20 Questions: New Bums

When you take the Skygreen Leopards' frontman and place him with the prolific indie god Ben Chasny, what do you get? Stories about Settlers of Catan, drunk-tank philosophy, and a great new band called New Bums, we discover ...
New Bums
Voices in a Rented Room
Drag City

New Bums may very well be the quietest supergroup in all of history.

On one end, you have the lo-fi acoustic strums of Donovan Quinn, best known for his homespun rock group Skygreen Leopards, who have been quietly releasing brilliant albums since 2001. On the other hand, you have Ben Chasny, who is known for his band Six Organs of Admittance and his other band Comets on Fire and his other band Rangda and — well, you get the idea. Chasny has proven himself adept and adjusting his indie-centric style towards whatever situation calls for a new flush of energy, and when he got together with Quinn, a little group called New Bums emerged.

The duo started off with their Slim Volume 7″ late last year (and now available to stream and buy from their Bandcamp page), and now have followed up that rather stripped-down work (and yes, it’s stripped down even by Quinn’s standards) with the even more rustic (and aptly-named) Voices in a Rented Rroom). The duo play well off of each other, with a nice lyrical interplay informing the songs as they sometimes get into these very dry melodic grooves that move in a rather hypnotic fashion. Safe to say, there is an audience for the New Bums’ sound and rest assured it will be rather rapturous.

The only thing that might be more entertaining than that record may be the guys’ responses to PopMatters‘ 20 Questions, often riffing and zinging each other as best they can as we soon discover which of the duo employs dirty tricks when playing Settlers of Catan, how Cormac McCarthy factors into their lives, and the very notable drunk-tank advice that may have inadvertently lead to the creation of the group …

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Donovan Quinn: [The movie] This Must Be the Place. There’s something about watching Sean Penn dressed up like Robert Smith dealing with his father issues that breaks my heart in the best possible way.

Ben Chasny: I’ll change it up a bit. The last song that made me cry was “Eli” by Arthur Russel. It’s a song about a simple dog that nobody likes. I’m a sucker for songs about dogs.

2. The fictional character most like you?

DQ: Cornelius Suttree from Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. In the novel he’s living in a houseboat in Knoxville surrounded by a bunch of poor, drunken eccentrics. It reminds me of my time living in a trailer in California: boredom, nature, poverty, girlfriend trouble, and jackass friends who are your primary entertainment.

BC: The cat from Master and Margarita. He’s sarcastic, drinks vodka, smokes cigars and causes a lot of trouble, all while not wearing any pants.

3. The greatest album, ever?

DQ: There are too many. At any given moment I’ll think it’s Village Green Preservation Society, 400 Degreez, Songs of Love and Hate, The Painted Word, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Grotesque, “The White Album”, Straight Outta Compton, Country Life, Street Hassle, Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, or 100 others.

BC: Mikami Kan, Yoshizawa Motoharu, Keiji Haino’s Live in the First Year Of Hesei — an unbelievable balance of improvisation, folk, jazz, noise, and sadness. Nothing sounds like it is forced on this record, yet everything is forceful. Mikami is in full throat shredding mode while the late Motoharu plays alien sounds from his modified stand up bass. Even Haino plays superbly nuanced slide guitar before blasting a hole into the atmosphere. It’s the perfect record.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

DQ: Star Trek wins by a big distance. Me and Chasny watched a lot of the original series while recording Voices in a Rented Room. Star Wars is OK but there’s nothing like watching Kirk wooing some hot alien lady or seeing Spock disdaining the passions of an outraged Bones.

BC: It should be stated that the watching of Star Trek was Donovan’s idea. He loves Star Trek. I prefer Frank Herbert, from which Star Wars ripped off a shit-ton, I should mention.

5. Your ideal brain food?

DQ: Mostly it’s novels, music, and movies. However I have been teaching Chasny chess. Even letting him win every now and again to build up his confidence.

BC: I wouldn’t really call it “teaching”. I look at the chess board as a huge accident. Everything is an accident waiting to happen. For me the best brain food is probably books, but more on the non-fiction side. Also, going for walks really gets things moving inside the ol’ noggin.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

DQ: New Bums is the product of a long friendship and a million conversations about bands, writers, philosophies, personal experiences. I’m proud that we kept at it until we were able to get all those ideas and ambitions into the music. It took awhile.

7. You want to be remembered for …?

DQ: That’s a tough one ’cause you have to imagine yourself dead or retired to answer it. I don’t want to think about that! On one hand it’s nice to imagine some future person walking around in a moonage daydream thinking, “Those New Bums wrote great jams”, but that happy thought is overwhelmed by the image of myself covered in cold, unforgiving dirt.

BC: I’ve said this before but I wouldn’t mind not being remembered for anything. If all of my work suddenly disappeared when I did that would be just fine.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

DQ: Again, there are so many but when I was first starting out the folks who were doing new and exciting things were Simon Joyner, Silver Jews, Royal Trux, Robyn Hitchcock, Supreme Dicks, Outrageous Cherry. Those bands made me want to get a four-track and just go for it.

BC: You didn’t say anything about music so I am going to assume you just meant inspirational people. I would say the astronauts on all the Apollo missions. It takes some courage to strap a rocket to yer ass and get sent into the void.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

DQ: “The Recognitions” by William Gaddis.

BC: The Hikmat al-Ishraq by Yahya ibn Habash as-SuhrawardÄ. Or Sapphie by Richard Youngs.

10. Your hidden talents …?

DQ: You don’t want me at your table if Settlers of Catan is being played. I’ll steal your longest road, play a monopoly card, or pull any manner of dirty tricks to beat my opponents.

BC: I make a mean paper airplane. I will corroborate Donovan’s claim of being good at Catan. He does play dirty, though.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

DQ: Willem Jones, a legendary underground figure who helped form New Bums, guided me through a very difficult period. After a two-month bender that had shattered my health and spirit he literally locked me in a room and said, “If you find yourself in such a state that you can’t sit quietly alone with your thoughts for a week, then you’ve let your mind go soft.” At least I think that’s what he told me, I was wasted at the time and he doesn’t remember saying it. In any case, I followed his advice and made sure to bunker down in my room whenever things got too hectic.

BC: Don’t drown your food, in ketchup or mayo or goop. Classic advice. If you don’t know where that comes from I can’t help you.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

DQ: A WWII era N-1 deck jacket that I bought in Laurel Canyon. Beautiful jackets but unfortunately they are really hard to find and too expensive if you do. Mine was waiting for me in a vintage store for only $40. It’s pretty worn out now but goddamn have we had some good times together.

BC: I once borrowed and didn’t give back for years a book about Harry Smith called American Magus. Wish I never gave it back.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or …?

DQ: Basically my outfit has been exactly the same since I was young. Button-up thrift store shirt tucked into Levi corduroys and some thrashed dress shoes.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

DQ: I’d invite people who were not only legends but knew how to have a good time. So Peter O’Toole, Marcel Proust, John Prine, Richard Pryor, Bette Davis, Willem Jones, Keith Richards, Witold Gombrowicz, Maya Deren, Gucci Mane, and Toto.

BC: Toto the dog or the band? This is that question that could go a few ways. Do you invite people so that you can participate in the conversation, or people that would have a great conversation amongst themselves and you could learn from? Or maybe people who would have a wonderful argument. I suppose I’d invite people who could interlock in a certain way. I’d probably have Wallace Stevens, Gaston Bachelard, Henry Corbin, Albert Ayler, and Hannah Arendt. I would sit Arendt next to Corbin and Ayler next to Wallace Stevens.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

DQ: Although it would be nice if New Bums took a Wyld Stallyns turn, Primer was the movie that finally convinced me to not touch time travel. However if I had to time travel the dials would be set for San Francisco year 1963. It’s before the hippies, there are new drugs, good clothes are cheap, Pale Fire and Big Sur just hit the shelves, Lawrence of Arabia and Jules & Jim are on the screen, rock and roll is blasting off, experimental literature is starting to creep into blues and country in weird ways, and you can live in a big ol’ crumbling Victorian for next to nothing. Athens under Pericles would be pretty cool too.

BC: I’d go back to the day of my birth, bust into the delivery room, and scream at myself, “Go back! Go back!”

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

DQ: I hit the bar and try to make as many bad decisions as possible.

BC: I usually take a walk.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or …?

DQ: All of the above. Except that I’d replace vodka with bourbon.

BC: I like them all but I’ve noticed as I go on that the one thing I truly can not live without is coffee. It’s crazy. I’m not even a coffee snob. I’ll choke down the instant slop in a Motel 6 room. But I can give up the others. Not coffee.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

DQ: At this point the city is where I’m most comfortable but I was raised on a horse ranch and sometimes the quieter life calls my name. It doesn’t really matter where you live if you have some good friends around.

BC: As Paul Virilio notes, the sedentarist is one who feels at home anywhere while the nomad feels excluded everywhere they go. I have lived in five different cities in the last 10 years. There is no city of choice. I am simultaneously repelled and drawn toward both the city and the country, though the borders of both are definitely blurred nowadays.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

DQ: Honestly, there is nothing I have to say to the leader of the country which may seem weird in this day and age but I’m not a political person.

BC: You know, I just wrote out a whole bunch of stuff and children and war and drones and shit but then realized, it doesn’t matter. They don’t listen and never have. Maybe the demonstrations about Vietnam. Maybe that was the last time.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

DQ: New Bums are hitting the road and that’s a lot of work. Other than that I’m mixing a new Skygreen Leopards record for Woodsist and working on a book. Then it’s time for another New Bums LP.

BC: I am working on an experimental opera based on the life of Wallace Stevens with the playwright David Todd, writing for a new Six Organs record, and practicing sleeping on the floor for the upcoming New Bums tour across America.