Jay Farrar (center) and Son Volt
Yes! It won’t be a regular feature around here simply because I don’t have time to do these interviews much these days, given my job, plus child rearing, plus need for sleep. But now and then it will pop up and it will be totally sweet. Get it? OK then.
It’s been three years since I connected with Jay Farrar. Last time we, uh, chatted, it was right when the aural assault of “Okemah & The Melody Of Riot” was released. Son Volt have since released “The Search” in 2007 and are on the cusp of another release, called “American Central Dust.” The new album, which I hadn’t heard at the time of this interview is a return to plainclothes approach Son Volt’s intial records showcased. Farrar speaks about some of the specifics below, but it would be unfair to compare this new album to any of the previous 2 or 3. I have since received the album and I can tell you it is quite, quite good. It reminds me of an interview I read with Mark Sandman once, who explained that he loved to cook and did a lot of experimentation with sauces, but his favorite was still the plain old tomato sauce recipe. Elegantly simple. That’s what I think about when I hear “American Central Dust.”
My latest exploration with Farrar is below. There is reference in this interview to the past ones, so for your sake, I will post links to the first two interviews first, then you can read the new one. As usual, big, big thanks to Jay for accomodating my, um, interview style.
Interview #1 (September 10, 2004)
Interview #2 (March 26, 2006)
aaaand here we go……
1. Last time we “talked” we said we’d do it again in a year-and-a-half. That was three years ago. Sorry about that. I went and had twin boys. That shit is hard, man! Back then you said your kids mostly would rather listen to Blues Clues instead of your music. What are your kids listening to these days? Do they actually prefer specific parts/eras of your music yet?
Green Day, All American Rejects and My Chemical Romance—-all bands my kids have been listening to lately. There was a period when they said “Terroir Blues” was their favorite which I thought was strange yet appreciated since that record always gets relegated to the bottom of the pile.
2. I had a lot of different reactions when I heard that the new Son Volt album was coming out on Rounder (July 7). I worked there for quite a few years in the 1990s. I think about record labels a lot given the music business environment and it’s my belief that many artists can and should just release their own stuff. Of course, I understand WHY artists still want a label (resources, etc), but I’m curious to hear if you’ve ever thought of truly going it alone and why you decided to go with a label again.
“Terroir Blues” and “Stone , Steel and Bright Lights” were examples of self released recordings( Transmit Sound). The Grateful Dead said years ago that they stopped putting out their own records because they didn’t want to carry around briefcases all day. I’ve found that it’s good to have clearly defined distribution of duties. Sticking to the creative side is best while letting the resources and experience of the label do what they do. With that said, it’s almost inevitable that Transmit Sound will come into play down the line.
3. Gob Iron. I really loved that stuff. Went out to the Boston show with my pregnant wife when you guys came through, but we had to leave early because she wasn’t feeling well. I just want to confirm that you’ll come by my house and finish the part of the show I missed next time you’re in Boston? It was only like 45 minutes. That said, is there new Gob Iron stuff in the works? Why isn’t Anders Parker universally adored?
Anders Parker and I have been working on a project that hopefully will see the light of day in 2010.
4. I see that you had a talk with Spinner.com. The headline I saw was “Son Volt’s Jay Farrar Inspired By Keith Richards Drug Habits.” Come on, now! I picture you at home or in the studio, looking for inspiration to write a song – and then suddenly a wave of admiration for Keith because of his excessive and astounding drug use. That’s exactly how it went, right? Media headlines always nail it.
I was inspired by Keith’s honesty—not to mention all the music he has given the world.
5. OK, so I haven’t heard the new album yet. Do you want to tell me a little about it, did you do anything materially different in the process, were the songs inspired by anything in particular, the way, for example, Okemah was inspired by the events of the times? Yes, it’s the question you get in every interview.
The recording process was fundamentally the same as all other SV records with the emphasis on trying to capture the chemistry of playing live wherever possible while adding overdubs whenever it seemed beneficial. The idea going in to this recording was to make a more focused record than “The Search.” One way to try to achieve that was that I only played acoustic guitar and piano (no electric guitar).
6. Here’s the question you’ll NEVER get in an interview (yes, a riddle): where can you put a bookbag on the floor where nobody will be able to jump over it?
Let me know—I’ve been backpack jumping for years.
7. Do you have an IPod? Mind sharing the last five songs that you played (assuming it was on shuffle)?
“False Hearted Lover”(Levon Helm), “Tipitina” (Professor Longhair), “I’m Not That Kat Anymore” (Doug Sahm), “A Thanksgiving Prayer” ( William S. Burroughs), “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” (Bob Dylan)
8. I came across an old promotional CD for Paste Magazine a few years ago and found an Uncle Tupelo song called “Left in the Dark” that I had – unbelievably – never heard before. Hard to believe a song that good didn’t make its way onto any full-length – do you remember which sessions this song was from?
It was a good song written by the Vertebrats.
9. I am scared shitless of two things: bees and roller-coasters. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of me?
Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic vision in “The Road” was unsettling.
10. Has a particular book ever changed your life or made you materially change something about yourself?
Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road” tipped the scale for music as a way of life for me.
11. I know you have some level of fondness for old institutions, so I need to ask about General Motors. Is there a certain sadness to their plight, or do you think of it as yet another piece of mind-numbing news in our country? What do you drive?
I tend to filter everything through a historical perspective–it was only about 100 years ago or less when big business leaders were either xenophobes or cozy enough with politicians to have striking workers shot by the National Guard in the good old U S of A. Overall…optimistic…
OK, so this is the first Item Five I’ve done where someone else actually hooked me up with the interviewee. Typically I like to seek them out myself and typically they’ve done something such as create an album or write a book that caused me to seek the person out and interview them, but this one was too good to let off the hook, really.
Len Kasper is the play-by-play guy TV commentator for the Chicago Cubs. That’s right, a bonafide STAH! Right here on the Robot! Thanks to my friend and ex-blogger Matt Hickey, I was able to interview Len and ask him some questions about baseball and music. You know, you always picture these pro sports broadcasters as dudes who really only listen to Jimmy Buffet or maybe, if you’re lucky, U2. Len, however, appears to have impeccable taste in music, which is why Matt thought it might be a fun interview. And it was!
Without further ado, say hello to Len Kasper, the coolest baseball broadcaster in the world.
1. This is the probably the only question I’ll ask that tons of people have asked you previously – how did you get to be the TV play-by-play guy for the Cubs?
I was the TV play-by-play announcer with the Florida Marlins and I applied for the Cubs job when it opened after the 2004 season. I didn’t really think I had a realistic shot at it because it was, in my opinion, the #1 job in the business and I figured some pretty big names would apply. I found out early, to my surprise, that I was someone they liked. I got an interview and after Dave O’Brien (whom I replaced in Florida in 2002 when he left for ESPN) wasn’t allowed out of his ESPN contract, I was offered the job and accepted very quickly. One of the other finalists, Matt Vasgersian, is also a good friend who worked in Milwaukee years ago and helped give me my first chance to do TV play-by-play by doing some national games, which freed up some Brewers games for me. So, it was definitely an interesting process involving some people I know and respect very, very much. I don’t know how I got it, but I’m not giving it back! It is truly the best job I could ever have imagined, in every way.
2. Despite most people thinking that baseball players are overpaid babies, I’ve always contended that their brutal travel schedules and seemingly endless stretch of work from February through October somewhat justifies higher salaries than some other professions. Thoughts?
First off, I never hold it against people for making a lot of money. We’re in a free market society and the going rate for a big league player is pretty high and I know that everyone who criticizes them would gladly take their salary. All you can do in any job is work as hard as you can to be the best you can be and hope to take care of your family. It’s a job. Granted, it’s an amazing job to be able to play baseball for a living, but somebody has to do it!
3. Along the lines of #2, you virtually do the same amount of traveling as the major leaguers, so maybe you can tell people first hand what that schedule is like, being away from the family so much (especially after two full MLB baseball seasons and the “newness” of it all wearing off).
The ONLY negative to the job is being away from my family. The travel itself isn’t bad. We get to stay in really nice hotels, fly on chartered planes and our luggage always shows up at our hotel room. I will never complain about that. I love seeing all the cities in baseball as well. But being away from home for 10 days at a time isn’t easy on families. The payoff though is in the winter when I’m at home virtually 24 hours a day.
4. You were with the Marlins in ’03 when they won the World Series. National TV was covering that, but did you get to call the game or be involved with it other than as a spectator?
I helped out on Marlins radio throughout the post-season and attended every game, including all seven games vs. the Cubs. It was quite a ride.
5. At one point in my life, I aspired to be you. Not you specifically, but doing what you’re doing. I did play-by-play for a CCHA hockey team for a couple of years, worked a couple of gopher boy assignments for CBS Sports, including a sweet stint at the World Series in 92-93 when the Blue Jays were winning the World Series (I was on the field when Carter hit that home run!!). At the age of 21, it seemed like a glorious life. When I actually did it, it didn’t seem so glamorous. What is the most UNgloroius part of your job?
That’s a good question. I guess I would just say that for me, I love every part of it. I really enjoy being at the ballpark every day and doing research on players and teams and the history of the game. But I’ve had a few people who don’t really know what I do assume that I just show up a few minutes before the first pitch and then leave the minute the game ends. They think I work three hours a day! The reality is, for me, it’s a lifetime commitment. I’m on-line every single day of the year reading about baseball and I’m at the park for a good seven hours on gameday. It’s not necessarily UNglorious, as you put it, but it IS a job and I take it very, very seriously.
6. Do you ever quote obscure music lyrics during the baseball broadcasts? I always thought it would be awesome to hear a play-by-play guy somehow associate Big Star, Sloan or Television with a play that occured on the field. Like, you’d smile to yourself after you said it and think to yourself “4 people just understood what I said.” Ever do that or consider doing it?
Oh sure, we’ve done that a few times. My partner Bob Brenly is REALLY hip and is into great music and independent movies. We’ve quoted Waiting For Guffman before. I’m pretty sure we’ve dropped in there “What happened?” from another Christopher Guest movie (I think it was Mighty Wind). I try to be current and reach as many people as we can with our humor, but occasionally, my indy movie and music tastes will creep in. Way back when I was doing a high school football game involving a team called the Monroe Cheesemakers. I opened the broadcast with this: “In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it was declared, ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ and such is the case with the Monroe football team.” I thought that was the best line I’ve ever used. And probably nobody got it.
7. Are you originally a Cubs fan?
I grew up in Michigan and was a Tigers fan as a kid. My hero was Ernie Harwell, the longtime Tigers’ radio announcer. On the field, it was Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and that early-’80s club. What a thrill for me when I heard Trammell was hired this year to be the Cubs’ bench coach! Alan might be the nicest human being I’ve ever met (next to Ernie).
8. A little bird told me that you recently got up on stage and sung a few cover tunes at a local benefit. Tell me more!
Well, Bob Brenly and I hosted a charity concert at the House of Blues Chicago and we had an awesome lineup: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals headlining with The Redwalls as the opener. The thing sold out in a couple hours. All the organizers of the event kept prodding Bob and me to do a couple covers in the middle of the show. So after awhile, I threw up my hands and said, “OK, but if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.” So, I recruited a great power pop band from Milwaukee, STaLL (made up of some good friends of mine) and we mapped out a plan. Bob played guitar and I sang (with STaLL on guitar, bass and drums) and we did “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Summertime Blues.” I thought it went over pretty well. A few missed notes, but the vibe was there and people (hopefully) appreciated the effort. We figured we didn’t have to be good, we just had to be brave and we pulled it off! No backing tracks or any trickery, just good old-fashioned rock and roll. In fact, after we played a brief clip of our performance on a WGN spring training broadcast, I received a very nice letter from Johnny Cash’s long-time manager, who was so impressed with our take on “Folsom” that he sent me a Johnny Cash best of CD collection. Maybe he was hinting, “This is how it’s supposed to sound!” At any rate, he also said he was a long-time Cubs fan and had gone to Wrigley for the first time in 1937. Cubs fans are everywhere!
9. I love when wacky baseball shit happens. For example, remember when Chan Ho Park was pitching for the Dodgers and someone charged the mound? He jumped up and did a karate kick for the ages. Hilarious. Of course, there’s the AMAZING tantrum thrown by Pirates coach Lloyd McLendon when he literally stole a base while arguing a call. So many funny things – what’s the funniest baseball moment you’ve broadcast?
In Florida once, there was a beehive in the stands, so they cordoned off an entire section and literally called a bee expert to come in and remove the hive. But the best part was, he showed up DURING the game to do it. So, while we’re trying to broadcast an Expos-Marlins tilt, we’re also doing play-by-play of the “Bee Man” trying to remove the hive. Now that I look back on it, we really should have won an award for that broadcast. It was surreal.
10. Do you think Kerry Wood and Mark Prior need to be placed into the “ghosts of Cubs past” category?
Wow, I knew Wood and Prior would come up. You know, on a personal level, I like both guys so much, I really hope they come back and resume their careers as Cubs. As a realist, I just don’t know if/when that will happen. They’ve both had a tough time staying healthy the last few years and neither is healthy at the moment. It’s really a shame.
11. Would you rather see the Cubs win the World Series or Tommy Keene in the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame?
Don’t do that to me! That’s not fair…I have to go with the Cubs on that one, but let me say this about Tommy: he’s objectively one of the most talented singer/songwriters not only in the history of his genre but in rock and roll history. I defy ANYONE with any appreciation for good music to listen to his entire catalog and tell me that the guy doesn’t write magnificent pop songs. He’s the most criminally overlooked musician I’ve ever heard. And I’ll also come clean, I’ve been around Tommy on several occasions and you won’t find a more humble, classy person in the business. But that’s NOT why I love his music. I love it because it’s just really, really good.
12. What have you been listening to lately for music?
Oh, I float around a lot. I would say the new Apples In Stereo (I saw them live in February and they totally rocked), Secret Machines (saw them too last fall), the new Figgs record (another overlooked band that’s been grinding for years), Reigning Sound, The Paybacks (those two bands give me a good dose of razor-blades-in-the-throat vocals…Greg Cartwright the male edition, Wendy Case the female version), The Dirtbombs, You Am I, The Handcuffs and Hold Steady. The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre are never too far away. And I can’t finish the interview without mentioning The Romantics, whom I’ve seen live about 25 times. They’re still kicking out some great bluesy power pop and I heard a rumor they may soon be putting out a follow-up to their excellent record from a few years ago, 61/49. I’ll believe it when I hear it. They went 18 years between full-lengths the last time around. And a quick plug for anything Dom Mariani (the Australian garage rock/power pop legend) is involved in. I have virtually everything he’s ever recorded, from The Stems to The Someloves to DM3. I could ask 100 fairly well-educated music fans about him and MAYBE one person would go, “Oh yeah, I vaguely recall that name.” Unbelievable…
13. What’s the last thing you laughed really hard at?
The most recent episode of The Office. I laugh REALLY hard at that show on a consistent basis.
14. Why don’t you ask me a question?
I have two: 1) Have you ever heard of Dom Mariani? 2) Were you good at hockey play-by-play?
JEFF ANSWERS: No, haven’t heard of Mariani. I still have all my old CCHA tapes and I bust them out occasionally. In listening to them, I hear a 20 year old kid sharpening his skills. The early stuff is rather horrific. By the time I was in my third year, I felt pretty good about what I was doing. I think I sent a couple of demos out when I was done, but by then I sort of knew I was going in a different direction.
15. I once spoke to a friend of Scott Hatteberg’s and he told me that Scott was a HUGE music fan and liked a lot of the same stuff I do. Are there any baseball players you’re aware of with awesome musical taste?
Yes, my broadcast partner, Bob Brenly is one. He’s really into good stuff and will always give a new band a try, which I totally appreciate. To be honest, I’m more set in my ways as far as my musical tastes than he is. Of the current big leaguers, Will Ohman (Cubs left-handed reliever) is off the charts crazy into good stuff. Sometimes it’s hard for me to walk through the clubhouse without Will mentioning a new band or song he’s heard and likes.
Major league thanks to Len!
You know, this whole interviewing my family thing is kinda fun. I’m considering expanding the scope to include extended family as well. This could be fun. Of course, if you don’t know anyone in my family (and most of you don’t), it’s probably a little less interesting, but like I always say, that’s the way it goes. It’s my blog. You’re more than welcome to start your own.
My sister (Cari-Lynn) completes the family interview trifecta today. She’s a year-and-a-half older than me – born in August of 1969. Applying no revisionist history, I can tell you that my sister and I got along pretty well. There were the inevitable dust-ups between the two of us that happen with all siblings, but by-and-large, they were minor and we were probably better than average when it came to getting along.
Both of us had non-standard upbringings to a degree, but hers was much more askew than mine because she was a very competitive figure skater. I don’t just mean competitions on weekends, either – we’re talking about not attending school full time, skating in the morning AND the afternoon nearly every day AND competitions on weekends. This required a lot of sacrifice on her part and also sacrifices for the rest of us. In fact, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I was getting up by myself for school every day and getting ready, because my dad and sister were off at the rink and my mother was off at work. Weird! There was that one day I missed the bus in the morning, too, because I reached a new level on Defender (Atari 2600!). Good times.
Anyway, through all that stuff and much more, we’ve come through relatively normal. She now lives in Brookline, NH with her husband and two kiddos and they’re all doing well. She’s a teacher’s assistant and a hard-working mother. Good for her. She’s also rather funny when she’s drunk, as we all found out one new years eve about ten years ago. That might be the only time I’ve seen her remotely intoxicated……..you can be sure she was sober when she answered the following questions………
1. Mom claims you tried to kill me when I was first born and brought home. Shaken baby syndrome. Are you ever going to finally apologize for that?
No no…that is not how it was told to me! I wanted her to take you back to the hospital for a better product (meaning I wanted another baby from the nursery). But, she didn’t listen to me and we had to keep ya!
2. What is your earliest childhood memory?
You won’t remember this, because you were two. I remember being in the house in Sterling, MA, hanging out with you and Dad in the garage while he was tinkering around with something and me being deathly afraid of a CLOWN PICTURE that mom put up. It totally freaked me out at age 4. (Jeff note: Mom? A clown picture? Care to comment?)
3. Do you ever brag about the fact that you’re one of very few people that has beaten Nancy Kerrigan in figure skating competitions?
No, I don’t go around bragging about it. I like to mention it to people when they think she is “all that.” I am not a big fan of hers for obvious reasons, but, in the long run, she got to the Olympics and yours truly did not.
4. Tell me something you remember that happened in grade school.
Oh my gosh…there are so many memories to tell. I will always remember 6th grade because one of my classmate, Paul Hanna, of whom I was friends with, passed away from a freak accident involving a gun. That was really sobering at age 11.
5. Did you really like that day bed that you had for a while? I have to say, that was one thing of yours that I didn’t like. What was one thing of mine that you didn’t like?
Yes…at first. I begged mom and dad for that!! Once I got it, I found out slowly but surely, it was not very comfortable. That was my girlie girl stage in life. Something that you had which I didn’t like: I was not fond of your apartment at Northeastern U (Boston) with the mice and roaches. Yuck!
6. What do you think was the dumbest/stupidist thing I did while growing up?
There were so MANY when you were in middle school and high school that I can’t choose just one! When you were a little kid, you were always putting small things up your nose!! I remember we almost had to bring you to the hospital because you had a button stuck up there. Mom was trying to get it out with tweezers and you were very afraid. I just remember staring at you and, in my 5 or 6 year old way, shaking my head in disbelief. [Jeff note: I actually remember this!]
7. Did you ever get to drive Mom’s Mazda?
You know, I don’t remember. I am sure that I did because I can feel the fear of God creeping up on me!
8. Tell us something crazy/goofy you did in college.
On Halloween night in 1990, my dorm friends and I dressed up in ridiculous costumes and went trick or treating in the suburban neighborhoods. They were quite annoyed with my friends, but when they saw me, it was okay. People thought that my “older sisters” were taking me out to get candy!!!! We laughed a lot that night.
9. What was the last thing you laughed really hard about?
I laugh a lot with my 5th and 6th graders at school. They are so silly sometimes!! I love comedies on TV and movies. The last time I laughed really hard was at Demetri Martin’s stand up special on Comedy Central. I also laughed a lot when I watched Dane Cook’s HBO special as well. I was barely breathing!!
10. What do you remember about me from my college days?
I remember your mullet hair-do!! Hee Hee! But mostly I remember how your love of music was blossoming. You were always going to see shows at little dives (seeing bands that are now playing stadiums) and telling me about the one dollar beer nights at the “college bar.” I remember that I was overly worried about you “way out” in Ohio, especially the night you called from your dorm room while there was a raging lunatic with a gun shooting randomly around your building!! God, that was freaking scary. [Jeff note: heh. By the way, it was “nickel beer” night……goodness. Beers for a nickel, that’s just wrong on so many levels.]
11. What is your favorite part about being a mother? Least favorite?
My favorite part about being a mom: the absolute joy I feel when my kiddos do something they are proud of. You can’t beat that. My least favorite part about being a mom: lack of sleep and time to myself
12. Complete this sentence: “If it wasn’t for my brother Jeff, I would be ________________.
If it wasn’t for my brother Jeff, I would be TOTALLY LOST. I am so forever grateful that you are my brother and close friend.. There are so many times you pulled me out of a bad place and helped me out. I would not be the person I am now if you were not in the picture. Thanks! [Jeff note: um….wow. I wasn’t expecting that. Thanks.]
13. Have you used that saucepan I got you for Christmas yet?
Yes, I have, thank you very much! Do you know what? Dave has washed it every time, too! (Yes, one time so far, but that counts as “every time” ~ Dave)
14. Do you think more about the past or the future?
I think about both equally. Some of the past memories are fantastic to re-live in my head (like figure skating and our “lively” family events) but others I wouldn’t want anyone to live through. The future is so cool to think about when you have little kids. I always wonder what they are going to be like in high school, or what they are going choose as their professions. I also like to think about how Dave and I are going to be golfing all year round, retired and happy.
Thanks to Cari for being a good sport, even if she did try to kill me.
Well, since it’s so much easier to get your family to respond to interviews than authors and musicians, Item Five returns today. Today’s victim is my dad. He’s got a good story which I’ll get to in a minute. I remember when I was around ten years old I found his high school yearbook in a closet of our house and I started leafing through it. Each of the students from the 1964 class at Clinton High had a small blurb written about them. When I found his picture, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the blurb. I wish I had it here so I could type it verbatim, but it was along the lines of “good looking Dean can always be seen walking the halls at an extremely leisurely pace.” (Dad, if you have this somewhere, it might be a good idea to post the actual blurb in a comment, because it’s awesome).
He was born in 1946, the first year of the baby boomers, and grew up in Massachusetts his entire life. After his time in the army, he was a mechanic and then managed an ice arena. After that, somewhere in 80-81, he joined the computer company NEC and spent almost 20 years there in the corporate world. He and my mom moved up to New Hampshire when my dad got a job up there, but he, much like a lot of people when the bubble burst, got downsized rather quickly. Now, for the past couple of years, he’s back in the rink business, managing the Ice Den Arena in Hooksett, NH, a pretty new facility with some of the best ice you’ll find. It truly warms my heart to know that my dad is happy doing what he does for a living. That is so important. I wish he’d work less hours……but I digress.
Anyway, dad is a pretty laid back guy. Except when he yells at the dogs (and they usually deserve it). Funny thing, too: all my life when I play hockey I could never hear anybody in the crowd who was watching or yelling. Anyone whose ever played sports probably knows this feeling – you’re so focused on what’s going on that everything else in that environment is silent. When the whistle blows, you can hear stuff, but when the game is on – silence. Except for one voice – my dad’s. I could always hear him. A lot of the time, especially if I was dogging it, it was a simple word like “SKATE!” Funny, huh?
By the way, my parents, thankfully, never were the types to push me, punish me for playing bad, or MAKE me play any sports I didn’t want to play. They gave up a LOT for both me and my sister (a very competitive figure skater) and to that we owe them a debt of positively immeasurable gratitude. You don’t really realize this until you’re much older and think back to how many freezing cold 6:50am youth hockey games they woke up for and drove me to. Those times and the figure skating competitions are some of the most amazing memories of childhood one can have.
Say hello to dad……
1. What is your earliest childhood memory?
About age 4 on Florence St. in Jamaica Plain, MA. I was playing and fell into a thorn bush and got a thorn stuck in the palm of my hand. It’s actually still there because, according to my mother, I would not let her take it out.
2. What did your parents do for work?
My father was a butcher and chef his entire life, and Mom worked in a factory that made flashlights and batteries (Ray-O-Vac)
3. Tell me something you did in high school that you regret or aren’t particularly proud of.
Screwed around so badly in my Freshman & Sophomore years that I barely made it through both. My freshman year I gained 0 points, my sophomore year 30 points, where you needed to maintain 40 points a year to graduate. Finally smartened up my Junior & Senior years with 65 points each year. Actually made the Honor Roll my Senior year! [Jeff note: this sounds vaguely familiar to me……I hope I can halt this tradition with my impending arrivals!]
4. Is there any advice either of your parents gave you that has stuck with you for whatever reason? If so, what was it?
Always be polite and respectful to your elders.
5. Do you remember what your first impression of Mom was or the very first thing she said to you?
WOW! Why had I never seen this girl before? She was with her friend and I asked them if they wanted to go for a ride. Eventually her friend left when she found her boyfriend and I took Mom home. Then I asked to see her again, and the rest is history.
6. You went to Vietnam. Looking back, how do you view that time (i.e., wish you hadn’t gone, just a part of life, etc etc)?
I actually looked forward to going; thought is was the macho thing to do. Once there though, getting shot became real – not like in the movies. It was part of being a soldier and what they trained you for. I had some good times as well as bad.
7. Do you remember precisely what was going through your mind when you landed back in the U.S. after your tour in Vietnam was done?
Thank God it was over and I could go back to what it was like before I left. Obviously a pipe dream.
8. Tell an amusing story you remember about me as a young child
You and the neighbors kids (Dan & Dave) watching each other pee in the woods behind our house.
9. How did I start playing hockey? Did you ask me if I wanted to try it? How did I react initially?
I was managing a hockey rink in Lancaster and enrolled you in a Learn to Skate Program. You reacted like most kids did – you held onto the boards and walked/skated around the rink several times.
10. If you had to pick one bad thing I did growing up as the worst/stupidist thing I’ve done, what would it be?
Coming home drunk one night and talking to your mother on the phone from one of the extensions in the house. [Jeff note: this classic situation warrants further explanation, because it’s a great story. It was New Years Eve and I was home on break from college. Maybe 1991 about to turn 1992. I went out with some friends to a party at Marty Reisner’s house in Clinton. My parents had also gone out – I don’t remember where. Strangely enough, I got home first that night. And yes, I was drunk. One of the things I did whenever I was drunk was stay up for as long as possible and drink lots of water – it usually quelled or at least abbreviated the hangover. So I’m sitting in the living room, watching television and I notice my parents car pull in about 1:30am-ish, into the garage and then………..the phone rings! I picked up the phone upstairs and I hear my mother’s voice. Odd, because their car had just pulled into the garage….hmmmmm. I thought for a brief second that maybe my mother was somewhere else and my dad came home early. So the conversation went on for a minute in a very confusing manner with me trying to figure out where she was and she was trying to figure out where I was. Well, it turned out my mother, who was walking in from the car, picked up the phone downstairs at the same time I did. All this time, the person on the other end of the line was dead silent. We still laugh heartily about this story today and I’ll always wonder who that was who called…….
11. What was the last thing you laughed really hard at?
Lewis Black’s stand up show last year.
12. Is there anything you find yourself doing where you stop and say “damn, I’m just like my father!”
Work too many hours.
13. You recently hit the big 60. Do you find yourself thinking more about the past or the future?
I think more about the past, since that’s where all the memories are. Can’t do much to control the future, so I just let it happen.
14. Now you can ask me a question. Go ahead. I’ll answer it.
What do you think about late at night when you can’t get to sleep. (Other than your upcoming fatherhood)
Jeff Answers: Well, that hasn’t been a problem AT ALL lately because of our new King bed! Heh heh. Anyway, I think a lot about legacy. Mine, to be specific. I seem to have a never-ending tug-of-war in my mind between staying the course with a comfortable paycheck and good job (which is very important, especially with two little robots on the way) and eventually doing something that will make a pronounced and positive difference in people’s lives. I have no idea what that is yet, but when I’m retired and I look back, I’m going to need to see that I’ve done something constructive that helped the less fortunate or something that was a material contribution to society. It might very well be as simple as passing that onto my own children. Time will tell.
Thanks Dad! I think we all know who’s next………..
Long time readers might be wondering whatever happened to my interview series called “Item Five.” Well, nothing happened to it, really. When I have time, I’ve continued to reach out to musicians, authors, etc and most of the time they seem eager to participate. So I send them a list of questions to answer and I then don’t hear from them again. That’s the way it goes sometimes. It just so happens that the last 3 interviews I’ve set up have gone unanswered. Sigh.
So……what’s a robot to do? Well, that’s an easy one. Call on someone that you know will respond and answer questions. Because you know where they live.
You call on your own mother. It’s actually harder to come up with a list of questions for your own mother than it is to come up with questions for someone you’ve never met. Isn’t that kind of weird? Anyway, my mother was born in Florida as Karen Zorn, but only stayed there a relatively short time before moving up to Massachusetts. She grew up in Sterling, MA (next town over from Lancaster, where we grew up) and she has a sister and two brothers. Both brothers, sadly, passed away within about 5 years of each other (1985, 1990).
When you hear things like “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” you know they are oft-used adages, but damn, that shit is true. The Zorn side of the family has a pretty unique sense of humor, largely on the biting/sarcastic side, which is something I have in spades. I won’t go into much detail, but some of our family get togethers on the Zorn side are stuff of legend.
So without further ado, say hello to my mom, won’t you?
1. What is your earliest childhood memory?
Digging for China in our back yard (Mom told us to)
2. What did your parents do for work?
Gracie worked in a factory and Mel, well, he had many jobs.
3. Tell me something you did in high school that you regret or aren’t particularly proud of.
We skipped school and sat in the woods smoking and hungry.
4. Is there any advice either of your parents gave you that has stuck with you for whatever reason? If so, what was it?
Gracie always said, “never say your children would never do that, because they could.”
5. Do you remember what your first impression of Dad was or the very first thing he said to you?
I thought Dad was a handsome dude. He said “Do you want a ride home??”
6. Did you have other names picked for me? How did you decide on Jeff?
No, you were Jeff from the start. [Jeff note: my mother once told me years ago that they were considering naming me Zachary. When I followed up on this question, she said “I was only teasing you“]
7. Tell an amusing story about me as a young child
I always loved the birthday card you made for dad. It said ” Happy Birthday Dad, too bad you’re so old!!!”
8. How were you feeling on my very first day of school?
Because you and your sister were always excited about going to school, I was excited to see you go (very excited).
9. If you can remember any of my Halloween costumes, which one do you think was the best?
I really don’t remember your costumes!!!
10. If you had to pick one bad thing I did growing up as the worst/stupidist thing I’ve done, what would it be?
Your freshman year in high school, need I say more?? [Jeff note: no, you need not say more. But I will. Freshman year in high school was a 100% disaster for me. My adjustment to high school was a rock road, particularly in the field of academics. There were a few F’s and I got booted from the hockey team, so I missed the last seven games of the season. In most cases, it was me being a little punk. Tidbit: in the four quarters of Physical Science, my grades were D, D, F and F. I was failing the class going into the final. I spent HOURS in my room studying for the final, combing the book (probably for the first time). I scored an 89 on the final and passed the class with a D. To this day, I hate science.]
11. What was the last thing you laughed really hard at?
I laugh a lot, but Olivia [granddaughter] can really make me laugh with some of her comments!!!
12. I got my penchant of reading the newspaper every day from you. Where did you get it from?
I really don’t know, my parents were not really big newspaper people, my desire must have come from within…
13. You’re coming up on a big birthday – do you find yourself thinking more about the past or the future?
Both, I love thinking about the past and I look forward to the future.
Thanks for being a good sport, Mom.
Back in August, I kicked off my “Favorite Bands of the ’90s” series with Festus, Missouri’s finest band, The Bottle Rockets. So as to avoid any repeat writings, I encourage you to visit that post if you want to for a quick refresher on what I wrote about the band. Here and now, though, I can talk a little more about them, because they deserve it.
When I’m old and creaky and I look back and reflect on what feels like thousands of live shows I’ve seen, I already know that The Bottle Rockets will rank right up there (top 3 easy) as my favorite live band of all time. Some of my fondest memories and best times in a club have come with this band on stage. There are not many groups out there who can just put a shit-eating grin on your face for 2 hours – The Bottle Rockets are one of them. Huge on talent and short on luck, The Bottle Rockets brand of pure-bred American rock and roll just keeps rolling. Whenever I try to explain their sound to someone (a cross between Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd? A combination of Little Feat and Guns ‘N’ Roses? I don’t know), I just feel like I’ve failed to get it correct. You just need to watch and listen.
Their lead singer, the always affable Brian Henneman, is part musician, part comedian and BIG part songwriter. He’s not flashy, not theatrical, just…..terrific. The other day I was reading a biography of Norman Rockwell and it’s a little difficult to make the connection here, but I think Henneman is rock and roll’s version of Norman Rockwell – a guy whose art exposes everyday, common life. A guy who may not have gotten the respect he deserved. A guy who can tell a story with a simple piece of work.
Henneman’s songwriting is so everyday and workmanlike that one starts to take it for granted, like a sweatshirt or old pair of shoes you cannot bring yourself to get rid of. They become friends. The stories spun in his songs are such ordinary yarns about characters you come across every week and Henneman makes you feel like you’ve known him and hung with him for years. These songs – they stick with you. For good.
The Bottle Rockets mean a hell of a lot to me. They continuously take me back to another part of my life and those memories of listening to their records with friends or seeing them live never fail to fill me with nostalgia and joy. The even better part? They’re still together, still making damn good records and still playing live. They have a fantastic new album called “Zoysia” coming out in June and they’ll be here in Boston on June 17th (Harper’s Ferry, for you locals). If you need to find me that night, you know where I am. Look for the guy with a huge smile and a couple of beers.
I am beyond psyched to present this interview with lead singer and songwriter of The Bottle Rockets, Brian Henneman. Enjoy.
1) Did you know that the most inebriated I’ve ever been at a live rock show was at a Bottle Rockets gig during one of those SxSW’s in the 1990s? It was at the Waterloo Brewing Company in Austin, TX and I had to sit and literally prop myself up against the wall of the building opposite the stage. Does it make you feel proud that you were able to be present during my most inebriated moment?
Man, I STILL run into people who talk about that show, and every single one claims it to be their drunkest night. Thank GOD everybody was was drunk. God was watching out for our reputation, by fucking up every single person in that crowd. I have a recording of that show, and we were HORRIBLE. Every song was twice as fast as it should’ve been, and every instrument was twice as out of tune as it should’ve been. We even had Eric Ambel, on a TWELVE string that was absolutely out of tune. We must’ve been as drunk as everybody else…
2) It’s ’95 or ’96 (or whenever). Your song, “Radar Gun” is actually getting airplay at mainstram rock radio – it’s even getting popular – and I’m non-chalantly bragging to all my friends that I saw the band play at the Middle East Upstiars in Cambridge the year before (I was obnoxious like that back then). What was your mindset at the time? Were you thinking you might hit it big? Were you suspicious of the machine? Or were you just proud to hear your song played on the radio?
ANSWER: All of the above. I had no idea what was going on. It was pretty cool to be in Detroit, and hear it come on the radio right after Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”. ‘Twas our 15 minutes of fame.
3) You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to (I know nothing), but do you think you’ll work with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel again at any point?
I am old, and wise enough, to know that you never say never.
4) What was the last thing you laughed really hard at?
A dream I had, where my wife and I had a baby, but it hatched from an egg in a crib in our bedroom. When it was out of the shell, it was a big, plastic snowman, like people put on their porch at Christmas, with my wife’s brother’s face on it. Wonder what I had for dinner THAT night?
5) The band’s new album, called “Zoysia,” comes out in a few weeks. The songwriting on this thing is just immense – and that’s a compliment. Is it just me or does this set of songs feel a little more…….cynical? Is that a product of the times? Or do you feel more cynical as the years go on?
I think cynisicm is a by-product of old age. I wish I could still look at things with child-like wonder but the more you learn from life, the more easily you can call bullshit. First, the tooth fairy goes, then Santa, next thing you know, you realize rock and roll is dead, your parents are dead, Neil Young looks REALLY old, you can’t relate to modern pop culture at all, you know politics are too corrupt to mean anything, and you’re thinkin’ about how much time you have left on earth. At that point, it’s all about figurin’ out how to get the most from the time that’s left. You stop looking for the meaning of life, and start actually celebrating life. You have no time for bullshit. “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…” Was this a cynical answer?
6) You have a real secret weapon in songwriter Scott Taylor. He’s kind of like your personal version of Karl Rove – in the shadows. I never, ever thought I’d mention Karl Rove in an interview. I’m really sorry about that (me no likey the Karl Rove). What is your history with him? I mean Scott Taylor, not Karl Rove. Does he play music or just write?
I’ve known Scott for many years. He came to Festus, from Troy, Illinois, for his first teaching job. He’s an English teacher. He actually taught our drummer, Mark. Somehow, through the grapevine, he learned about us weirdos who had Ramones albums, and were trying to start a band. In Festus, that was revolutionary. At that time, Festus was all about Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. He actually suggested Mark to us, for a drummer. He has the most amazing record collection. He taught us everything cool thing we know about rock and roll (although, we DID discover the Ramones on our own, guess that counts for somethin’…). He can’t play very well at all, just rudimentary chords on guitar, but, he sure can write a mean lyric.
7) Who penned the lyric “a plastic plate of sorrow from a buffet of regret” on the song “Happy Anniversary?” (I don’t have the liner notes yet) When I heard that lyric, I nearly pooped myself because it’s so goddamn brilliant. Do you have a song or moment on the new record that really gets you?
That was me. I love this entire album. We finally made one I like all the way through. Every moment gets me.
7) Many years ago, I was at the Mercury Lounge show in NYC when, after you flashed your breasts to us, you announced that you had placed every Bottle Rockets song in your hat and that the audience would pick the set list that night. And that’s how it happened. Do you remember this? Were either of those events (audience picking songs, breast flashing) a one-time thing? I’d like to tell people that “I was at the only show ever where Henneman…….”
Those were the drunken days. That setlist thing happened, I think, two times. Once in New York, once in St. Louis. The breast flashing, as far as I can remember, only happened in New York, but, I don’t remember THAT, so, who knows?
8) I asked Farrar and I also asked that dude from My Morning Jacket this question: What are your thoughts on the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” album? My opinion is that it’s one of the most overrated albums ever made, although it did revoloutionize record-making. Farrar kind of agreed. The guy from My Morning Jacket wanted to kill me. Your thoughts?
“Sgt. Pepper’s” was one of the very few albums I had, as a child. I loved it then, but, it is SOOOO not my Favorite Beatles album now. I, too, would put it in the “overrated” category.
9) Why don’t you ask me a question?
What do you feel has prevented the guy from My Morning Jacket from killing you thus far?
Jeff answers: Hmmm. Good one. I think it’s because I told him my name was Jeff Tweedy.
10) Tell us a really good “this band is flat broke” story.
Every story leads to that story. It would be easier if I could just send you a bank statement.
11) Did you know that I’m the guy who wrote that feature story on the Bottle Rockets in the very first issue of No Depression magazine back in 1995? Using my basic math skills, this means that I’m due to interview you again in 2017. What will you be doing in 2017?
Probably, ridin’ around in a van, playing the same clubs, writing even MORE cynical songs, unless I get Alzheimer’s and am able to revert back to my “wonder years”.
12) Did you find it difficult to write “Mom & Dad?” That one gets me the same way Farrar’s “Dent County” gets me. Always makes me think about my own family.
I didn’t write “Mom & Dad.” I just sat there, and it popped right out. I have no memory of writing it. I channelled it. I find it difficult to LISTEN to Mom & Dad.
13) Are most of your songs written based on personal experience? Take, for example, “White Boy Blues.” Do you actually know someone that you equate with that image?? (“gets in his Turbo Volvo and he heads for home…..”) It’s funny to think about, because there are several folks I know who are like that. I don’t even want to ask about “Love Like A Truck”
Most all of my songs are, basically, like police reports. All facts. No filler. Yeah, I know several of “those guys.”
14) Okay, so you portrayed yourself a few years back as a pretty simple guy in the song “Helpless” – do you feel you’ve evolved? For example, the song indicates that you are not online. Yet here you are, doing an email interview. Have you come around to the internet? Are you ok with people downloading and sharing your music? For what it’s worth, I’ve made quite a few fans of the band by sharing your music and I know for sure they’ve purchased later on.
When I wrote that song, I did NOT have a computer. I really felt that way at that time. Wish I still felt that way but I don’t. I still don’t have a cell phone. If I get a cell phone, I won’t get an iPod. I always have to be defiant of some kinda technology. It really IS killing humanity, you know…
Downloading, sharing… whatcha gonna do? The illegal stuff hurts my income. We’re right at the “success level” that actually gets KILLED by that. If you make less than us it doesn’t matter, ’cause you ain’t makin’ a livin’ with it anyway. If you make MORE than us, it doesn’t matter, ’cause you’re still makin’ a livin’. It has definitely hurt album sales, which filters down to royalty checks. It gets the music out there but puts me into a part-time job scenario. It’s alright. Like I said, whatcha gonna do? Maybe if I flashed my breasts more, we’d make more money…
15) In all seriousness, I want to tell you here that the Bottle Rockets are, without question, one of my favorite bands of the last ten years, musicially, lyrically and comedy. You have provided me with some truly amazing memories – live, on record, etc. So thank you. Just wanted to say that.
Whenever you may feel shitty about this business (and there’s lots of reasons to feel that way), don’t ever forget that there’s a lot of us who feel the same way I do about the band. See you in Boston on June 17th.
Thank you, my brotha! See y’all out there somewhere…
Big thanks to Brian Henneman!