As the rest of the indie-rock throng find success by getting in the van, crashing on icky floors, and playing an endless string of shows from one coast to the other, the one-man-band known as East River Pipe — a pioneering medium-fi songsmith of bedroom-pop melancholia, and the longest-tenured Merge artist besides Superchunk and Portastatic — stays put but enjoys the same cred for one reason alone: Dude logs 40 hours a week at fuckin’ Home Depot, and he’s damn proud of it. The man born Fred M. Cornog never tours (or plays live at all, really), records alone on his Tascam 388 mini-studio, and collaborates with not a soul; he’s a father, a husband, and for the last two decades and six albums, the overseer of a stunning collection of econo-orchestral downward-spiral tunes mirroring his warped, gloom ‘n’ doom, drifting-loser-in-a-wasteland mindset, all in the shadow of such feel-good label-mates as Arcade Fire and She & Him. We Live In Rented Rooms is Cornog’s seventh LP (and first in half a decade), and thankfully, life in the ‘burbs with the wife and kid hasn’t shined a noticeably more positive light on his music: The pop-centric hooks remain as hooky as ever, and the wordplay is still a delicious downer. I caught up with Cornog via email (“Fred loves email!” raves his publicist), and here he sets the record straight on the constant rehashing of his rags-to-working-at-Home Depot-“riches” story.
There’s been a five-year gap in between your last album and the new one, We Live in Rented Rooms. Can you talk about the arrangement you have with Merge? Do (label owners) Mac McCaughan or Laura Ballance dial you up at some point and say, “Hey Fred, it’s been five years, how ’bout a new album?”
From the get-go, way back in 1995, Mac and Laura have been very generous to me. They just let me do what I do. I think they have a very “hands off” approach with most of their bands. Mac and Laura sign artists and bands that they believe in and love, in the hope that other people might eventually come to love those bands, too. It’s a philosophy that seems impossibly simple, but in the music business it’s very rare. And yeah, five years is a long time between albums. But nowadays I work 40 hours a week at Home Depot, and I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter who likes it when her daddy is around. I can’t just blow her off and spend most of my spare time writing and recording. That would be fundamentally wrong. So, you’ve got to make choices. Mac and Laura know the deal. They have kids.
You are notorious for never playing live or even making a video. Why is that?
There are so many reasons that I don’t play live. But here are two very basic ones. First off, and this cuts down deep to my very nature: I have never liked being the center of attention. I don’t like to stand in the middle of a stage with a spotlight on me with a hundred or more people staring at me waiting to be entertained. It makes me feel like a cheap, wind-up monkey. It’s not stage fright. It’s a feeling more akin to Sartre’s nausea. Secondly, I didn’t come up in the normal rock ‘n’ roll fashion. I didn’t play in rock bands when I was a teenager. Growing up, my father used to constantly yell at me to stop playing the family piano. Day after day he’d yell, “Stop playin’ that damn piano! I want some peace and quiet around here! You had all day to play that damn thing! Can’t you see I’m watching television!?” When you’re a kid, and you hear this day after day after day, it changes you. Another kid might have formed a rock band down the street at a friend’s house, but with me, my father’s constant anger made me want to hide. So I quietly wrote songs in my room, I created an alternate reality that seemed more tolerable, and I planned my escape from that house. Then when those Tascam mini-studios came out in the early 1980s, I knew my ship had come in, and I bounded on board, and I’ve stayed there ever since. But my mini-studio methodology has kind of crippled me in other ways, because by always working alone and never collaborating with other musicians, I’ve kind of painted myself into a methodological corner. It’s not sad. That’s just the way it is. I’m a loner.
Merge is one of the hottest indies, sporting Arcade Fire and Superchunk; even Neutral Milk Hotel’s infamous recluse, Jeff Mangum, is coming out of exile to play shows. If a shitload of cash was dangled in front of you to, say, open up for Arcade Fire or play the lucrative festival circuit, wouldn’t it tempt you to do it?
The problem with me is that I have very low ego needs. My father took a wrecking ball and a crowbar to my ego for the first 18 years of my life. But I’m not complaining. The way I was raised has become a blessing in a way. It simplifies things for me. It allows me to not get sucked into the traps that eventually snuff out one’s soul. Doing things mostly or solely for money is a one of those traps. There’s always a catch when people are dangling money, or sex, or drugs in front of you. Always. That “giant sucking sound” has nothing to do with Ross Perot and NAFTA . . . It’s the sound of your soul being sucked out through the top of your skull.
Do you get bored doing all the instrumentation for your albums? Have you said to yourself, “It would be cool for my audience to shake things up a bit and do an entire record with a collaborator or have a guest appearance by the guy from Lambchop,” or someone else you’ve always had a desire to work with? Can you name someone you want to work with? If you did that, don’t you think that would bring you more press and buzz?
Hmmm . . . do I get bored doing all the instrumentation? No, I never get bored doing this. Other people might, and even my audience might, but I don’t. I mean, does a painter get bored when he sees a blank canvas? Or does a writer get bored when he sees a computer screen with nothing on it? I do see where your question is coming from though, because most people think of music as a collaborative art form, and yes, 99 percent of the time it is. But there are always exceptions — black swans, lone wolves, whatever. And I’m one of those exceptions. And yes, of course it has occurred to me from time to time that it might be interesting to collaborate with this person or that person. But I’m not a very proactive person. I usually move only when things feel organic, like an inevitable next step. I’m the tortoise, not the hare.
As far as buzz goes, you know, I think I’m lucky in a way, because my personality and my personal problems have never allowed me to do the promotional things that are required to create a gigantic wave of publicity and buzz. In a way, I’ve been flying under the radar for years, quietly doing my thing . . . chip, chip, chip. A few years ago I was reading a little piece in the Village Voice about John Carpenter, and the writer called him a “termite artist,” kind of nibbling away and nibbling away in an unnoticeable fashion. That image resonated with me. Maybe I’m a very small termite artist, I don’t know.
Everything that’s ever been written about you is prefaced by your “drug-addled, homeless and drunk in a Hoboken train station, saved by your future wife to ultimately become an indie-rock star” origins. Have you reached the boiling point, where you’re tired of the rehashing of your story?
Yeah, I’m pretty sick of talking about that whole era. I mean, shit, that stuff happened in the winter of 1986 into 1987! But people still ask about it. I guess for some people it’s a way into the music. People romanticize stuff like that. Like Johnny Thunders. But it’s not romantic at all. It’s just fucked up. And it eventually kills you or siphons off most of your talent or drives you insane. You can only stare into the abyss so many times before it eats you alive.
It’s well documented that you work at the Home Depot in New Jersey. How long have you been there? Which department do you work in?
I’ve been working at Home Depot for 11 years now. I’m in the flooring department.
Do you have any memorable stories from working there?
I’ve got tons of stories. Every Home Depot employee does. Here’s a recent one: A few weeks ago a father walked into my department with his young son. The father was buying a special-order Yankees rug for his son’s bedroom. So as I was typing in the order, the father leaned over to his son and whispered, “This is why you have to study hard in school. Otherwise you’ll end up like this guy.” And then the father glanced over at me. And then the son looked at me and said, “Yeah.” Here’s another one . . . a few days ago when it was snowing, a guy comes into the store to buy some calcium chloride to melt the ice on his front steps. He says, “You! I want to know the circumference of the average pellet in this bag! I also want to know the exact percentage of calcium chloride within each pellet!” Stuff like this happens every day. It really is astonishing.
Have any East River Pipe fans ever come specifically to the Home Depot where you work to talk to you, or have you been recognized as East River Pipe by a customer/fan?
Back in 2006, when What Are You On? came out, the big daily newspaper in New Jersey called the Star Ledger ran a multi-page article on me with a big color picture and all that jazz. Lots of contractors and customers came up to me around that time. And occasionally a fan or a young indie rocker will come up and quietly say hello and ask when another album is coming out.
What or who inspired the songs on We Live in Rented Rooms? What does the title mean?
Thematically, this album doesn’t differ very much from my other albums. I generally write about the people you’d never notice on the street. Quiet people who are trying to scratch out a living. People working little jobs and trying to survive with a little dignity. People trying to hold onto little shreds of idealism, or small dreams they once had. People who are haunted by the past. People bombarded by commercialized information who are starting to think that something deep down is very messed up, but they don’t know what it is or how to change it. What does the title mean? Clint Eastwood said it best in Unforgiven. He says, “We’ve all got it comin’, kid.”
When do you anticipate your next record will come out? Will it be another five years?
I’ve got another one coming up fast now.
Does your daughter listen to your music? Does she like it?
My daughter likes the usual Top 40 stuff . . . Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, and Beyoncé. There’s no generation gap, because I like a lot of the stuff she likes. I find some of that stuff genuinely moving. And I’ve turned her on to a few Ramones songs, like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” And she likes “Rise” by Public Image Ltd. She’s not too big on East River Pipe, though. She thinks the tempos are way too slow and the lyrics don’t make sense. She sounds like Clive Davis. I was once told that Clive Davis made similar comments about East River Pipe.
How long have you been “clean” from drugs and alcohol?
I’d rather not say, because if I ever fall off the wagon, I don’t want some dude telling me about all the time I just threw away.
Did you expect that nearly 20 years after your first recorded seven-inches, that you’d still be recording and releasing albums? To what or whom do you attribute your success?
Well, I’m one of those people who would write and record songs even if I didn’t have a recording contract. The fact that some people like what I’m doing isn’t what motivates me. It’s immaterial. Look, let me tell you a story. When I was a kid, this was before Tascam mini-studios were invented, I had two cheap Panasonic cassette players. I used to record myself playing piano on one cassette player, and then play that back while I was singing with the other cassette player on record. Then I’d do that process again. I mean, what drives a kid to do that? It’s fun and it’s interesting. These are still the things that keep me going.
Have you entertained the thought that if you went on tour and played live you can potentially quit your day job and live off music?
Yes, I’ve entertained that thought. But given my personality and my priorities, I don’t think that’s possible. I’m just too volatile of a guy to be out there on the road. And I would never form a band with a bunch of AA and NA people. You see, I’ve never really felt very grounded in life; it’s just been endless upheavals, mostly. But my wife and my daughter make me feel like I’ve got a home, and a purpose. And Home Depot has been very good to me.