on a subject, an it will inspire you to want to write about it. Mainly though it's what going on around me, or things that I"m thinking about. Like I said earlier you can't really control the music and it's an ongoing process of absorbing and creating based on all of what's around you."

How do you see the interrelationship between your music and your lyrics - do you try and create a sound that will reflect the feelings being expressed in the lyric?

Chad: "What I'm usually trying to do is marry the melodies to the words, so that they work well that way. I'm trying to keep the diction as natural as possible in the songs, obviously you have to play with it sometimes so that everything works, but I really want them to compliment each other. The music is really a natural extension of the lyric."

Are there any people in particular that have inspired you, shaped the way you think, or influenced your outlook on the world?

Chad: Well John Lennon, and Thoreau - Walden was really important to me, and the existentialists. I really like what Rage Against The Machine talk about with their idea of living what you what you sing.

Not just talking but doing?

Chad: "Yeah, taking part in the world not just commenting on it"

What do you hope to accomplish - stupid question in some ways I know, but a number of songs on Year Of The Crow refers to specific issues.

Chad: "Well I hope people like the music obviously, but I'd like it to encourage thoughtfulness, and hope that they don't just accept things at face value. A lot of our material decries against what we see as the corruption of authority. How those in power are abusing it and the problems that's causing. So I'd like people to think about that."

I wanted to ask about the title of the CD Year Of The Crow Does the crow have any special meaning for you

Chad: "Well part of it is the associations with Native Americans. I've always been fascinated with Indians since I was a kid. You know the usual stuff, building a teepee and sleeping out in it, but I've also done lots of reading about what's been done to them over the years, and their current situation. I know the Crow is an important figure in some American Indian stories, and so that's one reason, to make that reference.

The Crow is the harsh voice of truth in some stories

Chad: "Yeah and that's part of it too. Also it's the idea of the underdogs, those who aren't in authority coming into their own."

The ravens coming home to roost?

Chad: "Yeah, definitely"

The song "Fight No More" on Year Of The Crow is about the former Nez Pearce Chief, Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountain) What was is about his story in particular that attracted you to it?

Chad: "When I started reading about American Indians, at first all I read about were the Sioux. People like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and it was all about warriors and fighting. Chief Joseph was the first American Indian I read about who talked about peace, and even though he was resisting, he tried to preserve his people by getting them away from war and not fighting.

State Radio is about to start a tour of Europe later this month, is this the first time over there for you

Chad: "No we've been over a few times, we recorded Year Of The Crow in England (Me: "Yeah right, I'd forgotten that - I guess you have to go over to Europe to record there) Yeah, and we have played in Germany before this, at some big festivals with bands like Pearl Jam."

How do you get gigs like that without a label

Chad: "Well our distributor, Network, are really good about that, and get us into the line ups for the big festivals in Europe, and our management company does a lot of that as well."

Do you like playing over in Europe

Chad: "It's great, we get a lot of press and people are really up for the shows and always having a great time. It's funny you know I bet you we're on the radio more in Germany than we are over here. We're going to France for the first time on this tour, so we're looking forward to that."

Well, I should let you go, I know you've got a gig tonight. Thanks for this and good luck

Chad: "It was good talking to you".

In the end what was supposed to have been a ten or fifteen minute conversation lasted about forty-five minutes. Part of that was our problems with the phone, but also part of it was I had to keep stopping myself from just yaking with him like he was a friend, and exchanging stories about similar experiences. I'm usually able to keep the Interviewer - Interviewee barrier in place no matter what, but I found that almost impossible to maintain while talking with Chad.

Perhaps it was because we have a lot of the same interests in common and it was just nice to talk to someone of like mind, but I also think that it's because of what I said earlier about him being exactly like he comes across in his music. It was really nice to talk with someone who is so genuine in his beliefs and open about his feelings.

I hope I get the chance to talk with Chad Stokes Urmston again.

March 5, 2008

Interview Willy DeVille - December 2007

In mid December 2007 I received an e-mail from the editor of the German edition of Rolling Stone asking if I would be willing to re-work an interview I had conducted with Willy DeVille in April of 2006 for a special section they were planning to run on Willy for their February Edition. Willy and the Mink DeVille band were starting a mini-European tour in mid February to help promote his new CD Pistola and the article would tie in with it.

Well I wasn't about to say no to something like that, and I suggested that perhaps I should try and get in touch with Willy to bring things up to date - talk about the new CD, and anything else Willy felt like chatting about. By the time we had agreed on details it was Wednesday the 19th of December, and it turns out the world stops the Friday before Christmas so I had three days to get hold of a copy of the new CD, and set up an interview time with Willy.

So it was pretty hectic to say the least; figuring out the logistics of getting me a copy of the CD was the hardest part - seems couriers are busy at Christmas, and nobody was going to guarantee an overnight delivery between New York City and Kingston Ontario. But something happened on the final Friday that made me think no matter what, this is going to work out just fine. A DVD of a tribute to Edith Piaf showed up in the mail for me to review - a DVD that had been produced by Willy's record company no less.
Willy DeVille Pistola.jpg
Now for those who don't know, Edith is pretty special to Willy, it was because of her that he ended up in Paris in 1980 recording Le Chat Blue, and working with many of the same people she had worked with. A question I regret not asking him was what it was like for him to play at the Olympia in Paris - he recorded a live disc there - where Edith had ruled the stage for years.

Talk about synchronisity: an hour later the Fed Ex guy is knocking at my door with a copy of Pistola. Sometimes you know the stars are shining on you and this was one of those times.

Now I was under strict instructions from Willy's wife Nina - who does her best to act as the business manager for a guy who loves to play rock and roll and in his own words "I just want to focus on the art and the music right - that business stuff ..." Well Nina wanted to make sure I got Willy to talk about the disc and the tour - and in our way we did.

But Willy's focus is so wide - like all the really true creative people I've ever met, he sees everything as being interconnected. But I had promised, so after Willy and I were done with the preliminaries - how you doing etc. it was time to get down to it.

Was there anything in particular that you were trying to express overall with the new CD Pistola?

Willy: "I pretty much try to do the same thing each time out. I had some amazing teachers, older guys like Jack Nietzsche, and Dr. John who taught me about sound - and how important it is to create shades of sounds like colour. With all this sampling that's happening today there's all sorts of things you can make in the studio - but can you do it live? I want to make music that I want to buy and that I can play on stage that's note for note what's in the studio. But I also want it to grow, so that it's not always the same thing, but getting better each time.

The real secret to making an album is to know when to stop - you know that if you go back into the booth again it's going to kill the song - so you have to believe in what you've got."

It's like a painter knowing when to stop adding paint to a canvas - one more brush stroke would ruin it.

Willy: "Yeah that's it - cause like I said it's colours - you set out to look for the next colour and that becomes kind of like the search for the Holly Grail."

What about the title for this disc, Pistola?

Willy: "Well, I wanted it to sound like those old cowboy movies, ya know..."

Yeah, it reminds me of the old spaghetti Westerns, where everybody is stretched long and thin....

Willy: "Yeah that's it. Well there was one and it was called Pistolera, well Pistola is the feminine version of the word - and it's like for saying - hot as a pistol. ( He extends each syllable) Pis to la, the sound has that feel of the western, and something hot too. An exciting sound, just like what I hope the music will be for people."

What's your process when it comes to a new disc - writing the material for example?

Willy: "I'm always writing, I've got these two pads that I keep with me all the time, one's for drawing and the other's for writing things down. Sometimes it will be just a phrase that I hear that I like and want to store away to maybe pull out for later. The best time is right when I wake up and I might have had something come in the night, or I wake up with an idea and I write it down right away while it's still fresh.

You've got to constantly write though, it's like exercising the brain, if you don't do it all the time it will get soft and you'll have to start thinking about technique instead of knowing instinctively how to write. You want to be able just let the words create what you want, and not worry about the craft cause it will start to sound stilted if you do that.

But like I said it's also a matter of looking for the new sound - something that's fresh - but at the same time is still you. You've got to remember in a lot of ways rock and roll music is a lot like being in the business of creating illusions and you have to maintain that feeling of heightened reality - how real is it to pack a story into like three or four minutes when you think of it - but that's what we all do and it only works if you believe in what you're doing. It really does come down to what I said earlier about writing the songs that I want to hear."

Yeah, I get that - I try to write the stories I want to read. It sounds easy...

Willy: "Yeah it does doesn't it? (laughs) But you know I was having doubts about this one, until about the third song and then I was okay - cause really how do you ever know - it's so easy to get too close to the material that you can't have detachment- and it becomes an act of faith."

Phil Shenale produced Crow Jane Alley and other earlier stuff, what do you like about working with him as a producer?

Willy: "We first worked together on Loup Garou, and what's great about Phil is he always hears the sound I want to create, and knows how to bring out the best in me in the studio. He's not some hard ass or anything like that, yelling at you, but he keeps it together and makes it work.

Making an album is like giving birth in a lot of ways. You have this creation that you're responsible for, and it's a wonderful feeling when its done, but there's the struggle that you go through to make sure that you bring the sound to life in just the right way. That's what Phil does you know. Because he knows what I want to create - he comes up with ideas that help make the sound right.

There was this one song - it was on Backstreets Of Desire I think, where he took a Baby Grand piano - a really good one right, and took the lid off and played on the wires with drum sticks because he knew that was the way to get the sound we needed for the song. He doesn't say, this is what it has to sound like, or make it into his sound. It's all about finding the sound - or really knowing what I'm hearing inside my head almost, and helping me make it happen."

The musicians on the album, there not the folk you'll be touring with are they, but you've worked with some of them before right.

Willy: "Well, yeah - Phil of course plays keys on this one like he has for the last few. Brian Ray (Paul McCartney's guitar player) and I have worked together before on Backstreets Of Desire, and Josh Sklair was of Crow Jane Alley. The record companies make it hard though you know, I call up Phil and we try to figure out who's available and what's within the budget and all that ...the guys did great stuff and I'm really happy with how everything turned out... (NOTE from Nina DeVille: Willy would love to make an album with the Mink DeVille band but for financial reasons on Pistola it wasn't possible - it's something that's long overdue though and would make a great album because they know each other all so well)

But the whole experience, the four weeks in Los Angeles were really brutal. We were staying in this hotel where I guess everybody else staying there were going to Disneyland and Universal studios, and they all looked like they were trying so hard to have fun - especially the young kids - and it was a nightmare man. They all dressed alike in their Lacoste shirts and pants with expensive sneakers, and they'd been told this what fun was supposed to be so they were doing their best.

Now this is, sort of spooky, and I don't set much by it, but I gotta wonder... You know on the last album Crow Jane Alley I wrote that song about Muddy Waters gonna rise out of the Mississippi Mud and then boom Katrina happens, and the damn river doesn't just rise up. This time I've got that line in, "You Got The World In Your Hands": "Somebody set the hills on fire" right - and the next thing you know the hills around L.A. are up in flames...

I don't know, four weeks in LA - I had to promise Nina we wouldn't do the next one out there - There was this one night I couldn't sleep so I climbed up onto the roof to have a smoke and there was this young Scottish kid up there (does a really good Scottish accent) who say's "I couldn't sleep - I was having nightmares" and I was thinking yeah I know what you mean. I ask the guys (the musicians he recorded with) how they can live out there all the time, and they said by keeping busy. I don't know..."

(I can almost hear and see him shudder through the phone line and quickly jumped in with another question about Pistola. Nobody needs to get lost in nightmares about Los Angeles.)

On Pistola you did a bunch of different styles of music - country/folk to Native American - even one reggae tinged number. Were you deliberate in your choices of style or did it just sort of happen.

Willy: "It's a little bit of both right, you know. The arrangement has to fit the song, so the text and the music together have to be believable. "Been There Done That" is really more New Orleans then reggae - the base line is probably what made you think of it as reggae - but you know what Marley said - it was from listening to music out of New Orleans on bad radios that gave them reggae, cause all they heard was the off beat....Anyway it's the text that's I always focus on - sort of like the way Leonard Cohen or Jacques Brel work, and then the music develops around that."

That's funny you mention Brel, because I've thought of you in terms of him before...

Willy: "Yeah? Well you know I was thinking of recording (sing the opening bars of "Amsterdam") I love that stuff...I remember the first time I went over to Europe, for Le Chat Blue, and everybody being so surprised that I really dug Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel...but it's great music you know."

I'd like to talk about some the songs on the album. Tell me a little bit about any particular inspiration, meaning, or intent that you might have had. - Lets start with the first one "So Sir Real".

Willy: "I just wanted to write a really good rock and roll song with a great guitar line and a good lyric... but you know the world has become pretty scary, I don't remember it being this bad twenty or even ten years ago, and so that's part of it - it gets to the point where it's harder and harder to believe that this stuff is going on - but of course it is."

"Been There Done That" (track two) - is just what it says, you know. I was having a conversation with Monk Boudreau and he was saying something about something, and I said now why in hell would I do that man, I've Been There Done That - and it stuck in my head. The rhythm developed out of that you know. Like I said it's much more New Orleans than reggae - the horns are very New Orleans."

The fourth song, "Louise", is the only one on the album you didn't write - it sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
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Willy: "It was written by Paul Seibel, he put out two albums, and I'm sure you could get them if you wanted; one was Jack-Knife Gypsy and the other was Woodsmoke & Oranges. I wasn't even sure he was alive, but Nina looked him up on the computer and we found him. So I called him up and said "hey I've recorded one of your songs" and he wanted to know which one and asked if I had the lyric and could he hear it. So I said yeah and played it for him - this was through the telephone you know so I told him not to expect much - but he really liked what I had done.

I told him he should come on up and I'd love to play some music with him, and he said he couldn't any more - that the business had ripped the heart out of him. It's a shame you know, because I think he's just as good if not better than Dylan when it comes to lyrics."

The Band Played On"(track five) is obviously about New Orleans....

Willy: "Yeah, that's right. The horns at the beginning are playing a funeral march. It was awful watching that you know. I had been down in the South West going through some personal stuff and I got back home to see this on the television - man it was devastating - I lived there thirty years - it felt horrible watching the streets where I used to hang out under water. So yeah this was my tribute to New Orleans.

(At this point we got into a brief conversation about New Orleans and the current situation down there. The majority of the people who were displaced by the Hurricane have still not been allowed to or are able to move home. The governments are dragging their feet on rebuilding all the housing and infrastructure - it's cheaper to keep the people in the displacement camps than it is to rebuild public housing which doesn't make big money for developers.

According to Naomi Klein's (author of No Logo) latest book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism they have no intention of rebuilding any of the poorer neighbourhoods where many of the musicians lived and performed - the plans for redevelopment include luxury condominiums, expensive hotels, and convention centres. One of the first steps they took in order to discourage people from returning was the privatization of public schools. There used to be 104 public schools servicing the area in and around New Orleans - there are now only four - the rest have all been issued with private charters.

As I told Willy this he was repeating it to Nina and she knew about most of it already - I heard her say in the background "Make you sure you mention about Brad Pitt using his own money to try and rebuild homes for people".

I know that the two women who sing back up for Willy in the Mink DeVille band, Lisa West, and Doreen Carter, are both from New Orleans so I asked Willy about them. He said that they've moved back there, but there's no work at all and that the tour is a blessing for them. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America are trying to raise money to replace instruments for people, and get them jobs playing in schools - but that's only short term - the real disaster in New Orleans is still going on as thousands of people are still living in refugee camps (nearly all of them black by the way) and may never see their homes again.

It took Willy and I a couple of minutes to find the thread of our conversation after that - but we found our way back - he was obviously shaken up - and if you listen to this song you can hear how much he loves his New Orleans - and the heart and soul have been ripped out of it -never to be returned it seems)

"Stars That Speak" (track eight on the disc) made me think about an artist looking back on what he'd done over the years, and realizing his accomplishments.

Willy: Yeah that's what I was trying to get across. I wrote that back in 1980 - I was in Paris, and I wanted to experiment with the idea of recitation - you know sort of reading poetry over music. So I had the idea of the artist looking back at his work and wondering where the time has gone. At the time there was also the very romantic idea about being in Paris and writing poetry, but there's also something about being there that is inspiring and I was trying to tap into that as well.

Phil (producer Phil Shenale) asked me this time what other material I might have floating around, and there was this and a couple of others. He'd been wanting to put this on an album for a while, but I kept putting him off. This time he said Willy, your voice sounds just right for it -lets keep put it in. Being in Paris when I wrote it there's the whole romantic thing about "being in Paris", and like I said earlier about admiring what Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel do with lyrics and sound, I wanted to make the attempt.

The final cut on the disc, "Mountains Of Manhattan", tell me about that, but first who is playing the flute.

Willy: I was, it's a Native Cedar flute you know (Me: Yeah I recognized it - I have a friend who makes them ) Oh okay so you know what there like. While I gave Phil a whole bunch to work with and he used it with the voice. This was another recitation piece, and I guess it's about acknowledging who you are.

When I was kid we were lower middle class right, and we were taught to hide who we were and nobody talked about our heritage. It's only been recently that I've found out about the Iroquois blood in our family - so there's that to it as well. But there's the power and the mystery of the spoken word that I love in it as well. I did a little of it on Crow Jane Alley on "In A World Gone Wrong", but "Mountains" and "Stars That Speak" have much more emphasis on it - and I think they worked out.

I thought they were two of the most powerful pieces on the disc - you've got a great voice for recitation.

Willy: Thanks.

Pistola is being released in Europe on February 4th/2008 and you're going to be selling copies of it direct from your web site (Willy Are there any plans for distribution in North America?

Willy: "Just hold a second let me check with Nina on this - she keeps track of that stuff (In the background I hear Nina: "We've held on to the North American rights because we want to try and get our own distribution deal over here") Did you hear that?... yeah well you know they only pressed 500 hundred copies of the last one (Crow Jane Alley) for North America and we don't want that again. So we're looking for a distributor over here for the disc.

This business hasn't changed much, too many guys didn't get paid for the music they did - or they got shafted out of their rights. Deaf guys who can't hear a note but will know a hit when they see it, and blind guys who can't see an inch in front of their faces, but know exactly how much money is in the roll in their pocket so they can reach in and peel off a hundred to some poor sap so he can go out and entertain some girl, and at the end of the day not only is his heart broken cause the girl only wanted him because he was famous - he ain't got a cent to his name because that hundred bucks was his rights.

Now that's not my situation or anything, but I have to wonder about the music business. It's just like everybody wants to be a star, but doesn't really care what they put out as long as it makes money. Nobody wants to be the poet anymore, because there ain't any money in it."

Talking about changes - you've been doing this since the early seventies, did you see yourself back then still doing this - and have you changed your approach at all to the music.

Willy: "I still love the music, and I still like to tour, there's nothing that beats that connection you make with an audience when the music is right and they're digging it you know. I mean, I really am pretty lucky you know - I'm still doing what I love to do and it still makes me happy, and I guess there aren't too many people in the world who can say that are there?

I'm really still doing what I've always been doing, keep trying to apply the things that I've learned and find different ways to create the sound that I'm after - it's still going to be my sound, because that's who I am - but there's always a new angle to take on something or a fresh approach. The main thing is though that I love the music."

Obviously the new album and the upcoming tour are a priority right now, but have you given any though about further down the road.

Willy: "All the stuff that's been going down in with New Orleans makes me want to put together a Victory Mixture ll type album - as a tribute to the music and the people. Get Dr. John, Alan Toussaint, Eddie Bo, and any of the others available and make another recording of that great music - maybe even do another tour.

I'd also like to do some movie soundtracks, acting - heck there's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. But so much of it requires doing business and I'm just not cut out for it. The art is hard enough sometimes as it is. I've been phoning some agents and things and everybody sounds surprised that I'm still alive. That was Johnny Thunders and one of the Ramones who died not me.

But like you said the immediate future is busy - we're off to Sweden for a birthday party - then a week of press tours in advance of the tour in February - then back here to rehearse with the band. Then it's the tour...."

Well you know, I think that's it - I should let you get back to your day. Thanks again for taking the time Willy ... it was great to talk to you again.

Willy: "Yeah you too, take care."

To be honest - I made those last two sentences up - we were just wrapping up and Willy's phone died - he said to me just before it went - you been hearing those beeps? If we get cut off it's because the phone's battery is gone - and then the line went dead. I gave it a few minutes and phoned back and left him a message saying thanks, I had all I needed, and wished them both a Merry Christmas and good luck.

What struck me most about this conversation, is how much the music still excites him and how passionate he still is about what he does. I know he's been through his share of ups and downs in life - and yet here he is, after more then forty years of playing music and dealing with the bullshit of the business, still loving and caring deeply about the music.

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Sign Petition To Induct Willy DeVille Into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

January 30, 2008

Interview: Bob Koester Founder And Owner Delmark Records

In this day and age of bottom lines and demographics controlling the music industry, it's hard to believe there are still people in the business because they love the music they record and sell. But when Bob Koester started selling Jazz and Blues records out of his St. Louis University dormitory room it was simply because he liked the music. Now fifty-five years, three or four store locations, and a move to Chicago later Bob's Delmark label continues to issue four or five CDs and a couple of DVDs every month of the music he still loves.

For about the past year or so I've been reviewing the discs that Bob's label puts out. That means I've been listening to everything from traditional Jazz, the Avant Garde, Barrelhouse Piano, Be-bop, Chicago Blues, and everything else that could fall into the Jazz and Blues categories. Listening to the music from Delmark Records is like being taken on a guided tour of Jazz and Blues music from the early parts of the twentieth century up to what's being played in the local club scene in Chicago today.

In one month I've received a CD of music that featured re-mastered and digitally transferred player piano roles, a DVD of a concert given by an improvisational Jazz group, a traditional Jazz CD, and a DVD of a Blues gig from one of the many clubs that are still thriving in Chicago today. One of the clubs that Delmark records gigs at is The Green Mile, which first opened it's doors in 1907. You can imagine during prohibition people drinking whisky out of tea cups and guys like Al Capone commandeering a table in the corner for himself and his cronies in a place like that.
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There aren't not many contemporary record labels around that allow you to feel that sense of history, or even care about it. At Delmark they don't live in the past, but they don't forget about it either. Folk singer Utah Philps once said "The past didn't go anywhere ... it's a stream that runs by my door". Bob Koester and Delmark records have been panning that stream for fifty-five years now and pulling out chunks of musical gold for whoever wants to listen.

On Friday January 25th/2008 I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Bob, talking about the history of Delmark Records, and his personal love affair with the music. After talking with Bob I'm convinced if I ever want to write a book about Jazz and Blues music of the twentieth century, he'd be the first person I'd go to for information. He's a walking compendium of twentieth century Jazz and Blues. The interview you're going to read probably represents only about a third of what we talked about - stuff that pertains directly to Delmark records and Bob. But I think you'll be able to get a good idea of the depth of his knowledge, and love, for the music.

You actually founded Delmark Records in St. Louis, not in Chicago, can you tell me how that came about, how long you were in St. Louis, and why you made the move to Chicago?

Bob: I went to university in St. Louis to study cinematography. My parents didn't want me going to school in one of the big cities like New York or Chicago because they didn't want me to be distracted from my studies by music. Unfortunately, for them, there were Black Jazz clubs all around the university, oh I don't know maybe six or seven. By the time I was in second year I was selling old Jazz records out of my dorm room that I had picked up in second hand stores around the city. I also joined the St, Louis Jazz club, and they used to allow me to sell my records at their meetings. But I needed more space, so a guy name Ron Fister and I opened a store just a couple blocks from campus.

We were still selling mainly records that I would pick up of older recordings, you know buying up stocks from all over the place, but I also started doing some recording at the time, we did five ten inch records, and after they stopped making them I recorded four and half twelve inch records before I moved to Chicago.

A half?

Bob: Yeah I had started recording Big Joe Williams in St. Louis but didn't finish it until I was in Chicago.

How did the move to Chicago come about

Bob: Well Ron and I had split up, he wanted to start selling pop music and I wanted to keep selling the Jazz and Blues, so we had each opened up our own stores by the late fifties. The owner of Paramount records had decided that he wanted to get out of the business and offered to sell me his catalogue. He also told me I should come out to Chicago, that's where they were based, and he'd set me up as well. So in 1959 I came to Chicago and with his help I took over Seymour's Jazz Mart - which had been owned by the songwriter and trumpet player Seymour Schwartz..

I had two small trailers of records that I hauled over with me, but there wasn't really much stock in Seymour's so, just the fixtures and a cash register really. (Me: What about Paramount Records?) Oh, I never ended up buying Paramount because he had made a deal with Riverside Records that had given them the rights to most of the stock - so there wasn't actually much available. Anyway, I was still buying up master tapes from earlier recordings from companies that had gone out of, or that were going out of business. We're talking about stuff from the twenties all the way up through the war years (World War Two) and the late forties.

There was also the stuff I had recorded in St.Louis, like The Windy City Six, who are trad. Jazz (traditional Jazz) and the first band I ever recorded. I got Big Joe Williams to come to Chicago so we could finish recording what we had started in St, Louis and released that In 60 or 61. I also recorded Speckled Red, great Blues piano player.

We were in Seymour's until '63 and then we moved over to Grand Ave, and we just didn't have enough space there so we moved again until now I've got the store- The Jazz Record Mart on Illinois street, and the studio, Riverside Studios just over on North Rockwell.

The funny thing is you know I'm still releasing stuff that was recorded back when I started in St.Louis, although I didn't record them. Back when I was a member of the St. Louis Jazz Club there was another member who was a cop, Charlie O'Brian, and he tracked down all these great old time players who had played in town during the 1920's. He was the one who found Speckled Red and Barrelhouse Buck McFarland. The disc we released last year by Barrelhouse was recorded in 1961 in the Robert Oswald's, he was the president of the St Louis Jazz club, basement. He had a basic set up there with a couple of microphones and a tape machine. There were a lot of guys I wished I could have recorded in St. Louis and never had the chance or the money really.

I guess I should have asked this first, but I'm a little backwards, why Jazz and Blues? What was the attraction for you to that type of music? 

Bob: I don't know, why not? (laughs) It was the music I loved you know. I never liked Country music, and growing up in Wichita Kansas there wasn't much else. There was a mystery to the names of those old Blues guys, "Speckled Red", "Pinetop Perkins", that made it sound really appealing - probably something to due with a repressed Catholic upbringing.(laughs) But I guess what got me hooked first was trad. jazz. Maybe it's because the only stuff I could find was old used 78s in used record stores.

It's still some of my favourite stuff today, and I can't understand why people are always dumping on it - I still put out a lot of trad. Jazz when other people won't touch it. We've got some great bands in Chicago - The Salty Dogs - and others. (Me. I really liked that German group you put out last year, the ones who recorded in the Ace Hardware store that used to be a Jazz club. Bob: Oh yeah, The Footstompers, they're coming back again this year, you can come and check them out. Me: That's a problem - I'm up in Canada, in Kingston near the New York State border, so that's a bit of a distance to travel for a night out.)

I know you spent a lot of time and energy on purchasing old catalogues like Apollo, and making new pressings from the masters and was wondering if you ever considered only doing that. Or did you always plan on making "new" recordings as well?

Bob: Like I said I started out by buying out other people's stock - you know buying a 100 records for a buck a piece and selling them for three or something like that. A lot of it was buying up masters of various companies - and it would take about three of four of them to make an album because there were only three or four songs on each tape. I still have some of those I haven't done anything with because of that - especially now when you need about sixteen songs for a CD.

The CD we just released, Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers Crazy Rhythm disc, was made up of two recordings. I had bought the Blackbird label back in 1966 and we released an LP of theirs. So this year we brought them back into the studio and recorded the version of the band that's around today and combined the two recordings for one CD. So that disc was a 50/50 split between the old and the new - and I say right now we are doing about 75% new recordings and the rest are reissues.

We're lucky we have our own studio so we don't have to rent studio time when we want to record stuff, and in fact we can rent the space out for a little extra money, because it costs money to do a recording and the sales in Jazz and Blues are so low you're going to be damn lucky to make it back. You know what percentage of record sales Blues accounts for in Amercia? 1.5%. Jazz is double that at 3%. We're lucky to sell 1000 copies of a disc in the first year of its release and after that sales only slow down.

We're lucky because we own a record store where we can sell our recordings, and we've got distribution deals with some online places and some stores. But you know there aren't any cross country chains anymore that will keep stock on the shelves for any length of time. Some place like Borders will only keep something on the shelf for ninety days and then its gone. I haven't got the figures for last year yet, but if we're lucky we might have broken even because the Buddy Guy disc did really well - but the year before that we lost 25,000, and before that 40 something and the year before that 65 thousand.

You know what was killing us - illegal downloads - it fucking almost drove us out of business, I'm not kidding. Or people burning discs for somebody else - same thing. I had two guys in the store the other day and one said to the other - burn me a copy of that and I'll burn you a copy of this - and bang there are my sales cut in half. And it's theft - because no matter what you're taking money out of the artist's pocket if it's a new record - or his family's if he's dead. Sure the publisher who owns the rights to a song gets the money, but they have to pay the songwriter every time that song is used.

It used to be we were paying three cents a song - that's three cents per song per record. Now its nine and a half cents and they're talking about raising it to twelve. When you start adding that up with all the other costs involved with making a record; packaging, distribution, hiring the sidemen and paying the artist you're going to be lucky to break even to begin with, but if people are stealing the music it really screws you. It's better now that they've stopped most of the illegal downloads and we're getting some money from places like I-tunes, but we still lose money to it.

When you got to Chicago had did you go about starting to record - did you just walk up to people in clubs and say - hey I've got a recording studio you want to come a make a record? Or did you already have some connections?

Bob: Well I had a couple of things that I had recorded in St. Louis, a Bob Graff record and of course the Big Joe Williams disc Piney Woods Blues that I released in 1960 a year after I got there, but yeah, basically I would go up to guys in a bar after hearing them and offer to record them. We would do it for a flat rate with no contract, which was good and bad. They could record with us and do a bunch of songs one week, and the next week they could do the very same material with someone else and they'd be in competition with themselves.

I've done the occasional royalty recording and those are the ones where you can run into problems cause the guy might think you're ripping them off. But you've got to pay for the recording and all the stuff we talked about earlier and that comes out of the same pie, and if they received an advance, well it was against the royalties - so right there that could be a thousand bucks. If a record only sold five hundred or even a thousand copies there might not even be enough to pay for the costs of recording the damn thing let along royalties.

I know it wouldn't have been an issue for you but others might have wanted to make it one. Was race ever an issue, considering the climate in the sixties and the fact that most of the people you were recording were black?

Bob: Chicago wasn't the south, so the prejudice wasn't out in the open, it was there in the fact that Blacks weren't welcome in certain neighbourhoods and there were restaurants downtown that wouldn't serve Black people, but you learned to avoid them. Once I found out which they were I stopped eating at them all together. They didn't have signs up saying no Blacks, or anything like that, but it was known they would serve them.

Most of the Jazz and Blues clubs were on the South or West sides, which were Black neighbourhoods. When a White guy showed up in a Black bar it was assumed he was either a cop, a bill collector or looking for sex. When they found out you were there to listen to the music and for no other reason you were a friend.
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The worse time I had were from White cops who would try and throw me out of the bars. They probably thought I was there dealing drugs, or something. But aside from that I've never had any other problems. You know a lot of the problems were about money in the old days, cause there's no denying that people were screwed out of money owing to them because they were Black. Because I didn't do very many royalty recordings, and always paid what I said I would, there was hardly any of that problem.

You have a reputation as hands off producer, letting the musicians have their heads. What do you see as your role in the recording process? Is there ever a time when you do have to step in and nudge things in a certain direction?

Bob: First of all I'm not the producer anymore, Steve Wagner handles the day to day stuff anymore. But if I made one suggestion during a day's worth of recording that would be it. I'm not a musician so I'm not about to tell somebody what to do. I don't believe in production, I'm not about to bring in a bunch of stuff that you can't hear a guy doing when he's up on stage in a club for instance. Even if we did bring in horns or strings or something like that, I'm not going to be the one doing the arrangements.

It's funny you know because we had Luther Allison signed to a contract for three records, and he didn't want to honour it because he said we weren't producing him enough. I can understand if a guy wants to back and fix some of his mistakes, but to be honest I can't afford for some guy to spend twenty hours in the studio working on one song trying to make it perfect.

Anyway I don't want perfection, I want the balls that I hear in the club - the sound the guys have when they're at the point in the night when they've really hit their stride is what I want to record. When if pick somebody to record I do it because I like their ideas, what they're trying to do on stage with the music, not because they're technicians. Some of the guys I've recorded really don't play guitar all that well - they just sort of strum along if that - but the things they do with their voices is amazing, and that's what I want, what they do that's amazing, that makes them who they are.

How would you describe your relationship with the musicians you work with?

Bob: Well it's usually a good relationship right up to the point when they become you're employee. Nah, it varies from group to group and person to person you know. Like I said it's probably one of the reason I do so few royalty recordings so there's never any questions about money or being screwed. We just don't have the sales to make royalty deals worth anyone's while, especially the musician involved.

Delmark was one of the first labels to record avant-garde Jazz music that came out of Chicago in the sixties. How did that association come about?

Bob: I'd always been aware that Jazz had gone through and goes through changes. All you had to do was listen to what was being done from decade to decade. There was Barrelhouse and Boogie Woogie in the twenties and thirties, Swing and Big Band in the thirties and forties and after that Be-Bop. So when I was first starting out in St. Louis back in the fifties I had the first Sun Ra disc in my store even back then, and that was fifty-six.

One of the albums that I always made sure to keep in stock was the famous Massy Hall concert (Me: Massy Hall in Toronto Canada?) Yeah that's the one. Anyway that recording was of Dizzy Gilispe, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach - hell it's the only recording that is listed under five separate names, because you could put it under anyone of those guys in your catalogue and it wouldn't matter.

You know what's even more amazing, that album still to this day sells about 10,000 copies every year. The sound had been so badly recorded though that Mingus didn't come through at all on the masters, so they gave them to him before they pressed the album, and he re-recorded all his parts.

But when it comes to the early Avant-Garde, or you know modern Jazz that we recorded at Delmark it was mainly because of Chuck Nessa working with me in those days. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were part of a serious Jazz movement happening in Chicago in the early but and they hadn't done any recording yet. We're talking about guys lik Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. It was Chuck who produced those first two albums that we did of the ACCM, which ended up being the first ever discs recorded by them. We also purchased the Transition masters - the label that had produced Sun Ra's first couple of discs with the "Arkestra" , when they folded, and re-issued them.

What these guys were doing was some of the most important music being played at the time, and still is. I have to tell you I'm still not sure that I really understand what's going on all the time, but what's important is they do. They also brought back multiple horn improvisation which was a feature of Trad. Jazz that died out when the focus shifted to the solo work that was the focus of Be Bop. It's funny you know because these guys don't play Trad. Jazz but they draw upon it for inspiration.

That's something I can really appreciate is that they understand there's a history to the music and they're not afraid to use what's been done before as a springboard to bigger and better stuff. It pisses me off that the Jazz media ignores Trad. Jazz, and that so many people won't even give it the time of day or just dismiss it out of hand. The pity of it is that's it really good stuff (Me: Something that I've noticed is that there's been a resurgence of interest it in since Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans - maybe something good will come out of that and people will start listening to it again)

There have been lots of changes in the recording industry since you start, not the least being the change from analog to digital. Part of that change has included making it easier to film and produce records of live performances with DVDs. Delmark has recently started producing it's own line of DVDs, featuring live concerts in Chicago's bars and small venues. When and why did you start producing them.

Bob: Well you've got to remember that I went to school for cinematography so I've always been interested in film, it just wasn't economical before digital media and video cameras. It's mainly my brothers Tom and Steve who do the filming. Tom actually did become a camera man and worked on shows like The Rockford Files and was a Director of Photography on some other stuff. We'll sometimes use as many as ten cameras on a shoot.

Of course there was an initial outlay for buying all the equipment, but we thought it was a market move that would work and make sense for what we'd been trying to do with all of our recordings, trying to capture the live sound. We've had some good success selling them, especially at gigs. For a lot of the bands we record gig sales are really important because like we talked about earlier there just aren't the record stores there used to be that sell Jazz and Blues records, and keep them in stock.

It used to be that there were chains you could put a record in all across the country, but now you're lucky if you can get into something like Wal-Mart. The one cross country chain left doesn't even pay it's bills right now, and you don't want to be chasing after people to get your money because it almost ends up costing you more than it's worth. You used to have a great store up in Toronto (Me: Sam The Record Man - yeah he went out of business a little while ago) Yeah I know, so there's not much in the way up there of cross country chains either (Me: Well there's HMV and another small one called Sunrise, but I'm not sure if Sunrise goes across the country)

Well that's the way it is down here with Towers gone out of business now. The other thing is there aren't even that many distributors anymore - maybe four or five really big ones that get you into stores. But a lot of our bands don't play outside of Chicago so who's going to be buying them in Peoria or some small town in the Mid West anyway? So gig sales become really important because of that - and the DVDs give us something else to sell. People have just been watching the band on stage so a DVD is an attractive offering because it's a chance to be able to take them home with you in a way you can't with a CD.

You've been doing this for fifty-five years now, I guess the inevitable questions are when you started out doing this way back when did you see it lasting for this long and becoming as big as it has and do you have any regrets?

Bob: You know it's harder to get out of this business than it is to get into it. You end up sinking so much money into it, that you can't afford to stop. The past five years have been tough, and we're just starting to come back up to zero again, maybe. The DVDs have helped and we got lucky with a couple of CDs last year selling better than we had hoped. I can only hope that it keeps going that way and my wife and son can get some of the money we lost.

The only regrets I've had are the missing chances of recording some people, just not being in the right place at the right time. I almost did some folk recordings once, even tough it wasn't really my thing, but at one point there were some really good people playing in Chicago. There was this one time this guy was playing in town and everybody kept saying you should go check him out and all, but I kept putting it off. You know how it is, people tell you some guy is amazing and he's really not all that hot shit.

Well it turned out the guy was amazing, John Prine, and I went up to him after his show and said you know I've got a record label and I'd love to record you. He told me that he had already had two offers, one was from Atlantic and I think the other was Capital. I told him he should really go with Atlantic cause they had a better reputation for handling their people. That's who he ended up signing with, so I like to think I maybe helped him make up his mind.

But really you know, I've done okay and I've no regrets about anything.

Well Bob, I think that's about it for me, thanks for this

Bob: Okay, now go out and make me famous on the Internet, oh and send me a tear sheet (laughs)

I think it's a sad commentary on the music business and pop music in general that Bob Koester and Delmark records aren't household names considering the contribution that both he and his label have made over the past fiftey-five years. In spite of what he said about it being harder to get out of the music business than starting in it, there have been plenty of other independent labels that haven't stood the test of time the way he and his label has.

I think of all the people they give Grammy's too for lifetime achievement awards or contributions to the recording industry, and there are few who can match what Bob has done with his label. Not only has he recorded some of the best and the brightest Jazz and Blues players of our time, but he has salvaged some incredible music from the past that might have otherwise been lost forever.

Take for example the latest project that Delmark has undertaken. The re-mastering of old player piano rolls onto CD that were first recorded back in the 1920's and thirties and then later recorded on the Euphonic label. But if it weren't for Bob and Delmark this piece of American music history would have been lost. Go to the Delmark web site and look through their on line catalogue, or get a copy of the Jazz Record Mart's (the Delmark record store) newsletter, Rhythm & News sent to you, or download the PDF version and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

But Delmark Record is more than just music and video. It's a history of the only music born on this continent. Every Jazz and Blues lover in North America and the world owes a vote of thanks to Mr. Koester for founding this label and sharing with the rest of us his love for it all, no matter what form it takes.

November 28, 2007

Interview: Singer Songwriter Martha Redbone

It was one of those happy accidents that could only happen because of the Internet. I don't even remember the exact details as to how it happened, but all of a sudden, I found myself reading about this amazing young woman who was making music on her own terms. Martha Redbone, is of mixed African and Native American heritage, with her feet planted comfortably in both worlds. On her most recent release, Skintalk, she was equally at home singing around the big drum as she was pushing the big beat of funk.

Like many strong-minded individuals of her musical generation, Martha has chosen the creative freedom of the independent route over the supposed security of signing with a major label. Along with her co-creator (they both write all the original material) Aaron Whitby from London, England, she has formed her own label, BlackFeet productions, to produce her music.

After I had read whatever article it was that I had read about her, I dropped over to the Martha Redbone web site. I was intrigued enough by what I saw and read there to write them and ask for a copy of Skintalk to review on these pages. It was after hearing and being impressed with Skintalk that I contacted Martha and Aaron to see if I could chat with them.
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Life can get complicated for all of us, and reality can be nasty. Touring and the illness of an old friend kept this interview on hold for a while, but unlike others, Martha makes an effort. I received her answers to the questions I emailed her today – and here they are in their entirety – unedited or abridged. If you haven't met Martha before – please allow me to introduce you to one of todays most dynamic and gifted young performers, Martha Redbone.

1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself ; where you were born and any other biographical detail you feel like talking about.

I was born in New York City and raised in both Brooklyn, NY and South-eastern Kentucky, where I lived with my grandparents in a coalmining town. I've lived in NYC pretty much since I was 11 years old.

2) Was there music in your family when you were growing up - if not where did your interest in music come from?

My father had a beautiful voice; he grew up singing gospel music in church and played piano. He & my uncle sang together in a gospel group that performed for many churches, they sang for pleasure, and enjoyed it throughout their lives. My mother loved all styles of music; being from Kentucky she appreciated gospel, blues, country, and rock.

3) A number of people I've talked to have known at a fairly young age that music was what they wanted to do from fairly early on in their life. When did you first start to consider creating music as a means of creative expression?

I had music lessons as a kid, piano, and guitar. I was a very shy child, quite introverted, and music gave me freedom to escape. I guess I still have the same feelings about music, I get a strong sense of freedom of spirit, singing heals me, it cures anything that might be on my mind, I'm happiest when I am singing.

4) Was there any event in particular that you can remember, sort of like a revelation, that made you think, hey this music gig is for me? Or was is it more of a gradual evolution into understanding that this was how you wanted to and would be able to make a living?

My very first session was the revelation for me that THIS is what I am meant to do, I am a vessel, and this spirit of singing is how I am meant to express myself. I was so nervous at the session, and also so shy that it was difficult for me to relax, but the joy in my heart to this day still cannot be described clearly. For me, it was the biggest buzz and I have never looked back. Music is my calling! Singing is my calling!

5) For a lot of people family play a critical role in their development, have yours been generally supportive, or was there any of the "When are you going to get a real job" or "What are you going to fall back on when that doesn't work out" stuff?

I think that sometimes family members say these type of things because they worry about the welfare of their child, no one wants to see their children struggle in any way, financially, emotionally, etc. And they are right, the music business is a tough one, but so are other fields of work. Some of my relatives are professional musicians and they are very encouraging and very proud of what I have accomplished so far. Overall, my family are very supportive of my music career, though there have been times when they have been nervous for me.

6) When you first began to create your own music, did you find that people had expectations of what you should be playing because of your Native heritage that differed from what you wanted to play, and if so did that make things difficult for you in getting gigs or doing recording

As a contemporary Native musician, I feel that the musical expression is most important, not the ethnic background of the musician making it, therefore I write music that moves me, filled with influences of what is going on or has transpired in my life and the world we live in today. My roots are deeply imbedded in the spirit of my parents' background and also my grandparents, so the roots music is always included as part of the sound of our music. I have always honoured who I am and where I come from in my music and everything that I do.

You also must know that the music does not solely come from me, the sound of our music is a collaboration between myself and my partner, Aaron Whitby, who comes from London, England, so here we have another big musical influence from his musical history. I never really concerned myself with what people in the business thought I should be doing. Just when they think something is a certain way, it all changes, so might as well write and play what makes you happy. I have the luxury of being an independent artist, so I guess I am fortunate not to have my musical direction dictated to me by a corporation. What a blessing, eh!

7) Can you tell us a little about Black Feet Productions. Did you form that strictly as a means of guaranteeing your freedom to create as you wanted, and not as other people thought you should, or do you have any greater purpose in mind with it as well?

Black Feet Productions was formed because I wanted to have my own label with the freedom to express music in our own vision, and also to have other acts who choose to do the same. I hope to build our label to the point where we can sign super-talented musicians who have a similar vision.

8) On your most recent release Skintalk you incorporated a traditional drum group into one song, "Children Of Love"; and you don't shy away from talking about Native themes. Have you experienced any resistance anywhere along the line to wanting to sing about that part of your life?

There are some people who think that Native people no longer exist, and that we are only depicted in Hollywood films. For this, I feel that I need to represent as much as I can, sadly today, people only seem to recognize us when we're in feathers and fringe. "Children of Love" was a wonderful musical infusion. I had always had this idea of blending the old with the new, the only other band who has done anything similar are The Neville Brothers, who also share a similar heritage to mine. I wanted to honour our people and this seemed like a really cool way to do it. The two styles fit perfectly, the roots music of America married together... I love it.

9) Obviously you draw upon your Native heritage for source material for some of your songs on Skintalk, but where else do you find inspiration for your songs and the music?

My inspiration comes from everything around me, things I read, or watch on the tube, life experiences, either my own or friends or family. I practice trying to be as open as possible so that I can appreciate all things in the world, and hope to have the ability to reflect on these things in song.

10) I wanted to ask - the credits list both you and Aaron Whitby as writers for all the songs. Is there any specific division of labour between the two of you - one of you responsible for lyrics another music - or do you each do both?

Aaron & I share all creative aspects of the songs, he obviously stronger in music and I in lyrics, but the ideas come from both, I may hear a music riff or a rhythm before I hear the top line, and he vice versa. We are lucky to have an easy collaborative vibe.

11) Here's an artsy/philosophical question for you. Well actually, it's sort of two parts and it deals with your creative process. When you sit down to write a song do you do so with a specific intent in mind, or have you had some blinding zot of an idea that's made you have to stop and start jotting something down on paper it inspired you so much? Part two is do you have an overall objective, something you want to accomplish, with your music?

When I sit down to write, it is usually after a long period of imagination and inspiration. By that I mean, we used to write every day like factory chickens, we wrote for other artists when we were signed with Warner Chappell Music Publishing, we really churned them out. But I learned that although it's cool to do this, it's also good to let ideas ferment in the mind for a bit, I like to write when I know I can hum the melody clearly. Sometimes the songs flow easily, and other times, we work and re-work a song, be it re-arranging, or re-writing to get the best out of the song. We are not precious about our music; we both definitely have respect for the craft of song writing.

12) I've always loved really well played Funk music, which is one of the reasons I like your disc by the way. My love of it came from seeing Sly and The Family Stone's performance in the movie =Woodstock back in the seventies - when did you find Funk, and what made you say yeah, that's for me

My father played in local funk bands in the late 70s & 80s; he played club dates, mostly for fun. But the music he always played at home was old school, Sly, Stevie, Marvin, Ray Charles, lots of blues and down home soul, he loved those raw voices. I must have inherited his ears because this is what turns me on as well.
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13) I was interested to see Dennis Banks was singing with the drum on "Children Of Love". How do you know him and when did you two meet?

We were invited to perform for the children at the Anishinabe Canoe Race in northern Minnesota, an annual event hosted by Dennis. We have participated just about every year since, donating our time to help the kids, water patrol, making lunch for everyone, etc. Dennis does a lot for Native youth, we've become friends: he's an uncle to us all.

14) I hate the word image, and I apologise for even implying that you portray one, but I found it interesting that you were photographed for Skintalk both traditionally and modern - is that an accurate representation of what you try to achieve personally and artistically? A balance between the old and the new?

Exactamundo! I get many emails from Native women who thank me for bringing an image of a strong independent Native woman to the forefront. Women have been in the back for far too long in Indian Country, and it's so cool to see other women taking charge and embracing independence and strength. We live in two worlds, and we take time to honour where we come from, many people paved the road for me today, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge... I would not be here representing contemporary Native music if it weren't for these wonderful and powerful women who opened the doors for us. I hope that we are making them proud.

15) What's next for you, anything special that we should be watching out for?

We are working on album #3, due out sometime in 2008 and of course lots of gigs all over. Our website always has what we're up to, so people can look us up online, drop us a line and say hello.

I want to take this time to thank Martha Redbone for sparing some time out of hectic life to sit down and do this interview. She talks of Buffy Sainte - Marie and Rita Coolidge being an inspiration for her – paving the way for her generation. Martha doesn't need anyone to pave any highways for her anymore – she's one of the ones who is clearing the way for the next generation. It's a good and strong Red Road that she's making and anyone with eyes can follow it. Let's hope there is soon a parade of people of all colours walking along it, because the road is not just about music, it's about being true to yourself and what you believe in.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's got a good strong heartbeat, and a pulsating back beat for parading to. Emma Goldman said something along the lines of " If I can't dance, I don't want any part of the revolution". In the revolution being led by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby you'll never have to worry about that – the road to believing in yourself might be hard at times – but it doesn't have to be boring.

November 11, 2007

Interview: "Lurrie Bell: Blues Guitar Great"

I first came to know about the extraordinary Blues guitar player Lurrie Bell through a wonderful DVD put out by Delmark Records of Chicago featuring his dad Carey and himself performing in three different locations around town. Gettin' Up Live caught them at Buddy Guy's Legends, Rosa's, and in the comfort of Lurrie's living room one afternoon.

It was the scene in Lurrie's living room that really got me; it wasn't some staged shit like those, we just happened to be in the neighbourhood with cameras and sound equipment spots you see on "documentaries" about "Celebrities". No this was a planned thing when it was discovered that Carey would be singing and playing harp accompanied by Lurrie on guitar for that weekend. Carey's health was failing, in fact he came out of a hospital bed to do the gig that weekend, so my feeling is that people just wanted to gather as much footage as possible of the two men playing together while there was still time.

It was the lack of pretence that made it so beautiful, and so heartbreaking. During the shoot the camera would cut away occasionally to Lurrie's wife Susan Greenberg, a great photographer, trying to stop three kids, one of them Lurrie and hers, from running out to hang with grand-pa. The music was great and the atmosphere was even better, which made reading the press material closely after I had written the review that much more distressing.

You see there was a ghost on that film, Susan Greenberg had died of illness the same month that the DVD was released. If that wasn't bad enough Carey was taken from Lurrie only a couple months latter, heart attack and complications brought on by Diabetes (The second song on the DVD is called "Gettin' Up" and Carey had written the day of their gig at Rosa's as he had just "Gotten Up" out of bed to come do the show)
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Lurrie Bell's 2007 started out really hard and continued to be a rough ride right through the first half of the year. But I think that if you were to open a dictionary printed this year and looked up the word determination, he would be staring back at you with a small grin on his lips and a guitar in one hand and his little girl Aria in the other. The year's not even over and he's started his own record label (Aria, named for his daughter of course) and produced his first disc for it Let's Talk About Love.

When I was given this opportunity to send Lurrie some interview questions by email to coincide with the release of his new CD, I wasn't given any guidelines on what I should and shouldn't ask about. Since he'd obviously taken steps to get past the events of earlier this year, it seemed obvious that I owed him the respect of honouring that commitment and wasn't about to start asking him about it. "Tell me – how's it feel to lose your wife and your father in the same year" just didn't seem appropriate.

Lurrie's not the most chatty of men in these situations, I think he prefers to leave the talking to his music, so his answers are short and to the point. But I figure if anyone has a right to be reticent it would be Lurrie after the year he's had.

Is there any truth to the rumours that a) you were born with a guitar in hands, b) backstage during a sound check before a gig your dad was playing at Buddy Guy's, and c) that you were sitting in before the night was out?

(Laughs) Yeah I’ve been playing the blues ever since.

Well if that's not the case maybe you better set the record straight and tell us how you came to pick up your first guitar?

I first picked up the guitar when I was hanging with my father at his rehearsals. I think I was 4 or 5 years old.

Was there pressure on you to become a musician? What if you had wanted to be an accountant or something, would that have disappointed your father?

No pressure but my dad was very proud that I had made a name for myself being a musician.

Seriously was there ever any doubt in your mind about what you were going to do?


You were sort of like an elite athlete in that you really didn't know anything else aside from your chosen profession – you were playing professionally by sixteen or close to that. Do you think given the opportunity you might do things a little differently?

I wouldn’t change a thing music is my life and always will be.

One of your first permanent gigs was playing in Koko Taylor's band, and since then you've played with who knows how many hundreds if not thousands of players. Are there any in particular that stand out from the crowd who might not be the household name that Koko is but who made an impression on you – you know people like Taildragger?
A guitar player that’s not a big name that I always liked was Wayne Bennett. He could make the guitar sound so smooth. I’m going on tour next week with Taildragger, I’ve been knowing him for many years. Southside blues man.

You were part of another band for a while, Sons Of The Blues, with you and some other second generation Chicago Blues musicians. Was that just for the one album or did you guys stay together for a while as a band?

We played together as a band for a good while. Just played the 30th anniversary show at The Chicago Blues Festival this summer.

Did you, or any of the other sons, ever find it, I don't know a little frustrating to be thought of in terms of being the "son of " instead of being yourselves? Or was that never really a problem for you?

No Not really. Being a “son of” gave me the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the greatest blues artists in history. Because of my dad. What can be frustrating about that?

Your new release, Let's Talk About Love is a collection of what might be referred to as standards. You were very deliberate in your choices of material – in the liner notes your producer Matthew Skoller says you took almost three months working up the material and finding just the right songs. The result is almost an affirmation of the power of love. Was that your intent with the CD, or was there more than that to it?

I paid a lot of attention to the lyrics. Blues has always made me feel love and I was thinking a lot about Susan and I guess the songs I picked reflected that.

You picked a wide variety of styles for this disc. Some of the songs reminded me more of Sam Cooke then anything else, and Pop Staples "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" is Gospel. Was that a deliberate decision not to do a "straight" Blues recording and mix it up, or did it just happen because of which songs you ended up selecting?

There’s blues in all music and if you notice almost all the songs were written by Chicago musicians. I like to play around with lots of styles. I like to think any song becomes a blues song when I get to it.

Lets Talk About Love is the first album produced on your own label, Aria B. G. Records, are you going to be opening the label up for other performers, or will this be for your personal projects only?

Right now it’s a label for my music…I can make records on my own terms.

Now that you've put out your own album again, where you had complete creative control – do you have the itch to put your own band together on a permanent basis and start recording and playing with them?

I do have a regular band now. I’ve been working with the same guys for a while now. Now that I have a record that’s out there I hope to do a lot more touring when I’m not playing in Chicago.

I guess this is sort of the b part of the last question, and the final one that I'll take up your time with: What do you have planned for the future?

Making a hell of a lot more blues music….I’m just getting started and I hope I can continue to make music that will connect with people. These days people need the blues more than ever…takes your mind off other things.

I want to thank Lurrie Bell for taking the time to answer these questions for me. Unlike me he's able to say a lot with few words and I hope you enjoyed thinking of them in context with all that's gone on in his life recently and his plans for the future.

August 16, 2007

Interview: Singer, Songwriter, Author Aaron McMullan

Once in a even less then a blue moon a writer or musician will come along who is pretty damn special. If you're really lucky you might chance across one of those geniuses once or twice in your lifetime. In some ways it's a lot like getting hit by lighting; at least in the bolt out of nowhere way that lighting hits you and perhaps in the way your world is turned upside down leaving you gasping for air, or the reek of ozone sizzling in your nostrils as the air around is charged by their brilliance.

I first ran across Aaron McMullan on the pages of where he publishes missives and musings on life, music, and all other manner of strange and wonderful things. There aren't many who can carry off the style of narrative that Aaron uses without the stink of self-indulgence rearing its ugly and scabby head. Being subject to that curse myself I'm grown adroit at spotting it in others and was quickly made jealous by his ability for selfless creation.

An artist looks to replicate archetypical moments in life that all of us can relate to, or at least understand, at an emotional level. He can be talking about his job or his girlfriend for all it matters as long as he relates it in a way that allows the viewer, listener, or reader to have their moment of understanding the experience in their own heart. Aaron's writing is filled with those moments, so even when he writes about places and people unfamiliar to any but him we understand what he's going on about.

Therefore it was no surprise that His disc Yonder! Calliope? was replete with songs of a similar nature. The good people at Ex Libris records, who have produced this disc, sent me a review copy, and after I had listened and written to the best of my ability about it I wanted to hear what Aaron had to say about the disc and the whole question of inspiration that he had raised with the title. (Calliope being one of the muses – feckless, fickle creatures of creative energy who when the mood strikes them will fill an artists ear so full of an idea that they won't sleep until they have written, painted, carved, sung, or whatevered it out of themselves).

So I fired off the questions that are forthcoming via email and most generously he has responded with wit and intelligence in his own inimitable style. So read, enjoy, and get to know a little bit more about the man behind Yonder! Calliope?

Tell us a little about your relationship with Calliope- inspiration – the muse- what's your source – where does it come from.

Well, the thing about Calliope is that she’s a tricksy sort of article all round, and inspiration, or sources thereof, can be terribly fickle. I’m sure you’re aware from your own writing - what has the brain in raptures one day, inspiring no end of song and verse and prose, might scarcely inspire a 32 character TXT message the next. A cigarette raised to a mouth on the street outside a café, an old drunk fella crying on a bench at 4 in the afternoon in the middle of the street, the way some lass or lad has his or her hair done one morning, the reflection of the KFC on the river – these things, and the associations they bring with them, they maybe burn the backs of the eyes for days and there you are hunched over the guitar or the notebook or the keyboard or whatever, and then, by God, before you know where you are you’ve forgotten all about it. Now you can’t sleep a wink because of the track of a tramline in Dublin or the purple lights shining off some building or other, or what some lass said to you in queue in Tesco. It’s a terribly selfish thing, I suppose. You spy something, or something spies you, you wring from it what you can – be it a song or a painting or a story or whatever – and then it’s abandoned, or at least it shrinks back from the surface. But in saying that, there are constants, I think, that are simmering away back there all the while. Certain tenuous links things have to certain core obsessions that cause that snare to spring in the first place. For me, those core obsessions involve coming to terms with my past, for one thing, and also a fascination with the kindsa lives folks live when they find themselves in situations where nobody knows them and they have the freedom to either adopt some wonderful façade for a while or maybe dispose of the one they’ve been wearing aforehand. Turmoil is consistently inspiring, be it of personal nature, or of external nature, like maybe I hear of some poor bastard in Basra catching a bullet in his ribs. People usually associate inspiration with positives. “That flick were right inspiring.” But the negative can be just as much, maybe because of a desire to make sense of it, or maybe from anger at certain things, or frustration or disappointment or whatever. In fact, to be honest, the more horror I encounter the more inspired I feel. I’m at my most productive, I’ve noticed, when I’m feeling worst. When that old Black Dog, as Churchill had it, is gnawin’ away at my shoulder. And of course certain ladies provide constant inspiration. Isn’t that why anybody does anything, at the end of the day? To impress some lass or to make some other lass say “why the fuck did I leave him?” Sure we wouldn’t get out of our beds, bejeesus, if not for them.
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I took a stab at trying to interpret the title of your disc in my review – but it was coloured by my views on the subject – What was your intent with the title Yonder! Calliope?

Well, the title refers again to that uncertainty about where inspiration’s gonna come from next, if indeed it comes at all, and refers also to the years I spent chasing Calliope in and out of bars and police cells and nut-houses and temples and chapels and churches. A lot of the songs deal with the results of that prolonged hunt, from analysis of it all now that I’ve crawled out the far-side of it sober and reasonably stable of the head and with enough strength about me to turn a clinical eye on it. “Yonder! Calliope?” barks the twenty-year old me from a hospital window or wherever. At the time you never really know for sure, but looking back she suddenly appears in the midst of that car-park or hedgerow like a tiger’s face rising out a Magic Eye picture. I couldn’t see her then for I hadn’t the right eyes in the head. Jesus oh I sound the wild pretentious fuck here.

One more about the lady inspiration – was there any particular reason you chose Calliope instead of , Eros, or any other of the Muses?

Calliope’s the one I’m most keen on courting because she’s the one who’ll have you shittin’ epic poetry from now till doomsday if she takes the notion. But I wouldn’t kick Polyhymnia off my shoulder, either. The muse of sacred verse, amongst other lyrical arts. Sacred verse… That’s what everyone aims for, I think.

Switching tracks here some. William Golding once talked about living under threat and how that affects writing (he was referring to 1950's US and the threat of nuclear war). You grew up in Northern Ireland, which has known its share of volatility to say the least. Are you aware, or do you think that has affected your work, and if so how?

Well it’s hard to say one way or the other because Northern Ireland is all I’ve ever really known, volatility and all. It’d be much easier for me to gauge the effects of something half ways alien to me on my work. But being born and raised here shaped my politics and my worldview and what-not, and all of that bleeds into whatever you’re doing either consciously or otherwise, and especially so when what you’re doing is so explicitly based on personal history. But I will say that I’ve rarely went anywhere near any Across The Barricades type stuff. I’ve rarely mentioned The Troubles explicitly, although I suppose bits and pieces of sights and sounds that I was exposed to because of such are on evidence in some of the songs; bits of "Don’t Think I’ll Sleep Tonight" or "Blue From Black", for example.

Do you think there is such a thing as a distinct cultural voice in Ireland, I don't mean the new age Celtic nonsense or singing old rebel songs while drinking Guinness in some pub in Boston, more along the lines of Joyce and other crazy poets. Do you feel any connection to anything like that?

Well there’s a lyricism in the banter about these parts that you’ll find seeping out the pages of anything James Joyce or Brendan Behan or Flann O’ Brien ever etched, and certainly I’m inspired no end by those same rhythms, by the blathering I might maybe hear friends gettin’ on with at the bus-shelters or the bars or the taxi-stands of a Thursday eve or wherever. And I don’t think any Irish reader could swallow a page or two of, say, At Swim-Two-Birds or The Quare Fellow or, Heaven’s almighty, Ulysses, and not feel a connection to it in some way. But the thing is, for me, anyway, writing now, as much as those blessed Holy bastards are heroes one and all, I feel myself cursing them every time I go to pen a line. There’s a statue of Joyce off O’Connell Street in Dublin, and I dunno how anyone who’s ever tried to write anything on this island hasn’t been kept awake with the urge to run down there and batter the fucker senseless. You can’t read that Molly Bloom spiel at the fag-end of Ulysses and not be simultaneously set afire with the desire to write somethin’ yourself, song or story or whatever, and yet also knackered with the crippling realisation that really, all that needs to be said has been said, and certainly no Irish writer I would wager will ever come anywhere close to the lowliest syllables on those pages, so why bother? Well, lot o’ keyboards in the world. Someone has to click and clack.

Has it had any influence on your music or your writing?

Unconsciously, probably that Irish Voice, whatever it might be, it’s probably seeped in over the years. And the geography of the place, too, is also incredibly important. Lyrically, the record is almost a map of my hometown; those songs refer to incidents that took place on certain streets, people I’ve met in certain taverns and cafes, churches I’ve thrown up in… If I can detach myself long enough to not worry about how I should’ve written this verse different or how that line was fluffed a bit, I can wander right from the poultry factory at one end of the town to the show-grounds at the other. Even bits that deal with Dublin or wherever, which is a good 120 miles removed from my doorstep, they’re filtered through how I feel about those places whilst sat in this particular estate. Course, it’s doubtful anyone else, whether they live here or not, will get that from it, but for me it almost runs like a travelogue. It wasn’t intentional, mind, but that’s how it worked out.

Jumping around again now – Are you able to point to some time in your life that you knew you wanted to be doing whatever it is you're doing now?

I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, but at the same time, I can’t remember ever really thinking I could get off with it, either. I still don’t know if I can, but I feel a bit more confident. I was gonna join the marines at a time, mind, which probably wouldn’t have been the wisest career move what with me being the size of a streak of wet shite and about as much use in a fight as a willy in a convent, and also being a big pink pacifist lefty faggot or whatever it was John Wayne called me in a dream one time. I doubt I would’ve gone far. But the career advisor folks at school wanted something on that paper, and I very much enjoyed the music of the Doors at the time, and we all know you can’t walk three foot if you’re a marine without tripping over the top of a Doors song. I grew out of that, thankfully. The Doors, I mean.

On Yonder! Calliope? you're joined by a number of other fine musicians, were there parts of this disc that were collaborative efforts with some of them – the music I guess is what I'm getting at – or did you show up for the recording sessions and know what you wanted from everybody and just say here do this for me would you?

The record as a whole is a collaborative effort between myself and Andrew Gardiner, the producer. I brought the songs and he set about sneaking around the corners of the buggers with a torch, coaxing each and every one of those phantoms out the shadows, wrapping them up in no end of musicological wonderments. Had it been produced by me, it would’ve sounded very different.

Things I wouldn’t have done, Andrew knew instinctively HAD to be done, and he was right. And then, things HE would’ve done, I knew we shouldn’t, and we didn’t. I thank God for meetin’ the man, and thank God that he met Luke Page beforehand, the co-founder of Ex Libris Records. Luke Page, we all agree, is the very fellow who is most responsible for Yonder! Calliope? ever getting past the mixing stage. The trauma that fella has endured.

But yeah, it was very much a collaboration between us, and a collaboration carried out over the ocean a good chunk of the time, particularly during the actual mixing stages. Tracks in varying states of undress were cast back and forth from Newcastle, England to here in Northern Ireland a thousand times or more, Andrew pointing out some new addition or some new level fix or reverb-swathe or whatever, and me giving my thoughts on the matter and so on and so forth.
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The recording process itself was spread over both patches of green, too. Here, Andrew recorded myself and Mr Ryan H Fleming who I adore to the back of the guts and who plays most of the lead guitar parts on the record, and in Newcastle he then recorded the various other musicians who appear on there. Various Ex Libris artists and friends, some of whom are busy making their own records or have recently finished doing so. People like Rebecca Jones, for example, who is an amazing songwriter and has a voice the likes of which I imagine lines the streets in certain azure avenues in Paris, or Sarah Gill, the cellist, an incredibly talented classical musician and composer. Beautiful work they’ve done on this record, every one of them.

You recorded Yonder! Calliope? with Ex Libris in London. Why the move down there away from Ireland – or is it just a temporary thing for purposes of getting the recording done?

As I say, although a good deal of the recording was done in England, actually in Newcastle, I never had to record anything over there, I did my bits in a studio in Portrush, Northern Ireland. I did go over there for all sorts of promotional malarkey, mind you. But I will be moving to London within the next month, for reasons of A – the distributors, NDN, are workin’ out a grand London-based scheme and I’d really best be there, and B- whilst we’re maybe all living in each other’s digital back-pockets nowadays, still, if you’re physically positioned anywhere outside of a few key areas, it’s very hard to meet the right kindsa folks at the right times, i.e, when they’re very drunk and notably aroused and in dire need of opening some doors to a lad.

Back to the CD again – a lot of the songs are about personal type subject matter, relationships etc. Have you drawn upon your own experiences for subject matter directly at all, been influenced by things that have happened to you, or just made everything up off the top of your head?

Everything on there comes directly from personal experience. Sometimes two or nine personal experiences have been juxtaposed, mind you, for the sake of The Grand Narrative, but there’s very little fiction, for all of that; poetic licence taken, maybe. I’d forgotten just how much it felt like a diary, actually, till about two months ago. From the moment we started making the record till about a week after it was finished, any time I’d heard anything I’d been hearing it as a Work In Progress and directed my attentions accordingly to this or that fresh-added drum beat or trumpet line or whatever.

Then, one evening I sat down to listen as a Normal Listener and it hit me at a more, I dunno, holistic level maybe. The whole thing came tearin’ out the speakers at me and I remembered what had led me to write that particular line, what I’m talking about there and so on and so forth. It tore me in bits, is the truth of the case. There are songs on there – not all of them by any means, but a few – that deal with particularly unpleasant experiences, and to be confronted with all those phantoms all a sudden in that short space of time was a touch overwhelming.

But that’s all we have, isn’t it, is our experience. It’s all we have to draw from. There’s a brilliant line in Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded where he mentions “A million actors with the same corny part” or something like that. We’re all basically telling the same story. Vladimir Propp went to great lengths to show us all just how simple that story really is. So anything that I can talk about that might colour my stories that bit differently to the next fella or lass… I suppose it’s the only currency I have.

There’s more to it than that, obviously, mean – a good deal of why anyone writes with any detail about personal things, other than they’re incredibly self-obsessed, which I am, is to do with a certain cleansing; an exorcism, maybe. Certainly I’d prefer to have those things wavering about the grooves there as wavering about my head. I worry sometimes about the ethics of it all, mind you. Mean, other people are involved in most everything anyone might be experiencing in one way or another, and Bad Shit rarely hits anyone without staining the tweeds of the folks stood closest. The fella falling naked out the ambulance isn’t the only one who felt that tarmac on the face. The folks who were stood watching felt it too. So to then be wringing profit from those things, by which I don’t necessarily mean monetary gain – artistic gain – it troubles me at times. But certain things refuse to leave via anything but the fingertips or the yap, so what can you do?

What would you like people to take away with them after listening to this disc? What was your intent I guess you could say – or was it simply the need to create motivating you?

I never thought about how folks would react to it other than – I hope they like it and I hope I don’t sound a self-pitying bastard. Mean, I write a lot, I write a lot of songs, and these 12 happened to be the ones I liked most and the ones also that fitted best together. Any themes or lines that can be drawn between them are probably coincidental, in that they weren’t written to play into some larger picture, it’s just that those things are what I’m obsessed with and they show up in everything I do. But I hope folks can connect in some way to those things. I’d like that.

I was told by somebody I interviewed that I should ask what's next, it's the thing to do. Since then everyone I've asked has just said – whatever happens I'll go with it – but I'll ask you anyway – What's next for Aaron McMullan?

The move to London is the next thing. Gigs and promotion and what not, and hopefully making Ex Libris back the money they put into the record. And the songs are still comin’, so that’s nice. Aside from all of that, I’m working with a production company here in Northern Ireland with regards a screenplay and scribblin’ at a novel and pretty much getting as much done as I can before the inevitable screech of the factory at my doorstep and I’m off to tin beans for the rest of what I have to live listening to beautiful men and women either side of me telling me about the books THEY wrote one time, too. Maybe I’d read it some time? I’d love to, I’ll say.

Well I don't think Aaron McMullan needs to worry too much about ending up working a factory job and talking about the times when he was, because he will always be what he is now. This isn't the work of someone for whom creativity is a passing fancy that will fade as the blush of youth fades from his cheeks. He's in a long-term relationship with his muse whether he knows it or not now and nothing he or anybody else can do will part them asunder.

Thanks to Aaron for taking the time in his hectic schedule of promoting to sit down and pen such thoughtful answers to my questions. All that's left to do is everybody go out and buy Yonder! Calliope?. Go the website of those nice folk at Ex Libris records and say can you send me one and for a very reasonable amount of change you too can own one of the most exquisite CDs that it's been my privilege to review in a long time.

July 17, 2007

Interview: Bob Brozman

To say that Bob Brozman is not your everyday, run of the mill guitar player is just a wee bit of an understatement. Aside from the fact that he is a highly accomplished and skilled slide player on almost any strummed, struck or plucked instrument, it’s the number of them that he is able to pick up and play with equal skill and abandon.

But Bob hasn't just learned other people's instruments so that they sound cool when included in his music. He's been like a pilgrim of old visiting shrines around the world. But instead of the tombs of saints his Mecca has been the musicians of various cultures where he has sat with them and learned how to their music and instruments.

Bob and I have been trying to set up an interview since almost the start of this year but his schedule and life haven't allowed him any time to sit down and answer the questions I sent him until now. Of course the timing couldn't have been better as he's just released Lumiere an album of orchestrated instrumental compositions created and performed by Bob.
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Each piece utilized Bob's accumulated knowledge of music and prodigious talent with instruments as he wove seemingly disparate styles of music together seamlessly into a variety pieces that represented the sounds of the countries and people he had met and worked with.

My interview with Bob focuses mainly on the here and now, his inspiration, his ideas, and his hopes for his music. For those who want some biographical detail or are looking for a full discography I suggest checking out his web site. Without further ado…Bob Brozman

Who were your first musical influences/ do they still play a part in what you perform today.

My early influences in roots American music are varied, but still affect my aesthetic senses: For Blues, Charley Patton, above all. He was for me the deepest and most interesting player/singer, whose sound goes almost back to Africa. While I like Robert Johnson, I find his music to be a little more self-conscious, and less musically profound. I am sure that above all, the urgency and fully committed passion of Patton really infuses my music.

For Hawaiian, Sol Hoopii was the greatest steel guitarist, and you can hear echoes of his music in my steel playing, though no 2 steelers sound alike. For Hawaiian music in general, my hero of course is Tau Moe (see Hawaii at Bob's site for the full story on this first collaboration of mine (1989)) with Tau and family, who made their first records in 1929! Tau was also the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of Debashish Bhattacharya! Very deep stuff for me, my relationship with Tau, especially as an influence of how to be a human being in the music business and in the working day of the musician.

Then for early Jazz, many African-American artists of the 1920’s affected me: Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Tiny Parham, Eddie South, many more. And I must also cite Eddie Lang and of course Django as other strong jazz influences. From there, I was deeply influenced by calypso artists from Trinidad: Wilmouth Houdini, and Growling Tiger in particular. From there, Africa and the rest of the world continued to open up to me, with too many great artists to list!!

When did the resonator guitar first become such an important instrument in your life?

Having played guitar since 5 years old, I first played an old National guitar at 12 years old, and what an effect it has had on me!!! The huge dynamic and tonal range and musical possibilities of these instruments completely shaped my ears, and led me on a long journey around the world, while giving me a deep internal lifelong journey of exploration of musical, muscular, and emotional nuances. They have been perfect instruments for a guy like me, who thrives on the stimulation derived from exploring variations in sounds!

You've done, and still do a lot I assume, of traveling in order to play with different musicians all over the world. When did that start and why?

The work I did in 1988-90 with the Tau Moe Family was my first “ethnic” collaboration, followed by 3 projects with 2 brilliant Hawaiian slack key guitarists: Ledward Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui, the first time slack key guitar and steel were re-joined after decades of musical-social separation. (Steel guitar travelled the world, while slack key stayed on the farm in Hawaii for many decades.)

Serendipity led me to be invited to Okinawa to record with Takashi Hirayasu, and the resulting Cd Jin Jin, became a runaway world music hit. From there I started attracting other collaborators, like René Lacaille, a massive influence on me. I suppose my non-imperialistic way of working makes me a good person to collaborate with.

My reasons for doing all these collaborative projects? Well, first and foremost, musical curiosity—something I think is essential for artistic growth. Then there is the desire to bring certain artists to world attention, because I love their music! Then there is the intense high-speed learning I enjoy, and the challenge and struggle to play at 110% of my ability. And finally there are the lifelong friendships I have made, with some deeply inspiring musicians! And now, most of my fellow collaborators all have met, played and even toured together! I love it when my friends meet my friends to make exciting things happen!

Honestly, this all developed through curiosity, keeping an open mind, and serendipity, really—there was no plan at the beginning of this long story. My travels have made me fall in love with humanity.

Can you tell us about some of the most memorable people and places who you've played with.

You pretty much have the whole list when you look at my discography—all of the marvellous people I have had the honour to work with, from Hawaii, Okinawa, Reunion, India, Guinea, Papua New Guinea. Rene Lacaille was in many ways my most satisfying collaboration in terms of rising to a challenge, and in terms of sheer joy of playing and the friendship that music creates. My real diploma is to be joyfully accepted by great musicians who I admire!

You've developed a style that is decidedly unique in your ability to incorporate a multitude of musical styles and philosophies into your playing – is there one style you think of as your underpinning – the basis upon which you build everything else onto

Blues and Hawaiian equally shaped my early playing, but now African and Indian thinking really affect me, too. Reunion Island, and the music of René have recently been a strong influence on me in recent years, and it has given me even more rhythmic freedom. I live like a blind man sometimes, in an abstract world of sound. When I play there is no intellectual process—I simply hear, and then react with movement on my instruments, that’s all!

This leads quite naturally into your new album Lumière. What gave you the idea to make the work improvisational?

A complex question demanding a multi-part response.. I will give you the ideas suffusing the making of the record in this unconventional way, to improvise effectively with a large ensemble, with the music unwritten and yet to be composed.

First, I have been tapping on things since infancy, singing since 2 or 3, playing piano at 4, and finally taking up guitar at 5. As with all toddlers, my young brain was still wiring itself up, and so today it is difficult for me to use language to describe the wonderful abstract world I inhabit----somewhere between sound, movement and feeling. I don’t really play guitar, I play music, and the total commitment I give with my whole body in live shows, well, I attribute this to the ineffable synesthetic feelings music gives me, thanks to my early start.

Second, tones, timbres, and rhythms affect my emotions very deeply in large and small ways. Layering parts allowed me to explore this idea, and it HAD to be improvised--as I was affected in new ways by each new timbre or rhythm added.

Third, I have accumulated many years experience of trying to play well with musicians who are better than me, or who are playing music that is unfamiliar to me. I’ve had learn to think quickly and instinctively in order to flourish in this extremely challenging and stimulating type of environment, and I thrive on the stimulation. (I am writing this the day after playing 3 hours improvised concert in Québec, with Malagasy guitarist Solorazaf—no rehearsal, no set list, first time in front of the public, what a blast!) Thus, the knowledge often comes to me in intense short bursts of understanding and moving/playing in reaction. Some of these pieces of music with multiple parts went down to tape very quickly. The total was 16 days of recording.

: Did you hope to achieve something specific by recording in this manner that wouldn't have been possible any other way and what was your goal?

Absolutely! I was able to work like a painter, using colours in layers of varying thickness. Moreover, I was able to do all of this without a click track, since I know my own breathing. That’s why, for example, the Tango Medzinárodný has places where the whole orchestra slows down and then resumes the original tempo. This cannot be done if a metronome or click track is used. Moreover, all the emotional crescendos, decrescendos, rises and falls in volume and intensity are being done by one man who knows his feeling each moment. The result is it sounds like a couple dozen players reacting emotionally to each other’s sounds and feelings! While nothing is ever perfect, I feel I have succeeded in conveying my intentions in each piece.

In my review of Lumiere I referred to it as orchestrations for stringed instruments strummed and plucked with percussion accompaniment. When you talked about muscle memory was that in reference to the actual playing of the instruments, or was there something more to it than that? Can you explain that in a little more detail?

Definitely on the instruments, but also in the hearing, perceiving, and composing. As I mentioned above, it is the blending of emotions, movement, and sound--squeezing muscles at differing strengths and durations, controlling it by emotions only, and then, in forward-moving time, reacting with both emotions and muscles. So, I am sure I have a long and detailed neurological catalogue of gradations of emotions and muscle-actions in my brain, which constantly interfaces with the sonic input coming in! That’s technically how it all works, but I never think about any of this when I am playing.

What do you hope that a listener to Lumiere will get from the experience?

I hope they will be transported to places of their own imagination. I hope they will enjoy hearing new parts emerging upon repeated listening.

In the liner notes for Lumiere you mentioned you did the arrangements as each instrument was recorded. Have you created an actual score for each piece? Which leads of course to would you ever attempt to get together the players necessary to perform the music live?

There is no score whatsoever, and though it could be performed live, the rehearsal required would defeat the purpose of the spontaneous improvised intent of the compositions. However, the general aspects of some of the compositions will no doubt emerge in interesting ways in the future.

Now that you've done this, something that you've been working towards for twenty odd years, do you feel any loss of purpose? Or will you be able to use this as motivation to find new ways to continue to broaden the definition of Blues music?

Your first question: Are you kidding!!?? I am more stimulated than ever, playing with more clarity and focus than ever, and ready to address the long list of other projects that have been steadily stacking up around the world for me..

Your second question: I am also working finishing mixes on Post-Industrial Blues, for October 2007 release, on Ruf Records, where I am taking a of new risks in writing lyrics, new ways of singing, new instruments, .new ways of improvising, and many of the songs are slightly orchestral as well, and definitely composed in the same improvisational way as Lumière.

So I don’t worry too much about running short on ideas or inspiration. Music saved my life, and continues to make it beautiful.

You're not shy about voicing some pretty strong opinions on the state of music today. To be honest most Rock and Roll guitar playing leaves me cold and bored – it becomes only noise and no passion. That's what I loved about punk for about the two weeks before they too were co –opted – Bands like the Clash and the Pogues managed to stay outside for longer – Bob Marley and especially Peter Tosh didn't make many concessions But that’s ancient history. Rap got turned into a minstrel show for white boys from the suburbs and has become misogynist and homophobic – It's not the music of Gil Scott Herron, Grandmaster Flash, or Afrika Bambata anymore. What do you think pop music needs to do to revitalize itself to stop being so damned boring?

Personally I must challenge myself every day in order to sleep at night, as an artist. My biggest gripe about rock and pop is that it is often artistically lazy and musically very conservative, actually. I tire of artists who simply re-do what they have been doing for 35 years, without risk-taking. I mean, after one has gained the fame and the money, can you think of a SAFER time to take some artistic risk??

Another problem I see with pop culture is that, since the 70s, it just keeps re-hashing the last few decades—it seems there is not a lot of radically NEW music happening. To clarify, it was a big leap from swing to r&b to rock &roll, but it was NOT a big leap from rock to metal to grunge, art-punk to non-art punk, house to jungle…. I don’t expect to see any really big leaps in the future of pop, because big commerce always makes art more conservative!!

Having said all that, my life and workload have never been better, because there will always be some people interested in art with a little more substance. When I am onstage, it is obvious that I am just a regular human being doing real things with passion. It’s also evident that onstage I am fully committed with every cell in my body. I find it interesting indeed that since the advent of Youtube, my concert attendances have shot up, and all the newer concertgoers at my shows are under 25 years old. And many come up and say they find my way of playing AND my attitude to be refreshing and, more importantly, inspiring. I cannot identify it exactly, but there must be something I am doing right.
RISK and CURIOSITY! That is all you really need to get interesting and challenging art, I think. Pretty easy really—it’s just that in modern life there are strong social-marketing-mis-education forces at work killing curiosity and discourse…I urge people to FIGHT back with independent thinking!

You mention rap and hip-hop. But you did not mention the one other thing hip-hop has become: a 24/7 advertisement for materialism, thus the revolution got a little co-opted. These famous guys crave all the same Rolex, Gucci, Escalade crap that the establishment craves!! What about using that microphone to help the neighbourhood where you came from?? Come on, boys, don’t be so selfish—the bad guys have their microphones on ALL the time! (TV)

Another problem I see is that the concept of “fame” has been pumped up to a ridiculous degree. Celebrity used to be attached to accomplishment. Now it is often pre-made, and simply used to distract the masses from more important news about urgent real things in this world.

Part of my success has simply been trying to get BETTER, not bigger.

I heard you being interviewed about a program where you were trying to get guitars to people in impoverished villages – can you tell us about that.

Well, I have travelled a lot in the third world, and it is hard for westerners who haven’t done so to really understand how difficult things are there. After meeting US guitar collectors who own 500+ guitars, and then meeting a man in Rwanda who is trying to teach 500+ orphans to play guitar…with ONE guitar, I decided to start the Global Music Aid Foundation. In many developing countries, any common thing you can think of—they don’t have it! So musicians struggle to have strings and decent instruments to play.

The idea of the Global Music Aid Foundation is to transfer some of the musical surplus of the West (guitars, ukes, strings, and other musical basics) directly to musicians in developing countries. What little leverage I have in the guitar and music world can be used to better the world in a tiny way. Getting non-profit status is difficult in the US, so we have decided to work independently. We can thus accept materials donated, but no money donations. Now that I am doing well enough to do good, this is just something I want to do. I figure every time a new musician is created, that’s one less criminal, except possibly for Michael Jackson!

What type of role do you see yourself as a musician playing in society today? Are you strictly an Entertainer – which I don't think there is anything wrong with by the way; people need to be entertained intelligently.

Well, first, I don’t feel important, just another fella doing honest work. Second, I do think of myself as someone who breaks false myths for audiences, about show biz, myths about guitar virtuosity, and myths about a supposed “wall” between performer and audience, especially for younger people. I like to say, “This is not a concert. It is just an evening of life, together.”

I think I am becoming a kind of teacher, too, simply because I see so many people struggling with music and I just want to help. That is the impetus for all the workshops I conduct around the world, and for my teaching DVDs, to give back some of what has been given to me.

Third, I guess I have evolved slowly into a bit of a socio-political raconteur. While there are people who don’t want an artist to talk about much onstage (shut up and play), I disagree. Artists, by definition, have sensitive perceptual antennae, thus we are something like the canaries in the mineshaft of society, an early warning system—our bullshit detectors are turned up full! I would also like to say that the concert ticket may RENT the artist for a night, but it does not BUY him!

But mainly, I see myself dealing in brain-chemistry alteration, using moving air waves! I love the grey zone between biochemical-neurological reactions to sound waves, and human feeling/meaning derived from music! It is an endlessly fascinating area of thought. I see people at the end of my shows, smiling and talking excitedly. I love to stimulate, light a fire under people, and just transfer some of my deep and passionate love of life and music!

Sometimes when I happen to hear today's popular music or hear about what's popular on tv I get the feeling the last thing people want to do is think. Everything seems to be geared towards escapism and stopping people from thinking. You've seen a lot of music all over the world and played with a lot of musicians, in your opinion is this something particular to our society or do elements of it exist everywhere?

Well, as I said above, commerce tends to ruin art. Great forces have been at work for the last 35 years, to stop critical thinking, and discourse, in the US especially.

  • Slashing education,

  • increasing greed and materialism while jobs evaporate,

  • fundamentalism,

  • ever-increasing pop & celebrity culture

  • declining access to international and economic information,

  • fear of terrorism,

  • fear of losing your job,

  • constant media noise and distraction

  • overuse of pharmaceuticals

  • choppy MTV editing style killing the ability to think in paragraphs

It is a long list. But the result has been disastrous, as all can plainly see. In thousands of generations of humanity, these processes are very recent and their effects are not fully understood, especially by the victims! It is why I fight so passionately to help the young think for themselves!!

Language needs translation, but music does not. I think music’s ancient original purpose in our evolution was to engender co-operation between people. It provides a window into another person’s mind, with a much smaller error rate than language!

Globalism (American corporatism) is indeed spreading everywhere, regrettably. The advertisers of the (non-existent) American dream are powerful. The US may be a rich country, but I think it has a poverty of empathy. Sometimes I think the poorest music comes from the richest countries. Is it just that the top 1% wealthiest, who essentially run everything, are simply NOT funky?

You did a lot of what people like to call world music, and now you're doing a style people will call Blues for the sake of giving it a label – where do you see yourself moving musically in the future, or is that even something you've given much thought?

Well, actually I have been doing both for a very long time. Lumière, which you have recently reviewed, represents a summation and full development of my adventures in world music up to now. My next blues record (Post-Industrial Blues-- releases on Ruf, in October 2007!) takes my blues side further than ever, with a few new instruments, as well as a LOT of new original songs, some of a very socio-political nature, for the first time. There is a lot of risk on this record—as a songwriter/lyricist, and with new risky ways of singing. I’ll be very curious to see the reaction it gets.

For 2008 and beyond, there are a lot of new projects in the hopper, but I am not ready to discuss them yet!

One last question, if there was one place in the whole world you could go and play with another group of musicians right now, just for fun where would that be?

Back to Madagascar, tout suite! There is so much to learn there, and I just love the place. In the next few years, I hope to mount a large Madagascar guitar project. So many incredible musicians there, and I love the challenge of trying to keep up!

Well that marks the end of my interview with Bob Brozman. As you can see he's not only a talented and gifted musician he's also one of the most thoughtful men I've had the privilege of interviewing for a long while. You may not agree with everything he said, but you can never deny his passion for what he does.

Thank you Bob Brozman for your time and for sharing a little bit of your passion with me.

June 28, 2007

Interview: Xavier Rudd

So I was set up with what they call a "phoner" in the publicity business with Xavier Rudd for Thursday June 28th. His Canadian publicist emailed me and said to phone "this number" at 12:30 PST, and Glen, Xavier's tour manager would put me over to Xavier.

They always tell you that they'll give you plenty of warning for these things, but I guess their definition of plenty is a lot different than ours, and so I had about a day to get myself ready for it. It wasn't so bad because I'd been thinking about questions for a while so that wasn't a problem.

What I was worried about was the time limit. When you do one of these "phoners" you're one of god knows how many folk they've lined up to yak at whoever the poor guy is over the course of the day and you only are supposed to have fifteen or twenty minutes. I swore after the last one that I'd never do one again, but I couldn't see any other way of getting to talk to Xavier so I decided to play by the rules. Maybe I thought if I get him talking… well you know.

Anyway at the appointed time I called and the reception was really weird – they were obviously travelling and I could hear like a CB radio or something similar in the background so the first words out of my mouth after hi how you doing were " Are you guys on a boat"?

"Yeah we're in the sea of Japan making our way home and about ten days out of Australia"

"Wow cool"

(laugh) "Nah, we're on a bus just outside of Portland Oregon – not so cool now huh)"

"Damn, well let's lie about it and say you are on a boat okay"

He laughed again and we exchanged a few more "pleasantries" as they say, then I brought up being on the clock and he said yeah I am, so I began the official interview. The first question wasn't really a question; I just wanted to clear something up. I'd heard somewhere that he had always wanted to play the Yirdaki (didgeridoo) and as a kid had used a garden hose to practice on

"No it was a vacuum cleaner tube that I used play around with before I got a Yirdaki"

Well with that rumour cleared up it was time to get on with the interview. Now the other reason I hate phone interviews is any time I've used technology to try and record them it's failed, so I've given up on that and I take notes and then recreate our conversation as best as I can immediately on getting off the phone with whomever. If I'm ever in doubt about something having been said, I leave it out. I'd rather omit something than risk misquoting anybody.
White Moth.jpg
So to the best of my abilities here are my few precious moments with Xavier Rudd.

Listening to your music I sense that you have an awareness of the world around you that borders on spiritual – if it's not to personal a question was there some event in your life that acted like an epiphany –so to speak – that brought this about, or has it been a gradual journey.

It comes from a connection with the spirit of the land, something that I've had as long as I've been aware. I was born in tune with the land and through an aboriginal bloodline I have a connection to mother earth. So it's always been part of me – just who I am. It's grown stronger over the years as I've had the opportunity to learn more from aboriginal people all over Australia and then making connections to people in Native communities around the world has made it stronger.

You sing about very important issues do you ever worry that your medium of expression might actually be interfering with your conveyance of the message – people get wrapped up in the music ignore the content.

No because that's not why I sing. I don't write to tell people anything, if they listen to my music and take something that affects their journey, well that's an honour, right, that I've affected them so much.

The music is a reflection of spirit coming through me – and I cherish that gift because it's really quite sacred – and I'm really honoured to be given my gift. I have a life that's amazing right, I get to travel all over the place and play my music which is a great road to be on.

Obviously things are changing now – it's become a career and that's a whole other side of it, what with media attention and so on, and that's fun too. But the core of what the music is will never change for me. People come and listen and take what they will from what I have too offer them and that's all that really matters

I noticed that not only do you think it's important to inform people about issues but that the way in which you do is important too – instead of singing in anger you try to imbue your music with hope and to talk about battles won. Was that a conscious decision or an evolution of an attitude?

It's more a reflection of just how I feel about what I'm doing and that I'm extremely lucky to be doing it. I get fed this wonderful energy by people who listen to me or the people I get to work with, like the elders on White Moth.

It's also a reflection of how I feel that we are so fortunate to be living in this time and place right now; nearing the end of an evolutionary cycle of mother earth before a cleansing time. We're lucky that there are still places of beauty that we can still connect with on the planet and people who we can still learn from on how to live with the planet better.

I was thinking about the song "Footprint" where you express a lot of anger, for good reason, in the music and the lyrics, but at the end of the song it's like you close it off with a prayer that's going to contain the anger to that song and not let it travel any further.

That was recorded over the course of a night, and talking about things, and the prayer is what Kennetch came up with as an answer to the storm that's rising with Mother Earth starting to claim back what's been taken from her. It's a prayer to Mother Earth of gratitude for what we've been gifted.

You appear to be at a stage in your career professionally where you're taking the next step up the ladder in exposure, you're touring into venues larger then you are used to playing – how's that feel especially in terms of being able to communicate to an audience in the immediate/intimate manner your music seems to require to be most effective.

No, because I've already played festivals and stuff where there have been more then 20,000 people and it becomes something else then what you hear on the CD. There's another energy that comes from playing live – you send out energy to the audience and they in turn give it back to you and you cycle it through you out back to them (me: kind of like a conduit?) Yeah that's right.

It becomes more like a celebration than anything else with all of us there for the same purpose and enjoying the music together. The great thing about our music is that we can do what we do on CD on stage. Everything on White Moth except for the organ and the aboriginal singers can be done by me and Dave (Dave Tolley: Drums) so that also helps make it a celebration.

From an observer's point of view White Moth in terms of content and comprehension seemed a step further along on a journey that your on personally from your prior release Food In The Belly. Do you see your albums and music in those terms – reflections of where you are on a journey - and how would you describe that journey?

Oh yeah, it's a reflection of where I'm at spiritually in my ability to be able to comprehend a little bit more about my own existence. It's like I said about feeling fortunate in being alive at this point in time and one of the gifts of that is having the opportunity to travel that road.

On White Moth I really felt that I was able to communicate my connection to the land and how important that is (me: yeah that was something that I picked up on, I feel the same way) Thanks – It's one of the things that help me understand myself, that connection, how I fit into it all.

Where does it come from for you – the lyrics, the music?

I feel like I become a channel for spirit, I'll feel spirit and it will come as music. Sometimes it happens in dreamtime, and other times it just spills out of me. It's best when I'm not thinking and I can just let it happen.

Do you write it down, or record it on something at that moment?

No I figure if something meant to stay then it will stay around – sometimes it takes me months to figure out what the heck it was that came and I have to let it just be. If it doesn't stay than it wasn't meant to. Some people think that's a risky way of doing things; that you could lose a lot of stuff, but I don't know it seems right.

The musical side of me is constant, I've always got it floating around in my head and so things come out when they are ready – if I worry too much about it…well there's no need to.
Xavier Rudd.jpg
When someone like me asks, "Xavier – describe what it is you do musically?" I wouldn't think there is any pat answer – but are you able to define what it is you hope to accomplish with your music and songs.

I know it's hard for people to get their heads around it, but like I said, everything is live. I'm a multi-instrumentalist able to play guitar, foot drum and didgeridoo pretty much all at once. I feel like I'm a dancer when I'm playing, everything in motion and moving together. It's almost like a yogic way of being where you're moving everything in harmony and what people can't see is it all comes from a centre place, the place my breath comes from.

(At this point Xavier was starting to get the "wrap it up" sign from his road manager –we'd already blown the time limit and gone over twenty minutes, so I asked him this final question)

There was a great German Theatre director in the thirties, a contemporary of Bertol Brecht name Erwin Piscator who used to do these incredibly elaborate pieces of political theatre with projection devices and film etc. He used to gather his actors together before a performance and ask them what reactions they would like to produce in their audiences – do you ever consider what effect you want to have on an audience before you perform and how you can best accomplish that?

Nope – (Me: oh that's great a nope hell of an interview you are) laughs – I just want people to come here, enjoy and I'm just grateful that they want to do that. I don't expect anything from them.

And that was it, my few precious moments with Xavier Rudd. In case anyone's wondering about all this talk about spirit, this guy ain't some New Age phoney or Hollywood bullshiter. There are actually some people out there who can talk like that without embarrassment and with such sincerity that it's real.

Anyway all you have to do is listen to the man's music and you can't help but feel the depth of his passion and sincerity. If I learned anything from this interview, it's that he is his music and his music is most definitely him. Not something I would have expected ever to find in the world of popular music.

He talks about his gratitude for the gifts he's been given and for people coming to see him, well it's a two way street and there's a lot of people on the other side of the footlights, including me, who are grateful for the things he brings to his music that are absent from so much of not only popular culture but the world in general.

A friend of mine wanted me to ask Xavier how he got to be so damn good – he was semi-kidding and semi- serious. I don't know if this interview answers the question for him – but it's gone a long way in answering it for me.

May 19, 2007

Interview: Vinod George Joseph, Author of Hitchhiker

In North America we tend to preserve outdated and romantic ideas about countries that have no bearing on reality. Whether it's believing that Arabs still live in tents and keep numerous voluptuous wives that are hidden behind closed doors (the fact that tents and doors don't really mix never seems to bother anyone) or that Indian Princes ride on the backs of Elephants hunting tigers in the jungles surrounding Mumbai our views of the world are still overly effected by Saturday afternoon matinees at the Bijou.

Although we have managed to bring ourselves beyond the Rudolph Valentino and Sabu the Elephant boy state we still haven't bothered to learn much about the realities of life in most countries beyond our own borders let alone across the sea. Fortunately the resources to educate ourselves are becoming more and more plentiful.

I don't mean from any removed sources like histories written by anyone with a line to toe, but by fiction writers who don't hesitate to speak truths that far too many everywhere would prefer remain unspoken. It's been my fortune to read a great many of these books including Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker. (Reviewed at Desicritics among other places)
Somehow Mr. Joseph was able to use the novel form to shed light onto one of the mysteries of Indian society that we in the West have little or any real understanding of; the caste system. Without being shrill, or preachy; just letting the facts and circumstances surrounding his main character Ebenezer a reader was given far too clear a picture of just how horrible it is to be from a lower caste.

Mr Joseph very kindly agreed to answer a series of questions I had about the book, himself, and the caste system. Intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate answers to an emotionally charged question can be hard to come by sometimes, so his replies to my queries were a refreshing change.

I'd like to thank Vinod George Joseph for his answers and hope you find them as intriguing as I did.

1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – where you were born, brothers and sisters etc.?

I was in born at a place called Kollam in Kerala. That’s in southwest India. My dad worked as a lecturer in a polytechnic in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. My mother was a schoolteacher. She taught mathematics. So I spent my entire childhood in Tamil Nadu where Hitchhiker is set. I have a younger brother who is now (like many Indians of our generation) a software engineer.

2) You're a barrister, or is it solicitor, I've never understood the difference to be honest, but all of a sudden you've written a book. Was it so all of a sudden or has this been something you've thought about for a while?

I am a solicitor. To explain the difference between barristers and solicitors in a simplistic way, barristers appear in court on behalf of clients; while solicitors negotiate on behalf of clients, draft agreements etc. I specialise in corporate law and advice on mergers and acquisitions, bond issues, stock exchange listings etc.

I wanted to write a novel for a long time, ever since I read my first novel (R. K Narayan’s Swami & Friends) when I was ten. Hitchhiker was in the planning stage for four or five years before I actually sat in front of my laptop and started typing. I had just come to the UK to do my masters in Law, an LLM, after having worked as a corporate lawyer for 4 years in Mumbai. It took me a year to finish it. I wrote for an hour or so every day till my LLM exams got over. After that I wrote full time – ten or twelve hours a day - for three months before I started working as a solicitor.

3) Where did the idea for Ebenezer (the main character in Hitchhiker) and his life come from? Is there any autobiography involved?

There is no autobiography involved. The idea for Ebenezer came from what I saw and not what I experienced. As I just mentioned, I’ve always wanted to write a novel ever since I was very young. So, when I finally started writing, rather than write a war novel or a detective thriller as I would have liked, I ended up writing about things I know and have seen.

4) Aside from the whole caste system and reservations, you also look at the I. T. industry in India and don't see it as the same economic miracle as it's being portrayed. What is the reality today – Are companies like the one Ebenezer worked for that only provided content and such still around – or has it all become call centre and hardware.

The IT Industry in India has evolved over a period of time. Leading Indian companies are really world class, but of course there are companies at the lower end of the spectrum as well. So, you have companies that do cutting edge work and also companies doing boring, tedious low-end work outsourced to them by others. Some companies do both. Indian IT engineers are among the highest paid professionals in India. To succeed in the modern day service oriented world of business and technology, soft skills are as important as hard skills. And it is very unlikely that a person with Ebenezer’s background will have the sort of soft skills that a person from a more privileged background will have. It is not a question of intelligence or hard work, but all about the environment one grows up in.

5) How much of an economic miracle is it really anyway. Judging by your book the majority of the country is still not experiencing the miracle and child labour is still the norm not the exception?

It is an economic miracle. No one can deny it. But only a small fraction of India has benefited from it. India has always been a land of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. And it continues to be so. If you want to talk numbers, in a land of a billion people, maybe ten percent has benefited from this boom in some form or the other. That’s over a hundred million people who have gained something from this economic miracle. That still leaves nine hundred million unhappy Indians.

Child labour is still very much prevalent among India’s poor. But children who belong to the upper strata of Indian society have a privileged up bringing.

6) For people who may not understand what it is can you explain what the caste system is now and how it has been corrupted if it has? (My understanding was that it just used to be title given to people according to their jobs, not designations of their stature in society and that is a relatively recent invention)

The caste system prevalent in India is a system of beliefs, customs and traditions that horizontally stratify Indian society. Though it can be said to be tied to Hinduism, it is followed by almost all communities in India, including Christians, Sikhs and Muslims.

According to this system, society is divided into five major classes or castes. They are the Brahmins (priestly class), the Kshtriyas (the warrior class), the Vaishyas (the merchants), the Shudras (labourers) and the untouchables. One is born into a caste and there is practically no mobility within this structure.

There are various theories regarding the caste system in India and how it came into being. And before I say any further, I should confess that I am no expert. I know as much about the various theories as any layperson that is interested in knowing about these things.

The main theory, which is endorsed by a majority of scholars and historians, is that India had waves of immigrants from central Asian steppes since 1500 BC. They were fair in colour - as opposed to the earlier inhabitants (Dravidian and Austric races) - and the caste system was born. Varna or caste literally means colour in Sanskrit and Hindi. The new immigrants were naturally on top of the caste pyramid. And they brought in religion to justify caste. Even if one belongs to a low caste, one ought to stick to it so that he is reborn into a higher caste in his next birth.

The theory I have described above has a sub-theory that even before the immigrants from central Asia arrived, India had caste. The Dravidians, who were also possibly migrants to India, had pushed the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent down the social ladder. And they were in turn labelled ‘shudras’ by the fair skinned later arrivals. The original inhabitants became untouchables.

So, according to these theories, caste is not something recent. Some social activists even equate casteism with racism since the origins of caste are rooted in race.

But there are people who hold the view that till the arrival of Islamic invaders, a person’s profession was his/her caste. There was social mobility. But after the Arabs, Afghans and Turks started ruling chunks of India from the tenth century AD onward, social mobility was lost. Caste became a rigid structure, especially after the arrival of the Europeans. According to this theory, the caste system as it exists today is a recent phenomenon.

7) In North America we've had various affirmative action programs for minorities that were initiated against the wishes of those in favour of maintaining the status quo of white male dominance. Even thought disparities are long from eliminated we hear lots about the rights of the majority from conservatives who try to portray them as stealing jobs and opportunities from white people and play up fear and racism. Does this sound familiar to you in terms of the reservation system. Could you explain that and how it works and what it's intent was?

In India, reservations based on caste have a long history. They were introduced even when the British ruled India. And they are different from affirmative action in the sense, they are not voluntary, but mandatory quotas to be fulfilled by colleges in admissions, and by government departments. Schools and colleges that receive government aid are also bound by these quotas in the appointment of teachers. Different states in India have different percentages reserved for different castes. From what I know, the state of Tamil Nadu, where Hitchhiker is set, has the highest percentage of reservations in India. The other main difference between the situation in India and the US/Canada is that India has much fewer resources than the US or Canada. And it has a larger population. So, competition is a lot more intense and losing out to someone who is entitled to reservations generates a lot more anger than in the US/Canada.

I feel that reservations are the most effective tool for moving a socially backward caste up the social /economic ladder. But it does have its share of drawbacks. The main draw back is that it is not possible to ensure that every beneficiary of reservations actually deserves it. Reservations have created a creamy layer within every caste and this creamy layer corners most benefits. This is not to say that reservations should be done away with. But it is necessary to build filters into the system so that the benefits of reservations are evenly spread. Also, some of the people who lose out on account of not having reservations may not be financially well off. For want of a better term, I call it collateral unfairness. It is quite difficult to explain the need for reservations to a 18 year old middle class boy or girl who has failed to make it to an engineering college or a medical college because say, fifty percent of its seats are reserved on the basis of caste. It is difficult to see the larger picture when you are personally affected. A lot of the outcry against reservations comes from middle-class India for whom a decent education and a good job at the end of it is the only way forward. India with its billion plus people does not as yet have enough schools or colleges or resources to ensure that everyone gets basic opportunities. Until fifty years ago, everyone who belonged to the lower castes got excluded. This is no longer so. Now you find people at the bottom layers of all communities getting excluded.

8) In Hitchhiker you make it quite clear that there are plenty of ways that companies and schools are able to circumvent reservation quotas – is that still an accurate portrayal.

In India, the private sector is not bound to reserve places for lower castes. There is a demand for that, but it has not been put into effect. So, it is not correct to say private companies circumvent reservation quotas. Private educational institutions do however have quotas for appointment of teachers if they receive government aid. It is common for privately run schools and colleges to circumvent quotas in the appointment of teachers.

9) I received some comments from Indian readers when I reviewed Hitchhiker about how they felt people shouldn't portray India in a negative light anymore but focus on all the positive elements instead – how do you react to this?

I feel that it is important to examine oneself critically and make amends. Mere window dressing does no one any good. It’s quite silly to take the stand that criticism should not be public. Unless you do this, you will never bring about change. But I am happy to say that India does have its share of activists who do a decent job questioning government policies when things go wrong. In fact, I think India has more such activists than the US. I’m not sure about Canada though.

10) What do you think it will take to change people's attitudes about caste? Do you think it can be legislated or is so deeply ingrained that isn't enough and reservations will never solve the problem?

People’s attitudes about caste are changing, but they are changing too slowly. Legislation outlawing caste already exists, but it has made very little difference. The worst effect of caste is that the average middle-class Indian doesn’t give two hoots about the hardships faced by Indian who live in villages and slums. And the reason for the nonchalance is that the Indians who live in poverty and distress are very likely to be from the lower castes. As mentioned earlier, reservations cannot provide a solution by themselves. In fact, I would say that having more than 25% reservations is actually counter-productive. We need to spend more on building schools and hospitals and make sure that every Indian child goes to school. Once every Indian child has access to a decent school, then reservations will become more effective, since the intended beneficiaries will be able to benefit from it. I feel that caste divisions will disappear only when India becomes prosperous and basic needs for everyone is fulfilled.

Economic liberalisation has brought some wealth to India, but very little of it trickles down. India already has a large Maoist insurgency in many parts of central and eastern India. As poor people watch the rich ones lead comfortable lives and feel that they will escape their poverty, a Maoist revolution appears very attractive. India’s biggest challenge is to spread the benefits of liberalisation around (better tax collections, efficient investments in village infrastructure) as soon as we can.

11) I've avoided the whole issue of Missionaries in India, but are there still concentrated efforts to convert people to Christianity in areas – whether through bribery and offers of permanent employment or other means?

Christian missionaries are quite active in India. A few of them use fair means or foul to convert people. But I ought to add that most charitable work in India (as in the US or other parts of the world) is done by religious organisations. Christians, Hindus, Muslims are all in the fray. So, it’s a mixed bag. Religion based charities do a fair amount of good, but they usually carry their ideology and beliefs with them.

12) I'm interested in your publisher, can you tell me about them and how you ended up with them?

I got around thirty rejects from various literary agents and publishers before Books for Change agreed to publish Hitchhiker. Books For Change (BFC) is the publishing wing of Action Aid India. BFC publishes books with a high degree of social content. Hitchhiker was BFC’s first foray into publishing fiction.

13) Final question for you – Now that you've been bitten by the literary bug do you have any other ideas for books? Would you write about the same themes again or are there other areas of Indian life that you'd like to examine?

Yes, I have plans to write more. After Hitchhiker got published, I started writing a novel. It’s about a politician in Tawa, a fictional country in the Indian Ocean south west of Sri Lanka. I then got busy with work and abandoned my novel. Recently I started writing a collection of short stories set in a fictional village called Simhapara in Kerala. I should finish these short stories in another month or so. After that I have plans to pick up the threads of my novel again. Let’s see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

That concludes my interview with Vinod George Joseph, if it whetted your appetite to read his book Hitchhiker good, if it made you curious about the reality behind the "economic miracle" in India even better. When only ten percent of a population benefits from something I don't quite get how that's a miracle. It sounds more like a maintaining of the status quo where ten per cent of a country's population controls the majority of a country's wealth.

It's the same all over the world, why should India be any different? Like any other large capitalist free market country their attitude seems to be as long as the bottom line is fine who cares how many fall below it and can't get back up?

May 14, 2007

Interview: Watermelon Slim

Four weeks ago I had barely heard of him, three weeks ago I read about his album The Wheel Man in a newsletter I get delivered in my email inbox and was interested enough to request a copy from his label Northern Blues.

The CD came in my mail along with another on Thursday of last week. From the moment I put The Wheel Man in my player on Friday I haven't let a day go by without listening to it. On Sunday after I decided to contact his publicity people and see about an interview. They emailed me right back telling me to contact Watermelon Slim and the send him the questions I wanted to ask him.

After a quick flurry of emails between the two of us I sat down and wrote of the questions you're about to read and sent them off to him first thing Monday morning. By five thirty the answers you're about to read were waiting in my in box.

Talk about your whirlwind romances. It's not often a musician, will excite me that much as both a person and a musician that I will take those steps that quickly. The fact that Watermelon Slim responded so quickly says to me that my timing was right and this was meant to happen this way.

Slim says he doesn't believe in coincidence, neither do I which means everything you're about to read is just the way it should be, the questions and the answers. Two days from now I might have asked different questions, or he might not have been so available to answer so quickly. Who knows and who cares what happened today I what matters and what happened was that I was privileged to ask a person of integrity questions about himself and his art, and because of that we are all going to lucky enough to hopefully get to the man called Watermelon Slim a little better.

Sometimes the force of a person's character is so strong that you can hear his voice through the words on the page. Maybe it's because I've been listening to him sing these past three or four days on a regular basis but I swear each time I read these words you're about to it's like I'm talking to him in person his voice is so clear.

There are very few individuals left in this cookie cutter world that we live in as more and more it's becoming controlled by marketing executives and image consultants. Which make people like Watermelon Slim all the more damn precious.

The only editing done to Slim's answers was out of necessity for html mark up and to change the spelling of a few words so that Queen wouldn't be offended. Thank you Watermelon, and thank you Chris of Southern Artists management for setting this up so quickly.

1) Can you tell us a little about your early years; where you were born, family size etc.

I was born William P. Homans, like my father and grandfather before me-- an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son. My family line survives in a daughter, Jessie McCain Dandelion Homans, the reason for me to continue to achieve anything in this life. She is a sweetheart whose personal horizons are unlimited. She has inherited just enough of her mother's (the Blues woman Honour Havoc, from whom I have been long separated, but on legal advice, not divorced) more delicate European features (Scandinavian probably, maybe Jewish) to go with my old-line Anglo-Saxon cragginess with an admixture some generations back of Wampanoag (Massachusetts) Indian. Both dad and grandpa showed the Native American blood strongly. Family members would say that I favor my mother more than my brother does.

As I understand, I was almost dropped on a doorstep on Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, but my mother held me in and we got to the hospital a couple of miles away in order to schloop me out in an organized fashion, so to speak. I have one full brother, Peter, who is a world-acclaimed classical composer, a half sister and brother from my mother's second marriage to Robert A.Totty, a successful small businessman from Petersburg, Virginia, and two half sisters from my father's second marriage,
to Libby Hayes, a socialite from Boston.

My father, to whom I dedicated my first major release, Big Shoes to Fill, was one of the most eminent attorneys in American jurisprudential history. He was a criminal defence lawyer, and his cases include the Boston Strangler, the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial, the unbanning in America of English author Henry Miller's books (Sexus/Plexus/tropic of Cancer/etc.), the first test of Roe v. Wade, the Dr. Kenneth Edelin abortion trial, and the defence of Freedom Riders in the 1950-60s in Mississippi and Alabama. He was a colleague of William Kunstler and an instructor, at one point, of F. Lee Bailey. His manual on criminal jury selection remains the state of the craft ten years after his death in 1997.

He was also the only civilian attorney ever allowed to go to Viet Nam to defend in a capital case, which he did in 1971, the year after I returned. He fought in two navies for all 7 years of World War II, dropping out of law school at 17 1/2 in 1939 to join the Royal Navy against the Nazis, then in 1942, when the U.S. had declared war, returning from Europe and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. His friend John F. Kennedy held me in his arms when I was an infant, in 1950. He was, besides, a workaholic who was also completely, paradoxically, incapable of handling finances.
Wartermelon Slim1.jpg
Big Bill (he stood 6'4 1/2" at 17, when the English wouldn't let him fly Spitfires because of his gangly height, so he joined the Navy instead) was a man who cared deeply, almost, some would say, obsessively, about each individual who came to him for help. I shall never fill his giant shoes, not if I win 20 Handy Awards.

2) Were there any indications at that time that music would become such a big part of your life – were your family musical or were you exposed to a lot of music as a young person anyway?

All correct. We had no professional musicians, but my mother played some piano, and me and my brother were always strongly encouraged to sing in choirs and glee
clubs in church and school. My first starring gig was as a boy soprano soloist, singing the Bach-Gounod Variation of "Ave Maria", at age 9. I can sing you dozens of hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal of 1940, dozens more "Negro" spirituals, and various show tunes from musicals down through the years. My mother and Bob Totty, and the black woman who worked as our "maid", in those last years of Jim Crow segregation, Idell Gossett, and her grown children and their husbands, kept a wide variety of music in our various houses in Asheville, North Carolina-- we moved about a fair amount.

I first heard the blues, though I didn't know that's what the music was till nearly a decade later, in 1954, when Beulah Huggins, the first "maid" I remember, used to sing snatches of John Lee Hooker hits-- "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", and "Boogie Chillen" are the two I remember-- as she did her work. It was the first live music I ever heard besides my mother singing me lullabies, and one trip I remember to Ringling Brothers
Barnum and Bailey, with 5 rings, which I can reliably date in 1952.

People sometimes remark that I sound "black". Well, if I do, I come by it naturally. Black women helped make me who I am today. And any "white" person who denies that
he or she has been profoundly influenced by "black" music and culture in the United States is in terminal denial. I suppose I have a bit more in me than most,
considering my father was a Freedom Rider. Indeed, growing up, I got called "n____r-lover" more than once, and once fought over it. Fine, bring 'em on. I heard myself say the word "gook" once too often in Viet Nam, and that was the beginning of my real getting hip to the universality of racism.

3) This is one of those questions you may choose to ignore and that's cool, but I'm curious as to what made you decide to leave school to volunteer in Viet Nam.

A combination of the extreme naiveté I have just alluded to, and a complete lack of motivation to do well in college. I somehow failed ever to have received any vocational/professional guidance throughout what was otherwise an outstanding education, so I had no real idea why I was in college, in 1968. I did poorly, dropped out, and since I had no real job skills (I'd never worked at anything but landscaping, greenhouse work, and janitoring, with a couple of stints as summer camp counsellor thrown in), and not even an outstanding athletic team in my strong sport to be a part of (I was a national-class epee fencer in high school, finished second in the Connecticut State Championships to a former Olympian and went to the Nationals in 1968. Give me a sword and I'll face a black belt...),

I did what any son of such a father would do, I joined the Army and volunteered for Nam duty. I wasn't a very good soldier; I was discharged with the rank of Private, E-2, one rank above Buck Private, or E-1. But I did my time and my discharge is honourable.

4) In your bio it says that you were laid up in hospital in Viet Nam when you made yourself your first guitar. Was there some specific incident that inspired that act, or what was it that made it so important for you to make music at the time?

I did not make my first guitar. I obtained a balsa-wood Vietnamese-made acoustic guitar for $5 from a local small concessionaire, and began playing it at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, where I was recovering from whatever unknown herpes-like disease I had caught in Long Binh. the guitar, an opportunity to sit with it for a few days and get started with it, and the other necessary tool-- a slide, which was my Zippo cigarette/doobie lighter-- and my growing knowledge of blues music all came together. Coincidence? I am a phenomenologist, and there ARE no coincidences.

5.) For a time after you returned from the war you worked as a musician. You had some success with people like Country Joe Macdonald recording some of your songs. What made you turn your back on music as a career at that time? Did you keep playing while you were working your other jobs, or did you stop completely?

When I came back I worked as a lot of things: grunt labourer, forklift operator, political investigator, musician, and small-time criminal among them. I was really learning my craft, and my gigging during the 1970s was sporadic, wherever I could catch on, and I probably played more solo than band gigs over those years. I was listening to all the live and recorded blues I could find, and did sit in with people like John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt-- teaser gigs, in retrospect-- made my cult item, Merry Airbrakes, in
1973, and eventually produced another cult classic, Richard Phillips's folk record Endangered Species, in 1980.

In the 1980s, I gigged semi-regularly, especially in Oregon in 1984-87, with various groups and people, including the late Canned Heat guitarist, Henry (the Sunflower) Vestine. I tried to establish myself in Europe in 1987 but without any backing, flopped, and was literally smashed up in Amsterdam, both in a fight and a motorcycle-bicycle accident (I was on the bicycle), and returned to the US and started trucking, playing with my Boston/Cambridge group the Old Dogs, including Washtub Robbie, for several years, and sometimes working with my old friend and later producer of Big Shoes to Fill, Boston's top-gun guitarist and all-around bluesman, Chris Stovall Brown. Bruce Bears, "Sax Gordon" Beadle, and David Maxwell were three of the outstanding musicians I worked with in that period of the late 80s-early 90s.

I was mostly inactive from about 1993 to 1998, just woodshedding while trying to keep my little family together. But after quitting a scuffling trucking career for the first time in 1997 to go to graduate school in Oklahoma, I began making the long push towards getting truly on the musical radar screen. I'm a very late-blooming musician, and I'm a scads better guitarist, in particular, than when I was doing my first Fried Okra Jones gigs around Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1998.

So I've never really given up the idea of making my living as a professional musician. Cursed myself for following a dream until I was battered and half-toothless, sometimes. But after three-plus decades I have achieved some degree of mastery over my own styles, and I think that and my age are why people are taking me seriously now. And, I've lived what I play and sing. Not everybody in the blues can really say that today.

6) While we're on the subject of music, you are credited with being involved with writing a majority of the songs and Michael Newbury with their arrangement. When you write a song for the group do you come up with the lyrics and then all of you contribute to the music in rehearsal, or do you and Michael hand out charts for each of the parts?

I do hand out some charts when we're first learning new songs, but we don't use 'em very long-- the guys are quick studies. Michael Newberry often determines the beats and tempos, and is usually the lead man on putting together beginnings and endings. He also plays guitar, so he can pass on helpful input to Cliff Belcher, the bass player, and Ronnie Mac McMullen, on guitar. But everyone contributes creative input, both in arranging and song writing. Michael so far has been my main song-writing partner, and Ronnie Mac has a couple of numbers that may appear on our next studio release.

7) Would you say that there has been any one musician who has had a significant influence on your music? What was it about him, her, or them that inspired you?

No. too many to pin it down to one, or ten. But John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy, Howlin Wolf, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Chris Stovall Brown, my only real hero from my own generation (Musselwhite was born during WW II, not after), Ry Cooder, and my mentor, Earring George Mayweather-- only Brown, Cotton, Cooder, and Musselwhite survive-- hold some of the highest spots. I've gotten vocal influence from literally hundreds of people, including Oregon soul-singer/harp player Curtis Salgado. Some of these play guitar, some harp, but all have been an influence to me-- I've watched and played with Brown and Mayweather more than any of the others-- in overall showmanship. Robert Cray has been something of an influence in song writing; he's one of the best of the last 20 years. William Shakespeare might be my greatest overall influence as a poet.

8) Where does the music come from for you? Do you sit down with intent and write or do songs just come to you like bolts of lightning?

Remember, I'm a trained poet, journalist and all-around writer. I live, therefore I write. I am a trained observer and phenomenologist. My writing "axe" is well known to be much stronger than any instrument I play. I have no problem sitting down and writing songs, when the necessity hits me, in minutes. Sometimes, though, songs percolate within me for years, such as "Blue Freightliner", from my 2004 CD Up Close and Personal. I didn't record the song until 11 years after a couple of verses came out of me while I was driving a semi westbound through Memphis in 1993. Sometimes-- more often in the last 4-5 years-- the music, or just a riff, come to me first, but most of my songs were text before they became music.

9) In my review I compared you to Woody Guthrie because of your ability to sing about and depict the life of people who do the type of work you used to do; working in a sawmill, hauling industrial waste, etc. Is that something you've striven to do – giving voice to the lives of people who nobody ever really thinks about?

Yes, that's a valid way of looking at my musical development. I have a song called "Winners of Us All" that I will release on one CD or another soon that deals with exactly that issue. One verse reads:

"And I'm sitting in this dirty old dumpster rig
writing/Knowing the chance you'll ever hear me is
small,/But I'm doing it for everybody who don't draw
that bottom line/And I'm hoping one day to make winners
of us all."

I know the Guthries, by the way. I played for Arlo's sister Nora at my appearance, with Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, and other peace-activist musicians, in the teeth of the Iraq invasion of 2003, at the Vietnam Songbook, in New York City's Joe's Pub, on March 1. I hung around Alice's Restaurant a few times as a schoolboy in 1968. And I have lectured on Woody Guthrie in an Oklahoma History class in which I was a teaching assistant in 1999. My best friend in high school, Josh Bauman, was a neighbours and best friend with the Guthries in Stockbridge.

Arlo and I are, indeed, two musicians who were making protest music during the Viet Nam War, and now speak truth to power during our even more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. If you run across him, give him "dap" and solidarity from me!

10) In your bio it says that it took a near fatal heart attack to get you to return to the music business. How did one lead to the other- most people have a heart attack and settle down to a more sedate life but you went the opposite route and chose to start working at one of the most demanding jobs, a touring musician. Doesn't that ever strike you as perhaps a little odd?

I had already released my 2001 self-release, ,Fried Okra Jones, and my first (2002) Southern Records release, Big Shoes to Fill, by the time I had my heart attack in November of 2002. I was a full-time trucker, and continued to do that into 2004, but I was already working on my current phase of career development. So I would say, rather than changing my path, it just made me focus. It's not a bit odd, for a person who, though well educated, has always used his extraordinary physical endurance as a main calling card.

We must all die, and I just finally got the idea that it might be any time now. My songs "Immortal", on Big Shoes to Fill, and "the Last Blues" and "Got My Will Made
Out", from Up Close And Personal, most directly reflect this development in my consciousness.

11) I actually asked this question to Arlo Guthrie, but both of you are in the unique position of having been singers during the Viet Nam war and now during the occupation of Iraq. What are the major differences that you see between the United States then and now? For example what have been reactions like to the line about spending a son on a war you don't see a reason for?

As I tell people, when I came back from Viet Nam, it became my hope that what I had done as a soldier, and afterwards as one of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War (VVAW; I'm a proud Life Member, and Oklahoma VVAW contact person), would save some others from subsequent generations from fighting and dying in other useless and misdirected foreign wars.

It didn't work out that way. My generation-- some of us, anyway-- wanted to "..change the world, rearrange the world," as CSNY sang. But America mostly didn't listen.
We are making the same shortsighted, provincial, naive mistakes we made then. America cannot be the world's policeman, even if we are the only nation that can project overwhelming military force anywhere on the globe.

As the historian and social critic George Santayana said in 1919, those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of history are committed to relive them.

12) Oh yeah the obligatory stupid final question to ask a musician – what are your upcoming plans – swimming the English Channel or playing some Blues?

I am a strong swimmer, but I shall not be swimming anything like that anytime soon, he he. I have a friend, fellow VVAW Billy X. Curmano, who swam the entire Mississippi River, Minnesota to New Orleans!

We just made a live Workers DVD 4 nights ago in Clarksdale, with guest stars Big George Brock, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimbo Mathus. Jimbo has become a semi-regular guest in Watermelon Slim and the Workers' gigs. I will be recording a country-blues CD with Mississippi Blues man Robert "Nighthawk", "the Gearshifter", Belfour this year. And the Workers will make another studio CD this year also, which may include
Ry Cooder or Willie Nelson. Add 135-150 gigs this year, and we are busy as hell!

I can't remember who it was, but there was some musician that used to call him self the hardest working musician in music. Well it's a damn good thing he never said anything like that around Slim and the Workers. They play a gig every third night, spend weeks in the studio, and do stuff like exchange emails with guys like me answering questions they must be getting sick of.

We left out some of the more oft repeated questions (so if you want to find out why Watermelon Slim go to his web site. But it you really want to get to know the man, buy his music. What you hear is truly what you get.

January 9, 2007

Interview: Author Christopher Moore

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About twelve years ago I stumbled across a book called Coyote Blue which I thought was great. I did what I normally did under those circumstances and looked in the front of the book to see if the author had written anything else. The other title listed was something called Practical Demon Keeping.

The title left me slightly taken aback, as it wasn't what I expected from the guy who had just written what I thought to be a really great "Coyote" story. I was even more nonplussed by the fact my library kept in the horror section. I've never been much for horror books, enough horrors in the world as it is thank you very much without us needing anyone to invent more, so I was having doubts about whether to read it or not.

The cover helped, as it was silly enough to belay the worst of my fears, and the story itself convinced me that the Kingston library needed to read books before they shelved them. Sure the book was about a monster that would, if given half a chance, devour people whole. But since most of those deserved it didn't seem like too bad a monster. Turns out of course it was only biding its time – but that's a different story and one that you can read if you want to some other time.

The story under consideration right now is the mind behind those two books and numerous others as well. With his most recent book, You Suck a sort of sequel to his classic tale of the undead Bloodsucking Fiends, soon to be stalking the aisles of bookstores across North America and around the world I thought I'd try to find out a little bit more about the author of all the above Christopher Moore.

What possesses him, literally or figuratively, to write about human eating, soul stealing, and blood sucking monsters anyway? Did he have a depraved (deprived) childhood, or were these books the product of a naturally deviated mind? Even if the interview only serves as a warning regarding his character for those considering attending a book reading or signing on his upcoming promotional tour for You Suck it will at least have served some purpose.

So without anymore preamble I present for your enjoyment and edification an interview with Christopher Moore. We conducted the interview via email so his answers are exactly as he wrote them except for some HTML augmentation as required….Christopher…

1) Well I suppose we should start with some biographical details. Were you a live birth?

I was supposed to be a miscarriage, but survived, thus starting down the path of being a disappointment to my mother.

2) What brought you to writing? Have you always wanted to write or was it just something that happened one day when you least expected it?

I started writing stories for school when I was about 11 or 12. I liked it a lot and started writing them on my own. I wrote my first novel when I was 12. It was sixteen pages long. It was basically about frogs taking over the world, which I still think is a good idea. Not for a book, I mean frogs taking over the world is a good idea.

3) You have an incredible sense of the bizarre. Did that develop over time as a reaction to anything in particular? Do you find it easier or harder these days to find the inspiration for it?

I've always liked imaginative stories and wild humour, going back as far as I can remember. I honestly never write anything just to be weird - my reaction is more, "Wouldn't it be cool if ______? And I fill in the blank with something fun.

4) Not all of your books have been specifically horror, but all have had elements of the supernatural in them, or at least the surreal. What first attracted you to those themes, and what continues to keep them fresh for you?

Probably a short attention span. Reality gets pretty boring. I've tried to write stories without a supernatural element, but not far in I'm usually saying, "This guy is a dick, I need to feed him to a monster." Then there you go.

5) Even though you have some fairly gruesome, some would say down right sicko, scenes in your books, you always manage to keep them funny. Is that a symptom of some serious character flaw on your part, or is there actually a literary reason for you to turn disembowelment into (if you'll forgive the term) side splitting comedy?

Well, you kind of have to do it, don't you? Laugh, I mean. It's simply what I do. As with the supernatural stuff, I've tried to write non-humorous stories, but I don't get far before I'm cracking wise.

6) Books like The Stupidest Angel and Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal could give people the impression that you are less then reverent when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular. I know you included a disclaimer in Biff, and I also believe you don't mean to insult anyone's beliefs, but what are your feelings about those two topics, and/or, is there any particular reason you picked them as targets for your humour, especially in the latter book?

Well, I assume you mean Lamb, which was actually written before Stupidest Angel, I wasn't setting out to attack anyone's faith, but to tell a great story. I'd read that there were thirty years of Christ's life that hadn't been covered in the Gospels. I though, "Some one should write those years." And since I knew nothing about religion or history, I was that someone. Once I did the research I realized that all of the people in the U.S. who were using Christianity to pursue a political agenda where going completely against the teachings of Christ, so if there was any point I wanted to make, it was that the thing Christ railed about, was hypocrisy, not prayer in school or gay marriage. But mostly I just wanted to tell a good story, and as I said before, funny stories are what I do. I didn't see either book as making fun of religion so much as having fun with religion.

7) Although your books are predominately humorous, you will occasionally interject moments of pathos or seriousness into the proceedings. Is this because you're trying to make a particular point (usually) or is there another reason?

Not make a point, just engage the reader. Humour can be a great device for disarming a reader, and then once their guard is down, you can break their heart. I just like to do that for fun.

8) Which comes first the title or the book? For example did you write the Lust Lizard's story first, along with the good folk of Melancholy Cove, or do you sit around inventing really weird titles to see if you can write a book about it.

Actually, that book was supposed to be called Munching Wackos, but my editor at the time didn't like it so I had to change it. I ended up having a contest with my readers for a title. Finally I chose components of suggestions. So, the answer is, I usually come up with the story, then think of the title as I'm working on the book.

9)Some of the creatures who terrorise your characters come from mythological or biblical backgrounds. Do you research them or have you extensive first hand experience with the majority of your book's inhabitants?

A lot of research. My only first-hand experience was with the humpback whales in Fluke

10)Your very accessible to the public. Aside from this interview taking place, what other regrettable incidences have occurred that may have made you rethink the practice of publishing an email address in your books?

I don't really have any regret in publishing, I just regret that I may not be able to keep up with answering all my e-mail as time goes on. It's starting to take a big chunk of time out of my day.

11) Aside from The Stupidest Angel where you very deliberately brought as many as possible together, you've taken to having the occasional character appear in a couple of books (not sequels either) Minty Fresh was in Coyote Blue and A Dirty Job and the Emperor and his troops show up in Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job as well. At times when I've read your books, I feel that they exist in an alternate world and that any of the inhabitants of one book would fit pretty neatly into another. So it makes sense to me when someone from one book shows up in another one. Have you deliberately set out to create that sort of world?

Yes, in a way. Mainly I do it as a sort of Easter egg for my readers. I think it gives the reader a sense of discovery, of being in on an inside joke. And if you don't recognize the character from a previous book, it doesn't detract from the story.

12) Finally, never thought we'd get here did you, you've just released You Suck a sort of sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends. Can we look forward to more recurring adventures of other characters in your bizarre universe, or do you have something else up your sleeve - a rule book for Turkey Bowling for instance?

I don't have anything planned now. I had originally proposed doing two more vampire books, but I'm going to wait and see how You Suck does before I commit to writing a third. Right now I'm working on a historical novel set in Medieval England.

So there you have it folks a brief look inside head of the man who wrote The Island of The Sequined Love Nun and other stories of a morally significant nature. I'd like to thank Christopher Moore for taking the time to answer these questions. If you do get a chance to see him while he's on the book tour go on up and say hi. He doesn't appear to bite, or at least he doesn't leave marks or unsightly blemishes.

January 3, 2007

Interview: Author Guy Gavriel Kay

For those of you who have somehow not noticed his presence on the shelves of your local bookstore, Guy Gavriel Kay is the creator of some of the most innovative and challenging Fantasy works of the past decade and a half. He has created both high fantasy with his trilogy The Fionavar Sequence (consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) and recreated periods of our own history in books that cross the ages from Byzantium to Medieval France.

His most recent book, Ysabel, sees him working in the same geographical area of France, Provence as a previous book, A Song For Arbonne, but on this occasion he has sat the action in the present and has the past come to us. After reading Ysabel I was reminded of how much I appreciated the works of Mr. Kay and set out to see if I could interview him.

Fortunately I was able to catch him before he was sent out on the road for his publicity tour for Ysabel and he very kindly agreed to answer the following series of questions about his work via email. The only edits I've done on his answers have been to insert any required HTML code, but aside from that these are his words completely unadulterated.

We decided to make the focus of the interview primarily his work, but if you are interested in finding our more about him, including the fact that he helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father's papers and spent a year working on The Silmarillion, I recommend you check out the biography page at the web site. There you will find more then enough information to satisfy your deepest curiosity about his personal life.

That's enough of that now, and without further ado I turn you over to Mr. Guy Gavriel Kay.

1) I'd like to ask about some of your earlier work to start with, beginning with the three books of that make up The Fionavar Sequence, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.
There are some obvious cultural influences that show up in the books, Celtic, as well as Moorish, and even some Native American, but what possessed you, or I guess to be polite, what was your inspiration, to attempt such a mammoth undertaking? Did it one day just pop into your head: "Oi this sounds like a good idea, think I'll give it a go"? Or was there a little more to it than that?

I was actually intimidated and anxious about the scale of what I wanted to do. It is harder today, when multi-multi-volume fantasies are so ‘normal’, to go back to a time when a young writer insisting that he receive a three book contract was … alarmingly uppity.

But even back then I had a dismal sense that too much of the market (writers and readers, both) had reduced Tolkien and high fantasy to lowest-common-denominator elements. D&D had played a role in this, so did the emergence of commercial viability in the field. It is worse today, but twenty years ago the signal to noise ratio was already badly skewed. I wanted to consciously use as many of the tropes and elements of the field, as it was being defined then, but see if I could preserve a measure of complexity in character motivation and themes. I wanted to ‘play’ with the implications of a first, mythic world, to nod towards Freud and Jung, both, if I was going to cast as wide a net as I did in myth and legend (as you note in the question). I wanted to let sexuality and less-than-heroic reasons for actions play their parts. And to give rather more scope to women than tended to be the case. My inward metaphor was opera, in fact.

2)Why the switch to a more historical fiction/fantasy approach in the next three novels? Tigana is loosely based on, early Renaissance Italy while The Lions Of Al-Rassan is the reconquista of Spain, and A Song For Arbonne the troubadours and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France. Were those periods of time or places that had a particular fascination for you, or was it the subject matters they provided more important?

Intelligently or otherwise, I’ve always had some fear of cloning myself. Fionavar achieved a measure of success and there was some pressure to ‘consolidate’ that and keep going. My sound bite at the time was, ‘I don’t believe in four volume trilogies.’ We were living in Tuscany when I began to research and think about Tigana, and that was the year the Berlin Wall fell … leading me to a variety of reflections on the ‘tools’ of tyranny. These dovetailed with an idea I’d had for a while that fantasy was being limited (in the English-language world) in terms of what it was being allowed to do or be. Tigana came alive around the metaphor of magic as a way of erasing the memory of a people or culture. I was anxious again, being aware from the outset that it was not prudent to be departing so greatly, both from I’d done before, and from what genre expectations had become.

But Tigana did extremely well worldwide, and gave me more confidence to continue using the fantastic as a way of examining different periods of the past and different themes and styles arising from those periods. Some of these were indeed periods I’d had a longstanding interest in, others were discoveries, revelations.

3) Of those three books, Tigana is the only one with an overt use of magic, while in the other two it is non-existent save for a minor talent among the priestesses in Song For Arbonne to 'see'. Was this a conscience choice against using magic, or was it simply because it was not needed for the plot?

The latter, absolutely. Some readers and academics began to postulate a through line in my work, that ‘conscious’ downgrading of the fantastical. It was never so, for me. I treat magic and the supernatural as elements of a story, and the scale of that element needs to be assessed in terms of the requirements of the story. Last Light of the Sun, for example, which followed Tigana, Arbonne, and Lions, had much more of a supernatural element (so does Ysabel) because the settings and narratives I was shaping seemed to demand it.

4) The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors finds you moving to the middle east and back in time to the time of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and Byzantium. What is there about this era that attracted you to it?

Funny, true story (really true, not ‘truthy’!). I never know what a next book will be when I finish one. Lions had just come out, and I received a sheaf of international reviews from my publishers. The first three I pulled out all made reference to my ‘Byzantine plotting’ or ‘Byzantine intrigues’ or ‘Byzantine levels of character development’ … and I laughed and did a ‘note to self’ that it was time to learn more about Byzantium. Went online, ordered a dozen books, and started reading when they came. I was hooked. What elements? The interplay of artist and state. Religious tension and transition. East vs west. Urban vs. rural, the role of walls (personal and literal), of forest and field, how these have changed in meaning from place to place and time to time. The ways in which women have, historically, needed to operate to shape their worlds. The idea of permanence and transitoriness in art. The power of the historian/writer to shape later understanding of even the leaders of a given time. The way in which the deeds of the ‘great’ can feel trivial to those going about their lives, faced with their own calamities and joys. Chariot racing. Dolphins. Yeats.

Longer answer than you wanted, probably.

5) In the earlier three books there are/ is a dominant religion, but in the Mosaic your characters while protesting their belief in "Jad" are also keenly aware of the existence of other powers no matter how hard the Church would like to deny their presence. The wooden birds with the captured souls, and the wood Bison god, are they based on actual tribal beliefs and gods from the time or are you using them for the sake of the analogy? Why did it feel important to include them – historical accuracy concerning people's beliefs or to make clear the idea that other forces exist outside of what we are supposed to believe in?

The birds are an homage to Yeats, in fact. The bison figure I adapted and made use of after reading Simon Schama’s wonderful Landscape and Memory. It seemed to me that what little people (including me!) knew, or thought they knew, about Byzantine history incorporated a strong element of the mystical or spiritual (along with violence, Imperial mothers blinding sons, and so forth). Certainly the ‘pagan’ fertility rituals are drawn from readings and not invented wholesale … though, equally certainly, every author’s responsible for the use he or she makes of these things. I did want to create a tension between what we are taught, what we are told to ‘think’ and intuitive, instinctive truths - and how art can sometimes emerge from this tension, or great suffering. I took this even further in the next book, Last Light of the Sun.

6) One of the elements I've always been particularly fond of when it comes to your work, has been the almost opulence of your language. It lends a splendour to events, but it also seems to elevate everything above the mundane. Even in contemporary times you have a way of making the words splendid. Was this style inspired by anyone in particular, is it even something you're aware of doing?

Tricky question. Certainly not a linguistic attempt to echo anyone else. In Fionavar I did (as I said before) think in terms of operatic rhythms, the tale rising to and moving away from major arias, duets … and I used mythic, Biblical cadences to try to achieve that (lacking, obviously, music!) in such scenes. The language in the later books has varied as I try to fit it to the setting. The language in Last Light, for example, is harder, terser, less lyric than the books before (and some reviewers and scholars have commented on this).
7) This was my not so subtle way of trying to lead into your latest release -Ysabel which is just out in Canada and due out for release in the U.S. in Feb right?

As I type, some stores have jumped the gun and it is already on sale in Canada. It’ll be in the US by early February, in the UK by March. There are a plethora of early reviews online already, off the advance review copies … the book business has changed greatly in this regard, influenced by the Internet, shifting more towards a model like the film world, with teasers and trailers and rumours going on for months and months before actual release.

8) Ysabel is your first book set entirely in the contemporary world, and it also features as its protagonist a fifteen year old (Ned). Why, and why to the first two, and was it a coincidence that your first entirely contemporary book would have a teenaged hero?

The broad answer you can guess from what I’ve said above: I keep wanting to test myself as a writer, try something different, see what emerges. One reason for a younger protagonist is that when I was writing Last Light I was conscious of working with very young and much older central figures, and my readings in history made clear that those very young people could play major roles in a society. In ours, we keep teenagers (and twenty-somethings, too, I suppose) remarkably youthful, unfledged. I wanted to do some inner dialogue in the book around that point. I’ve always enjoyed a bildungsroman, a coming of age book, have been irked (slightly) by the emerging assumption that any such book is YA … it simply isn’t so, from Goethe to Dickens to Twain to How Green Was My Valley.

One sharp early reader noted that this is the first time I’ve been able to write about history, instead of in an historical period. And that struck me - I hadn’t thought about it before in those words - as perceptive, because that is central to what Ysabel is trying to do. A contemporary setting lets me comment and explore motifs of the past in a different way, and a younger protagonist offers an effective ‘window’ for the reader to grow into the book.

9) I thought that you did a very good job of getting into the head of an adolescent, some might complain that he's a little sophisticated but I look at his parents, at teenagers in general these days, your style in general and as you have a character point out, when did fifteen become young – used to be war leaders who were fifteen, (maybe its only because we live so long that we've made teenagers into something less responsible than they are capable of being), it was very apt. Did you find you had to adapt your way of looking at the world when working on his character in order to give it that authenticity, and if so how?

We’ve both made the same point here, it seems. I’m really pleased by the early response to Ned’s ‘voice’ and I’m also pretty adamant about something else: just as adults run a wide range of maturity, anger, patience, curiosity so - obviously - do people on the cusp of adulthood. I’ve often been ‘accused’ of having overly intelligent or perceptive characters … but to be honest, as a reader I get bored if I feel too much ahead of, quicker than, the protagonists of books.

10) Provence seems to have a special appeal to you, first Arbonne and now Ysabel What is it about the area that attracts you in particular?

What’s not to like? More seriously (though that’s actually not unserious!) it is such a gorgeous part of the world and for someone with any interest in history, it is such a crossroads of cultures (because of that beauty, in fact, which is a theme of Ysabel). I can get very depressed when I think about the state of France today, but can also be deeply and powerfully moved by what I see when we’re there. Years ago, I remember asking our French landlord at the time where he and his wife were going for their spring holiday. He looked at me with surprise. ‘I’m in Provence,’ he said, ‘spring is coming. Why would I go anywhere?’

11) The story of Ysabel, you have a character mention an original Greek trader who was picked as husband by a Celtic Princess, is there a story like that which you then extrapolated the history of the area onto, or is the love triangle a complete invention?

I always worry about spoilers, and you’ll know I’ve deleted and dodged a few questions to avoid them in this exchange, but I suppose this one feels all right. I didn’t invent it, I was inspired and engaged by reading the founding myth of Marseille (Massilia) from Greek times, which sets out this legend. I even saw, at an outdoor antique sale, a 19th century wooden carving of the figures (really should have bought it!).

12) I've been having a discussion with a couple of other authors I know about what we strive to do with our writing and what we look for in our reading material, and I've been going on about infusing reality with magic and how much that appeals to me. Ashok Banker, who has recently adapted The Ramayana and is making it his life's work to do the same with all the great Indian Epics, says, (loosely) he's looking to imbue myth with reality. How would you describe your approach to your work within that framework, especially Ysabel? Or is it even appropriate?

I’m currently most engaged by examining how the past doesn’t leave us (whether personal or cultural, small or large-scaled). Myth and legend, religious transition, folklore and propaganda … all of these play roles in this. We live in a startlingly a-historical era with far too little knowledge of even the recent past, the mistakes made, the truths learned once and forgotten. Assumptions that the ‘way things are’ has always been so, an arrogance about ‘today’ (the flipside is a western self-flagellation element, and this, too, turns on a lack of historical awareness). I think fantasy is a superlative tool, when used properly, to induce readers to shed prejudices about a given period (and their intimidation by it) and to look at a tale set in a fantasy analogue of a given time as being more not less connected to them … in the same way that when we read in a fairy tale that ‘the only daughter of a fisherman walked down to the strand…’ we are all linked to that only daughter (or the third son of a woodcutter!). This is what folktales were (and are) about … erasing the distance between reader/listener and story.

13) I've been very careful to try and not throw a labels at your work, fantasy, historical fiction, or whatever, and I don't mean this to be flattery, but it seems that would be an unfair limitation to place on your work. I know your books are categorized usually as fantasy, but that just seems to be the catch all these days for authors who write outside the little boxes. Do you feel comfortable with any label – do you have one that use personally?

From my days in university, long before I was a novelist, I had a dislike of over-categorizing. My first award-winning paper as an undergrad was on ‘The Classification of Troilus and Cressida’ (Shakespeare’s)… I found it slotted in some books on his problem comedies and in others on his problem tragedies and was genuinely taken aback at the ferocity of the rhetoric academics were unleashing on each other in pursuit of one label or the other. (I know, I know … ferocious academic battles, taken aback by them … how naïve!) I wrote an ‘A plague on both your houses’ paper, arguing that what matters was assessing quality, intent, success or otherwise … not slot or label.

It is probably a colossal irony (or maybe a quixotic acting-out of my dislike of these label-things) that I seem to have faced the same issues for years. We are a categorizing species, I suppose. We find what we like and want more of it, and look for labels to tell us where to find that ‘more’. There’s nothing very wrong with this, by the way. My friend, the novelist Charles de Lint, has talked at times of wanting bookstores to just shelve everything alphabetically … problem there is what if you don’t know what you are walking in to buy? What if you like mysteries or historical fiction or science fiction … there are an awful lot of books! Intelligent retail suggests we find ways (and online stores have taken this further) to guide readers to where they might be happiest. It does tend to narrow us, reduce risk-taking in art, and … to come back to the question … it can create some problems for those of us who blur or erode borders or categories. Me? I say I write novels.

14) One last question, I've read on the Bright Weavings web site that two of your novels rights are owned by studios, Lions of Al-Rassan and Last Light Of The Sun. Would those be your first choices to be made into movies?

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the two film projects but never that query! What would I have picked first, or expected to see first? I always thought Fionavar and the Mosaic pair were too big to be starting points for Hollywood. Tigana may lend itself more to a limited series format, also being very long. So the two in development probably do make a great deal of sense. I can see Arbonne being picked up by a strong female producer/director because the underlying motif there has to do with the way in which the culture of the troubadours, the ‘Court of Love’ represented a major possible turning point in western history as to the status of women … and there are such wonderful roles for half a dozen actresses ranging from 17 or 18 years old to 60 or 70.

To be specific about the current projects. Lions is being developed by Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) and Lorenzo di Bonaventura for Warner Brothers, with Edward Zwick to direct (and his Bedford Falls company are also producers). They are at second draft stage of the script. Much will turn on that second draft. Last Light is being developed by Robert Chartoff (“Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” films) and Ted Ravinett’s production companies and I’m currently working on that screenplay myself (which answers, I suppose, the question you didn’t ask: what are you doing next?).

Thanks for some challenging queries, I enjoyed doing this one.

There are some interviews you do, and sometimes you have a hard time coming up with questions for the interviewee. That was not the case in this situation and in fact just the opposite for a change. I've been fascinated by Guy Gavriel Kay's work since I first read the Fionavar Tapastry and almost without exception have continued to this day. He is one of the few authors whose work I read over and over again with as much enjoyment, if not more, as the first time.

I hope that those of you who didn't know the man before this interview will be inspired to go out and buy any one of his books so that you too can discover the pleasure he has brought me and countless others. To those of you who know his work, I hope this interview provided you with some new insights into Mr. Kay's work.

Thanks once again to Guy Gavriel Kay for agreeing to this interview and also thanks to Deborah at for supplying the introduction so that it could happen.

December 9, 2006

Interview: Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records Part Two

Welcome back to part two of the two-part interview that I conducted via email with Thomas Ruf, the force behind Ruf Records. In the past twelve years Thomas and his label have become one of the most active Blues labels in Europe, if not world wide. Even more important is the fact that they, unlike other labels, produce new recordings of working artists instead of merely reissuing older back catalogues.

Aside from taking on established Blues musicians from North America whose careers have been victimized by an industry that's more fickle than the weather, they have also helped to develop the careers of young European and North American players. What's even more impressive is their commitment to all the forms that the Blues can take. From the harder edge of Walter Trout who only knows one speed other than fast, faster; to the internationally flavoured acoustic sounds of Bob Brozman and the amazing sounds he pulls from a resonator guitar, Ruf records proves the Blues can be sung in as many ways as there are people.

The Blues are an individuals means of expressing emotions through music, so it makes sense that different people will have different ways of getting there message across. That's the real beauty of the Blues, and Ruf records. If one performer doesn't speak to you that's okay, because there is somebody else waiting in the wings that just might.

When did the Blues start to become popular in Germany? I know that in countries like France they have a history of African American musicians performing in Paris since the twenties and the thirties in the Jazz clubs. Obviously that wouldn't have been the case in Germany during the thirties so there is not the same history of having the music around and available for the population.

I am not too good with the historic stuff as I spend my time in the present and look into the future for new goals rather then trying to fight about the correct past re-calling with all the blues scholars…there are other people that know more about the past then I do. I know there was an underground swing club scene during the German Nazi years. After the war the GIs started bringing in their music.

There were American radio stations in the 40’s and 50’s broadcasting in Germany. American popular music became popular after the war coming into the country along with the Marshal Plan. The blues was made popular almost by one single man in the early 60’s: Horst Lippman from Llippman & Rau. They started the American folk blues festivals in I think 1962. Bringing over American blues performers on a yearly basis.

The artwork on their 60’s tour posters itself is legendary. I highly recommend watching the 2 volumes or the American folk blues festival DVDs. They are in fact much better in my opinion then the Scorsese blues film series. Because they are more simple and authentic: they just show great historic footage from all the performers – from Sonny Boy Williamson to John Lee Hooker to Muddy Waters.

They were all there during the 60’s, filmed by German television. And what the American folk blues festivals did to kick off the British blues boom is a piece of music history. Mick Jagger loves to tell the story how Fritz Rau – Lippman’s partner and a pretty tempered guy – kicked The Stones out of the venue when they tried to hang around during soundcheck and meet the performers that were their idols during the UK shows of the AFBF tour…

Alexis Corner – father of the British blues – was probably more popular in Germany then in the UK. The UK market is more trendy, Germany more conservative. Germany for many British R&B singers is the last territory where they find plenty of work after their stars descended during the 70’s when disco and the following eras drowned the British blues boom.. People like Chris Farlowe, Long John Baldry, The Yardbirds, Eric Burdon still could get a gig in Germany during the 80’s and 90’s – long after work dried up in England and the US for these guys. etc…

Why do you think the Blues seems to be more popular in Europe right now then in America where they come from? It seems like most a high percentage of your roster are North Americans, are they signing with you because there just isn't the interest in their work back home or are there other reasons?

Walter Trout could not get an American deal, nor find a booking agent. He was on a Dutch label with a European only career before he signed with Ruf and we developed his career on his home turf.

Luther was out of a deal when I started Ruf Records for him. More popular? I am not sure. The USA has more blues clubs and blues radio stations then Europe. The blues is part of the every day music culture, I think. And it’s not really a big deal when one of the performers comes through town. In Europe it’s more of a big deal, because not every act works over here; there are in total less bars and less US blues acts touring. Its more a concert event then a bar gig. The artists get therefore treated better. I think overall it goes in cycles.

The blues really had a bit of a comeback in the USA in the 90’s – right when Luther Allison came out there big time. The US has a great blues festival circuit. It’s the baby boomers that keep the blues scene alive there. Since a couple of years now it’s changing again. Bars close left and right or stop having live blues acts. Gigs are drying up stateside. The blues festival circuit in Europe is growing again. Right now it seems stronger over here; but it goes in cycles…

There seem to be more and more women playing Blues guitar these days, Erja Lyytinen from Finland for example, and you've just come from a recording in Minnesota with three women. There have always been women vocalists, but is this something new for there to be women guitar players?

Bonnie Raitt, Sue Foley, Debbie Davies, Deborah Coleman were among the first ones on the electric guitar in blues. The Blues Guitar Women CD gives a good overview of the current performers. It used to be a bit harder in the beginning for women; as the guitar was a man’s world. Nowadays I think it's easier for women. There are in fact more and more coming up. Basically because there are just too many GUYs out there wanting to make a living playing guitar. I mean thousands and thousands. And they are all good. More musicians then there is work…

The English Blues musician is nothing new, it dates back to early days of the Rolling Stones, but now it seems like more and more Europeans aside from the Brits are taking to it. Is this a recent development or are we in North America just finally hearing about it because of the efforts of people like you?

Well, I tried to promote a couple of European performers, but it does in fact not really work. You can sell American and British blues in the USA, Germany, France or Japan. But you cannot sell a French blues artist in Germany, or a German artist in Sweden, a Swedish in Spain. It doesn't work. There are hundreds of European blues bands and they are incredibly good, some of them truly original.

The small country of Norway for example must have at least 200 very solid blues bands. There is a young blues player in every town. Only you never hear about them, as they cannot be picked up by international labels. Erja and Ana are exceptions to the rule. They offer the press kind something of an exotic story, a new story to be told, paired with the right amount of sex appeal and pop appeal (this is the marketing guy talking now…)

What do you see as the future of Blues music, and what role do you envision Ruf records playing in helping that become a reality?

I used to use a crystal ball and got pretty good at it, until the market totally changed a few years ago. With the raise of the digital sales (downloads), the industry goes back to the early 60’s, when the record labels produced single songs, not albums. Why spend the money to produce a full album – 12-14 songs – when the consumer later on only picks one or 2 to download? The guy who used to spend 15 bucks for the entire CD, might now only spend 99 sent with us through I-tunes and download one song he likes. The existence of record labels per se in their traditional form as talent developing and career building service companies is changing.

So no, I haven't used my crystal ball too much lately. It's hard to predict. It's clear that the traditional stand alone retail store with a true music mission: we carry any new CD of any genre and also deep catalogue –is history with the decline of Tower Records, the most prominent chain of this old school record store concept. There are as few as maybe 200-300 record stores with a good full assortment of music around the globe. The rest is chains with selected limited stock (they carry hits, not blues), mom and pop stores for a specialist clientele – many of them carrying second hand - and the Internet.

The future of the blues is in crossover and evolution rather then preservation. The labels whose specialty was preservation of a traditional style are in trouble .I am not friends with those who constantly try to put blues music into a museum as an art form of the past.
In general, the blues lacks performers that qualify as heroes. We have many solid players, but few real star-personalities with charisma.

One final question, twelve years ago when you started Ruf Records you must have had an ideal of how you wanted things work out. (No, sorry this is wrong. I didn’t. I just did it because somebody needed to do it. And I worried about it later. Which was good. If I had predicted what I was in for, I might have changed my mind early on…smile.) Now twelve years later you have some the best known names in Blues music signed with you from across three or four generations of musicians, playing all sorts of different styles and have just been recognized with the Keeping The Blues Alive Award for 2007 from the Blues Foundation. You must feel some sense of, if not accomplishment (which you should, in my opinion you've done wonders) at least vindication. Did you see any of this coming?

My artist, partner and friend Luther Allison died very suddenly, one album short from breaking through the roof, receiving a Grammy and giving Buddy Guy and Robert Cray a serious run for their money.

At first sight, his passing stole the fruit we so long worked for minutes before harvest time. With time passing, I realized that actually the path was the way. It did not matter as much how long it lasted – it was actually important that it happened while it lasted. Its not about if we ever got there.

It's about the quality between you and your fellows while you walk. I never had a similar, quite as close, trust worthy relationship with another artist. And I consider myself pretty close friends with most of my fellow artists. But it kind of set a human standard that I will never want to miss, am grateful for and never will compromise, really. I don’t care how profitable a project potentially could be – if it's not worth spending my personal precious lifetime working on it, its waste of time for me.

Well that was the last question I posed to Thomas, and I can't think of a more appropriate place to end. It tells you a lot about the man and the label, and perhaps explains why they are having the success they are in signing quality performers. In 2007 Jeff Healy will be joining their roster as he makes his long awaited return to Blues from his foray in Jazz music, and we can look forward to new releases from Bob Brozman and Candye Kane and others as well in the new year.

I'd like to thank Thomas Ruf for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to answer my questions and for putting such obvious thought into his answers. It's not often we get to hear from the people who are responsible for producing the music we love and even less frequantly do we get such candid answers.

If there were more people like Thomas Ruf working in the music industry, people who can remember that's it is about the music first not about "celebrity" and fame, I think we'd be hearing a lot more about the songs, and a lot less about divorces and whose sleeping with who. Since that's not likely to happen in the near future I guess we should just be grateful that there are people like him still involved in the music industry.

December 8, 2006

Interview: Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records

The end of November marked the end of Blogcritics' Blues Bash extravaganza as far as the calendar was concerned, but I'm pleased to say it appears that the Blues just don't know when to quit and are playing on well after closing time. I've been doing my share to keep the party going and will continue to do so as long as they let me.

In the past week or so I've been focusing on one record label in particular, Ruf Records from Germany. I've given you and overview of their history and reviewed their twelfth year anthology disc. So it seems to me only fitting that we hear from the founder of the label Thomas Ruf to conclude this mini-feature on Ruf Records.

Needless to say Thomas is a very busy man, and when I emailed him the series of questions I wanted him to answer he was actually in the United States at the end of November overseeing a recording session for their forthcoming Blues Caravan release. (This years is a Blues Women starring Sue Foley, Deborah Coleman and, Canadian newcomer Roxanne Potvin.) So it took him longer than he expected to send back his answers, but it's all worked out for the best.

Today will be the first half of the interview and you'll be able to read the final bits tomorrow at this same web log channel. Oh one final word; needless to say English isn't Thomas' first language, and he's asked us to correct any errors we think are too glaring. Aside from those few minor fixes, probably far less then editors have to do on my articles on far too many occasions, his answers are reprinted here verbatim. Enjoy.

Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and your background?

I grew up in the Black Forest on a wine farm. I guess I learned about labour at a very early age as kids are a needed work force during harvest time on a family run farm – a model that still existed back in the 60’s & early 70’s before agriculture changed into a global speculation business at the mercy of the world’s stock markets.

I worked with a youth group of the church community when I was about 18 years old and started to promote concerts with the teenagers in my group. We rented the local town hall and booked blues artists. That kept the teenagers busy and off the street at least during the time of our projects. I left the farm with a new career plan after I promoted a concert of Luther Allison and personally got to meet him.

I started promoting more of his shows in other towns and ended up as his German booking agent during my time at university. My time at university ended when I made my side business (as Luther’s promoter) that was financing my stay at university a full time job. The label was a later baby down the road…

What about music? Was your family musical or did you just develop an interest in it on your own? Did you ever want to be a musician?

I am not a frustrated musician, sorry. I used to play the piano as a teenager a bit and have an idea about notes and scales. But I was always rather undisciplined and never really practised. My family were simple country people with little sense of art.

The only radio in the house was broken. The first music I heard was Johan Sebastian Bach chorals in church. I first heart the blues at age 14 when I saw the movie “Chicago blues”. Those old blues guys (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, etc) fitted my social consciousness – they were underdogs that made it through their music.

The fact that they seemed so real and authentic left a huge impression on me. I guess that planted the seed…the first blues concert I ever attended (and the first blues man I ever promoted a show of) was Louisiana Red, who lived (and still does) in Germany.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Blues? Was it love at first "listen" or was it an acquired taste?

See above. I bought a turntable at age 14 and started buying albums of the featured artists in a Chicago blues film I saw. I also listened to stuff like Janis Joplin, The Animals and other artists of the 60’s era, whose intensity could meet the intensity of those blues guys.

Most children don't have the ambition to grow-up and own their own record label, or even to be a record producer. When did you first decide that' this is what you wanted to do? What was the path you took to becoming Ruf Records – were you already involved in music in some way or another?

Like I said I was a promoter, then a booking agent. Then the publisher for Luther Allison’s music – only because somebody I met said that was the thing to do – start your publishing company. I did it without actually knowing WHAT I did. It felt right and appealing and I learned to follow my instincts, & spontaneous gut feelings. It was all learning by doing.

I think it’s a privilege to actually get a chance to pay for your own mistakes and actually learn the ropes not through a teaching business class but through trying it out yourself and see what happens. Because it’s your passion you can actually manage to overcome all the obstacles.

Luther and his common-law wife Rocky, who used to manage him and traveled with him all the time, were real teachers. We created a tight work team based on personal trust and friendship. We all believed into what we were doing and promoting. He was a man on a mission and we organized what needed to be done. Promoting concerts, booking tours, publishing and protecting the music, publicity, travel logistics, and in the end produce and manufacture and distribute records around the globe.

The whole organization grew step by step and we learned something new every day as we tried to figure out what was the next step for us to go about…it really is essential to keep an open mind and never loose the feeling that you actually are a student in your job. I still feel like this today. I learn something new every day…it never stops.

Did you have a definite purpose in mind for Ruf – was it always going to be a Blues label – or has this just happened.

It really just happened. I had the thought of branching out and starting sub-divisions for other music genres. I learned early on that you need to focus on one thing and grow with it. That's the only way you get recognition. If you do too many things, you water down the quality of your core business. It’s best to stay true to your roots and core business, even if the routine becomes boring at times…

Who was the first act that you signed from the States, and how did you convince them that an American Blues musician would be better served by signing with a relatively unknown German label?

Luther Allison. He already lived in exile in Paris when I first met him. In the beginning it was strictly a European career building effort. But as we became more successful across Europe, Rocky and I started discussing the potential of a US comeback.

Which lead us to actually record 1994 ´s “Bad Love” album (aka: “Soul Fixin’ Man”-the US version on Alligator Records) back in the states (with producer Jim Gaines in Memphis, TN) His prior albums were European recordings, using European producers and musicians. It’s been word of mouth ever since.

After Luther, Joanna Conner was my next artist signed. Now it’s the artists that talk about and recommend each other. Aynsley Lister and Ian Parker were recommended to me through Walter Trout. Ana Popovic came through Bernard Allison, who of course was introduced to me through Luther. Walter Trout came to me on the recommendation of Jim Gaines.

It’s been an ongoing snowball ever since we started to have a real presence on the US markets and became the only real world wide career development oriented blues label originating out of Europe. There are hundreds of local and national labels around the world but only a handful actually operating globally.

Have you ever questioned your sanity for getting into the business?

Many times. I used to work with “Screaming” Jay Hawkins, who had sort of a brain injury that originated from the Korean War in which he served and got shot in the head. He took strong morphine EVERY DAY of his life. He was just as amazing on stage as he was crazy off stage.

He loved to threaten promoters demanding more cash beyond the agreed amount about 5 minutes before show time, when there’s a hall full of people screaming for the show to start. He didn’t care, he would have left a sold out venue for the hotel any time he wanted to. Certain times into the cycle of his medication’s side effects you could not even talk to him, he was too spaced out.

One day I had to come out on tour when his tour manager in charge quit in the middle of the night because Screaming Jay had pulled out a gun and held it against his head from behind on the tour bus; giving the guy the scare for life (the gun was not loaded, this was Screaming Jay style joke – he used to light magician style, flash pyrotechnic fires in restaurants for example, only to scare waiters and have a ball).

I quit working with Screaming Jay because it got too unpredictable. You never knew if he was going to go on stage or potentially cause a riot by not going on. He LOVED to see me and the local promoter sweat blood every night.

I used to come and complain about him with Luther and Rocky. “This guy is insane, he is out of control”. They would only laugh at me and tell me: compared to the logic of this business, Screaming Jay is SANE. This is a running joke between Rocky and I today still: whenever I visit her I keep telling her: you were right. I learned. Compared to what we do here every day, Screaming Jay seems pretty sane to me!

Well that seems a pretty good place to end part one of the interview, don't you think? And you thought running a record label would be all numbers and business didn't you? Tune in tomorrow for the rest of my conversation with Thomas Ruf.

July 7, 2006

Interview: James Barclay Author Of Ascendants Of Esotrea

In the year plus a month or so that I've written for Blogcritics I've been privileged to review a number of wonderful books. Literally they have been from authors all over the globe; India, Spain, Great Britain, and of course North America. Even more special have been the occasions where I've had the opportunity to interview some of them.

This time I was lucky enough that an author appreciated my review of his latest book, The Ascendants Of Estorea: Cry Of The Newborn the first of a new series, enough that instead of having me arrested for stalking he agreed to an interview. My initial introduction to James Barclay came from reading his six part series featuring the mercenaries who made up the group The Raven and they impressed me so much that when his latest book was released I made a point of ensuring I got my hands on a copy.

If anything Cry Of The Newborn was even more enthralling than his previous work, and different enough that they could have been almost written by two separate authors. Those of you who have braved my writing in the past will know that the creative process involved with writing a book fascinates me, and Mr. Barclay's ability to switch gears between the two series increased my eagerness to have an opportunity to talk with him.

I say talk figuratively, as distance and time zones once again made that prohibitive, so I simply emailed him a number of questions that he responded too. What follows is the unedited transcript of our emailed questions and answers. The majority of the questions focus on the two series and his methods. Don't worry if you haven't had the opportunity to read his work, although you should rectify that as soon as possible, it's not necessary to enjoy what Mr. Barclay has to say about writing and his process.
Barclay Cover

Boring Bio bits: Who what and where did you spring from.

I was born in an English port and seaside town called Felixstowe in 1965, making me a very old and grumpy 41. My parents still live in Felixstowe, I’ve got two sisters and a brother and a huge and sprawling number of nephews and nieces that is growing even now.

I’ve had my fascination with writing since I was seven and wrote my first story that my mother still has. I was always writing something from that day, I think and my ambition to be a published author began at about the age of 11. Same time I developed the ambition to become an actor.

I did pretty well at school, went to college in Sheffield to do Communication Studies and thence to drama school to study a post graduate diploma. After that, I owed plenty of cash so went to work in a variety of places, ending up with a couple of marketing and advertising jobs in the City. I left to write full time in March 2004 and am absolutely loving it.

I’m married to Clare; we have a lovely house in a town near London called Teddington. We have a beautiful little Hungarian Vizsla puppy that is a handful but a joy and we’re expecting our first baby in January 2007. Chaos will truly reign in our house.

I was an actor and worked in theatre for about ten years, and I've found it's impacted on my writing style, the amount of dialogue I use, character development, and I seem to use a sort of improvisational style of writing; knowing which characters are in a chapter, what information I want to get out, and what needs to happen, and than just let it all happen.
Have you noticed any traits that you've carried over from your theatre work into your writing?

Yes absolutely. I act out fight scenes and dialogue. I prefer dialogue to describe scene and story where I can and that’s certainly a stage influence. I’m not a massive planner. I have a broad structure and fill in the details as I go – improvisation is about right. I think it adds life and credibility to characters. One of my favourite playwrights is Mike Leigh and he’s a fine example of how improvisation can really work.

Have you ever considered any script writing, or any sort of return to stage life?

I’m writing a screenplay at the moment (a collaboration with a friend) and have ideas for others just waiting to go. As for acting professionally again, yes I’d love to. Bizarrely but fortunately, I was chatting to the man cutting my hair in the barbers the other day and discovered he is an actor/writer/director (and cuts hair for regular income). To abbreviate a long story, I’m auditioning for him next week for a small part in a feature film he’s written. It’s very good; a hard-hitting, gritty drama set on a south London council estate. I’m in line to be a policeman. Should be fun and whether I get the part or not, I’m going to be involved in the production from a script perspective. I’ll see how much I enjoy the process before deciding whether to pursue it again. Oh and anyone out there looking to finance a small budget Brit pic, please get in touch!

What caused the change, why writing novels, specifically fantasy ones?

Well, it wasn’t really a change. I always felt I could do both acting and writing. What happened was that I got disillusioned with acting. So many knock backs, so few opportunities. I was in work and doing well and my books were starting to get real interest from publishers. It was a simple choice to concentrate on the writing and it’s proved the right one. It’s funny, despite being an actor, it never occurred to me at the time to write plays and screenplays. I wanted to be a novelist.

I wrote, and write, fantasy because that’s what I have read throughout my life. You should always write in the arena in which you are most comfortable. For me it was fantasy and I felt I could do an equivalent if not better job than other authors out there and set out to prove it. It’s not for me to judge whether I have been a success in that.

I also grew up playing role-playing games and that merely cemented the love of fantasy.

Where did the Raven come from??

The role playing. A particularly rich few years of gaming in the Dragon Quest system with a consistent group of friends gave rise to some wonderful characters. I played Hirad Coldheart, by the way. I could see the dynamic in the group and wanted to bring that to the written page. The idea of a band of heroes isn’t necessarily a new one but I think my take was what interested publishers. The Raven were already established as the best and were in fact slightly long in the tooth. The banter, the bond and the method of fighting just worked.

Was it always going to be six books – a sextet?

No. In fact, I didn’t even think of a trilogy at the outset. Dawnthief was written as a stand-alone and it was only when I was in talks with my publisher that I developed ideas for the other two books in the first trilogy. The second trilogy suggested itself as I wrote the first set and because the Chronicles sold well, I was able to write the Legends series.

You've gone from a series of six regular sized books to a duology of massive proportions- I mean Cry Of The Newborn is over 800 pages long – Was there any particular reason for that?

There are a few reasons as it happens. The Ascendants idea had been rolling around in my head for the best part of twenty years and it was only a couple of years ago that I felt able to deliver on the premise and do the idea justice. I always knew it was going to be a big epic. We discussed making it into three or four but I’ve never liked arbitrary breaks in books. Each of my books, while it might read better with prior knowledge, can be read alone. I do beginning, middle and end, I don’t finish a book in the middle of the story.

The Ascendants were born out of an idea I had way back in my college years. But I only really developed structure, character and plot during the writing of Demonstorm. I needed to do that in order to put together a pitch document for my editor and agent. Because it was a big departure from The Raven, Gollancz needed to be sure they were doing the right thing in offering a contract. It was a massive task to get the first book out in just over a year (not something I could have done had I still been at work in the City) and the sequel hasn’t been any easier.

I wanted to prove (to myself as well as to anyone else who cared) that I could write beyond The Raven and deliver an epic fantasy on a large scale. I think I’ve achieved that. The book is 800 pages long because that’s how many pages it took to tell the story. Every book has a natural length, I think. And this is a big one. The sequel is slightly shorter and the next book I write will be half the size or less. I don’t believe in puffing out stories and neither do I believe in editing the life out of a story just to achieve an arbitrary word count. If your story needs to be inflated or hacked so much to fit a target, it’s probably the wrong target or the wrong story. Does that make sense?

Do you find that you draw inspiration from anything around you? For instance the whole idea in Raven of mankind's unwillingness to consider the repercussions of our actions as it might affect the future, or another people, or even another species or universe. Do you mean for that to parallel anything in current events, recent or otherwise?

When I began writing The Raven, I was writing adventures pure and simple. I wasn’t consciously paralleling current events. Introducing themes came later and I think you can see as The Raven books go on that the issues of blind politics, religion (positive and negative), authoritarian intransigence, arrogance and the potential consequences of an arms race. I was also keen to develop the Raven’s key themes around love and belief making a group of individuals infinitely greater than the sum of their parts.

How about Cry of the Newborn and it's sequel; any parallels there?

I’m fascinated (morbidly mostly) by the controlling effects of a powerful religion on a society. What the Ascendants did was allow me to investigate what would happen if the central tenets of a faith were challenged by a new reality. Blind faith is a dangerous thing and I sought to demonstrate that. But at the same time I wanted to take a balanced view, showing how moderation and acceptance are far more powerful in the long term than denial, denouncement and violence.

As for the sequel, a central theme there concerns the challenge to authority of a power beyond that authority’s power to control. Whether the power is benevolent or malevolent, many of the issues are actually the same but they are realised in different ways. Because the sequel, A Shout For The Dead, is set a decade after the end of the first book, I’ve been able to go into the longer term effect of the Ascendants on their society, on the core religion and on the attitudes of people in authority. And particularly, as the book unfolds, on the huge uncertainty the Ascendants bring. So many what ifs…

Do you ever find any of yourself creeping into characters, or maybe even traits you wish you had. I have this feeling that your favourite character in the Raven series was Hirad.

Well, you’re right. As I mentioned above, he was my character in my role playing all those years ago. I’m absolutely certain I creep into my characters. I try not to but inevitably, a writer gives themselves in whole or part to their story and the outward demonstration of that is going to be in their characters.

There are traits I wish I had… utter confidence and the ability to say exactly the right thing every time would be damned handy. A lovely thing about writing is that your characters can say those words you wish you’d said in a similar situation. They can talk the tough words and fight the good fight like you cannot.

I thought the whole relationship with the dragons in The Raven series was really nice. The Kaan could have squashed our world flat, but chose not to, because of our obvious use to them, still they regard most humans as a blight upon existence. What was your inspiration for their characters and viewpoint?

I’m not sure about my inspiration for them. I wanted my dragons to be enormously powerful. So powerful that no man could ever kill one. I wanted them to be intelligent and to have their own society with its joys and tragedies, conflicts and needs. The idea of a link between dragon broods and other dimensions grew as I wrote Dawnthief. It makes dragons flawed, it means they are reliant on others for their survival and forces them to be benevolent dictators rather than pure tyrants.

The Kaan, typified by Sha Kaan have no particular love for humans because they believe them to have fatal flaws that could lead to the destruction of themselves and hence the dragons. They fear that and hate the fact humans can be so blind and arrogant. Only a few demonstrate the strength of will that they respect. Hirad and The Raven were such people.

I've read reviews comparing the Raven books to the Magnificent Seven the cowboy movie with Yul Brynner and company. Is there any validity to that? Are you even a fan of the material?

I certainly enjoyed the film when I was young. And I’ve seen Seven Samurai since. While I didn’t consciously mimic the ‘band of people protecting the helpless’ theme, it still happened that way and I think the comparison has credibility. I didn’t base The Raven on the magnificent seven but the parallels make me laugh now (Seven people in The Raven, a bald guy, people who’s skills are just beginning to decline... I can see where it comes from).

In the Ascendancy you have created an empire that is very similar to the Roman Empire in the structure of it's military, and some of their social customs; dress, manner of eating etc. Was there any particular reason for that or is it just a period you like and are comfortable with.

I didn’t want to write a medieval fantasy. I wanted to create a different feel and the Romans were ideal. A fascinating society, quite advanced and very ambitious. A system perfect for expansion of empire. Very organised. Perfect for mucking up by dropping the Ascendants on them. I enjoyed the research and learned heaps. One name check for you – Adrian Goldsworthy. A superb historian and expert on the Romans. I owe him.

You worked for so long with a specific set of characters in the Raven sequence, how difficult was it for you to switch gears so quickly into a completely different world and characters?

Very. And that, as much as anything else made it necessary to do. The comfort zone is a dangerous place for a writer, I feel. No matter how successful you are, you can get stale writing the same characters, world and style. You don’t have to look far for people who exhibit that. Even Terry Pratchett doesn’t write Discworld novels all the time despite their enormous success and I reckon the fact that he steps away from that world from time to time has helped keep the series as fresh as it mainly manages to be even now.

What I found tricky was not writing lines or creating characters that were mirrors of The Raven. I had to fight very hard to stop Paul Jhered being a carbon copy of The Unknown Warrior. I had to examine every line of dialogue, every attitude and gesture to make the men individuals. Again, I think I succeeded and as the drafting went on, it became easier because the new characters found their voices and began to shout for themselves.

You included lots of military details, styles of fighting both on land and at sea, compositions of forces, and the engineering techniques involved in early field artillery. Was this all research you did specific to this book, or was it knowledge you had floating around in your brain beforehand waiting for a chance to be used?

It was research specific to the books. I wanted to get the warfare as accurate as I could without becoming dull. The scale of battles was huge and I needed to have knowledge of how they were fought for real to make my versions anything like credible. Again, it was to distance myself from medieval warfare. Roman techniques were organised and devastatingly effective for the most part. What was particularly interesting to me was having to understand how it worked so that I could understand how it might go wrong. Terrain, enemy tactics, weather, the virus of panic. So much could turn order into chaos. I have assimilated a lot more knowledge than appears in the books. I think that’s the right balance.

When I told an author friend of mine the length of the first Cry Of The Newborn, he said thank goodness for British publishing. Was there any balking at the fact that you had produced an 800 plus page book?

Not really but that’s because I had already written six successful novels and so the risk of it falling flat because of its size was relatively small. Interestingly, my US agent has so far been unable to place it and it’s pretty clear that as a first novel in the US (because The Raven is yet to be published there) it is too big. I can understand that. I suspect that had I rolled up to Gollancz with this as my first novel, I would have received a cooler response. As it is, it has done very well here in the UK.

The concept of the Ascendants, humans who can communicate with natural forces and manipulate them is fascinating. How did you conceive of them? Was it difficult to understand their characters and the experiences they underwent when they began to first come into their power?

It was an idea that came to me in an instant and a theme I have always found interesting. I didn’t want ‘standard’ wizards using mystical force to create spells. I wanted to ground the magic in things we all know. The elements are hugely powerful and the thought that they could be manipulated by individuals is both wonderful and scary. It made the fight with the dominant religion all the more bitter since the faith is very much earth and element based.

The four Ascendants were a tough challenge but one I relished and very much enjoyed. I had to keep in mind that they were just young children coming into their teenage years with all the attendant issues. But on the other hand, they are who they are – they were not normal children who were gifted powers, they were born with them. They don’t know how to feel any other way. What they needed was guidance about how to control their power. But no one could really advise them. They were true pioneers and the knowledge of being unique, of being the first to hold such ability is difficult to handle.

The only trouble with an email interview is you don't get that final couple of moments where you say goodbye and the person on the other end of the line says goodbye and you thank each other. So there's no real way to end these interviews without it sounding abrupt, like it does here. But it does have the advantage of providing an easy way of closing the conversation.

The standard ending question of what do you have forthcoming he already answered earlier on, volume two of The Ascendants Of Estorea that will be released in Canada November followed by a third as of yet unnamed book, so there was no point in asking that one. Since he also mentioned that he and his wife are expecting a child shortly, you can bet he will a little preoccupied with baby stuff. (Can we all guess who is not a parent in this crowd – baby stuff, sheesh)

While people in the United States are able to buy all six books of The Raven series through unfortunately they are not selling The Ascendants Of Estorea: Cry Of The Newborn. Whether or not that will change when the mass-market paperback comes out, I believe in November, I don't know. I do know that you can purchase it online through either or his Canadian distributor McArthur & Company.

I would just like to thank James Barclay for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions, and I hope you found his answers as intriguing as I did. If you were at all fascinated or intrigued by this interview, than be assured you will find his books equally captivating.

May 14, 2006

Interview: Willy DeVille

I want to tell you about an amazing experience that I had on Saturday May 13, 2006; I had a two-hour phone conversation with Willy DeVille. It was one of those things arranged by a publicist to be an interview. You know how they're supposed to go, me the interviewer ask him the interviewee questions about music, life etc, and he gives me answers to same.

Then I go and type them out as a question and answer session and everybody is happy. At least that's how it's gone for me in the past when I've done this sort of thing. It became pretty clear right from the start that this wasn't going to be a typical interview.

I had spent the last day downloading and figuring out how to set up and work a piece of software that would have allowed me to use my modem to record phone conversations. It was going to involve me using an extension other than the one running through the computer, so I had arranged for my wife to run the software while I talked to Willy on another phone.

Since she was going to have to co-ordinate the recording we decided she should answer the phone get his permission to record and explain what it was going to involve. For some reason I wasn't overly surprised when he requested that we didn't record our conversation because he felt it would take too much away from the moment.

He compared it to colour photography vs. black and white and how he preferred black and white because of the simplicity of the moment. Taking away from the moment too much would be lost. So he said to my wife: "so let's keep it black and white okay?"

Thinking about it afterward, and thinking of how our conversation went, I can see what he meant. If we had been conscious of being recorded we would have let that influence us in certain ways, and it would have affected any spontaneity our conversation would have had. We would have restricted ourselves to whatever typical information you normally hear in one of these interviews.

Occasionally I would remember to ask him a question and we would try and get back into an interview format, but we were soon off onto something else, or he'd answer in a way that was non-standard. Mainly we just talked about experiences we had in common, things that neither of us probably would tell others about and so I'm not going to talking about any of that stuff here.

Roughly our conversation could be divided into the early years, the middle part, and what's going on now, but we bounced around following no particular timeline. At one point near the end of our conversation he said, "It doesn't matter what age you are, as long as you're doing". Which sums up his whole career right there in a nut shell, Willy is always "doing" something to keep moving on musically, personally, and whatever else is needed for growth as an artist.

I don't use the word artist lightly ever; it's not some generic term used to refer to somebody who gets up on stage and performs. Talking to Willy for a couple of hours and listening to him talk about his approach, his feelings about his work, the almost spiritual way he described performing, and the obvious passion that came through his voice whenever we would talk music (plus having seen him perform on video recently) made it obvious to me that he has nothing in common with those who strive for mediocrity an are called artists by today's popular press.

So let's press on with this shall we, and I'll bring on the question and answers.

Me: "Where did it all start for you, you were born in New York right?

Willy: "No I was born in Stanford Connecticut (laughs) nobody's born in Manhattan. We moved there when I was thirteen or fourteen, but I had been coming into town since I was about twelve…I had fallen in love with the city.

Me: "The bright lights and all…"

Willy: " Nah, it was the musicians. Everywhere there was music it was amazing. But it was everything else too, you know, the smells of pizza…" (There was a pause at the other end of the line, as if he was remembering something) …" Somewhere else than where you are always looks better to you, and we all come from some little itty bitty place. I don't want this to sound like those, he came from a small town and made it big stories right, but it's more about having a dream and having the patience and the, oh I don't know what (me: "perseverance") yeah, to make it happen, you know, and that's what I feel like it's always been."

Me: "Why music, what was it about music that grabbed you?"

Willy: " Well according to my mom I was singing before I was talking right. I mean I don't even come from a musical family, but it just always seemed so natural to me. You know I grew up and I had older brothers, four and six years older, so there was always music around, on the radio at breakfast as we ate our corn flakes, or American Bandstand. I still remember listening to bands like the Drifters…It was like magic, there was drama and it would hypnotize me."

"Listening to the radio and the songs I would get you know like images of the story in my head, like reading a book and you imagine what's going on. I would see the music like that too, in my head while listening…."

"There's something that happens to me when I sing, (a slight hesitation as if he's unsure about talking about this, like how's this going to go over), this is going to sound weird right, but it's like I don't know where the voice comes from for different songs, but it's just there. I described this to a friend once and he said it sounds like voice shifting, where a masking spirit comes over people and sings through them…"

Me: " That sounds like what happens to Native singers when they sit around the big drum and are playing. They sing in this high falsetto, that nobody can talk in, and that they sure don’t talk in…

Willy: "Did you say native, like native American? Cause you know that I'm part native.."

Me: "Which part? no, no, I mean which nation, sorry. "

Willy: "Iroquois, I'm part Iroquois, part Basque, a little of this and a little of that. I real street dog."

Me: "Heinz 57"

Willy: (laughs) yeah right. I prefer street dog."

Me: Did you ever hear any of that stuff Robbie Robertson did with Red Road Ensemble about, I don't know a dozen years ago… He's an Iroquois.."

Willy: "That's right he's from up around near you isn't he."

Me: "Yeah Grand River Six Nations reserve"

Willy: " There was this album he made with John Hammond that changed my life"

Me: "Robbie made an album with Hammond"

Willy: Yeah him and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Lavon Helm, or Lee-von,( laughs) back in 1962, it was called So Many Roads It's still around on CD you've gotta to hear it, it's amazing."

Me: So how did it all start for you, what was your first band, was it Mink DeVille?

Willy: "Nah the first band was The Royal Pythons. Wanted it to be different from what everyone else was doing, electric this and strawberry that. But actually, you know I went over to London for a couple of years, real obvious American with my Pompadour hair. Kicked around until my money ran out than came back here.'

"I had only been back a bit when a buddy called me up, and they were out west in San Francisco, he'd had to leave town cause he'd gotten in trouble with the cops, and he said I should come out there it was really amazing, he'd already met Lighting Hopkins' drummer. So I bought a 57 Chevy Van and drove out."

"It was hard out there, just couldn't get anything happening, it was the early seventies, and, hell don't say I hated it, because that's not true, but it was hard. I conned the guys into believing that if we went back to New York I could get us work, cause I knew the city and the ropes of how stuff worked, which was stretching it."

Me: "How did you end up in CBGB ?"

Willy: "Well, I used to go over to "City Lights', you know Ferlinghetti's book store, and pick up a week old Village Voice. One day I saw this small, like one inch by one-inch ad, saying auditioning for live bands. Now New York in the early, mid seventies, there were hardly any places for live bands to play, maybe a Jazz bar. Everything had closed, so here was this ad saying auditioning for live bands."

"So I had convinced the guys that I could get them work, and we climbed in the van and drove back the other way. We got here and auditioned, along with hundreds of others, but they liked us and took us on. That was like 74-75, and we played there for three years. You know during that time we didn't get paid more than $50 bucks a night"

Me: "Each or the band"

Willy: "The band, shit that was barely enough for cigarettes. They keep asking me to come and play there for "old times sake" and you know that's not for me. That's for people who want to go there and say they saw me there, or Lou Reed in sunglasses or some such stuff. That's the past, not now."

"There was always some sort of shit that was going down there, cause there were all these managers with bands they had signed who they wanted to play there, so there was politics. All I wanted was to be a band that New York could be proud of; we wanted to play music that would make the glasses dance on the bar"

"Then there was this one night this guy named Ben Edmonds came in to the bar and saw us. He took us back up to his hotel room and asked us if we could make a record what would we put on it. I just said, the best damn music I could make."

"The next thing was they brought out Jack Nietzsche to talk with me. We got drunk for three days. Jack had done all those records with the Ronettes and groups like that."

Me: "He worked with Phil Spector?"

Willy: "Well it's hard to say who worked with who, right. You listen to that music and you hear those really high strings, and that percussion, and the castanets: that's all Jack's work. All that really cool stuff"

"Jack became like my first mentor in the business. Not to sound like some hippie or something, but it was like Karma you know for us to be together. There used to be some sort of Ladies auxiliary or something to our fan club, and they would send all these weird photos into us, like of tombstones and shit like that. Well one time one of them sent in this picture of a tombstone of Fredrick Nietzsche, who was Jack's great uncle, and I showed him the picture, saying Jack isn't this your great uncle and he said yeah."

"Jack wasn't very well and he was going downhill slowly, and I remember they were throwing me this birthday party, and I found out Jack had died that day. It was the same day his great uncle had gone, the same day as my birthday, August 25th."
"He was my first real professional friend, and I still feel like he's looking out for me"

Me: "I've got to know, how you'd come up with the name Mink DeVille"?

Willy: "Well we were sitting around talking of names, and some of them were really rude, and I was saying, guys we can't do that. Then one of the guys said how about Mink DeVille, there can't be anything cooler than a fur lined Cadillac can there?"

Me: "Cool so it's true, I couldn't remember if I had read that somewhere or not, or if it was some sort of urban legend."

Willy: "Nope it's true"

Me: "The sound you described that Jack was doing with the percussion and castanets for the Ronettes and other bands, is that where those sounds in your music came from, the Latin rhythms and stuff?"

Willy: "Well you had to have that sort of sound if you wanted any street credibility in the lower east side where I came from you know. Everybody listens to the great music of Tito Puente, I love the sound of that stuff too, the congas and great percussion. It was the congas that hooked me into New Orleans, that great drumming."

Me: "I used to really like the work of Tom Waits back in the late seventies and early eighties, that sort of trash can jazzy/blues, and I was thinking there were similarities in your music, maybe not style, but intent."

Willy: Yeah? Maybe it's something about the band and how we work together; when we set up on stage it's not with the audience in mind, but so that we can see each other, and look around and have fun…if we're not having fun, nobody else is going to have fun are they. So we want to be in contact with each other all the time."

"Tom's music is like that too, there's that quality of being really tight, but so tight that you're loose."

"I want to tell you something about Tom. Back in 1980 I was banned in Boston. I had done something or other foolish, and this guy, a booking agent who if you pissed off could guarantee you'd never work Boston, said 'Willy DeVille will never work Boston again'. Well Tom was playing in Cambridge Mass. and we were travelling with him. Tom refused to go on, not only if we weren’t allowed to play, but also if we didn't get equal billing. He really put his balls to the wall for us. This agent guy was making this huge fuss about it, but Tom just said 'Willy gets equal billing or I don't play'. So they gave us equal billing."

"Can you do me a favour, I want you to say thank you to Tom from me in what you're writing. I want that out there. A lot of people don't understand where Tom's coming from, with some of his stuff, but I think when you’re an artist you just aren't going to be satisfied with doing the same stuff over and over again. You want to do something new to surprise people with. Whether they like it or hate it…"

Me: "One of the first teachers I had always talked about making people have an opinion, you don't want anybody being ambivalent about your work"

Willy: "You had a good teacher"

Me: "The last thing you want to hear is that your work is 'nice' "

Willy: Yeah that's for sure. You know and that's what people have got to understand about anybody who's serious about this stuff, it may sound selfish, but we can't keep doing the same stuff over and over again. We need to keep trying different things."

Me: "The curse of originality"

Willy: Yeah (laughs) I'm a singer/songwriter, and the front man, so I have to deal with all these different facets, taking the flak and so on. It's hard to keep the passion going sometimes, and if you can't keep changing it up, it would be damn near impossible.

Me: Why did you leave New York for New Orleans?

Willy: "I was tired of being 'Willy DeVille'. Walking out of my building and having to be the guy who was up on stage all the time, even when I wasn't performing. I wanted to get away from that. So I got down there and it was this famous guy had come to town, and I didn't want that. So I decided to do an album with a bunch of the musicians from down there, the music of New Orleans."

"People like Dr, John, Eddie Bo, Champion Jack Dupuis and all sorts of others. Victory Mixture is still one of the albums I'm proudest of; I think its one of the best records I've ever done. And you know what, I don't think there's more than one or two originals on it. Its all old stuff, music from New Orleans

"I remember as a kid I used to go see these shows where there would be like four or five bands on a bill, and it was great, and I thought wouldn't that be a great thing to do. So I got in touch with all these guys I had made the record with and we did this great tour of Europe."

"The travel, buses, and planes; and the accommodations had to be some of the worst I've ever experienced, but the shows themselves were great. At the end of each show we'd throw Mardi-Gras rows out to the audience, you know strands of purple and gold beads, and they'd never seen anything like it and they loved it."

Me: "You do a lot over in Europe, what's the attraction?"

Willy: "Well I don't want to sound like one of those guys kvetching, but have you seen what's on the charts over here?"

Me: "Wait a moment I have gotten something written down, where is it, yeah, here: 'Striving for Mediocrity'."

Willy: (laughs) "Yeah, that's it. I mean over there they still talk about Eddie Cochran and all the great old stuff as if it's still alive. There's a passion that's missing too often over here."

Me: " You recorded Le Chat Bleu in Paris because of your liking for Edith Piaff, is that right?'

Willy: " Yeah partially, but it was for the chance to work with some incredible people as well. Charles Dumont who had written a lot of the music for Edith, and Doc Pomus. You know the first day I walked into the studio and they were working with an orchestra, and I heard the strings playing one of my songs. I had to go into the bathroom and shed a tear. Seeing these guys playing their instruments, with long white hair hanging down over their collars, looking like what classical musicians are supposed to look like, doing a song I wrote, really got to me.

"When I did this album I wanted to make music that would stand the test of time. I take what I do seriously, but at the same time I have fun making every album I do. If that's not there, if you're not enjoying the album how can you expect anyone else to? It may sound selfish but I'm playing the music I want to, and everyone else can kiss off as far as I'm concerned."

"On Le Chat Blue we had all these great people involved, you know, and we thought we had something great. I came back to America, and my label at that time said, 'well we think we should put it on the shelf for a while'. This was right before Christmas for God's sake when you know people are going to be buying stuff, so I asked them what the problem was?"

"They said they had never heard anything like it before and didn't know what to do with it. We had Charles Dumont, Elvis's goddamned rhythm section, and they say they've never heard anything like it. I was heartbroken and angry. Finally Maxine from my distributor in France phones and he says, Willy what's going on? So I told him."

"He said don't worry we'll release it over here. We did, and then it became a matter of not what are we going to do with Willy Deville, but who the hell let him get away. As an import it was wracking up great sales here. Capital finally went and released a copy of it, but never did too much work on it."

"I remembered what Nietzsche said, which was he never could understand why they had signed us in the first place. They were the Beatles and the Beach Boys, safe bands, and they hired a bunch of guys who looked like street toughs who looked like they were going to kill them." (He laughs)

Me: "I wanted to ask you about the album you made with Mark Knopfler, I can't remember its title ("Miracle" Willy supplied) how did that come about? Was he assigned to produce you by your label or did it come about some other way?"

Willy: "It was Mark's wife Lourdes who came up with the idea. She said to him that you don't sing like Willy and he doesn't play guitar like you (Me: "Nobody plays guitar like him. Willy: "That's for sure") but you really like his stuff so why don't you do an album together?"

"So I went over to London to do this album. It wasn't easy because we didn't want it to sound like a Dire Straits' album, and his guitar playing is so unique that it was hard to do. But nothing good is going to be easy. I know that I spent the whole time really trying to impress Mark, I wanted it to be good."

"But, yeah it was his wife Lourdes who was responsible more than anyone else for that album. She's a really great lady, really nice. I still really like that album, especially "Southern Politician"

Me: "In an interview with you on theLive In The Lowlands DVD you talked about Mark's reaction to the song "Storybook Love"…

Willy: "Oh yeah that was funny. I played him what I had and he looked at me and said how did you know about that. I said what, and he said that was working on a movie with Rob Reiner called the Princess Bride and I'd just written a song that told the story. He got on the phone and phoned Rob and told him, and Reiner said to get it out to him as soon as possible. So we did it up rough and sent it off and he loved it."

"The next thing I know I'm standing backstage and listening to Dudley Moore and Liza Manelli introduce me before going out to sing "Storybook Song" at the Oscars. There I was standing backstage with Tom Selleck and Karl Malden, waiting to onstage. It was weird…"

Me: "Yeah I saw that awards show, I think I watched it just to see you. I remember thinking wow, and to quote a line from the movie My Cousin Vinnie"Oh and you blend" (laughter)

Willy: "Yeah it was a really strange experience. But you know Tom Selleck was really nice. When I got off stage he leaned over and squeezed my knee and said 'you did great'. That was really nice of him you know. Malden was a little more standoffish. I went up to him afterwards to tell him how much I liked his work and he just kept saying, "That's so nice of you to say that". But I guess if you're always getting that, it must be tiring (pause) I wouldn't know" (laughter)

Me: "Well I guess I should be letting you go soon, but I wanted just to find out what you've got planned for the future. When I saw you in the DVD you were walking with a cane and in some pain, and I was hoping that's nothing permanent."

Willy: "No that was just temporary, I had to have hip replacement surgery, which is a bitch to recover from but now it's pretty much better. I got to tell you I'm in the best shape I think I've been in my entire life. You know I've got to keep exercising the leg to help it heal so I go for walks everyday, and, I bet you never thought you'd hear this coming out of Willy DeVille's mouth, I've been thinking of going to the "Y" to work out" (laughs)

"We've never been to Japan or Australia, so we want to do a tour of those countries. I've got a little sister who lives out in Australia who I haven't seen in ages, so I'd like to see her. There aren't many of the family left anymore so that would be a good thing. Anyway she's so proud of her big brother."

"Nina (his wife) and I can make a trip to Japan into our second Honeymoon. I've wanted to go out there before but the idea of the travel was just too much."

Me: "Yeah I just saw Arlo Guthrie in concert and he talked about his recent tour out to Australia. He said the trip was brutal. 15 hours stuck in a little cabin breathing bad air."

Willy: "Oh shit and I thought you were about to tell me it wasn't that bad."(Laughs) It doesn't matter. You know there are people there who want to see us, so I figure we owe it to them to come over and do our music for them" (Author's note: I've since learnt that it's an Australian record company, Raven, that's been responsible for re releasing a lot of Willy's older material, with all sorts of bonus features)

"I've also been working on a book. It's about all the people I've known who are no longer around, the ones that didn't make it for one reason or another. It's going to be funny, but it's also going to be dark at the same time. These were all friends of mine and they were great people, but well things happened. So I want to write about them, and tell their stories."

Me: "That reminds me about something else, you know I look at pictures of you now and they're so different from ones twenty years ago. You don't look as angry, more at peace."

Willy: "I'm more comfortable in my own skin now than I have ever been. So that could be it."

Me: Whatever it is, it hasn't diminished your passion. Where does that come from?"

Willy: "My passion comes from my music, which is an expression of the passion I feel from making music. There's this feeling you get of absolute silence when you know that the crowd are listening, and that silence is louder than anything else I've ever heard in my life. Those are my moments of absolute bliss. I feel sorry for people who can't feel those moments of euphoria. But in order to feel passion you have to be passionate about something in the first place. For me that's music."

Me: "Thanks Willy, this has been great"

Willy: "Thank you, I hope we can get up to Canada sometime"

Me: "Me too"

So, there it is, as best as I can piece it all together, two hours of conversation and thoughts with Willy DeVille on the telephone one Saturday afternoon in May. There's a lot of stuff that he asked I not talk about, and I had no problem with that, because it was just conversation between two people about stuff that had nothing to do with anybody else.

There were quite a few times where I wasn't making notes of any kind or even thinking about what I was doing as an "Interview". I was having a conversation with a very interesting, intelligent, and aware human being. Those are few and far between enough that I can appreciate them for just that. The truly hard part was remembering that on occasion I should be writing things down.

I've rearranged our conversation so that it works in a more uniform interview sense, so Willy if you end up ever reading this, that's why it seems different from how we talked on the phone. I've done my best to recreate what was said as exactly as possible, and I hope I got it right. Apologies if I didn't.

Thank you Willy DeVille for an incredible two hours. I don't know if something as two dimensional as words on a computer screen can capture someone as alive as Willy DeVille. But I hope that all of you who read this can experience at least a little of what I felt while talking to him.

Sign The Petition To Help Get Willy Inducted Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame At This Address.


April 6, 2006

Interview: Arlo Guthrie

Yesterday afternoon I had gone out with my wife to take her to a doctor's appointment, when we got home she checked our phone messages. She turned to me and said: " Go check your email it sounds like you've got an interview with Arlo Guthrie tomorrow morning"

There have been certain songwriters and singers who have been supplying me with a window on the world for as long as I can remember. They've told stories and jokes, sung songs, and helped bring some things into perspective; make what seems truly overwhelming almost manageable.

Well today I got to talk to one of the people who have been talking to me for more than thirty years. It was nominally supposed to be about the 40th anniversary of the song "Alice's Restaurant", but when I was preparing for the interview I had thought how often do you get to talk to a person who had sung about and lived through as much as he has?

As I'm about as subtle as a brick wall, I think he might have been a little taken aback at the suddenness of the conversation shift, but he was too nice to say anything about it. His answers to my stumbling questions about the mood of the world were thoughtful and as perceptive as any historians, for of course that's what he is.

Folk singers are our cultural historians. The songs they sing are the stories of our society at a certain point in time. You may not agree with the opinion that some of the songs express, but that doesn't stop them from being an accurate reflection of what was happening at the time.

I thought I was going to be nervous about this, but when the phone rang at 9:30 on Wednesday April 5th the familiar cheery voice at the other end of line put me right at my ease. After a few comments about the weather, I asked him if he minded if we began with a few questions about "Alice's Restaurant" and he said, " I'm yours for twenty minutes ask what you want"

"I'm a little confused about something ("There's nothing wrong with that" Arlo interjects laughing and I agree saying I enjoy it immensely) what exactly is this tour (The "Alice's Restaurant" Tour) the fortieth anniversary of?

It's the fortieth anniversary of writing the song. I started writing the song at the time of the incident in 1965- and finished writing it in 1966. We started this tour in June of 2005 and will finish it in 2006, so that's how it works out. (Laughs) Sorry about that, now you're not confused any more

Oh that's okay there's lots of stuff that confuses me….Do you remember why you wrote it Alice?

Nope, I can't really remember any specific reason as to why. We would turn everything into songs in those days. I remember we must have just come back from Officer Obie, and were sitting around, just discussing the events of the day, and started to sing about it.

Then part two, the part about the draft must have been written at a separate time.

I was out at college in Billings in 1965, and came home for Thanksgiving, and we were visiting our friends, and I decided not to go back to college. Well in those days that lost me my deferment for the draft. It took them a few months to catch up to me, so it wasn't until 66 that I had to go … It was actually they who made the connection between the two, bringing up the criminal record when I was up there… so after that it was just a natural connection to make and add it in to the song

When did it hit you that you might be stuck singing it for the rest of your life?

It was pretty soon after the song came out on record that I knew people were going to want to be hearing it all the time. When I first started performing, I've been performing since I was 13 you know, I was performing my dad's songs, and stuff like that from that era. So when I first started playing (Alice) people would say why's he talking why isn't he singing? Then after Alice became popular and all these people would show up wondering why I was singing and not talking…You're just not going to be able to please all the people…

People would get angry that I wasn't going to play it, and I'd say well go and get your money back…we'll play it on an anniversary tour. I don't mind playing " City of New Orleans" or " Coming into Los Angeles" because they're only a few minutes long, and that leaves room in the set for other music, but …

Me: Alice is twenty minutes long…

Arlo: Right and that eats up lots of time. I'm really glad that I don't have a lot of hits, Willie Nelson, a friend of mine, has to do a medley of some 18 songs right off the top of his show so that he can get on with the stuff that he's doing now…

Most of the time there's songs playing in the background on the radio and we don't really pay too much attention to them, but if it's like a day when you've fallen in love, and the song becomes part of your personal soundtrack than your going to pay attention to it. That's why I'm glad they're albums, cause you can't expect someone to play the same songs in concert all the time… I'll play it every ten years now for the anniversary tour, but that's it

So no waiting for the eightieth anniversary?

No every ten years is okay(laughs)

Arlo on Stage
On the Live In Sydney disc, you dusted off another old song "Coming into Los Angeles" But you used the intro to talk about the current situation in America regarding the Patriot Act, and other increased security measures throughout your country. Having lived through one involvement, Viet Nam, before, how would you compare the feelings and mood of your country between those times and the events surrounding the War on Terror and Iraq etc?

There's a lot of questions in that…there are a lot of things that are familiar to people who lived through Viet Nam, and what happened then and things today. In those days, from the president on down the line, the authorities were looking for leaders. The thing was there weren't really leaders for the kids out on the street. It was more a natural groundswell against what was happening. Anybody who was claiming leadership was mainly being opportunistic, and looking to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.

That's the same sort of situation right now, we're looking to get rid of leaders like bin Laden and saying that will stop the unrest, but it won't. What's happening is a groundswell reaction based on the conditions these people are living in. Folk like bin Laden are just opportunists claiming leadership. Getting rid of them won’t stop what's happening. The conditions won't have changed that caused the groundswell in the first place.

Your Dad's song "Deportees" has always struck a chord for me, we were one of those families that never had grapes in the winter, my mom was very much into the boycotts, never shopping at the grocery stores that didn't tell you where the produce was grown. From an outside observer's point of view, it looks like things are actually getting worse, for people coming up from Mexico.

We live in an increasingly sophisticated world that makes it difficult to make simple comments on stuff. There are too many people on both sides of the border who are taking advantage of circumstances and the situation.

Kinky Freedman ran for governor of Texas and he had what I thought was a great solution to the problem. Get five generals and give them each a million dollars in a bank account. Than divide the border up into five equal parts and make each general responsible for that part. For each illegal that crosses the border in their area they would have $10,000 taken out of their bank account.

Me: Make them personally responsible for the problem?

Arlo: Yeah, the other thing is this not just an American problem. There are people all over the world who are willing to exploit others. You can't just point the finger at America. You've got people willing to exploit their fellow countrymen for cheap labour, sell them into slavery…I read about a container on a ship full of Chinese people dead off the coast of Britain I think it was…

Me: Yeah that's happened off the cost of Newfoundland as well…

Arlo: Greed and globalization aren't just America's fault. You get people talking about being worried about their art, and dances…their culture being wiped out or taken over, and yet these same people are taking advantage of their people to use them as cheap labour

Me: You wouldn't have companies moving their plants unless somebody was prepared to exploit the workers where they were going to move the plant too.

Arlo: It's like a groundswell of greed going on right now. You know we've proven we can do the opposite too, in times of disaster, like the Tsunami and hurricanes and floods, and we need to try and maintain that. It's got to come up naturally though. A groundswell doesn't happen quickly and you hope that the people living through these times learn from them and don't let them happen again. We need to have a groundswell to help, not to exploit.

Building walls isn't going to work in the long run. Some people are happy with the wall in Israel, but somebody will get a weapon someday and knock it over or something. Walls aren't the answer between countries though.

Me: Don't you ever want to, or wish that you could point them in the right direction?

Arlo: For those of us in the sixties we had a couple of people who we're examples we could look too, like Martin Luther King Jr. As an alternative to what was around us. People in the Middle East don't have anyone like that right now who they can emulate along those lines. It's like they've never heard of him or (me: Gandhi) yeah or Gandhi.

You bought Alice's Church a while back and have made it a focal point for activities, what are some of the programs that are being run out of there.

There are a lot of crazy people in the world, and we spend billions of dollars a week, or whatever the figure is, on places where they can hang out, like battlefields and the like. And that's okay I guess for them, but what about the rest of the people, the regular people who just want to have a place where they can go.

That's what Alice's church is all about, a place where regular people can hang out. Have some food, a drink, whatever. It's one small building where people can just be, and maybe even one small step in the groundswell process.

That was it, all the time we had. In fact he went over with me, I got an extra eight minutes, which meant he wasn't going to get a break between his ten o clock interview and me. As soon as I got off the phone I set to work on transcribing the interview and what I quickly noticed happening was how flat it was sounding on page. It's the same words as what had been spoken with only a little editing, but it's missing Arlo's distinctive voice.

When I read over what's on these pages I can hear him in my head, because I was the one talking to him on the phone. I only hope I was able to capture some of the feeling and care that came through in his voice.

Folk music and folk musicians are our oral historians. They keep a record of the times they live through via their songs and stories. Arlo Guthrie has been telling us the stories of our times for forty plus years. Spending twenty plus minutes with him the other day gave me a little more insight into what it takes to be that type of person.

If nothing else, I hope that anyone reading this has the same experience.

August 19, 2005

Interview Ashok Banker Part Two

This is the second part of a two part interview I conducted via email with Indian author Ashok Banker. Ashok is best known currently for his adaptation of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. In this part of the interview he discusses some of what motivates him, reactions to his work, future plans, and a little about the culture of India. Part one can be read here

You've mentioned in comments we've exchanged and in some of your postings that you want to reclaim Indian history for Indians. Can you elaborate on that and explain how your version of The Ramayana fits into that motivation.

Would Americans be willing to have Vietnamese, or Burmese, or Germans, or Russians, write their history, their textbooks, govern them, and force their language, script, customs, religion, system of governance, legal system, etc, etc, upon them for four hundred years, and then expect them to continue those traditions unquestioned?
Ashok 2
Would any country or culture, for that matter, accept another culture that invades and occupies them by force, be the only judge and narrator of their cultural myths and traditions and legends? Yes, of course, I wish to reclaim Indian history. Not only for Indians, but for all to read.

Wouldn't you rather know how an Indian writer perceives the Ramayana, or the Mahabharata, or various tales of Indian legend and history? Rather than, say, an English writer, or a French author? Or even a Canadian? Besides, I don't deny those people the right. I'm merely staking my claim to a right which has unjustly been denied me and other Indians ever since the East India Company banned the translation of Sanskrit and other edicts and scriptures into English two hundred years ago. (And surreptiously permitted only translations which erroneously showed Western superiority in everything from timelines to civilization development. Read the work of John Keay and many other British and Indian historians to learn more about this.)

I'm stating what should be an obvious right, and yet, I am the first Indian to tell the Ramayana in its full form, in an original individual voice ever since the original Sanskrit poem was composed, some four thousand years ago! Isn't that incredible? And what does that tell you about how much we were oppressed and suppressed, both culturally and politically?

In North America we have had our view of life in India formed by media images of poverty and overcrowding, Hari Krishna temples, Hollywood clich's, and the Beatles.
The Ramayana deals with a variety of real concepts, but in particular dharma. Can you elaborate on that concept and explain why it is so important?

Oh, let's not pretend those are false. They're not. We certainly do have poverty, overcrowding, Hare Krishnas, and all the clich's are indeed true. But the clich's are simply realities portrayed in a negative light, or for humorous, or worse, melodramatic effect. The reality of India is probably too complex for the western mind to comprehend easily and quickly. That's why those westerners who visit here, invariably stay on, fascinated and 'hooked' to the difference of our cultural milieu.

The first thing to understand is that India is a multiplicity, not a singularity. That is to say, everyone worships and believes in One God, because Hinduism is monotheistic, but the forms or avatars of that One God can be as many as there are worshippers.

It's an uniquely individualistic self-willed faith and culture. So dharma too is left to each person to decide. The Buddhist concept of Dhamma (spelt differently too) is quite different from the Hindu concept. And even among Hindus - not just sects, but individuals - dharma can mean many things. But mostly it is 'what is right'. And judging 'what is right' is left entirely to you.

Dharma is that precept that tells us that Bush is not just wrong, he is evil. And so is any nation that wages war upon others, with or without cause. Dharma is not always pleasant or nice, as in the Mahabharata, where it is used as Lord Krishna's justification for waging war upon one's family, or for committing murder. But it is 'what is right'.

It is the cornerstone of Indian life, not just Hindu, but Muslim, Parsi, Catholic, Sikh, everyone. It is in the water, air, our blood.

Dharma is the reason why Indians have never ventured out of this subcontinent and invaded another nation in ten thousand years of unbroken civilization. Or built armada or sent armies to explore and conquer other lands. At best, wars have been waged against invaders, or amongst neighbours.

As you know, humans are unique from other creatures in one respect: We are the only species that control the males. (We have company as warmongers, since ants also wage war on each other.) In India, the males are controlled not by the females or other males, but by Dharma itself. That is why we do not hesitate to bow or prostrate ourselves on the ground, flat out, and kiss the feet of a living priest or sacred person. Whereas in western society, people hesitate to bow the head let alone kneel to anybody short of God Himself.

Also, while western society has the tradition of killing their saints and saviors, India is exceptional to that as well. We are quick to believe, and slow to lose faith. This is dharma, greater than religion, community, nationality, sex.

What has the reaction in India been to the release of The Ramayana? How about countries abroad? Have some countries been more open than others to "foreign ideas"?

Fantastic. At first, things were up in the air as nobody really knew what to make of it, it being the first of its kind. Also, some sections of the media arrogantly dismissed the series outright, with an otherwise well-respected magazine Outlook claiming that it was a "sexed-up" fantasy. You've read it and you know just how much sex there is, if at all! None!

Other English media were quite scathing and bitchy, praising the books and the writing to the skies, using words like "milestone," "historic achievement," "epic labour of love", and so on, while taking potshots at me. The irony is that nobody had ever written anything based on Hindu mythology before and made a critical and commercial success of it before, but once I did, I was instantly criticized for having done it to make money! But even through all the bitchiness and carping, they were still praising the books to the skies.

You have to remember that in the Indian media's version of the caste system, writers are at the bottom of the ladder. Films stars are way at the top, because the media depends on them for regular interviews and features to keep selling their publications, while writers don't really command any circulation, so it's easy to take potshots at them.

Then there's the fact that most Indian journalists are wannabe writers and so they're hugely jealous of any successful author. Lastly, I've been a successful journalist and columnist, and I've crossed over to high profile success as a novelist, so that increases their envy tenfold.

But readers have been overwhelming. You have to remember that I was writing the first English-language Ramayana ever attempted. Most English-speaking Indians don't want to read the Ramayana because it's like reading the Bible, or the Koran. But once people started reading the books, they loved them! And word of mouth spread so fast, that the books quickly became bestsellers.

In fact, there's so much talk of US being a big market for books. But India is just as big a market, provided you have the right book. My Ramayana was evidently that kind of book, because my royalty statements clearly show the books selling out their first editions on publication.

Worldwide too, the response has been tremendous. People clearly love the books, as you can see from reader's responses on my website and critics have praised them highly too.

There's been some nastiness from bigots and racists in the US in particular, where I've been criticized for absurd things like using Indian words and not altering the books to suit American tastes, whatever those are.

On some forums like they seem to enjoy making up nasty little lies about me and the books, and claiming ridiculous things based on no evidence at all. But despite these American bigots, the series has caught on in the US and these days the most new 'converts' I hear from are US-based.

Overall, my audience seems to be pretty wide, from Germany to Japan, France to Malaysia, Canada to Israel, you name it.But there's also no question that the majority are Indians or people of Indian origin. As even my UK and US publishers Time Warner realized when they had to change the covers of the books to make them appear more "Indian" rather than typical "fantasy".

In the overseas edition you've included a glossary of Sanskrit words and their meanings within the context the particular usage in the book. What is the status of Sanskrit as a language? Like Latin and ancient Greek, something scholars learn to read old texts, a language of religion like Hebrew used to be, or is it still in common use?

Actually, that was at the request of my UK and UK publishers. I disagreed with the inclusion of a glossary, and that's why you won't find it in the Indian editions, even though most Indians are as unfamiliar with Sanskrit as readers anywhere else.

Sanskrit, in case you didn't know this, is a dead language, even in India. It's used by brahmin pundits (ritual priests) for ceremonies and rituals, but not generally spoken, written, or heard.

However, most Indian languages, Tamil in particular, are derived from Sanskrit and bear a close affinity. Sanskrit was never a language of religion, like Pali which became the medium for Buddhists, or Awadhi which was common speak for many North Indian Hindus.

This is a general question about Indian writing. Do you think there is such a thing as a distinctive voice in Indian writing? Would it depend on the language the story is written in?

This is a question best answered by readers rather than writers. I think yes, there is such a thing as a distinctive Indian voice, and it's heard most often in the ethnic Indian languages.

But in English? I don't know about others but speaking for myself, I don't think I write Queen's English, and certainly not Anglo-Saxon as the Americans like it written. One of the major criticisms I've had from American critics and readers was my 'voice' and my style.

One critic in Locus magazine complained that I even used an Indian word 'dhobi' when I could simply have used 'washer man' instead. In fact, I couldn't have used 'washer man' for the same reason that you can't generalize policemen, fire officers, army personnel, nurses, etc, all as 'uniformed people'.

In India we use a specific kind of language, a combination of Indian words and English, what we call Hinglish or Indian English (the title of my blog), and frankly, we're quite proud of it. It's the same 'style' that Salman Rushdie famously took from us and which made him so unique

You've assembled quite a list of projects that you want to tackle in your attempts to retell the history of India from an Indian perspective. I doubt there are many people who have heard of the majority of titles on the list, excluding the Ramayana could you offer a brief summery for each:
The Mahabharata - nine books The Krishna Coriolis - three books The Ganesa Palindrome - six books Tales of Devi - at least three books Epic India - over 20 volumes Indus Saga - five books related titles - five or six books

I'd rather write the books and let people find out about them in due course when they're published, than talk about them now. The best way to know what's next on my plate is to keep in touch with my blog

You have a film project in the works as well. I believe the title is Beautiful Ugly and is based on your childhood. Can you tell me how you came up with the title and its significance? Can we assume this will not be filled with Bollywood type musical numbers?

This is actually a book named Beautiful Ugly. But as usual, the media has focussed only on my plan to also produce a docu-feature based on the events described in the book. The documentary is a personal comment on the events and an attempt to place them in their social context and is really more of an audiovisual essay rather than a film. I plan to release copies of the documentary with the book when it's published.

No, this will definitely not be filled with musical or dance numbers - I'm sorry but to associate any Indian film with Bollywood musical dance numbers is one of the saddest developments of recent times. I particularly dislike Bollywood and those musical dance numbers as many other Indians do. It's like asking a Canadian author whether the film based on his book will have Mounties in it!

One final question before I let you go, what do you hope the average non Indian reader will get from reading these books? How about Indian readers?

If I could be frank, I'd say "nothing". That is, I wouldn't really advise the average non-Indian reader to read my books at all. That's harsh I know, but my books, the Ramayana series in particular, does require some understanding of Indian culture, if not a whole-hearted willingness to immerse yourself in a culture that predates Christianity, western culture and history, and even western mythology to some extent!

On the other hand, intelligent non-Indian readers who are eager to know more about Indian culture and the roots of world civilization in general, would certainly enjoy my books as entertaining and sometimes insightful glimpses into a great ancient culture.

Of course, I strongly recommend my books to Asian readers, because the whole continent shares affinities in myth and culture.

Well that concludes the interview. As usual, when dealing with the Internet, and technology nothing went as planed. We had hoped to be able to do this as a direct "conversation" exchange of emails. But due to server problems and real life on both sides of the world plans changed.

Ashok ended up receiving two emails containing the final six questions. He in turn sent me back answers in bulk form, which allowed me to cobble this interview together. I have done nothing to change or edit the sequence in which the questions were asked, and hopefully, there is some kind of flow.

I had a great time preparing for this interview, our emails in the run-up to setting a time were a wonder, as I tried to figure out when Thursday would be for both of us. By leaving it his hands we were able to pull this off. My deepest thanks go out to Ashok Banker for making his time available to me to conduct this interview.

August 18, 2005

Interview: Ashok Banker Part One

I never believed the hype about how the Internet would be able to bring people from different points around the world together. Well it's really nice to report on how wrong I was.

About six months ago I was wandering through a book store, and picked up a book on a whim: Prince Of Ayodhya book one or Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of the 3,000 year old Indian epic the Ramayana. I was immediately hooked. Thankfully for me the next two volumes had already been published so I was able to read volume two Siege Of Mithilaand three, Demons of Chitrkut without delay.

Having never heard of the writer I decided to do a quick Google search and found that not only did Mr. Banker have a web site but also a blog. (By the way, if you were ever looking to blame anyone for my presence in the blog universe you could lay it at Mr. Banker's feet. It was through his blog that I discovered Blogger's free spaces). The truly amazing thing about Mr. Banker was that he took the time to answer people's letters at his web site. Ashok
It was in this manner that I began communicating with him. When the fourth volume of the Ramayana was published, Armies of Hanuman, I sent him a copy of a review I had written for my blog and Since that time we have exchanged thoughts through the comment section of his blog, and the web discussion group he founded, Epic India, dedicated to talking about the stories of India and related material.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I thought of the idea of suggesting an interview with him. I knew he had been reading my work at and had liked it, so I thought he might be open to the suggestion. Unfortunately, my timing couldn't have been worse.

Ashok lives in Bombay, and if you have been following the news they have had the worse monsoon season there in years, with horrendous flooding and mudslides claiming over a hundred lives. Things still aren't back to normal there as they now face the problems of combating water borne diseases. Last reports have over a hundred people already having died.

In spite of all this,and having to swim for a couple of hours in six feet of water, when I suggested the idea of the interview, he responded with enthusiasm. We decided that the best solution to the problems of distance and time differences was to pick a time when we could just email questions and answers back and forth from our computers. Since I wake at an obscenely early time in the morning, this seemed like the ideal plan.

So what you will be reading are his unedited email responses to my questions. Enjoy.

(This is part one of a two part interview. Look for part two tomorrow

There are few people in North America who know anything about you. Could you fill you in some of your biographical details, where you are from, why you write. You are pretty open about your less than ideal childhood, could you tell us how that influenced your writing

I was born and brought up in Bombay, now Mumbai, lived here all my life. My mother was an Anglo-Indian (please don't use the term "East Indian") and her mother, my grandmother, was Dutch-Irish-Scots. My grandma, in addition to being of foreign descent, was brought up by nuns in a convent school in Sri Lanka, and came to India in her twenties, first staying at Chennai (then called Madras) and later Mumbai (Bombay). She met and married a Goan Catholic, and had three kids in Byculla, a very central area of the city then, a kind of Brooklyn with a very mixed immigrant population of over 300,000 Jews who came here escaping the Nazis during WWII, Muslims, Parsis, American Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and of course, Goan Catholics, Chinese immigrants, and a few Hindus too.

My mother grew up there and was a very precocious girl, quitting school, rebelling, modeling, (quite successfully) and generally being a much talked-about young woman of the time. She met my biological father, a US-and-Canada returned Gujarati Hindu who drove a Jaguar (brought back from the US) and the son of rich parents, and they married three months later, when she was still only 16. It was a disaster, they split up, and she came back to Byculla to live with her mother, where she had me.

My mother's life was ruined after the divorce, and she as well as my grandmother largely brought me up, mostly in Byculla as well as a number of homes in and around Bombay. I went to nine different schools, was sexually abused at a boarding school, and had a number of 'adventures' as a young boy, none of them pleasant, mostly violent, and involving family members engaged in drugs, alcohol, and petty crimes. I read a lot, wrote a lot, and descended into writing as a means of survival, not escape. I wanted to record what I was going through because I never thought I would make it out alive.

When I was 12, my mother was drugged and gang-raped at a party, and fell apart completely thereafter. From there on, she became my responsibility. Her second husband, my foster-father, dumped us, the family turned against us, and it was basically me and my mom from there on. So, with a sick psychotic and alcoholic mother to support, I had to drop out of college at 16, and started working. My dreams of becoming a novelist (I'd already written three novels and published several poems and articles by then, and was already gaining a name, was interviewed on national TV, radio and had a self-published book of poems represent India at a book fair in Paris) went on hold, and I took a job as an advertising copywriter.

My mother died in 1990, when I was 26, and I immediately quit my ad job and went back to writing full-time. By then, I was married with one kid (I had a second child later in 93) and with my childhood sweetheart whom I met at 16 and who's still with me, my wife Bithika.

From the very outset, I was hugely ambitious. I wanted not to change the world or win the Nobel Prize but to connect with as many people as possible emotionally, to write great sweeping epic sagas about Indian myth and legend - like the sagas and novels I read about western myth and legend - and to show the world what great ideas and stories we had to tell.

I meandered for a long time, struggling to deal with the detritus of my childhood, my mother's demolished life, my father's abandonment of us, my foster-father and my mother's family's neglect of us, and generally life was hard as hell. Financially, I was in a huge hole and in a sense, have barely climbed out of that hole and begun to walk on my own feet financially. But finally I'm writing what I want to write, and reaching out to some people and telling some of those stories that have been in me for so long.

Vertigo was your first novel that received recognition throughout India. In it you write about a young man supporting his mother in similar circumstances as your own. Was that part of the chronicling as a means of survival, or was it more of a purging. Can you tell us a little about that novel and what it meant to you?

Actually, my first books to get attention were three short crime novels - The Iron Bra, Murder & Champagne, and Ten Dead Admen - also hailed as 'the first crime novels in English' by an Indian author. Vertigo was written first and sold first, but published fourth. The crime novels got a fair bit of nationwide attention and gave me a label that was tough to shrug off later. Even Vertigo was mistaken for a crime novel, and as recently as 2003, journalists were still assuming that my Ramayana series was some kind of a modern-day thriller reworking of the epic!

Frankly, Vertigo was a novel. The fact that it was autobiographical in parts, and intensely so - the title refers to the sensation that reading the novel evokes in the reader, by the way - is incidental. There's as much fiction as fact in it, and even my Ramayana books are very autobiographical, although only I know where and how. To me, it was my first successful attempt at capturing the kind of realistic detailed quasi-journalistic style that I regard as the most important literary effect of late 20th century literature. Is that too pompous?

Sorry, but I'm just trying to tell you that I take my clues from journalism and non-fiction, and to me, something is fiction or non-fiction only in terms of labels. In reading terms, it simply is what it is, a story. The fact that it's based on truth, or not, is irrelevant to me.

For instance, I could be a fictional construct you made up and posed questions to for this interview, and then answered yourself. What does it matter that I'm a real person? It doesn't to me.

Bizarre as it sounds, it's at heart of my philosophy of writing. To blur the lines between reality and fiction.

You started out as a journalist, do you want to describe what that was like. You have some pretty strong opinions on the state of journalism in India right now, did that play a part in your deciding to focus more on novel writing? Or was the timing just right?

I started out writing everything, poetry, essays, fiction, but it was the poetry and essays that found publication first. Also, I realized early on that while journalism didn't pay much, there was a great need for writers who could comment on contemporary issues - or report on them. And I loved reporting, much more than commenting. To me, even fiction is reporting - except that one is reporting on things taking place in an imaginary place inside oneself, not out there in the real world.

I think that journalism in India right now, like elsewhere, is reduced to entertainment. There's more trash in the media today than in the bins of Bombay's streets. What we call the Page 3 culture here - party news, pics, gossip - and film and show biz celebrity coverage has taken over real journalism completely. The emphasis is on what makes the most interesting news.

I don't believe this is reader driven; it's a conscious decision by publishers to appeal to a certain section of readership - the most illiterate and least-intelligent section. In India at least, there are as many intellectually alive, educated, well-read people to sustain a newspaper, and the massive circulation of a Delhi newspaper like Hindustan Times, proves this point. It's entirely a choice here to publish (or to write or report on) party lifestyles and the rich and famous rather than report honestly and comment incisively, and that's the saddest thing: that it's not even a business necessity.

For instance, Times of India's Bombay edition is entirely a Page 3 rag, yet Hindustan Times, which came in only a month ago, is already hitting almost as much circulation as Times, while following a much more sensible kind of journalism.

In my opinion, blogging is the future. With individuals across the world reporting directly on things they've seen and heard first-hand, reporting one-on-one to people everywhere. Cut out the systems, the politicking, the petty rivalries of newspaper and media groups and professionals, the self-conceited journalists and editors. I can report, you can too. Let's do it. I think sites like are doing a great service and very soon we'll see blogs being read for news and features and even comment much more than traditional news vendors in print or TV. And I'm all for that.

I'd like to follow up on something from a previous answer, the meeting of truth and fiction. When you start a project do you set out with an intent to make some point or other, or is the story the intent and points about life and society come out as it progresses. Rama's occasional comments on the caste system for example, the story is not about the caste system but since they are Indian that's a fact of life so they comment on it.

I write from within a story, that is, I don't plan externally or even know what I'm doing overall. I simply 'see' a point of view, Rama's for instance, and am transported there to that moment in time and space, in that very room (or forest or wherever) and see and smell and hear etc every detail. In fact, it's then a challenge to me how much I can describe and what to leave out, and to try to convey to the reader everything I'm 'experiencing'. In fact, to come back to the journalism connection, I consider writing fiction to be reportage too. Except that I'm reporting from 'another world', or 'another time', and so on.

About things like politics, caste system, prejudices, etc, I'd like to believe I'm so broad-minded I can tolerate anything--except intolerance. The caste system is a reality even today in India, but back then it was a fairly benign and transferable form of division of labour. You're quite right in saying that I simply write about it because it was there in that time period. To leave it out would be to lie. And how can I lie when I "see" and "hear" everything so vividly?

The same goes for present-day biases and ugliness, like war, which I am dead against. I will not stand by and watch warmongers like Bush and his administration (and the people of USA who support them, which is most of the population) wreak terror on the world. For instance, we speak so much about Islamic terrorism, but what about the people who really invented terrorism, the Christians? Have we forgotten Ireland? Bosnia? Lebanon? The Spanish Inquisition? The Crusades? The aggressors in all those cases were Christians--which actually defies the very definition of Christianity itself!
Continued at Part Two