FAQ Animation


How To Be A Singer

Was there a particular instance when the lightbulb went on that you wanted to make a career out of performing?
Nope. I stumbled into the career through accident and circumstance.
In high school I was on a path to pursue a career in micro-biology. I was taking a college-level course. I had an intuitive affinity for it. At the end of my junior year I discovered that if I took an English class over the summer I could graduate from high school a year early. It was, however, too late to apply for college so that school year I audited classes at the college where my father taught. They had a good student paper. I got involved. I became editor within a few months. The next year I went to college. My fellow students seemed to be interested only in drinking and partying. I thought to myself, This is not Real Life. I dropped out after a couple months. I called my folks from the Mississippi. I hitchhiked across America. On my return I got a job doing layout at a weekly entertainment paper called The Scene. Tuesday was layout night. With a bottle of vodka, a handful of exacto-blades, a light table and a waxer I worked from 6pm to 5am. I did great work. Those lines and columns were immaculate. The copy, however, was not. The bad writing and spelling mistakes bugged me. So I would cut up little pieces of print-outs and reconstruct the copy on the wax table. The publisher eventually decided to save us all alot of time and headache by making me copy editor. I started re-writing everyone's copy. The publisher eventually decided to save us all alot of time and headache by making me a writer. I wrote music reviews, did band interviews and wrote the usual puff pieces when bands came into town. I had little initial interest in music but I quickly developed a number of ideas about How Things Should Be. I expressed those ideas forcefully. After a couple years of this I became a minor local "celebrity." Because I was writing so much of the paper I took on a number of aliases. The most popular writing was done as "Crocus Behemoth." One day I had an epiphany. I was interviewing a fellow named Jim Dandy from a band called Black Oak Arkansas at the hip celebrity hotel in town, Swingo's. It hit me like a wall. I could think of no questions that I wanted, or needed, the answers to. I muddled through, went home and thought about it. I decided that if I was so smart I oughta do this music thing myself. So I did. Some of us on the magazine started a band for fun. That band, Rocket From The Tombs, over a short period of time evolved a more serious dedication to being a band. Etc Etc.

What I am wondering is if you have any major influences with regards to your songwriting?
I'm sure I must have but I simply don't remember. One thing I remember was the notion that as a lyric writer I should let the sound and music do as much of the "talking," as much of the narrative, as possible. Much evolved from that notion. Rather than wasting wordage to describe tiresome narrative points I should use the limited time I had as a lyricist working on a 3-minute song to get to more worthy or interesting issues and to develop greater depth and perspective. Tokyo is almost unique in its use of a traditional narrative. Probably the last one I ever did. May have in fact been the only.

What is it, in general, your sense and perception of music?
I don't much like music. I like the sound of music. I don't like musicians and don't like hanging out with them. I don't network and I don't swap ideas. I don't like talking. Ubu and all my bands are organized so that there is no need for talking to each other. I work very hard to achieve this. We can travel all day in the truck without saying a word beyond things like, "I need a toilet stop." But this level of verbosity is usually not necessary. "Toilet" is all that's needed. Robert and Michele, it has to be said, can be chatty but they have the good graces to sit in the very back and keep their voices down.
Pleasant, friendly chit-chat damages your body. It chips away pieces of your life. I learned this from a nurse, a medical professional. She said talking raises blood pressure. Can't be good.
The dawning of wisdom for any singer is a healthy dread of singing. There are people who are in love with the sound of their own voice and evidently believe that their singing can add to others' joy and enlightenment. This is a bad attitude and a "dangerous" one. It feeds ego and self-esteem. It encourages paternalism. Much better that a singer should resent having to do it. Singing is a nasty social habit, like spitting in the street. Sometimes you gotta do it but you oughta be discreet.

It must take a lot of balls to sing in such a profound and unique style. Janov, Arbsurdist theatre, expressionism, cutting edge comedy, anarchy, situationism and all that are threads I link to your vocal style at times. Where has it all come from?
It comes from not having a good natural voice. I don't even have an average voice. Plus I can't tell if one note is pitched higher than another unless the differences are stark, or if there is a spatial frame to the sound I am hearing. I am, in fact, tone deaf. I became the singer because the guitar I bought in order to become the guitarist hurt my fingers playing it. So I thought to myself, "I'll be the singer!" I had never sung, not even in the car driving around.
Over time I became aware that I don't actually hear sound the way others seem to hear it. I can't hold notes in my head and can't imitate them. I can't remember melodies. So I had to figure it out. What I figured out was that music also existed as a spatial and temporal complex so I worked out how to use those elements to communicate a story in a way that had a semblance of musicality. In other words, I found that melody can be derived directly from time and space. I create a phrasing that makes use of those elements, engages the instrumental elements, and it all somehow comes out okay. At least after a couple years of initial trial and error. That was part of my frustration of singing in Rocket From The Tombs - I sang other people's songs which I didn't really understand so I didn't know how to construct them according to my intuitive methods and I knew I often sounded bad. As well I have no method to remember what I sing, i.e. a melody, a pattern of reproducible musical notes. That's one reason why every time I sing a song it varies to a greater or lessor extent. To be able to reproduce a melody I must remember a particular syntax of words at the head of each phrase and I must locate myself in a specific spatial frame. Melody is a function of the mechanics of entering a specific spatial frame according to a specific time reference. The next problem is that at this point, having written something like 300 songs, I have trouble remembering the words. In Ubu you'll often see me turning to the drummer. Steve Mehlman knows all the words and can remember the phrasing of every version of a song I sing during a tour.
So I never approach singing with any interest in melody. In fact vocal harmonies make my flesh crawl - I feel physically unwell. (This is the big joke about the Fontana records that featured alot of vocal harmonies. I perceived those harmonies as violent, aggressive, "nasty" slashes of sound. Meanwhile the critics were asking questions about going for a "commercial" approach. Ha!) I approach singing as a naturalistic, poetic vehicle more than a musical expression. I am interested in mimicking thought processes. I am interested in the voice as an expressive tool, and in music as a skeleton on which to hang the sound of poetic vision. Sound and the sound of musical activity is more important to me and more expressive than the musical activity itself. Musical activity is simply the necessary evil to be endured to achieve the SOUND of musical activity. I sing not notes but scale, perspective and geometry and I manipulate the space of sound, and the sound of space, with my voice. Melody can take too long and can be too simplistic to accurately reflect the human experience. I listen to fine singing and a fine melody and I often find myself thinking, in an exasperated tone, "Get on with it!" But in a few rare individuals all the modes can come together - like Frank Sinatra in the early to mid-50s with the Nelson Riddle arrangements, particularly the "In The Wee Small Hours" album. He was a master of time and melody... plus he had a voice.

You have said that a song must contain three things. What are these three things?
A setting, a statement, and a change of scale / point of view. Or, a verse, a chorus and a bridge.

Can you describe the benefits, restrictions, advantages, disadvantages of working with David Thomas?
I can be hard to work with. I can make excessive demands. I am not talkative. I don't often give positive feedback. You have to be the sort of person who can work in a relative vacuum and yet be atuned to what I PROBABLY want. I can be grumpy. I am capable of willfully throwing away a performance on a petulant whim. That's all on the downside. On the upside I can do things with an audience that the best of the rest wouldn't even dare to dream of. My stage personality is the opposite of my downside qualities; it's the person I want to be. I always seek to go further and take greater risks. If I dodge one bullet I immediately set up a scenario that requires that I dodge TWO bullets. I walk a tightrope over a chasm of bitter despair and mostly I don't fall. That's kind of exciting for my co-workers. You don't get that everyday. Plus maybe they like my singing, too.
People like to work with me because I delegate responsibility. Musicians are granted wide latitude. This is hard for some outsiders to grasp because I have the reputation of being a "control-freak." Nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that I keep a tight rein on the conceptual integrity of a piece of work, as a conductor would, but within that framework I encourage musicians to find their own solutions. For example, if a section of a song is not working I'll pick out the right musician and say, "Fix this. Don't bother me with details. Don't talk to me about it. Talk to the other guys and come up with a solution." The next time we play the song and it still doesn't work I'll ask that person, or others, to rethink the solution. At a certain point I might step in and suggest something concrete. I try not to.

Where did you get the inspiration for your lyrics?
I make them up so I can make new songs so I can make new records so I can get paid so I can make new songs, etc. I love the process. The basic material for the process is the stuff I find at hand. The stuff I find at hand is life and life only.

Do you think of yourself as a poet?
No. Rock music is not naive poetry bolted onto primitive folk rhythms. It was a new form of expression that owed nothing to other media. It serves to express that which is beyond words. It makes use of hieroglyphic language. It is non-linear, non-narrative, non-verbal.

Do you consider yourself a singer-songwriter in the Bob Dylan - Lou Reed - Tom Waits vein?
No. These guys are poets, working with a love of the poetic aesthetic. I hate poetry. Bores the life out of me. They love words. I hate words. They read Pynchon or Faulkner. I read Hemingway. They studied the arts. I studied science. I like to tell stories with as few words as possible and as little intervention as possible. I describe what I see clinically. I want to cram as much information into a 3 minute song as can be done. And that requires using every drop of sound to tell the story as well as the voice as well as words that interact not with emotions or intellect but directly with the hieroglyphic language of the human consciousness.

How has your use of narrative in your lyrics evolved? How are the stories you tell in your songs different now?
I have no idea. I have always tried to do new things, find new solutions to the same old problems that every creative human being has dealt with for thousands of years. How's that for pretentious? I explore different configurations and design my work to take advantage of what is possible. So I work simultaneously in a rock band, in an improvisational trio, in West End straight theater, in a large cast improvisational opera company, in a Simon & Garfunkel-type duo, in a one man show and as a lecturer. Honey, I do it all. Why? To get somewhere worth getting to. The stories I tell are all about the same thing and that thing is you. (What's your name...?)

We are now discussing about the power of art. In a text published by the most important brazilian newspaper, a writer (maybe too academic) said that in the modernity, art and society are separated, are different things. Art belongs much more to museums and catalogues than to the life of people. And even when art has a social or revolutionary element, or if it is shown in workplaces, churches or other public situations, it is still away from reality and has no strength to change the world. Art is not part of the real world, as it was in the past. The question is: is art powerful?
Of course. Art is the attempt at true language. Humans perceive, understand, feel by means of metaphor. Human consciousness, I suggest, is a complex of hieroglyphic sensations that we interpret and can only interpret by means of metaphor and vision. Art is the means to express the non-linear, non-logical nature of consciousness since it's language is the same as the language of the mind: metaphor, sensation & vision.

Pop art is more powerful than academic art?
Good art is more powerful than bad art.

I know you rarely give interviews and our circulation will be small. Why are you helping us, and talking to our readers?
I give interviews whenever people ask. I rarely give interviews because people rarely ask. I answer questions. That's what I do. It's what I get paid for. When the band presents me with a collection of sounds, or musical activity, it poses questions. What does this mean? Why does this sound like that? Etc. I answer the questions. That's what I do for a living. I get paid to answer questions. I used to get paid to ask them (when I was a journalist). I stopped that. "Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison to oneself." If you have to make the choice, prison-ee is what I choose to prison-er. Coed Jail was what we called our first tour.

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