I finally got equipment which has allowed me to go back to my old tapes and really remaster them. All that means in my case is getting proper compression and EQ, because I don’t generally go in for a lot of effects. But the masters I had really didn’t sound that great, and I’ve never been “lo-fi” as a matter of principle. I’m not an audiophile, but I want things to sound their best, especially when it’s my stuff. So my old stuff needed a remaster from that perspective.
Also, I wanted to have these things available in the form I imagined them in the first place. Over the years, I tried to do things with more ostensibly professional or conventional packaging, and in hindsight I never should have bothered. I’ve never been a candidate for mass-appeal, and whatever good I had to offer was always idiosyncratic. So the cassette (or CD-R) and booklet packaging really works for my stuff. Among other things, people like to have the lyrics to read, which you can’t really do effectively with a j-card. And for me, I’d always liked liner notes.
There is a lot of intricate, detail-laden storytelling in your music, one song on this record that stands out to me is The Czech Philologist. Whats the larger story behind this one?
I’d gone to school and studied a lot of Soviet history, and in that context became interested in first Russian and then other Eastern European literatures. I went through a major Czech lit phase a few years before I wrote this tune. I also, probably because of when I was born, in 1969, had always been very interested in 1968. I was reading a lot of New Left, so-called, writers at the time. All this, and when I was in grad school I heard so much talk about the publish-or-perish issue and I’d known people who’d gone down professionally because of it.
So that’s what was circling around in my head when I wrote the tune. It developed into this story about an untenured and we imagine fairly untalented lecturer who lucked into discovering some manuscript which, when published, should have gotten him tenure. But his cat wrecked it—the man remained a screw-up. This takes place at the end of the Prague Spring, and the lecturer is so upset at the cat that he breaks the curfew looking for it and, of course, is lucky not to get killed by the Red Army guard. He swears vengeance on the cat.
This is a good example of something I do, which is that I’ve got a lot of stuff going around in my head, and I have some internal sense that no matter how disparate the various ideas in my head are, there must be come kind of narrative context that can contain them, if only I can find it. Writing the song is the breaking through to that context. When it works, it’s really good.
Your lyrical approach is very traditional, and appears to utilize meter and rhyme prominently. What influences led you to that style? Did these lyrics begin as poetry?
I grew up on Johnny Cash and The Beatles and as I got older developed deep love for both jazz and traditional folk musics, especially US folk music, the likes of which my Dad used to sing me on his guitar when I was a kid. The literary quality of the lyrics in jazz standards—the Great American Songbook, as they call it—is massive, much higher than most of what passes for literate pop or singer-songwriter stuff. And the lyrics in traditional song are impeccable. I love a lot of different kinds of music, but those sources are the ones that made me.
I don’t precisely use meter. What I do is use melody. The lyrics are going to need to work with a melody, but the melody doesn’t need to conform to a meter in a poetic sense. You can use more or fewer syllables in one line of a lyric as long as those syllables can conform to the form of the melody in the song.
The thing with form of any kind in art is that it can either be constricting or it can be liberating. Neither one is good or bad in itself. This is true of poetic meter, a song form, or rhyme.
Rhyme is a great example. On the one hand, you can look at it like a requirement—the word at the end of this line has to rhyme with the word at the end of that one. That’s constricting. But rhyme can break you out of your habitual patterns, especially if you’ve got a good vocabulary. You wrote one line, and then you have to think of all the words that rhyme with the word at the end of the line you just wrote. Those words, from all over the map, will send you places in your writing that you didn’t expect to go and wouldn’t have gone if left to your own devices.
“The Czech Philologist” is a great example. I remember that I’d wanted to know the name of a Czech university and I looked it up. Olomuc came up, and I knew how to pronounce the “c” because I understood how Czech used the Roman alphabet with Slavic sounds. So it made me think of all the words I could think of that ended in the sound “-oots.” Shoots, flutes, cahoots, boots. Given the context “boots” was obviously the right way to go, and “boots” immediately suggested “jackboots.” The rhyme freed me from imagining I knew where I was going and let me go somewhere I hadn’t expected. That’s a good use of rhyme, that’s liberating form.
The other thing, though, is that when you have a general use of rhyme in a tune you can choose to not use a rhyme where a listener might expect one. The effect is jarring and powerful, and causes a person to notice. You’ll see this kind of thing fairly often in my tunes, though not in that one.
It’s worth noting that even though people talk about “free jazz,” etc., that none of those great musicians felt that that term described what they were doing. There are a few people who can consistently make interesting music with little or no structure, but for nearly everyone, what people do when they have no form or no constraints is that they stick to what they already know. Some people take it the other way and are basically aesthetically fascist. For me that was never going to be a problem. I was always prone to chaos—interesting. In my case, I never found artistic freedom until I really found a way to work with form and make it my own.