What does it mean to have a career in rock and roll at this late date? Is that a thing that people can still do?
Rock and roll is like Wheaties, rock and roll is like the Pontiac Firebird, rock and roll is like an ashtray, like a cloth diaper, rock and roll is like Everclear (which means it should not be consumed in the 190-proof form), rock and roll is like hand-to-hand combat, rock and roll is like paint on a canvas, rock and roll is like a tiered Jell-O dessert, rock and roll is like eye shadow, rock and roll is like panty hose, rock and roll is like Sumo Wrestling, rock and roll is like the American typewriter, rock and roll is like Sterno (do not drink that either), rock and roll is like drive-in movie theaters, rock and roll is like peanut snacks, with MSG, rock and roll is like frontal lobotomy, rock and roll is like above-ground nuclear testing, rock and roll is like sticking dogs in a space capsule and firing them out into orbit, rock and roll is like radio serials, rock and roll is like silence, rock and roll is like writing postcards, rock and roll is like handwriting letters, rock and roll is like handwriting, rock and roll is like chastity vows, rock and roll is like chastity belts, rock and roll is like juke joints and jukeboxes, rock and roll is like those jukeboxes at the individual booths at the old pre-fab diners, rock and roll is like while-you-were-out-pads, rock and roll is like Filofaxes, rock and roll is like brushes on a snare, rock and roll is like anvils, rock and roll is like backhoes, or like a skid steer, rock and roll is like detention, rock and roll is like trifocals, rock and roll is like pulp fiction, like rack-sized paperbacks, like gila monsters in a backyard terrarium, rock and roll is like impetigo, rock and roll is like a komodo dragon, rock and roll is like any beverage that has the word tonic in it, rock and roll is like any variety of pomade, rock and roll is like support hose, rock and roll is like the removal of passive restraint, rock and roll is like a ball pit, rock and roll is like a lake of fire, rock and roll is like fire-breathing fundamentalists, rock and roll is like putting pennies on your eyes, rock and roll is like zombification, rock and roll is like dental trauma, rock and roll is like caloric restraint, rock and roll is like synchronized swimming, rock and roll is like shortened introductory remarks, rock and roll is like acid rain, rock and roll is like heat death, rock and roll is like the big crunch, rock and roll is like the event horizon, rock and roll is like a guy I knew in kindergarten called Red Cameron, who threw a rock in my general direction, hit me in the head, rock and roll is like legal statutes that are no longer material, rock and roll is like desertification, like fossilizing, like infection, like nomadism, like bad faith, like animism, like alchemical treatises, like equivalent exchange, like free jazz, like conceptual art, like daydream believers, like updrafts and backdrafts, like stellar aberration.
Tim Foljahn has had a career in rock and roll. Foljahn has played with a great immensity of rock and roll musicians over many years, as an ensemble guitarist of note in New York City (for Cat Power, Townes Van Zandt, Half Japanese, Thurston Moore, etc.), but he has also, increasingly, become a singer and songwriter of note, of great impact and emotional intensity. And, if that were not enough, he practices as a psychoanalyst. This interview, which covers all of these threads, coincided with the release of Foljahn’s latest album, I Dreamed a Dream.
It was conducted by email over a great length of time in the spring of 2021, and involved silences, and pauses, while we both thought about other urgent things. It took so long that the long-awaited vinyl edition of I Dreamed a Dream
came to pass, which you can get here: https://timfoljahn.bandcamp.com/album/i-dreamed-a-dreamRM:
Let’s talk about the title of the album a bit. Dreams are steadily occuring in the popular song, for example, there is the Everly Brothers, “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and, of course, the preternaturally important “In Dreams,” by Roy Orbison, which comes in for pretty dramatic treatment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet,
and Doris Day’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which I think begs a question about the size of dreams, and there’s an Anglo-American band from California that had a song called “Dreams” that is popular in certain circles. But in none of these cases is the singer a student of psychoanalysis. That makes you unique, with a unique understanding of dreams as a rhetorical system. Should the title of your album be understood as a commentary on your non-musical pursuits, or merely continuity with the ubiquitous image of the dream in the popular song?TF:
One of the eeriest and most cryptic lines in popular lyrics is “I know I dreamed you /A sin and a lie” from “Wild Horses.” Is the sin and lie the act of dreaming or the person dreamed? Either way, this adds to the concept of dreams the act of conjuring as in dreaming something up. Then there is the feeling that an event is so unsustainable or unlikely that that you question its validity. Periods of my life seem more dream than real. I have photos to prove they happened but, somehow, they still seem a little suspect. I think COVID Times will seem that way to many in retrospect. All these meanings augment the traditional dream where the unconscious reigns in a lawless and timeless world. They are akin. A dream is a manifest wish that sometimes materializes in what we refer to as reality.
I think surrealism precedes my interest in music or psychoanalysis. Reality and I have had our ups and downs. We are on pretty good terms now, but I have not lost my fascination with the unconscious, the Other. There are a lot of good arguments that life is a dream or an illusion. But it still is. You still have to address it. Memories are dreams of the past. Hopes and fears are dreams of the future.
The title [of the album] is pulled from the first line of the song “Wake Up.” It pleased me at the time with its old man redundancy. It would suffice to say, “I dreamed.” That song came out of a literal dream and because of my surrealist and psychoanalytic bent, I believe bringing that material into the conscious from the unconscious makes for powerful art. I realized that this idea encapsulated the whole batch of songs. Depression is a dream or a nightmare that you think you can’t wake from. Ennui is a dream. Songs are all little dreams. They are a dream in the writer and then they serve as dreams that float across reality and sometimes blot it out for a few minutes. The unconscious and perhaps the previously unrepresentable are made available more readily in song and poetry, in art, than in everyday speech. Reality’s filter is not as strong there.RM:
Can we talk a bit about which psychoanalysis interests you, which is the basis of your studies? I am really taken with this idea that surrealism is a point of origin for both music and psychoanalysis, like a sort of first cause, or like the pre-Socratic philosophers or something. I feel the same way, in that I had a sensation from certain artifacts, when young, like Un Chien Andalou
would be one of them, or Eraserhead
, and it was only later that I started to realize there was a term for these sorts of things. I guess that these experiences, uncanny experiences, are preliminary to a clear idea of dream work. Where, methodologically, are you in psychoanalysis? Interested in Freud? In Jung? In Adam Phillips?TF:
I practice what is called Modern Psychoanalysis. It seems a vague enough title, but it refers to a specific clinical approach that is based on the work of Hymen Spotnitz in New York City and shaped into a discipline by Phyllis Meadow. It is Freudian at its base, as most psychoanalysis is in one way or another. It grew out of work with people with narcissistic defenses and pre-Oedipal conditions, people referred to as being schizophrenic or having schizophrenia. These patients were considered untreatable by Freud for various reasons. It turns out that was not true and the techniques Spotnitz had great success with also work quite well with regular old neurotics like you and me. The name Modern also implies the ability to incorporate new and diverse theory, which in recent years is coming to pass. I like Phillips. Who doesn’t? He is a great writer on top of everything else. The use of the counter-transference (the feelings of the analyst) is integral to this method as it is to many techniques now. I think, at the time Spotnitz and Meadow were developing it, it may have been something people were doing but not many were talking about it. Since every person is unique, no practice can afford to be inflexible. People sometimes need help saying things and there are many, many ways to make room for that. To be clear, I am just doing analysis, I am not an authority on any particular theory. It is a subtle and expanding pursuit. I hope I have answered the question. I get the impression you have crossed paths (or swords) with analysis. I am curious about your experience with it or thoughts around it. It’s a curious business.RM:
I’ll answer the question, but I might cut my answer later, because I like to keep the focus on the interviewee!
I studied a lot of psychoanalysis as an undergraduate, read a ton of Freud, both as literature and as a theoretical matrix for post-structuralism and post-modernism. Then, at a certain point, I read a bit of Lacan. I read about Lacan, and then I read Lacan. More accurately, I read a ton of Derrida, and then read Lacan. I also read the Feminist psychoanalysts who disagreed with Lacan, like Luce Irigaray. I really liked Jung, after I shucked off a lot of psychoanalytic orthodoxy, and there are ways that as a writer who freed himself from theory I still really like Jung. I like the idea
of Jung. Now, in my more elderly period, I like everything about psychoanalysis, except that I don’t agree with Freud at all, in most areas. I think an emphasis on sexuality is just bunk. I reread “Das Unheimliche” not long ago, for something I was working on, and I thought some of it was almost laughable in spots. At the same time, I totally agree with the conceptual apparatus of the unconscious, and I’m completely satisfied with the working method of psychoanalysis. I did talking therapy for something like twenty-two years, and it was a miracle for me, and my therapist (who was a CSW) was very pro-Freud and a rock-solid dream interpreter, and I came to admire her method a great deal. My interpretive zeal as a critic and reader of literature (and music) is founded on ideas of interpretation that I get, e.g., from The Interpretation of Dreams.
It’s a masterwork. I just don’t think it’s all about sex, at all. I think Freud means something else, something he is unable to see or discuss, when he says it’s all about an Oedipal scene.RM:
Now, having spieled the above, I’m interested in how the guitar, and technique as a guitarist relates to this schema of the surrealism that brought about your interests. Because one thing that is absolutely unignorable in your work, is that you are, for lack of a better way of putting it, an absolutely beautiful guitar player. How does that situate itself in this field of interests?TF:
Wow! Thank you. That is good to hear, especially with this record where I play all the guitar. I’ve had the chance to get some amazing guitarists on my songs. Nels Cline was on Weak Beats.
Smokey Hormel was all over the last record and Chris Brokaw was in the band for quite a bit. Both Jeremy Wilms and Tom Beaujour are better guitarists than I am and they were right there in the studio with me. When this record began, I think the plan was to get some of these people in on it, but we ended up going with me, just me, usually the live take from the basics. I think of my playing as a little crude but I guess I kind of have a thing. I am glad you like that thing.
I think about guitar a lot but I have not thought about it in these terms exactly. Guitars are ridiculously crude instruments, famously out of tune, that have been wrestled into greatness over and over again. It is something about the versatility. They all sound better tuned down or in an open tuning, yet we persist with this old Spanish tuning or, at least, I often do. Electric guitar, in particular, is a brutish thing of slabs and wires. The fascination is rather inexplicable. I guess I think of it more as a Dadaist thing than a surrealist one. So much of what is “written” on the guitar for me is found. Riffs are readymades that have not been discovered by me yet.
The resonance is a psychoactive thing, Hugging / holding this weirdly humanoid object to yourself while it reverberates against your ribs with its drone. You see the slack jawed noodlers in guitar stores, spaced. It is transportational. I’m making up words now.
There is something antilogical about guitar and its relation to music that I find liberating. The same notes happen all over the place. Inversions are the norm, that’s where you start. I think guitar music being declared dead, in favor of synths, was a boon to the franchise, like it was with painting. My first real band was about noise and I have slowly become less dissonant; the history of music in reverse. I think the built-in noise of guitar reassures me, the creaky, clangy, mass of overtone. The act of playing guitar alone, in spite of (or, perhaps, in accord with) its masturbatory reputation, creates a space of reverie. It is architectural. There is an aspect of going inside the guitar. There is a dreamlike nature to it. Time really collapses. I can’t really describe playing in concert with someone else or to someone else, but you can sort of extrapolate an exponential and fractal multidimensional structure.
The guitar is a talking instrument. It is one of few places that seem to give answers but that is an illusion. Every found riff asks a dozen questions.RM:
That is a beautiful answer. I’m wondering if there is a parallel answer about singing. Your relationship to singing has varied over the years, it seems to me. You have made a fair amount of instrumental music, and you have served as an instrumental side player, resolutely non-singing, for other parties. But your singing on this album is your strongest ever. Whereas I might have said that the singing on some earlier efforts was in service of the poetry, now I think the singing is absolutely first rate, full of expressive power, and much possessed of the high lonesome, which brings an essential layer to the songs. Can you speak to the journey of singing?TF:
Singing is a loaded subject for me. It has been a somewhat troublesome area but also very rewarding. I think I have gotten better. There is one record, in particular, where I really would have liked to have had another day in the studio on my vocals. Over the years I have gotten used to the calf in a hailstorm quality of some of those recordings. I think my ear has gotten a little better. You know, my mother was a singer when she was young. It was something she put a lot of thought and effort into. For reasons that I have theories about, she decided early on that I was tone deaf. I came up with a weird relation to singing. It’s not something that pays to be worried about. I think it takes a particular kind of focus and it does not respond well to force. There is an element of letting it happen. I took a couple lessons with Ereni Sevasti and that helped a lot. It was kind of about everything but making the note. Maybe creating room for the note to happen. It helps that at some point I started writing songs that I could sing. I don’t know who I was writing some of those songs for.
This makes me think of something that came up with the guitar question as well which is the evolution of these elements. An important part of that evolution happened when I realized I was never going to be John Lee Hooker, or Rowland Howard or Ricky Wilson or Leonard Cohen or Gainsbourg or whoever. I wasn’t going to be that good or that groundbreaking/important even if I was extremely motivated and disciplined, which I certainly was not. I realized this earlier with guitar than with singing and that freed me up to find out what it is that I do. With singing, there persisted this idea of all this stuff I should be able to do. And some of that was true. Some of that I can do today. I needed to figure out what I could do. Sometimes I am pretty pleased with it, being with someone who can really sing in a small room, like a studio or rehearsal space is a whole other thing. Singing is just so old. It may be the oldest thing humans have. Everybody Sing!
The evolution image makes me think of Jad Fair. I was in Half Japanese for a minute and at that time he had taken to not plugging in his guitar at shows and this sort of became a regular thing. It’s an electric guitar, of course. He had already stopped tuning it to any recognizable configuration. Tuning it was playing it. I have noticed, now, that he is often playing a guitar with no strings and I’ve seen footage where he has one where the neck is not really attached so the guitar appears flexible. It’s kind of crazy. Rock and roll is crazy. There is a Warholian clarification going on. He is still a dramatic and evocative guitar player. They still play the hits. One refines one’s craft, I guess. Things are lost. I can’t play or sing like I used to in 1980. You can’t get there from here. Keiji Haino never repeats.RM:
Your meditation on singing is so powerful that it prompts me to say a couple of things, and I hope you don’t mind. My experience is really similar, of a kind of strangulated discontent about any singing performances (I sang a fair amount on the three Wingdale Community Singers albums, and did all the vocals on the Unspeakable Practices album I made with Kid Millions, so there is some record of my discontent). It has caused me a lot of despair. And I had a fair amount of training, actually. I sang in the chorus all through high school, and did madrigal singing, and then I took lessons for a bit, and then later I studied some in Meredith Monk’s classes (which was a real high-water mark in my life), and so by all accounts I should be able to do it, at least somewhat. Actually, I can sing harmony pretty well. That’s the one thing I feel okay about, really. But singing lead is altogether different, and it causes me real heartache. My tendency is to compare myself to people who are really good (like for some reason I almost constantly compare myself to Van Morrison), and to think I’m a fucking joke, but then, on the other hand, as a listener I love wholeheartedly people who are decidedly non-traditional. Like I have been on a sort of a Fall binge lately, and, well, Mark E. Smith is certainly a non-singer who did a truly incredible job with his voice. It’s the same melody on almost every song! But the songs are so inventive and strange and blunt and powerful! But there are many other such singers. I really, truly revere David Thomas from Pere Ubu, Lucinda Williams, Shane McGowan. Still, I will not extend to myself a nuanced reading of my skill set though I would extend it to almost anyone else. Sometimes I imagine it is that physiognomic thing, where part of the problem is not really hearing my voice as others hear it, and constantly being surprised, in an unpleasant way. But I think there is also the problem of technique, too, and understanding the limits of technique, not, as you say, as limitations, but as a recognition of who a singer is. The instrument of a singer is the personhood of the singer. But I think maybe the thing is that you just have to do it A LOT. And when you do it A LOT, then you can kind of know what your instrument is, right? My presumption is that many contemporary singers can’t sing, really, if viewed objectively according to a reductive standard. Like there are all those recordings of Britney Spears without any backing tracks, where it’s clear she can’t really sing. I was singing a George Harrison song with a friend, recently, a very obscure song called “Mystical One,” and I went back to listen to the Harrison demo, which is floating around out there, and the demo is so sublime, so human, so exactly like what a demo sounds like. These are the qualities I love in music. It’s just a matter of extending the same grace I extend to others to myself.
Now that we have talked about singing and guitar playing, can we talk about writing a bit? How do these songs on your album get written? And why? Is a song like a dream? More or less methodical?TF:
Sorry about the delay. I got the shot and it took me down for a few days. Yeah, I don’t know what it is about singing, in particular, that leads so directly to the, “I can’t sing ergo I suck” equation. It is personal. But I do think you are right about the time put in. Great singers make it look so easy but they have put in a tremendous amount of time and effort, maybe before they ever saw it as effort. Just singing with the radio. I think there must have been some early experience where there was confidence in their results that they could build out from with practice. Stunt singing has always been a drag, but when it’s good, I don’t know it’s stunt singing at first. It just sounds great and slightly impossible. It is extremely difficult to do what Lydon and Smith do and not sound like a total poseur. One cannot describe the perfection of, say, John Lee Hooker’s solo work in terms of something as a technique that can be learned and mastered. His highly developed technique is for his instrument only and is so complex that it appears simple. The same is true for the work of someone like Joni Mitchell (stunt singer) that appears more ornate. Lots of notes. They have these personal systems they developed just for them. Through transmission, we get only a glimpse of their complete system. Richard Lloyd wrote a column for Guitar World
once where he explained his system for understanding music theory. It was vast and complex and well suited for him. It was a peek at his system; a look at the gyroscopic engine. And I don’t think it has to be original. I think one could sing in church every week exactly the way one’s mother did and it could be a totally personal and perfect system. Alas, theory is no substitute for practice. It is funny to be our age and still sort of unsatisfied. Maybe that’s our system.
Let’s talk about writing. Why not! I have had fantasies of being methodical with times scheduled for writing every day. It has not yet come to pass. I take a lot of notes, on my phone, in books, scraps of paper that, for the most part, I never refer to. I record riffs and chord changes on my phone by the hundreds. Again, I seldom go back to them. It is like some false security system. This record, like most of them, came out of a time in my life of momentous conflict. I look forward to a record born in momentous peace and satisfaction. So, I am sitting, usually with a guitar, going through some changes, chordal and otherwise. Some singing along produces a phrase that seems to express a whole lot of what is going on. Often it is a more extreme version of my perspective that I have heretofore acknowledged. This usually happens when I have just sat down or when I am particularly spaced. The recognition of that phrase and the feeling space it accesses or exposes implies the rest of the song. I have no idea how or why this happens. My theory is that this is a process of the unconscious being made conscious, a sort of self-analysis. So I surmise that they do come from the dream sector. It is funny that this can work even if I’ve been tasked with writing a song to pitch for a show or something, which was the case with one of these songs. There is a methodical editing and searching for missing pieces that happens after the body has materialized. Occasionally, I would come up with an idea for a song and set about to write it. These are all method and there is a certain satisfaction in that kind of thing, but they tend to remain a little overwrought. I have gotten decidedly less wordy and that’s nice . On this record, even with all that is going on in it, I think I have avoided the overwrought songwriting I have sometimes done in the past.
The recognition of the phrase is an interesting moment. I believe that what marks a line or a phrase or a sentence as good is partly familiarity. It vibes with something external as well as internal. Originality may be a myth. There is definitely a lot of Frankensteining going on. Parts is parts.RM:
You’re saying two things, I think, both very interesting. First is that the songs are dreams, which explains the title of the album, perhaps, but also that the songs are episodes of self-analysis. Is this to say one and the same thing? I was wanting to try to get a to a view of your non-songwriting vocation in which it appeared to be the same thing (I have a sort of a spiritual avocation, which is, I think, absolutely the same thing as fiction writing, and I suppose—here aping Jung, to some extent—that I think it’s likely inevitable, especially in the middle age that you and I both inhabit, that the work becomes one work, not a disparate set of dabblings, but the work of individuation, of becoming whole, or better at being ourselves). Can you tease this out a little bit, dream and self-analysis? Does a song have to be confessional to do this work? And would you be willing to share a lyric from the album as an example of this dream/self-analysis? Without, obviously, wanting to pry into the crisis, at all, of course.TF:
I daresay, sir, that you are really getting to the heart of the matter here. I may have to use more that one example. The songs “Wake Up” and “In My Dreams” both borrow imagery from the same literal dream. At that time I was finding my way out of a relationship that had long proved untenable to either party. It was a magnificent dream wherein the other came and told me they were not mine.
As I lay sleeping
I dreamed a dream
I held you in my arms
you came to me and said
wake up, motherfucker
The writing of the song, translating it into this new vernacular, transformed it into the life and death feeling of it. The song moves eventually to the dying bed. The analysis part of it involves moving it from a break up to an existential awareness of clinging to the world of temporal things, stuck on one side of the bardo. This sort of realization through translation resulted in the feeling that, despite the sadness and unpleasantness of the it all, it was a very alive thing to be going through, that this, too, is the stuff of life.
This is a very literal dream interpretation, a more literal answer than you hoped for, I think.
“Lowdown Day,” on the other hand, is a song that pretty much wrote itself, using the method described earlier, just a phrase from my unconscious that unfolded. The truth that this song exposed is not totally dissimilar to the one above, but the revelation here was the repetition of this feeling, the familiarity of it. This song quickly transformed into being about any number of things. Depression, drug addiction, grief. There is something about this process that widens the scope of the event or the crisis to the experience of the big crisis of living.
I think that confessional or autobiographical work is actually a hindrance to this process, but, happily, autobiography turns to fiction as fiction does to autobiography, instantly. A story outside ourselves, myth, is able to embody or express otherwise unrepresentable feelings. Humans hunger for story to present for us what we have no language or symbol for.
George Condo, I think, had a rap about the magic of bringing things from nonexistence into existence. Making a song or a book or a painting is quite a piece of magic. That some kind of feeling can be evoked when it is experienced, I think, is linked to the unconscious and the universe and, yes, perhaps a universal unconscious.
It really sounds like I am putting “art” on this whole other level of activity. I don’t think I am. I hope you are right and I think you are, that as we grow it becomes clear that all our works work together and have something to do with our relationship to the universe. It may be more about how we do our work than what the work is. We are lucky if we can have an element of play in it, of seeking and curiosity and discovery. Some work is awful, but I have known some people to bring great mindfulness to some pretty awful work.RM:
To say “it may be more about how we do our work” is relevant, perhaps, to our earlier discussions of guitar playing and singing. I wonder if there is a psychoanalysis of technique, of how one does the work? It reminds me that as a listener, over the years, I have often thought of “good technique” as unassailably masculine in a repellant way. Like the sound of Jaco Pastorius, e.g., which may be the best bass playing ever, but I hate it. Or, you know, Joe Satriani, etc. There’s a way that mastery is contraindicated by the process of individuation. But my other important question, maybe even more important is: there are a lot of string parts on this record. Can we talk about that? All the strings? It’s so interesting, such a fascinating choice with respect to arrangement.TF:
There is a technique of psychoanalysis. Theory is supposed to lead to technique. It doesn’t always, but that’s the general supposition. If, for example, your theory is that defenses are there for a reason, you would not do something to weaken that defense before it was no longer necessary.
Good technique is a powerful thing, but it has to be sensitive to the moment and the context. Nothing works all the time. Actually, doing nothing, or at least far less, is often a great technique. The Metaphor to music is obvious. Everyone that performed on this record, except me, are master technicians. Even Tom Beaujour, the producer (who, not coincidentally, just had a book about the rise and fall of glam metal on the Times
bestseller list) who didn’t even play on the record is an amazing guitarist. The technique that these people brought to the sessions is absolutely intimidating. It is their ability to understand the song and create parameters for themselves that make them great musicians. I think about Brian and Jeremy playing on “Remember Me.” Both of them are, I will say it, a little freakish in their technical capabilities. There they were laying into this hammering krautrock
thing. The parameters are tight but they give it all this breath and life and menace. It’s no simple feat for anyone, but I don’t think they are hindered by their technical prowess. That’s a myth worth dispelling. I think it is probably freeing. There is a palpable glory to that harnessed horsepower. If someone is technically great and their music is dreadful wankery, it’s because they are making poor choices. It is always worth noting that music I find poor in spirit is probably the blood of the saints to someone else.
The strings thing was in some way or another something I always wanted to do. So many records I love have beautiful arrangements. I was really impressed by Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
a while back (featuring your dreaded JP). The record just takes off into orchestra land and the song, the actual content of the song, like the content of a dream, is carried into that, explored, elaborated, processed and brought back transformed. I felt like I had some songs whose basic armature was strong enough to survive this sort of treatment. Jeremy [Wilms] had been doing all this composing and I saw the opportunity and brought the idea to him. Jeremy, as suggested above is a bit of a phenom. I try not to think about it too much because he is my friend and I’m not comfortable thinking he might be an alien, so I act like it’s normal. I had a few suggestions, but honestly, I think they were pretty sketchy, you know, like,“that thing that happens when there’s a dream sequence” and that sort of highly technical jargon. We have worked together a lot and he brought something beyond anything I had hoped for, but still what I had asked for. There was some adjusting, but not much. The actual recording of the strings was a treat. We knew Danton [Boller] was great. He works with Jeremy a lot and we had seen him do many impossible things with a bass. Megan [Gould], I knew from work. I knew she had to be good because of the work she was doing with classical middle eastern orchestras, but it was a little shocking how good she is. We had all spent a fair amount of time in studios over the years and none of us had seen the likes of her, all this spontaneity within sometimes very tight parameters.
In a way, these string pieces can be seen as elaborate solos, but there is something about the associations maybe— I’m not sure—that makes them so transportational / transformational.
The interesting thing is that it is surprising. It’s a gamble. When it works, it is a whole new event. The song is now a new thing that did not exist before. Likewise, the vocals of Christina Rosenvinge were a mystery before they existed. She was in town for a couple days and I asked her if she could do it. There was little to no warning and she was totally up for it. We did it at my house. She listened, we talked and she designed these parts in extremely short order, stacking harmonies, improvising. This level of readiness just astounds me. And it’s all 100% her. These people enter the song but they remain blatantly themselves. They have all worked very hard on their technique. They are not hobbled by it. It is just another charm.RM:
I am appropriately chastened on your technique point, though I think maybe we are talking about slightly different definitions of technique. I always liked this line from Artaud’s opening of The Theater and Its Double: “And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” The dynamic in the Artaud quotation is a familiar one from the punk era: “technique” versus “expression,” or so it might seem. I certainly agree with the idea that one should have enough technique to lay out. Another way of saying this is the really good players know the value of silence. I was reading about Dizzy Gillespie yesterday, and this was apparently an aspect of Gillespie’s genius, the rests came in really interesting places. So you are creating a definition of technique that is about knowing when not to play, and that is very appropriate. Also: my band worked with Jolie Holland at one point, and I watched her do the stacked vocal lines, too, both with voice and violin, in fact, and I felt that same way, that there was technical ability there that was sort of unfathomable to me. She and I were both doing this ear-training program at one point, and I was really hung up because there was a spot in it that was gibberish to me, where I couldn’t hear the difference between certain half diminished sixth chords, and stuff that. I think people with perfect pitch are good at that sort of thing, though that may be talent, as distinct from technique. But I am happy to point out that you are the guy who made this album, which is really good, and having a perfect ear for human resources is a kind of musical genius, one in which technique effaces itself, or recasts itself in a way that is not immediately apparent. Lots of people who don’t have any technical facility have technique in the matter of associating well …
I really get the desire for strings. In this case, it somehow suggests the Gene Clark model to me, here, and the open emotional register of your songs reminds me of Gene Clark a little bit.
In the end, I Dreamed a Dream
is maybe more of a songwriter’s record than Fucking Love Songs,
which feels more like a rock and roll album. Does that sound accurate? Or would you think about it in a different way?TF:
I think I was sorting the technique idea as I was writing. I don’t think we are at all in disagreement. Expression is everything. To harp on poor old John Lee Hooker again, there is absolutely no better way to do what he does than how he does it, therefore he is a peerless technician. I’ve been very lucky my whole life. I somehow find myself playing with the best people. They are really good at what they do.
I think maybe my songwriting got better so that may be why it seems more like a songwriter record. It is more intimate. I never thought about the two records that way but Fucking Love Songs
does have a hard shininess to it that is rock-like. The way the ballads are approached especially. I like that idea. I feel really good about this record which is a little rare at this stage of the process. It sounds really different to me. The record is a lot about letting go and I think I let go of some ideas about the craft that were weighing me down. It’s a new arrangement of control and surrender.RM:
Do you have a feeling about the viability of rock and roll as an idiom at this point (see introductory paragraph, above)?TF:
One upon a time, in junior high, my friend David Arbury played the Maple Leaf Rag for me on piano. He was proud of learning it, as anyone should be. It was around 70 years old then and only in our consciousness because The Sting
was popular then. Around the same time, there were also some stations playing stuff from the fifties. There are fifty- and sixty-year-old songs getting played on the radio and in kids’ playlists regularly now. Kids coming into the guitar store to learn “Purple Haze.” It’s weird. Rock and Roll is not the transformative thing it once was. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. It does not shape your life. It’s just one of many other things you can be sort of into. I thought it was dead when I started. God knows I did my best to kill it, but I think it’s here to stay. “Tell your dad get off my back.” It’s really hard to piss off your parents these days with hair and music. Rock is not gonna do it. So, that’s what comes to mind when one says rock and roll, but I don’t know if it has a meaning. Black Metal is rock but I don’t know if it’s rock and roll. When referring to something new, rock and roll probably lost it’s meaning thirty years ago. It became about defining what it is not, funk, punk or elevator junk, all of which it has absorbed like the shapeless blob it has become.