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by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Letís say youíre a manic depressive or something and six months of the year youíre manic, and for six months of the year youíre depressed. Letís say itís split up in, like, one-month blocks - this is hypothetical - and you donít know when itís going to happen. Youíll see about two months of mania, a month of depression, three months of mania, blah, blah, and you donít know whatís going to happen. But youíre writing songs all along. You set up a recording date for three months from now, and you have no idea when you go in whether youíll be in this complete mania or this complete depression, this hypothetical person. Those are two different records. If thereís a parallel universe then, in one of them, heís in a manic phase and interprets his song and then he goes into the other universe, plays in his depressive phase and he interprets his song. Two different records you know, but we can only live with the idea that thereís one. The one you have down, you know. And then, even after that, even after the recordís done, well, there are all the other sequences, you know? The idea for a minute, as a fan, that there could have been this other sequence that was better. It would seem like it was a failure or, like, it hadnít reached its potential.
The same principle applies to the listener, too. The mental and physical environment when you first hear a record colours your future perception of it. There is a multitude of variables.
Which may affect whether youíll ever hear it again. And the second time it couldíve been something that really, you know, changed you. If music can change somebody.
Obviously your lyrics are the primary focus of your records, but American Waterís instrumentation is much more of a factor than your previous material. Did you set out to prove youíre a musician as well as a poet?
Definitely, yeah. We even had an instrumental break. I didnít know that was going to happen. So you didnít go into the studio with a plan? No, it was only because the band was so good you know? And we practised a lot. We practised for eight straight days, three hours a day, and the songs Ö I was like, this isnít going to be one of those records where the music is a pedestal for the singing. Thereís other things in here and letís let them happen. Iím happy with that.
Certainly with The Natural Bridge you were lumped in with many others among the alt.country genre that sprung up, or was invented. American Water is less easy to categorise. Was this a direct reaction to being pigeonholed or would this record have turned out the same regardless?
I donít think we have to do that, especially because people donít think of us that way in the States. Iím not saying that I wouldnít react to a pigeonhole Ö I would, Iím not above that. But, in this case, it wasnít that at all. If it sounds good itís going to go in that direction. Before it all happens, thereís just the songs. Just put the people in the room and see what they do with them. I want them to write their own parts. I mean, Iíll guide them, like ĎI want you to play this piano like itís your first day back after a 12 month term in Vietnam. And youíre broken and youíre shattered.í Thatís the only way I can talk, you know? There was a big screen TV in the studio, right where we were playing. Iíd put on different things and pick a channel for the song that seemed like it was going to give it the properÖpush.
Would your lyrics adapt in the studio, depending on musical mood shifts?
Yeah, you tinker when youíre in the studio. We were doing Send In The Clouds and thereís a line ĎSeventeen doctors couldnít decide whether I should be allowed in the gameí. We were doing a take and Steve [Malkmus] is trying to fuck with me and he kept singing Ďgimeí like in a Jagger way, or something. And these verses I want us to sing exactly together, [heís] going to be a little lower in the mix, but I want us to be singing the same words at the same times, in total sequence. So we have to decide whether itís going to be Ďgameí or Ďgimeí. And we sat there for twenty minutes talking about it and then, finally, have us swayed into Ďgimeí. Some days I wish Iíd said Ďgameí.
In the fickle world of music, do you expect a similar level of praise for American Water as you received for The Natural Bridge, which was very well received?
Not in the US.
It wasnít? Sorry.
No, itís a good question. I think more people could like this record, but the people who liked the last record really, really liked the record with intensity. You can get closer to that record than this one. This one is more distant, and this record has an awareness of an audienceÖan awareness of the imminence of the audience that the last record didnít have. The last record was recorded under such stressful conditions andÖso damaged that I couldnít even get to a point where I imagined it would ever be heard, you know? I was just trying to get through the process. The trade-off is that thereís a carefreeness to the presentation on the new record. Thereís less singular presence of a single person. This is obviously the work of a unit of people, a group of people. So thereís a watering down of a singularity of vision. Itís a rock record, and the last one wasnít. And thatís the difference. In the sense that a record recorded in a lonely situation like the last one, where it was just me and God in a recording studio, probably found its best listeners in people who are listening to it alone. A record thatís recorded in a situation where everyone was having a good time would most likely be listened to in a room with maybe two or three people. [American Water is] really more the sound of a community.
You are quoted as saying ďIíd like to write songs that are musically more complex and lyrically simpler.Ē Do you mean more complex in terms of time signature, or more layered?
Just more things going on, more things to listen to. Iím not interested in making the music avant-garde. Iím not at all. When you feel like youíre, technically, not a very good singer you must overcompensate for it with content. I think thatís why Bob Dylan or Lou Reed went towards the literary because they had to play their angle.
When you sang ďAll my favourite singers couldnít singĒ on We Are Real were you referring to them?
Itís a reference to that. Also itís a statement and a plea. A plea for people to understand that in the past and in the future it will always be so. That the confines and the perimeters and the definitions of what singing is, what painting is, whatever, always change. And for a long time theyíve widened. Whatís happened because of the widening is that people who would have been lost to us, like Willie Nelson for instance, havenít been. But they could be. Itís a reminder to people. Letís take the quotes off Ďsingingí, thatís all.
On Blue Arrangements you sing ďSometimes I feel like Iím watching the world and the world is watching me backĒ. Assuming this is autobiographical, do you feel more like an observer than a participant?
That was something I actually considered revising. It was actually hard to write that and sing that because it seemed so self-pitying. Iím very down on self-pity. I had a tough time singing that but it was honest to the character of the song. Did you ever see that movie Breaking Away? Cycling movie? It was supposed to be like that, this poor kid sees this society girlÖI would never say anything like that. I would think something like that but I would never say it out loud. But Iím a real social person and I would even go so far as to push myself on people. Like last night I was in a bar - a pub - and there were two girls sitting at a table. Iíll go up to any woman in the world and start talking to her. And I just sat down and said ĎHi, Iím Davidí. Thatís not the English way, but Iíll definitely intrude. There was a certain time in my life, probably a formative period, where I was only an observer. I was fifteen years old and then I was ready. But I think I was a late bloomer, always one of those people who watches, learns and then enters the game.
So, Ďwhy canít monsters get along with other monstersí?
I think thatís about me and Steve beingÖfor each other probably the only person in their life who is aware ofÖwe both admit to each other our faults and flaws and the damage that we do to other people in situations. And, in a way, itís a bond between us and, in another way, it causes friction too. We fight and he wonít be my employee and I wonít be his.
After The Natural Bridge, is it fair to assume that Silver Jews is no longer seen as a Pavement side-project?
Yeah, itís not an issue for me anymore, and itís really funny. It used to bug me. I think Iím really cognisant of the fact, I think a lot of people are too. Iím not the only one that thought about it. It seems pretty clear to me that Silver Jews will still be around when Pavement has self-destructed. [Silver Jews] is so low key and it asks so little of people and it doesnít demand attention and it doesnít insist on being bought and it doesnít get in peopleís faces. Only to ensure its survival, you know. Itís very camouflaged. In that way itís protected.
You donít play live. Have you ever thought of interspersing a music set with poetry readings? Or you could be your own support act.
I feel like there has to be new ways of presenting music live. I was talking with my friend Will the other night about turning it into a lecture. Like, youíd play a couple of songs and then talk about writing it. Bring something new to the song besides the fact that, okay, Iím going to play a different solo or Iím going to sing different words in the second verse. What you bring new to the song is information. You could even have some kind of transparency [projection] or graph things on a chalkboard or something like that.
Youíve somewhat bizarrely suggested an interest in working with, at different times, Dave Matthews and Extreme Noise Terror. Assuming this isnít a way of amusing yourself during interviews, whoís next on your wish list?
[long pause] I would love to record with Siouxsie Sioux. I donít even like her singing or anything that much, but I find her a fascinating icon or something. I had a dream about her. I got here yesterday and immediately took a nap. I fell asleep and in the dream Laurence [of Domino] put me in a room with a microphone and her. There were just like these two drums - that was all that was in there and he wanted us to record. He locked us in there and Ö she was, like, bending over Ö she looked really sexy and really good - I donít find her sexy or attractive in real life, but in the dream she was really, really hot. Sheís bending over to get a drum, and I come over and put my hand on her ass and, like, she got really upset. She was like ĎWeíve got work to do. This isnít what this is about, weíve gotta record.í And so we recorded these tracks and she took the record home and listened to it and within the work she could feel that there was a sexual energy. And she comes back and sheís, like, ĎIím taking you to my estate!í And Laurence is, like, ĎNo! He has work to do, we have things we have to do here. You canít take him away.í And sheís, like, ĎBug off! This is more important than any work, this is going to be a great romance.í And the next thing I know, I woke up. And, in my sleep, I had punched the wall as hard as I could and my hand was sore and thereís a dent in the wall. I donít know why, I wasnít angry in the dream or anything. It was some release or something. So, Siouxsie Sioux, yes.
Any new stories about Jackson [Davidís dog]?
Yes, I have one Ö well, I broke up with my girlfriend of many years and we agreed that she should have custody. So, I havenít seen the little fella in three months. But I am going to see him at Christmas. Heís doing well, you know. I call him once or twice a week, and my girlfriend - or ex-girlfriend - puts him on the phone and I talk to him for a little bit. Apparently he spends several hours a day staring out the window, waiting for me to come home.
Yeah. Itís nice to be loved.
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue