Help Wanted Nights
The new album began to serve as the soundtrack to a screenplay that you penned. Until people can see it produced, do you feel like the album is giving away the plot at all?
Oh, no. Not at all. Since I was writing the songs for a story that was already written, the songs are not narrative-driven at all. They're much more based on the way songs normally are, I guess — vague emotions and expressions. There's not really very much storyline in the soundtrack itself.
What can you tell me about the screenplay?
It's about a small town bar; it deals with four characters. It really was written as a stage play, and then I also wrote a screenplay version of it as well. It's definitely a slower-paced, dialogue-driven thing. A young guy's car breaks down in a small town. He spends a week in town waiting for the car to get fixed and kind of gets tangled up in the townsfolk's lives, essentially.
I understand you just moved out to LA. I had the opportunity to interview you once before when Happy Hollow came out with Cursive, and you mentioned yearning to be taken more seriously as a writer. Is your move to LA an effort toward that in any commercial sense?
It's hard for me to be convincing that it's not seeing as how we're sitting here talking about a screenplay, ya know [laughs]. But all I can say, truth be told, is that my girlfriend and I were planning on moving to New York; she's from New York and we just got cold feet about it last minute. She works in magazines so there are few places that she can live — New York being the first, and LA kind of just seemed like the second. That was imperative to our move out here. The only reasons I had for moving is just my desire that I've always wanted to move. I stayed in Omaha for years and years because of the musicians that I play with. And even now I can't quite afford living somewhere else because now I have to fly in for practice.
What are your thoughts thus far on living in Southern California?
There are these obvious advantages, like I go to the beach on the weekends, and that's great. There are even advantages to Omaha; I used to drive out into the country and go to small towns — because a small town in Nebraska is not the same as a small town in California, in my opinion. The weather is so much better. You know, when people ask me about LA it's always this fucking negativity, like, "Oh it's this terrible town. Why would anyone move there?" And I'm not gonna sit here and sing its praises either; I wasn't really in love with LA before I moved here, and I'm not any more in love with it now. If anything, living here has helped me recognize the problems that America has as far as just being so overly serving to the people in this totally fucking first-world country that we live in. And I recognize that more in the second-largest city than I did in Omaha! Having moved to LA, if anything, has compelled me to want to move to Alaska more than ever. I just wanna detach myself from this excessive populace and this excessive economy.
Is that something you're interested in for when you're going to write songs again; whether or not the LA vibe will creep its way into your songwriting at all?
Ah, I guess I don't know. The stuff I've been writing lately has been healthy just because there hasn't been an LA vibe creeping into what I've been working on, as much as a move-to-Alaska vibe [laughs], which is something I am interested in — not Alaska per se, but just a less populated area. I actually have been able to afford just living and working at home. Even when we made this move out here, we had an agreement that, sure, we would move to a big city like this. But when we were looking at New York, we weren't looking at Manhattan, we were looking at a small town called Piermont, which would have been a 40-minute train ride into the city. So now, even in LA we're living way out in Eagle Rock. It's easier for me to tell people I live in Pasadena than in LA. I don't know if any of that is very interesting, but there you go [laughs].
Considering a lot of your work has been somewhat autobiographic in nature, has composing an album based on a screenplay you wrote altered your writing methods at all?
I actually kind of thought it would be easier because…even when I'm writing songs I consider it to be fiction. It's just easier that way, and there doesn't have to be rules. I really didn't like it a few years back — I guess like post-Domestica — I feel like people decided on their own that this was all incredibly autobiographical. People started — and people as in listeners — started being less accepting of the idea of me writing fiction, and people started asking questions like, is it fair for me to write fiction, because people are under the impression that I only write personal anecdotes of my life. It sucks to have put those kinds of parameters on the way you write. I think that as a public we should accept any type of writing like this as fiction and then use our own creativity to decide on our own what we think is closer to the heart and what might be sensationalized.
That all being said, I thought it would be easier writing with the idea of these characters in mind because sometimes when you are writing autobiographically, you are kind of needing to disguise things somewhat, or you have to lie about what things are about at times if you don't wanna hurt people. So when it's just openly like, "No, this isn't about you or this or that; it's actually about these characters," it's easier. I don't feel like I wrote any differently, it's just an easier cop-out.
In the lineage of Good Life albums, there seems to be a decrease in electronic experimentation, particularly with the new album. To what do you attribute Help Wanted Nights's minimalism?
I think that just like any record — and I guess trying to balance a few bands as well — it's my ongoing pursuit of trying to put out different records. With Cursive where maybe our left turns are a little more jarring and obvious with different instrumentation and different songwriting styles, The Good Life has been a little more vague. We did our first record Novena [on a Nocturn], and we wanted to go more full bore. [The electronics] were almost heavy-handed at times, so that was a great reason to go in the total opposite direction and have a no-synth rule, as far as on Album of the Year. And actually from Album of the Year to Help Wanted Nights, I feel like — and it's good or bad depending on how much you like Album of the Year, I guess — I feel like this is the least transition that I've made between a record. It feels to me more like this continuation of exploring the way that we were writing songs for Album of the Year. It's a continuation of that, but with what you're recognizing and…the only thing we didn't like about Album of the Year is that too many of the songs were taken into the studio and finished there. The record that we really liked as a band was the Lovers Need Lawyers EP, where all those songs were pretty much the way we played them in the basement is the way we recorded them. We like that feel a lot more. It kind of reminded us of a lot of music that we loved growing up where the technology wasn't available yet so people recorded through a 24-track, and the band was "the band," and there wasn't really a lot of departure from that. As we both know, especially on a label like Saddle Creek, bands are incredibly prone to…if the song sounds like it needs a string quartet, they put on a string quartet. So we wanted to take a step back from that. I really fell in love with Neil Young's Harvest Moon, and I just think that's such a stripped-down record; it sounds like a live record in a lot of ways. The only difference from Album of the Year, I feel like, is that approach that we took.
Everything I read about your bands calls one band or the other a side project. Do you consider any of your projects a side project at this point, including your screenwriting?
It's hard to say, I guess. I've never liked considering anything a side project. Inevitably at times certain things have to be set aside. Where I'm at with screenwriting right now is nowhere; it always has to be set aside every week that we need more songs for band practice. It's not that easy to keep it going on tours. I try to write every day, but I've kind of failed for the most part. I don't think about any of them in my head that way.
When you write a song, obviously you can't control how people perceive it, but what would you like people to take away from your songs if you had to choose?
In interviews, I'll run into a writer every now and then who reminds me that stuff can be so dark and dour — negative. I've also had the good fortune to run into a lot of people at shows, people who buy the records, who express what they see as a really positive message in what is otherwise a lot of darker material. It's really through people explaining that to me that has helped me recognize that everything isn't really dark. I'm not like a Trent Reznor person; I'm not some weird goth thing. I actually try to maintain a very positive vibe overall, and I've always been that way. I think that manages to find its way into the records that I write. It usually comes up around the end of the album [laughs]. I try to take people on a fairly dark course, but what I would hope to think is a good nature or good disposition I have is that I don't wanna leave people dangling like that. I wanna make sure that there's some element of hope in whatever I might be working on.
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3
CD / 10" / MP3