TRIS McCALL, intimate feast
Interview from WOBBLEHOUSE.com
1.0 What songs do people gravitate to off your “Let The Night Fall” CD? you know, i’m guilty of putting out albums that i don’t really like from beginning to end. i won’t say which. let the night fall is an exception. i really do dig all the songs on this one. the two closest to my heart are “first world third rate” and “you’re dead after school,” but for opposite reasons. “first world” is a letter from a character who showed up in my head one day, said his piece, and left. i don’t really know who that guy is, or where he went, but his world is an interesting one to inhabit for seven minutes. “you’re dead after school” is the exact opposite: it’s my only autobiographical song. some of the characters are composites — the girl in the song is really three different girls. but i really did have a role model who was arrested for molesting a retarded kid. and yes, i really did write a song about it.
2.0 Gun to your head – what do you liken your sound to? i don’t negotiate with terrorists. gun away from my head, my standard line is that it’s a cross between man-o-war and the “schools on demand” commercial. but i’ve used that so much, so let’s just say it’s a cross between procol harum and c-span.
3.0 What was the first record you ever fell in love with? i grew up on the boss, billy joel, elton john, and the rap records played on my block, and it’s fair to say that i was obsessed with all of that stuff. but the first record i ever fell in love with the way i’d fall in love with another person was joni mitchell’s *blue*. i got it for christmas. i played it the next day and felt like i’d been slapped awake. i’d play that cassette in my walkman, get to the end, flip it over, and play it again, and again. this went on for months. i’d cut class to listen to that album in the school courtyard. i couldn’t imagine anything more important that understanding what she was trying to tell me through that album. now that i’m older, i recognize that my instincts were right: there wasn’t anything more important.
4.0 Your music has a real intimacy about it, is that difficult to achieve? that’s a nice thing to say. i appreciate that. that’s the primary thing on my mind when making a record: does it radiate personality? do you come away from it feeling like you encountered an actual human being? i think the albums i’ve made are successful insofar as they’ve had personality, and for no other reason. pop is the ideal conduit for personality: you don’t just get words, you also get a voice, and inflections, and attitude. it may be an unpleasant attitude; i don’t think it matters. i’m not the best piano player, and i’m certainly not the best singer, so i hope my piano playing has character, and i try not to open my mouth unless i’m giving the listener something to think about. she can then decide if she wants to spend time with me and my cranky perspective. there’s no wrong answer. but to answer your question, i think it’s harder to do than it seems. i’ve seen people with huge personalities go into the studio, and when they try to get it down on tape, it won’t fit the two-inch reels. it isn’t enough to be a character — you’ve got to figure out how to make that character speak.
5.0 You provide in-depth ‘liner notes’ for each tune one your site, should more artists do this? liner notes kinda go with an album like let the night fall. the record has a big word count, and many of the songs are stories. still, just as in chess, every time you move a pawn you create a weakness, every time a musician volunteers something other than what’s apparent on the record, some of the mystery is lost. we live in an age where artists try to cram as much inside information onto the website and the dvd release as possible. do all these looks behind the music really bring us closer to the music, or are we like the people trying to watch the show from the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms? if you’re doing some shoegaze or psychedelic music and you’re relying heavily on that feeling of who-the-hell-are-these-guys?, it’s probably not so rewarding to build an elaborate website. or to do interviews, or discuss the music at all.
6.0 As a music critic yourself, do you run into conflicts of interest when promoting your stuff? everything i need to know i learned from c.s. lewis or lloyd alexander. there’s a moment in *the book of three* where fflewddur fflam, who is, as you all must know, studying to be a bard of the harp, admits to taran that he is also a cantrev king. and taran kneels down before him in fealty, but fflewddur makes him stand back up. he says “when i’m a king i’m a king, and when i’m a bard i’m a bard.” i attempt to approach rock criticism the way fflewddur would have. i never mention to an interview subject that i’m a musician. when i’m doing a review, i try try try not to measure what i’m hearing against a system of value established by what i’m good at and what i’m bad at. i know it’s impossible; still i try. on the flipside, when i’ve got shows to do, i make sure that i don’t abuse my position by blowing my horn about it in the newspaper. i’m sure this has crippled my efforts to turn out heads, but what can i say?, i need to maintain a shred or two of integrity. otherwise my insomnia will be even worse than it is.
7.0 What is “Sugar Nobody Wants” really about? it’s about finding the cracks in the city that aren’t mapped, or that used to be mapped and have fallen away as the legend has been rewritten, and making your stand there. not down in jungleland, but in the invisible spaces where the authorities don’t bother to look. hiding in plain view. it’s something we know all about on this side of the river.
8.0 If you were a super hero, what would they call you? this question scares me. i imagine it would be something unflattering, or a backhanded compliment, like just-shy-of-insufferable man, or anxiety boy, or iron nose. poor tim lincecum has to be “the freak”; what would i be? i would like very much to be city girl. there is 0% chance that i would be, though; i mean, i’m not even a girl. to keep from being heartbroken, i will try not to develop superpowers.
9.0 Is music dangerous? it could be. i don’t think that’s been a priority for awhile, though. scary music has been marginalized. the last album that really spooked me was prinzhorn dance school. they’re a duo from reading in britain — a boy and a girl, bass and drums and a little guitar and that’s it. while there was no attempt to dress up the music for mass consumption, i don’t think it was deliberately alienating, either. it just seemed to be bleak journal entries recorded by people who are genuinely disturbed, or doing a hell of a job of playing at being disturbed. it’s sort of the musical equivalent of picking at a scab. lots of repeated phrases, obsessive hammering on the same guitar strings, rudimentary beats, paranoid performances. there’s a song called “eat sleep” that just goes “eat, sleep” over and over. the next song is called “i do not like change.” they tell us there’s no books in the library and how they’re in the black bunker. the emotional cupboard is bare. eventually it sucks you into a world that’s pretty warped. for about two months in ’07, i had to forbid myself from listening to that album because it was doing disturbing things to my brain. so, yes, prinzhorn dance school is dangerous music — at least to me.
10.0 What’s the coolest thing about Jersey City? i’m so glad you asked this question. i have the right answer. the coolest thing about jersey city is our korean grocery stores. we’ve got three of them downtown: lee’s on grove, tender shoot on newark avenue, and p&k about a block west of tender shoot. these groceries are always stocked. the produce is excellent, and affordable, and the korean immigrants who run these stores are, as far as i can tell, the most capable people in town. if mrs. lee from lee’s grocery was our mayor, jersey city would be ten times better overnight. she wouldn’t stand for corruption or incompetence or nonsense. she’d be fair, too. and she’s got a great sense of humor. seriously, if i could pick anybody to run my town, without blinking an eye, i would choose any of the principals from these groceries. they’re there first thing in the morning, they work until nine at night, and they’ll get you anything you ask for. they work weekends and holidays. i really look up to these people — they’re heroes to me. i feel tremendous jer-z pride when i think about what they’ve done. i only hope that people in jersey city realize what we’ve got here. when you go to other cities, they barely have bodegas, let alone awesome grocery stores. lately there’s been one of those “foodie” farmer’s markets at the path station on mondays and thursdays. you know the type: they sell farm-grown cookies and fresh picked mozzarella cheese. it hasn’t escaped my notice that the korean groceries are empty while this farmer’s market is operating. this kills me. jersey city, get your act together. support the local grocers who have always supported you.