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Folk Explosion: An Interview with Rick Moody

PopMatters Associate Books Editor

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Nothing quells the inner rock star, not publishing multiple books of fiction or even having one made into a movie, not a commitment to literature that has earned you literary awards and positioned you as a leading arbiter of your craft. At least not if you’re Rick Moody, whose inner rock star has morphed into an urban folk singer. If literature is his passion then music is his mistress with whom he’s dallied since his teenage years, whose inspiration and influence carries over and helps define his relationship with the written word.

And despite this divided affection, he has managed to integrate the two rather seamlessly. His first novel, Garden State, begins with the break-up of a band, Critical Ma$$, and their search for a new drummer; in his short story collection Demonology, the story “Wilkie Fahnstock: The Box Set” consists of the liner notes and the track list for a ten-volume set of mix tapes, each one marking a significant period in Fahnstock’s unremarkable life. And then there’s the nonfiction: a hefty portion of Moody’s essays address music, musicians, and his musical obsessions. He’s written about Brian Eno, as well as his collaboration with Meredith Monk, about the evangelical indie rock band, the Danielson Famile, and his role as a founding member of the Brooklyn Record Club, a group of friends who meet four times a year to play their favorite tracks of the moment. And that doesn’t take into account the lyrics he’s composed for an array of musicians — including the klezmer-infused lit-rock band One Ring Zero, the Burnside Project, and Moody’s current band mate David Grubbs — the ongoing musical collaborations, or the readings he’s had with musicians and the bands he’s opened for by reading. He even had a two-gig stint as the opening act for the Magnetic Fields, an exhilarating, anxiety-inducing endeavor which he describes in an essay in The Believer.

Moody’s latest musical project takes the form of an urban folk band, the Wingdale Community Singers, for which he writes the lyrics and sings with singer Hannah Marcus. Marcus, an established singer and songwriter herself, has a made a handful of albums, and on her most recent, Desert Farm, she collaborated with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The third member of this motley group is David Grubbs, the avant-rock musician behind Gastr Del Sol and who’s also played in the Red Krayola and Squirrel Bait, two of whose members went on to form the legendary Slint. The musician-writer combo works in the Wingdale’s favor: the musical arrangement is simple and understated yet textured and unconstrained, and Hannah’s plaintive vocals are grounded by Moody’s soft harmonies. The lyrics depict the varied sites and sounds of Brooklyn — gold teeth in Flatbush, the omnipresent rats on the subway tracks, the neighborhood bike shop boy, and a fishnet wearing transvestite diva — and make the songs as much vivid vignettes of the borough as they are musical compositions.

Referenced book:
The Diviners
by Rick Moody

Little, Brown
September 2005, 576 pages, $25.95

When I spoke with Rick Moody the week after Thanksgiving, he had just returned from playing a show with Hannah Marcus in San Francisco. Our conversation touched on his involvement with the Wingdale Community Singers, the role music plays in his writing, his latest novel, The Diviners — a satire of the independent film industry that’s set in New York just after the turn of the millennium — and the many incarnations of one of its main characters, Tyrone Duffy. Along the way, in the spirit of Moody’s Brooklyn Record Club, I requested an on the spot listing of his two favorite and two most detested songs. When he turned the tables on me and asked for the two songs I most despise, I was stumped but promised to include them as well.

PopMatters: How did you first become involved with the Wingdale Community Singers?

Rick Moody: I always wrote songs, going back to my teens, and I had bands I played in in college and so forth, none of them terribly successful at all. I mean not even in the frat party kind of way because they were usually on the arty/sloppy/punk rock side. And then somewhere in my twenties, I stopped playing with other people for a while and it coincided with getting on keyboards and only playing guitar for a long time. But I never had any lessons on guitar, so I felt like I was such a bad player that I didn’t want to inflict myself on anyone. But then sometime in the later nineties I started occasionally shaking out in public, first with my friend Syd Straw who used to sing for the Golden Palominos and then I had a little band for a while. But the real genesis of this particular project is that I heard Hannah Marcus’s album, Black Hole Heaven, and I admired it so much I wrote her a fan letter and we became friendly. And along the way, we one day had this idea that we should make an old-timey folk band and do it really fast and without excessive premeditation to see if we could do it and work together and have fun at it.

PM: And so how did David Grubbs become involved then?

RM: Hannah and I played together for probably six months and wrote a bunch of songs, and I knew Dave, I actually met him at a Syd Straw show. We have a couple of friends in common and I contributed lyrics to his last record, A Guess at the Riddle, and the one before that, too. So we were friendly already and Hannah and I felt that with just the two acoustic guitars and voices, there wasn’t enough dramatic movement in the material and so we wanted other players involved. Dave can play everything and he’s got really great melodic sense and he’s also very driven, and so we invited him in to do some lead guitar stuff. And he, as he does with the things that he’s involved in, made the whole thing have another order of seriousness than it did prior to his involvement.

PM: Did you find you had any difficulties, considering your disparate musical backgrounds, just coming together and making music?

RM: I think that if you listen to the record, it’s pretty obvious that there are three different kinds of writers writing on there, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. You know, if you play together long enough, you start to develop a group chemistry, and I think that we’re finally getting there, especially because we’ve persevered playing live more. I’m an incredibly panic-stricken live musician and Hannah is pretty nervous herself. Dave is really the only one who can play live. But we’ve done more of it and we’re getting better at it and I think doing that has made us gel. And so I think that even though there are disparate writing styles, there’s also a commitment among the three of us to a certain kind of acoustic music–folk period stuff that has an arty aspect to it and a bit of a modernist edge. It’s really interesting what records all three of us like because there’s so much stuff that I like that Dave hates. I like some pop music, for example, and Dave can tend to like really unusual, interesting, eccentric music that in some cases I don’t particularly understand. And then Hannah’s got this whole dark, melancholy folk thing going on. So it’s really interesting to try to figure out what the Venn diagram is that contains all of our interests, but I think we’re closing in on it.

PM: Are there any specific albums that the three of you all really love?

RM: Yes, Smile, the Brain Wilson rehabilitated Smile is a record that we all really like. And we all really like Dionne Warwick. And there’s other stuff, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and lone-guitar-player-with-missing-teeth-on-a-porch-in-Louisiana kind of music we all like too, like Doc Boggs or Hobart Smith.

PM: You compose most of the lyrics and you also sing on the album, do you find that writing lyrics is much different than writing stories and books? Do they come from the same seed? Does it give you a different type of satisfaction to write lyrics than it does to write fiction?

RM: Yeah, totally. It’s a completely different enterprise. The thing I would say about it, besides the fact that I have to rhyme, is that these lyrics were made to do something for this band and to be part of this band, so they’re collaborative, in effect. When I make prose for myself, I’m the one who has to put my name on the jacket–nobody else does–which is really reflective of my interests, above and beyond anything else. But in this context I’m trying to make lyrics that Hannah and I can sing and that fit with Wingdale’s overall aesthetic concept, which is this old-timey folkish kind of thing. So they’re done with a completely different ambition in mind and they were also all done quite fast. In fact, in line with how old folk writers made things, I had a self-imposed regulation, which was that I had to try to write the lyrics in under ten minutes.

PM: Really?

RM: Yeah, I mean I wasn’t always successful and you can bet your ass that in this band nobody’s shy about telling me which parts I should fix. But I did write them all fast, and so that’s obviously much different from what I do as a prose writer, too.

PM: How does the creative experience of musical collaboration within the band differ from the inherent solitary nature of writing?

RM: You’ve sort of provided your own answer. Part of the reason I do it is to get away from lone computer time, lone compositional time, and it enables me to interact with other people and that’s incredibly fulfilling. Upon reflection now it occurs to me that what I really love about doing the band is that I just love to sing. Leaving aside whether I have a good voice or a bad voice, the point is that that experience is so dramatically different from what I’m doing most of the rest of the time, it does my heart and my artistic development tremendous good to have the opportunity. And in certain situations where I’m singing with Hannah, I feel like the experience of singing harmony does that really important thing, it involves me with other people and it does something that’s bigger than me. And it’s something I’m subsumed into, rather than being a big, sort of solitary, self-willed ego trip like novel writing can be sometimes. So, that’s what it’s about, and good, bad, or indifferent, that experience is really crucial to making life more fruitful and more livable. That’s why I’m still doing it.

PM: How does touring to promote books compare with playing musical gigs? I know you’ve also mixed it up by reading with bands such as when you opened for the Magnetic Fields and also by having bands play at your readings. What’s the difference between the two of those, then?

RM: The book tour thing is dead, I’ve got to say. I think the regular old bookstore appearance is a form that’s been done several tens of thousands more times than it ought to have been done. And since I just finished my Diviners tour, I can assure you that that is the case. Most of those events are regular old show-up-at-the-book-store kind of free things, and I just feel like it’s not a good way to get prose across. It’s started to become very predictable, so I’m tired of doing them, really. I mean, I love meeting readers, I have no problem with that, and I like interaction with people who care about what I’m doing, but the traveling and the dealing with bookstore people and all that kind of stuff seems to me really ancillary to what it was I thought I wanted to do when I started writing. And so the music stuff again provides a way to mess up the format and to involve more people in the process, and so I think all those things are good. Reading for the Magnetic Fields was completely hair-raising and difficult because those were really big crowds and they weren’t used to being read to.

You know, I read recently with Damon and Naomi in New York at the Knitting Factory. And that was really fun because they’re improvisers so they could play behind me a little bit and their audience is really literate and sort of bookish, I think, so that was a lot of fun. I think that there are real areas where there’s possibility for crossover between literary things and musical things, and I’m happy to be a part of that. The Wingdales, on the other hand, I mean we haven’t toured very much–we’ve done two out-of-town shows so far — so we haven’t done the whole van, sleeping on people’s floor thing, and that’s probably because Hannah and I are in our mid-forties so we don’t have that young person’s flexibility for uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.

PM: The three of you live in Brooklyn, and the city is the source of much the material for your songs — you sing about rats on subway tracks and transvestites and urban bike shop boys and Flatbush — what made you want to sing about the city in your songs?

RM: We were thinking about the tradition of folk music, and what we didn’t want to do was make folk music that was like museum-piece work that was so reverential about the tradition that it refused to innovate or grow up at all. And even though I like all that early sixties folk revival music, I didn’t want to go and do another round on that same circuit. We were trying to think about what was unique about the folk tradition prior to the folk revival, and we decided that all those writers in the old days–the ballad writers and the people who composed the folk songs–were just writing about what was really close at hand, what they knew really well, and what was sort of immediately verifiable to them, and without a lot of clutter and fuss about it. They were declarative when they wrote in those ways. So we figured that if we were trying to make contemporary folk music, the thing to do was to undertake that same process and just write about what we knew and what was right around us. So they’re really songs that were written, like I said, really quickly, just about things that we knew. Hannah knows the bike shop boy, the bike shop was right near her apartment.

PM: How did you come up with the band’s name and what does it mean? The song title “Wingdale Asylum Seekers” gives a hint, I imagine, but can you explain it?

RM: When I was a kid, we used to go up into the country, I grew up in Connecticut suburbs, but we used to go up into upstate New York on weekends now and then. And we went up Route 22, which goes by an incredibly creepy, old state mental hospital called Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital, but it’s in this town called Wingdale and it’s popularly known as Wingdale. It scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. I mean these buildings were just as creepy as you would suspect, knowing later on what it was that was done within them. And they were very Stalinesque and scary. Since then it’s been closed down, it was closed during the institutionalization period when all of the state mental hospitals got emptied. So now they’re these Chernobyl-like ghost buildings. On the one hand Wingdale Community Singers sounds like an old-timey folk band, but on the other hand it has this luminous, scary Jungian layer of referring to the old psychiatric hospital.

PM: You said that you’re always looking for ways to work with music and musicians. What is the creative urge that isn’t satisfied by your literary success that draws you to music?

RM: First I would have to endorse the word “success” in that context, which I don’t, but I will now move on. What appeals to me in literature now and sort of has always appealed to me is the strain of literature that thinks with its ears instead of with its eyes. I’m not terribly interested in a kind of cinematic surface that you find in a lot of contemporary fiction. What I really like is fiction that’s about rhythm and sentence structure, and so writers like Lydia Davis or Thomas Bernhard or Samuel Beckett or something where the writing is all, all has to do with how things sound. That’s always been first and foremost when I think about the work that’s influenced me. So that’s how I write. And what music does is it helps me keep my ears tuned up, because when you play you really have to listen carefully. All of the best bands have that uncanny ability to hear one another so well that they fill in each other’s gaps and they take their rests in similar spots and there’s a whole kind of concerted quality to how they perform together. Every time I play music it helps me get better at listening to things, especially being in a band with people who play as well as the other two people in this band play. It teaches me a lot and helps me continue on this journey of doing better as a listener.

PM: You’ve stated that “Much of fiction in the early 21st century can be divided into two categories: literature obsessed with movies and literature obsessed with music.” Your latest novel, The Diviners, is obviously influenced by film, in the sense that the main character, Vanessa Meandro, is the head of an independent film company, Means of Production, that’s selling out by creating a TV miniseries. And then the novel is also structured to read like continuous episodes in a TV series. And, of course, your book The Ice Storm has been made into a movie. So, despite your interest and involvement with music, it seems like your writing is inherently filmic. What category, if any, do you think your work falls into? Or how would you classify it?

RM: It’s true that I tried to write a much more narrative book this time with The Diviners, and I think probably the fact there’s some entertainment business and film stuff in there is reflective of the fact that I was trying to be more narrative, but I still think there are passages in the book, like the opening for example, that are more about the sounds than what they’re saying. And certainly my own short fiction has always been much more canted in the direction of the auditory, I think. And my next book, which will be stories, is probably indicative of that to some extent. So I probably do both things, but even though I’m writing about film in this book and even though The Ice Storm in a weird trick of fate got made into a quite good film, I think, I would actually hold that I’m probably closer to the musical axis than the cinematic one.

Next page: Do you have any desire to write a book that uses music as a structural element?
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