Q&A: Ted Leo, Dan Deacon And Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner On Our Band Could Be Your Life, Bus Tours And Cherished Cassettes
Ted Leo; Dan Deacon; Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak.
Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life is one of the definite accounts of the 1980's independent rock scene and the rise of alternative culture. But unlike many cultural historians, Azerrad has little use for nostalgia. When the Voice talked to him about the Our Band Could Be Your Concert--the 10th-anniversary celebration of the book, which takes place tomorrow--he was just as excited about the young bands playing on the bill as the icons getting honored. This concert isn't just about the past to Azerrad; it's about showing where indie rock came from and where it's going.
Expect the Bowery's green room at Bowery to be a bit of a mutual appreciation society, then, because many of the younger bands on the bill have credited Band with either exposing them to favorite acts or detailing the do-it-yourself, "anyone can be in a band" practical ethics of Black Flag, Fugazi and The Minutemen.
For our story on the concert, we talked to a few of the bill's most exciting young artists: electronic composer/dance machine Dan Deacon (who is covering The Butthole Surfers); Jenn Wasner of Baltimore quiet-loud duo Wye Oak (who are covering Dinosaur Jr.); and Voice favorite, era link and DIY veteran Ted Leo (who is covering Minor Threat). Of course, there was only so much room for their insights in the print edition. So for your reading pleasure, we have edited together, from three separate interviews, the artists' thoughts about finding inspiration and linking the past to the future.
Do you have any memories of reading Our Band Could Be Your Life for the first time?
JW: A friend of mine gave me the book for my birthday. I tore through it in about two days.
DD: I read that book while on my first full US tour in 2004 with (Baltimore rapper) Height. Halfway through the tour the car died outside Fresno and we had to junk it. Height flew home but I didn't have any valid ID so I couldn't fly. I had $450 to my name and I used it to buy a 30 day bus ticket to finish the last 25 shows of the tour. That book kept me going through some really rough times and helped to keep me grounded. Every time I started to freak out about being alone in a part of the country I had never been--with no cell phone, no email, no credit card, no money and no ID--reading that book helped to remind me of pioneers of the scene and the shit they went through.
I had pre-bought all my food for the tour to save money--one can or corn, one can of beans, two rice cakes and two servings of peanut butter for each day--and that's what I lived on. I had to carry that shit on my back while lugging my 150 pounds of gear with me from bus station to bus station, and I did it with a smile on my face thinking about the rotten and moldy apples Black Flag, a band I had never even knowingly heard, ate while they were on tour. The book means a lot to me. I think if I hadn't been reading that book when the car broke down I would of just taken a bus straight home and might not of toured again.
Ted, as someone who's a bit older, you probably have a different perspective from the younger musicians on the bill who discovered these bands from the book. What did you think about it? Were you a fan back then, or were you already starting to play in bands?
TL: I started playing in bands in '86, but nothing really serious in terms of thinking about playing shows until '88, '89, so I guess you could say I was more of a fan. I enjoyed reading it. I enjoy reading any well-written history. In terms of the books that have come out, oral histories documenting the punk and underground world, (Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen's) We Got The Neutron Bomb or (Steven Blush's) American Hardcore or whatever, I definitely liked Our Band Could Be Your Life the best. There's a real love of subject matter that comes through without it being fawning or sycophantic or anything.
Did you think the book fully captured that experience, or looking back do you see things that Michael didn't pick up on?
TL: No, I think that because he actually spoke to a lot of people, I think from my perspective it was pretty accurate. In terms of the life of an active, touring punk or indie musician back then, so many of these stories are really familiar to me because there really isn't a heck of a lot that was all that different from the early '90s as well, in terms of the grungy life and the larger questions of where you fit in society in the pre-internet explosion. Maybe the '90s has a lot more in common with it than people think.
Did you discover any artists from that book that you had never listened to before? Or were you already hip-deep in the underground by the time it came on your radar? Beyond that, did the artists profiled therein give you any guidelines for how to conduct yourself in the music industry while maintaining your artistic credibility and so forth?
DD: I discovered most of the bands from the book. I mean I had heard their names and most likely had heard them but I didn't realize it. Other than Beat Happening, Sonic Youth and The Butthole Surfers I don't know if I would have been able to tell you about most of the bands at all.
JW: I think the only band in the book whose work I wasn't familiar with at the time was Butthole Surfers. You better believe I got myself familiar, real quick. For as long as I can remember, I've felt that music was what I was put on this earth to do, but, at that point in my life, having an actual career in music felt like a distant impossibility. Reading Michael's book dissolved some of the mystery surrounding what actually makes bands work, creatively and professionally, and, for the first time, made me feel like dedicating my life to making music was a real possibility.
Alternately, did the Dinosaur Jr. section give you a good sense of how NOT to keep everyone in a band happy?
JW: No comment.
How did you get involved in playing this concert?
JW: Michael's a good friend, and has been one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of our band from very early on. We're absolutely honored that he asked us to be a part of the celebration!
DD: Michael called me. I think Todd P gave him my number.
Ted, why do you think he wanted you to get involved? It seems like a lot of people who are playing this show discovered a lot of these bands through the book, but you're a bit older...
TL: Right. I hear ya. In all honesty, I have no idea why they asked me--I thought, maybe it's because of a link to that era. We never really discussed why, so I honestly can't tell you.
I interviewed him for the piece yesterday, and he said he wanted to show a continuum from where the music came from and also that it is still going on today and strong and vibrant.
TL: Right. I'm happy to fit in on a continuum. I'm actually glad to hear it described that way.
Dan, you're more associated with electronic music and avant-garde composition than the indie-rock-type chronicles in Band. Do you feel connected with them anyway?
DD: When I first started touring I played the house show circuit, mainly noise and punk houses so while my music might be different I think my roots were 100% from the seeds of those bands.
Jenn, are you doing "In A Jar?" That song is awesome and I think you would nail it.
JW: Nope. Too obvious. Wait... I shouldn't say one way or the other. Don't want to ruin the surprise!
Ted, when I talked to Michael yesterday and you last year, one thing you both talked about was how you're not one of those people who is burnt out on "these young bands today"; you're both still excited about new music and want to see things go forward.
TL: Oh yeah, we talked about it, you and I. This is the danger of being in a truly underground culture at any point. It takes so much more work to get into that you form a really strong investment with it. Any generation when they see the next generation pick up the things that they worked so hard to create and find, when you see people pick that stuff up so much more easily, I guess I do understand how you could feel put off by that and you end up living your life stuck in the past musically. What you also have to understand is that's the cyclical nature of youth culture in general. There are always posers and there are always true believers. It's just really silly to shut yourself off to really interesting, good music just because someone is young. That's crazy to me. These days it can be someone who is considerably younger than me doing something that I find exciting both in spirit and musically.
Do you see a lot of similarities between the time Michael wrote about and now, in terms of how bands conduct their business and tour today? Or did the internet just completely change everything?
TL: Well, it hasn't been completely changed. There's a lot of important aspects that have changed, but there are many, many not so important things that have changed, and I think the volume of them makes it feel like more has changed than really has. I think that the real answer to your question is very subjective and depends on the artist and how they approach what they do. I think there is both figurative potential for having some sort of financial success from punk and indie having grown, and with the fact that nobody buys records anymore, taking some of the avenues for success away, what I fear is that sometimes, I can see a case in which the normal starting point these days for a band or a song that one has written involving thinking about how to monetize what you do, seeing what you do as a product to be monetized than maybe it was in the past. But again, I don't think you can answer that in any sort of general way, it really has to be artist by artist, song by song.
Even before you were asked to do this show, Ted, how many Minor Threat songs did you know how to play?
TL: (Laughs) Uhm, I know how to play a lot of them. I'm still not sure in what way this is going to happen. I've been mostly on tour with my own stuff since I agreed to do this, and I haven't really had a chance to figure out how I'm going to do it. That entire catalog has been one of the soundtracks to my life. I have an old cassette that I think I made in 1985--maybe 1986--that has Minor Threat Out Of Step, Black Flag Damaged, and The Wacky Hi-Jinks of Adrenalin O.D., and I still have that cassette.
It hasn't fallen apart?
TL: It's one of those things that has never left my rotation, so I can almost guarantee you that even if it wasn't something that I can tell you I know right now, if I had a guitar on me and you said "play this Minor Threat song, play that Minor Threat song," it would probably come to me fully formed.
Any particular artist-cover pairings that you're looking forward to seeing?
TL: You know, do you have the list in front of you of who is playing?
It's tUnE-YarDs doing Sonic Youth, Titus Andronicus doing The Replacements, St. Vincent doing Big Black...
Tl: Wait, who's doing Big Black?
TL: (Yells very loudly into the phone) St. Vincent is doing Big Black?!
I know, right?
TL: I'm interested in hearing that one, yeah. I'm interested in hearing what everyone is doing, but the St. Vincent/Big Black combo is a standout. That ought to be interesting.
Michael said he asked her who she wanted to cover, and she came back with that.
TL: That's great.
Dan, you're not really known for straight-ahead singing, but is that something you're eager to try out for this set?
DD: I'm not sure if I'm gonna be singing. I might play bass. The ensemble and I are going to hash out the details shortly. Also, if I do sing I doubt it will be straight-ahead. Gibby used a lot of effects and I don't think we'll be doing a 100% historical rendition.
For a lot of reasons, some of them related to their business decision (Chunklet famously named them "The Biggest Assholes In Rock" for suing their former label, Touch & Go) and some to their later-period crossover records, the Butthole Surfers have lost a certain cachet. What do you think was important and special about the music they made?
DD: Like most of the bands in the book it was more their story of perseverance and truth of vision rather than the music that influenced me. It's important to think about context and culture when you think about a band's past. I can't imagine touring in an act like the Butthole Surfers back when they first started. It must of actually blown peoples minds out of their asses. Especially in a time when people couldn't just go online and check out a video clip or download a track. They had to hear of the lore and then experience it live for themselves or see some insane bootleg video or something but I bet 9 times out of 10 it was just a completely unsuspecting audience walking into something they never knew before existed. It was a fucking awesome time in music history, rock and rolling dying and the DMT slowly taking over its brain to create an all-new insane consciousness.
I think most people today take for granted the fucking insane battle it was in the past to be a DIY band before the circuit and the system was laid out for them by these bands and their contemporaries. Radical culture and the underground were actually radical and actually underground. It wasn't easy to be a band or fashionable to be a cross-country DIY touring band.
Ted Leo, Wye Oak and Dan Deacon--along with ten other nifty groups--will play the Our Band Could Be Your Concert 10th anniversary special at The Bowery Ballroom on Sunday, May 22.
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