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an interview with Rick Alverson by Martin Williams
Two years on from the demise of Drunk and songwriter Rick Alverson seems to have lost no time in forging an ample body of work that stands distinct from that of his previous band. Barely eight months after 'The Proud Graduates' represented the high-water mark of a prolific career comes 'Able Bodies', Alverson's third album under the name Spokane. It's an admirable, exhaustive work rate that runs counter to the languorous pace of his music, which (with the aid of Courtney Bowles and Karl Runge along the way) pits his restrained, thirsty vocals and less-is-more lyrics, with unhurried violin and cello lines that cut lazily across reverberating guitar shapes, punctuated by glockenspiel and brush-struck drums. Rick Alverson has downcast inclinations and a fascination for the details of lived lives, the habitual waiting and hoping, and Spokane edge laggardly along with the melancholic splendour and barely-perceptible progression of a sinking sun.What were the circumstances surrounding Drunk coming to an end and you adopting the name Spokane? Did you have a plan for Spokane when it began, in terms of things you particularly did or didn't want to explore?
In all its facets Drunk seemed to me to have been something preliminary. Conceptually, the albums seem ambitious, but convoluted, both sonically and aesthetically (perhaps with the exception of the last, 'Tableside Manners', which incidentally included songs meant for the subsequent project that became Spokane). I had never been fond of the name Drunk, I am admittedly too humourless a songwriter to be able to survive a name like that! The group of friends that comprised Drunk over the years (included Via Nuon, currently of Bevel) had gone their ways, and even I felt at an impasse, just then 27. I wanted to keep recording and releasing records, but it seemed Drunk ceased to be the appropriate vehicle, so I chose the name Spokane, after a town in Washington state that my father, grandfather (in 1890), and I were all born in. I guess it was an attempt to provide myself with some origins and history, both of which it seems many Americans lack (I was, at the time, a little fixated on the genealogy of my family name). I grew up on British pop (and '70s American folk), but, from a creative standpoint, I find myself less and less interested in its devices: bridges, crescendos, solos. Though I'm guilty of having used many of those things (often fatally), it's been done so well before, the craft of it, I'd say even perfected. When I listen to Donovan or the Beatles, it seems so sufficient! I'm far from inspired to contribute to the form. Why masticate it and trash up the music bins with a watered down Norwegian Wood? I'm very wary of determining a response based solely on the structure of a song, using those mechanisms so well that there is no grey room in the listening for possibility.That wariness about attempting something that's been perfected elsewhere is an understandable instinct, but, if followed through, wouldn't it prevent a person from getting out of bed in the morning, literally from attempting anything?
No, I don't think so. I'm not slamming the entire form of pop/rock music, I just feel progressively alienated from it. I think though it's mostly a question of direction, or redirection. Like the evolution of anything, there's a time when instinct prevents one from proceeding further on a particular path. One could see that as entropy, or one could see it as providence.If it's entropy, is there room for new forms in pop/rock music?
There are "bands" like A Silver Mount Zion that are, I think, in a similar situation. Although one would think, "this isn't pop music," it's listened to by fans of pop music and therefore contributes, albeit inadvertently, to the genre. Or the death of a genre. Perhaps there's no more room, and so rock becomes as much a retrospective form as swing. It would make sense to me. But that wouldn't slight what's been done.Did you go any way towards digging up your family tree?
I did! There's a strange story associated with this. In my early twenties, in New York, I went by the nickname Japheth. In my twenty-eighth year I became very interested in genealogy, particularly my father's side, of which there was little known. I was fortunate enough to trace our ancestry back to a birth in 1670, in Warwick, Rhode Island. His name was Japheth Alverson. He and his wife, Deliverance, are as far as anyone researching the Alverson ancestry has been able to go with any certainty. His descendants consecutively travelled Westward, as far as Spokane, Washington. The Alverson family settled there mid-19th century.I assumed there'd be something Eastern European in your background, based on the East European flavour to some of the few Drunk songs. What was the root of that influence?
That quality to certain Drunk songs isn't derived from national origin. I'm descended from German, Italian, and Swedish ancestors. It was more an unconscious attempt to provide structure to the songs, to, for lack of a better word, borrow a history that seems slightly difficult for Americans to accurately invent. Although those same structures are also at the root of Appalachian American folk music.Your voice is very distinctive. Has your vocal style changed over the years, is it something that you cultivated?
I don't consider myself a very adept singer. I seldom practice at it. It's something that's peripheral in a sense to me. Though I have noticed my voice becoming deeper over the years, it's not been a particularly conscious event.You were born in Spokane, lived previously in New York City and upstate New York-would you consider yourself a restless person? Does a sense of place have any bearing on what you produce?
My family moved every two years or so when I was growing up. I think that instilled in me a certain restlessness, though one that I very much appreciate. Time seems to be a primary subject and focus creatively, and it's mostly felt, for me, in its relation to environments. I miss the strict, deliberate act of leaving a place behind, cutting the years off from one another, ordering them that way, compartmentalizing them in my mind.Your lyrics seem quite pared down, and remind me of that William Carlos Williams line, "No ideas but in things." Not just because of them being similarly sparse, but also because they pay attention to 'everyday life'. Is "no ideas but in things" something you have sympathy for as some kind of dictum?
I like that statement a lot. It's also a favourite of Robert Creeley, which incidentally he quoted on a recent CD I was fortunate enough to have engineered. I am definitely drawn to concrete things, objects, their definition. There is a compactness to meaning there, no stray "thoughts" or doubts, only function. When we are very young, the senses conceive of all these Things, and they suffice! I think the melancholy aspect in the music I play may be derived from all this excess of intent and interest and emotion and thought.What were your thoughts behind wanting to record Robert Creeley? What was his reaction when you initially contacted him?
I've respected him for quite a long time, his interest in the method of a life, in the way a person literally FITS into the world. I get a lot of comfort from that, the recognition that there is a physical place for everything. It seems so obvious, but we all spend our days denying it. He was very generous and open to the idea of a recording. We travelled to his home in Maine. He's a very kind, humble person. It was a great experience.It's listed as the first in a series of spoken-word recordings to be released by Jagjaguwar. Are you involved with the upcoming releases? Who might they feature?
We have a few ideas, but, as they haven't yet been approached, it might be a little premature to say who we're eyeing.Robert Creeley is counted within the Beat movement (he's a character in
The Dharma Bums, isn't he?) Does it follow that you have an interest in the other Beat writers?
Wasn't the Japhy character in Dharma Bums modelled after the poet Gary Snyder? I'm unaware if Creeley was in there somewhere. I think he's only peripherally considered a Beat, more by physical relation than literary sympathy. I know he was very close to Ginsberg. I was interested in the Beat writers in my early twenties, particularly William Burroughs. I had him sign a copy of Exterminator once. He had a bottle of vodka and a pint glass, and looked nearly dead.The influence of the Beats seems to lie as much in their sense of revolt and permissiveness, as much as any specifically literary quality. It's possibly why they appeal to people at a younger age, when they're perhaps more responsive to such idealism. After having been quite interested in them a few years ago, I often find the writing a little embarrassing now, a little too wide-eyed and naïve.
I feel the same way, in terms of a slight embarrassment. Though more central to Kerouac and the cult around him. He certainly made a contribution to modern writing, but more, I believe, in a public sense. Stream-of-consciousness was nothing new when he wrote On the Road. As far as linguistic defiance, I think Gertrude Stein could take him out in a vowel.I was looking at the Grove Press New American Poetry anthology the other day, which collected a lot of the Beat/Black Mountain/San Francisco Renaissance writers. The writing, the personalities, the ideas collectively seem much more vibrant and appealing than anything current that I'm aware of. What are your thoughts on contemporary poetics?
I think poetry as a social medium definitely found more relevance in the Sixties. It is difficult today to set aside a verbal medium that is divorced from common dialect. When it is one-and-the-same with verbal language, who's to separate the two at all and define one as poetry and the other diatribe? On the other hand, written language (if it is not read aloud, or rather only in the proper environment)-still a very relative form of communication (more now than ever with the prevalence of e-mail)-is constantly evolving and is particularly suitable to take on the classification of poetry. There are still very exciting things happening in poetry, but they are, I believe, further than ever divorced from common speech. Poetry cannot be solely beautiful by definition, there should be questions being asked, and those questions should be very much about language, and what language Does to us, and how much it defines thought. The essays of Charles Bernstein (particularly Content's Dream and A Poetics), and contemporaries of his: Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, all produce very challenging work that addresses these concerns. Unfortunately, writing primarily for small presses, many of these poets are still undervalued by universities stuck on a definition of poetry that hasn't changed much since 1969. A person these days can't just slip a metaphor into a sentence to illustrate and substantiate a point like they could in the past, their (metaphors') relevance has been challenged by the modern world, by physics and philosophy, and so a poetry dependent on them must be challenged also. But really, I have no authority to be talking about any of this!While a lot of your lyrics come across as detached observations, or perhaps studies, the song Able Bodies apparently sprang from your involvement in a road accident. Does personal experience often provide inspiration in this way?
The songs are usually derived from a pictorial memory, or from an imagining, a description of the mood in a room or whatever the locale may be. It's all unbeknown to the listener, they're unaware of what is fuelling the song, what I'm commenting on, but that interests me in itself. Ultimately, the songs are a means of comfort. I want them to be functional, but not evasively so. I don't see them as escapism, but rather as a vehicle for incorporating something troublesome, whether it is pacing or boredom or denial, into the day. I think the melancholy aspect in the music comes from an excess of unincorporated thoughts and interests and objections. All that surplus can make a person weary.What would your response be to someone who laments the quality of contemporary lyric writing?
I would lament along with them.Do you write anything other than lyrics?
I've written a handful of stories, poems, fragments, etc. Most recently a story about a botanist whose wife dies. He's confronted with determining whether a lifetime's mental preparation for her death, the acclamation to its image and actuality in his mind over the years, has indeed succeeded in softening the violence of her absence.Are there plans for Spokane to tour abroad?
Jesus, we'd love to come back over, it's something I think about constantly. We played on VPRO in Amsterdam in 2000, and did a show in Bordeaux, but that was on Drunk's ticket for playing the Crossing Border festival. It was all a great experience. It's hard though, without tour support, to risk the financial side of things. I suppose were waiting for interest from a decent booking agent in Europe.Is playing live a primary concern, an integral part of the purpose of Spokane?
I'm not blown away by playing live, I think we're more fitted to quiet homes and bedrooms, etc., there's a lethargy to the music that requires the proper environment to be constructive. That's a difficult thing to find in bars and rock clubs. We're constantly asked by soundmen to "turn up" or "sing louder". Those requests never fail to ruin my night.Does this lead you to view live rock music as hidebound to the 'big dumb Stooges' blueprint?
In the States there seems a definite relation between bars and clubs and loudness, culturally and musically. Larger acts have the luxury of venues that are more equipped to host any number of genres, but bars... well, they seem the Stooges territory still. Ultimately, I think, it comes down to entertainment, to a definition of what leisure time should afford. In a larger context it would seem the majority of Americans prefer to isolate leisure from their daily lives, in other words, they don't want to find difficulties there, at least not difficulties that remain unresolved when the hour's up. When it comes to music, there's little difference.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002