[11 May 2008]
PopMatters Senior Editor
Tod A is the singer, composer and ringleader of Firewater, a New York City-based rock band “of questionable repute”, as he puts it. Tod is one of the first of the New York post punks to adopt world music influences, paving the way for successful acts like Balkan Beat Box, Gogol Bordello, and Beirut. In January 2005 Tod decided to go on sabbatical from both the band and his homeland for reasons of mental health. His immediate goal was to escape from the grim predictability of George Bush’s America. His secondary goal was to see some of the world and attempt to write about it.
For Firewater’s new album The Golden Hour (released May 6), Tod traveled and recorded with native musicians in Pakistan, Turkey, Bali and Israel, using just a microphone and a laptop. Prior to the release of The Golden Hour, he could be found meandering aimlessly around South East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, teaching English to keep himself in beer and cigarettes. See his blog, Postcards from the Other Side of the World, documenting his travels in words and photos.
Firewater commence a full US tour on May 23rd.
PopMatters 20 Questions caught up with Tod in Bali, where he shares some thoughts about cultural and political matters, and speculates on what visiting extraterrestrials might look like.
1. The latest book or movie that made
Collapse by Jared Diamond. The book cites numerous examples over the course of human history of civilizations that died out after exhausting their natural resources. Angkor, Easter Island, Mesopotamia, the Maya—basically every last one of them made the same stupid mistakes. The sad part is how little we have learned.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I’ve always identified with Yossarian from Catch-22. I often feel trapped in a world tied down by rules that make little sense, populated by people unwilling to question them.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Rain Dogs by Tom Waits or Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, depending on whether I’m feeling poetic or pissed.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Neither, to be honest. I truly do hope that when we meet our first extraterrestrials, they will either be cute, Muppet-like creatures, or B-actors in jumpsuits with prosthetic ears. Sadly, I think the truth may be far more horrific—or it will simply go over our heads altogether. We may be the smartest creatures on earth, but the universe is a big place.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I enjoy lounging in bed with a mild hangover and The Economist. And I don’t mean John Kenneth Galbraith. Yes, I know it’s not a very PC publication, but it is the best researched, reported and edited source for world news that I’ve found. Plus, they sell it in every airport.
The ceaseless proselytizing of the editorial staff on the blessings of free market capitalism can grow a bit tiring at times, but where else are you going to find in-depth coverage of the ethnic conflict in Borneo?
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud to say that I’ve never worked in a bank. Somehow, against all odds I have been able to evade starvation while posing as a “professional” musician. Often it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes it hasn’t been pretty. But hey, it beats working behind bullet proof glass.
On the other hand, bank employees have ready access to all that handy cash. Maybe I need to rethink this.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
My rapier-sharp wit, my devilish good looks, and my saint-like modesty.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Tom Waits and Robyn Hitchcock are two big lyrical inspirations—the pillars of Hercules, if you will. Bob Dylan was no slouch, either. I admire Hunter S. Thompson for his punk rock attitude and hyped-up hyperbole, Charles Bukowski for his brutal honesty and dark poetry, and Milan Kundera for his ability to tell small stories that resonate big.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Duchamp’s urinal (“Fountain”) is pure genius. Either that or the entire Turtles songbook; they wrote amazingly catchy songs, but goddamn, could they have used the services of a decent lyricist.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I can ice skate on glue. Most of my formative years were spent in Canada. If you didn’t play hockey there you were “queer”, and if you were “queer” you got beat up.
At the time, all the kids were sniffin’ glue. I’m not particularly proud of this, particularly, but it did keep me from getting beat up quite so much.
I also have mad carpentry skillz, just like Jesus. Unlike Jesus, I cannot walk on water. (Nor am I the messiah, no matter what anybody tells you.) But I can ice skate on frozen water, while on glue.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“What you leave out matters more than what you put in”, which came to me from a former art teacher of mine. I understood it to mean that every part of a work needs to be there for a reason; if an element can’t justify its existence, then it should be out on its ass. I haven’t always followed this advice, but I try to keep it in mind.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I borrowed from the library as a kid and never returned. It’s basically a reference book on the origins of English idioms. If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of a phrase like, “to wear your heart on your sleeve”, or where the term “whipping boy” came from, this is the book for you.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
These days I try to keep a low profile. I save the loud shirts for onstage. I’ve never worn Armani, or any tailor you’ve ever heard of.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Since my dining out at the Ritz puts this question firmly in the realm of the fantastic, I won’t limit myself to human beings. I think it would be amusing, over a big plate of pasta, to sit down with Christ, Mohammed, Vishnu, and the Buddha, and finally get to the bottom of it all.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’ve never been one for going backwards. We all want to know what the future holds. But I think time travel would feel a bit like cheating. Plus, you’d miss all the interesting stuff that happens in the middle. Personally, I am content with watching the future unfold day by day. This is a really interesting time to be alive.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
What I’ve recently found works best is to put oneself as far away as physically possible from the source of the stress. Therefore, if you hate your job, quit your job. If you hate your government, find another. Things weighing you down? Sell them. Some would call it running away, others might call it aimless drifting. I call it happiness.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
I’m an alcohol enthusiast, and I do smoke, but music is the only ‘essential’ in my life. It’s the only therapy I’ve discovered that provides me with some semblance of sanity.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Environ of choice is a tree-house on a tropical island. I’ve nailed down the tropical island part. I’m still working on the tree-house.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Do you think George W. Bush actually listens to what anyone says? I don’t get the impression that he does. I am also not entirely convinced of his ability to comprehend what has been said to him. His grasp on the English language seems tenuous, at best.
But if I could say anything to him it would be, “Just stop now. Your legacy is assured, and we’ll be cleaning up that mess for a long time to come, so please just pack up and leave as soon as possible. Please go away. Far, far away. And never come back.”
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
A novel, and an exhibition of the wall photographs I took in India.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/tod-a-of-firewater/