I heard you that you set out to record Western Teleport by recording the album live without minimal or no multi-tracking. How did that go?
Haha, not well. There's quite a bit of multitracking on Western Teleport. A great record that pulls off the live-to-two-track thing very well is Pistolero by Frank Black and the Catholics. I'm going to postpone following that tradition for another album or two.
After being declared legally blind according to the LA DMV, how did you become intrigued by the transportation systems of the western world?
The term legally blind is thrown around a lot, and when it's mentioned with respect to me that's probably my fault: I have a tendency to speak quickly and excitedly during spoken interviews. So I'll take this e-opportunity to correct the record. The American Medical Association defines legal blindness as something like 20/200 in the best eye or less than 20 degrees of visual field visibility in the case of retinal disorders. I'm 20/80 in my best eye, and my retina's messed up in one eye but not enough to hit the threshold. I bike on busy city streets, I jog in MacArthur Park, I go to the gun range with my dad and reliably hit the target center mass at 30 yards with a cheap 9mm. These are all things that a legally blind person would have a really tough time pulling off.
That said, I definitely provide lots of amusement for my friends when I try to play basketball, misread road signs, confuse peoples' identity at a distance, and misinterpret obvious visual cues when watching television. (Me, horrified: “What was that weird gross thing on her hand?!?” Them: “Uh….the cellphone she was holding?”) As far as the California DMV goes, and any other state I've ever lived in for that matter, I fail the vision test by a line or two even when wearing the best possible corrective lenses, so that's where the idea that I'm legally blind comes from.
The best way to illustrate my fairly poor eyesight relative to other peoples' extremely poor eyesight is to talk about Easter. By the time I was three or four years old I'd failed at my share of competitive Easter egg hunts. I could never find the things no matter how brightly colored they were or how obviously placed. So, being a very kind woman concerned for my self-esteem, one April day Mom signed me up for a state-sponsored Easter egg hunt for visually handicapped kids. At this hunt there were two kinds of eggs laid out on a flat field of short grass on a clear sunny day: 1) giant dayglo plastic things a normal person would be able to see from the top of a skyscraper, and 2) same + a piercing sonic emitter so even the totally blind kids could find them if they were quick.
So basically this was the easiest Easter egg hunt ever. One of the adults blew the start whistle, and within 30 seconds I'd grabbed almost all the eggs in my area. Blind kids started crawling towards my basket as I carried it, following the sonic emitters. My mom quickly ran over to me and very gently told me that I needed to leave some eggs for the other kids, especially the electronically shrieking ones, which I was happy to do after getting such a rush from feeling like such a winner for once. But lo, it was deemed by Mom and by the organizers that I could see too well to ever participate again. So that the last visually handicapped Easter egg event I ever went to, and the last time I ever did well in a competitive hunt.
At present there are no surgical fixes for my particular weird eye problems, so I'm in the unusual awkward position of being a very high-function, very mobile citizen who is nevertheless just barely not allowed to drive a car. It's frustrating in some ways, but as your question implies it also puts me in some very interesting situations that most people don't get to experience (touring the country on a Greyhound, carrying backpacks full of LPs and CDs on foot across gang war neighborhoods looking for whatever DIY house show I'm booked at that night, etc.)
As far as becoming intrigued with transit in general, that happened as a result of reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series around the same time my dad took me to Atlanta to see the Falcons play the Packers at the Georgia Dome. That's where I took my first subway ride, on Atlanta's MARTA system entering at Five Points station, and it was thrilling. In Foundation, the Galactic Empire is massive and glorious but in slow decline, and Asimov spends a lot of time detailing the decaying infrastructure of the Empire's capital city-planet, Trantor. Atlanta's well-designed but run-down train system, soaked and slimy as it was that weekend after heavy rains, reminded me of the grandeur of Trantor, and I considered the possibility that such grandeur is not imaginary but here and now in our world today, and that the correctly-oriented poet or writer should realize this. I was way into Orff at that age, and I remember walking around listening to Carmina Burana, looking at the angled concrete slabs and hearing the rush of I-75 nearby and getting tingles, thinking things like “THIS IS THE GREATEST TIME TO BE ALIVE!” I've seen far better train systems than MARTA now, and I know we don't live in Asimov's Galactic Empire, but that feeling of luck and grandeur about living in our age never left me, and I think there's something true in it.
Was this perhaps what made you feel deeply affected by the tragic passing of Elise Sunderhuse, of whom the track “Defiance” is dedicated toward and your performance at the benefit show?
No — that was entirely personal, insofar as it can be personal towards someone I never got to meet. Ms. Sunderhuse was in a romantic relationship with a guy who had seen me perform in St. Louis a few times, and they and their friends were acquainted with my music, some enthusiastically. To commemorate her life they asked me and several other bands to participate in a benefit show to help her family cope with the financial burden, which at first did not and later did come together. I was so honored to be asked to participate in something so private and important, and over the months leading up to the show I wrote “Defiance (for Elise Sunderhuse).” It's definitely the song that came to me the slowest of any song I ever wrote, because I knew I HAD to write it. I felt a strong connection with these kids, and I felt so awful for them, and yet I've been lucky so far and have not lost anyone as close to me as someone I'm dating or someone who I see every day. I felt the heaviness of the loss even from such a geographic and psychological distance, and more selfishly I felt challenged. How are you supposed to react when someone tells you someone that meant everything to them is gone forever?
There may be something to the idea that I felt particularly urgent about writing something for Elise because she was killed by what amounts to a faulty transportation system, and that this is the metaphorical language I'm used to communicating in. I don't know the details but as far as I could tell in the news reports it was simply that the turn they were taking was tight and the road was wet and there wasn't enough friction for her tires to grip it well enough to prevent the accident. It's definitely classifiable as an absurd death, which is why it's so shocking and poignant and awful, but it's also universal. Every death is an absurd death. Learning about Elise and her pals and talking to them as they went through this opened me up and forced me to consider death in its most nakedly absurd form, the life cut off too soon, as a mere instance of a more universal problem—class. I never met Elise, so what I really learned from it was what a life leaves behind when it ends so abruptly, and realized that the ripples the loss generates when someone we love dies are not just painful but also action-triggers, and that death might even be a net positive as time goes on depending on how several historical and cosmological things pan out. It must be acknowledged that the death of a loved one hurts, and that the loss of a conscious life is inherently absurd and tragic, and yet it also must also be acknowledged that the loss might find justification in a cosmological narrative we don't understand because of our incomplete view of time—ESPECIALLY if we who are left behind take appropriate action. In fact it might not be a loss at all, but a completed definition, a piece of a teleological universal puzzle. Or something. I'm still working all this out, obviously, which is a huge challenge for an avowed rationalist who is nevertheless convinced by sense data that concepts like “eternity” and “consciousness” have deep meaning and real value.
But anyway yeah, that song's definitely not a political statement saying something like “fewer people would die in car wrecks if only we spent more money on mass transit.” In the alternate but equally tragic universe where we spend more money on rail transit, I wrote that song about a train wreck that killed someone too soon. Or a barge wreck. Or a zeppelin crash. The only really important characters in the story are Elise and her friends and family. The car was just a vehicle, and I was just a lucky distant onlooker watching this tragic yet life-affirming process unfold. I will always feel honored for having met her boyfriend and other friends and for being lucky enough to see life asserting itself even in the time of greatest loss.
What is the story begind the Erica character in “Erica Western Geiger Counter,” and “Erica Western Teleport?”
All I can say about it is what I've said in the songs, other than maybe this: attaining deep understanding of other people is very difficult, and making mistakes while trying to do so can be very hurtful, and love is real and the justifying condition of conscious existence.
Why shouldn't we “think of her cursing at commuters” like in the lyrics of “Teleport?”
I'm not sure I intended it to be this when I started writing it, but In the song the repeated “don't think of her” line comes across as a mantra the first person narrator's chanting to himself while trying to forget about someone he used to love. But the last line of the song is “Always think of her,” so…yeah. It's impossible to forget about someone, isn't it? It is for me, and I think that's a very good thing.
Tell us how you really feel about America's current commuter culture.
It's not a feeling, it's just fact. We're morons! Visit any other country with comparable per-capita GDP and many many countries with way lower per-capita GDP and try to get around without a car for a few days, then compare that to getting around in the U.S. for a few days. And if afterwards you still tell me we're not doing something really, really wrong, I will playfully but forcefully punch you in the face with a printed copy of a really awesome Excel spreadsheet full of numbers and charts that prove it.
What would be your ideal amendment/adjustment of the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways?
Easy—bullet trains down the medians. We already own the right of way, which would eliminate a huge portion of the cost of building new rail infrastructure. There are some legal difficulties with this, and some current laws would have to be changed, and probably the USDOT would have to tackle some engineering hassles, but all that's doable if there's enough political will for it. Right now, though, I don't think that's the case.
I'd also remove the word “Defense” from the title because that's garbage. You can't reliably land C-130s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike like you can a real runway. This is just a suspicion, but I think the defense justification for building the system was to silence conservative opposition to such a huge expenditure of federal funds.
Given your fixation on public transportation systems, how do you feel about bullet trains? Overrated? Too much money that America doesn't have? Perhaps the ultimate in connectivity?
I'm very pro train but very pessimistic about the U.S. getting its act together nationally on this front in the near term. Obama tried and failed to get the ball rolling with a national bullet train system. However, he did successfully get some federal funding to states that had a statewide plan for high speed rail already in place like California, and they're breaking ground on the first leg of U.S. high speed rail there very soon. I think you might see several regions increasing their passenger rail connectivity to Northeast Corridor levels in the next decade or two (Dallas-Houston, San Francisco-L.A., Vancouver-Portland, Chicago-St. Louis? Who knows?), but nationwide linkage is still a long way off, I'm afraid.
That said, it's seldom mentioned that the U.S. already has AMAZING rail infrastructure, some of the best and most dense on Earth. It's just all freight.
Middle East affairs seem to also be a concern with the western/eastern juxtapositions and conflicts like in “Allahu Akbar” and “The Magnetic Media Storage Practices of Rural Pakistan.” Like the post-WWII boom of freeway networks, what connections do you see between our transit systems and our never ending Middle Eastern war meddlings?
I'm certainly not qualified to answer such an important and enormously complicated question. I have a lot of nut job ideas that I someday hope to justify, ideas about entropy as the basis for a SI universal unit of real value which would put fossil fuels right up there on the list of candidate substances to whose arbitrary physical properties we could peg such a unit's rational quantitative value on. But right now those ideas are very undeveloped and of dubious merit.
As for the role of the Middle East, I think it'll fall off the resource map and go back to being a trading/finance center and an enlightened cultural hotbed as it was in the first millennium rather than an authoritarian oligarchy-infected economic power/corruption concentration that it is today once fusion power gets rolling, which I'm betting on in about 50-100 years.
To answer your question: no matter how the future goes, I think the preference of freeways over rail in the U.S. is cultural rather than economic. Cheap oil definitely enables this preference to run haywire, but ultimately I think the desire to own a car and pilot it ourselves rather than waiting on a train is buried deep in the American psyche. Despite my frequent glorification of trains and my shrill arguments above, there's staggering beauty in the built environment those preferences generate, just as I think there's beauty in transit systems. The cover of Western Teleport is a freeway interchange, and I think that happened because I love freeways too. Modernism's crazy built environment consequences are sources of inspiration to me in all of their forms. Megaprojects! In fact, that's really, really important to me – the notion that freeways are a form of transit system, the same kind of arterial rush that train systems provide. They're different, but they're every bit as much a reminder of the insane swirl we live in, perhaps moreso for all their glorious chaos.
As for the constant references to religion and conflict in songs like “Allahu Akbar,” I think those are important to me not so much as a political or economic statement about energy and transit policy as they are an enduring concern for the universal quest for meaning (religion) as it interacts with the temporal, very mortal concerns for thermodynamic sustenance (food/energy). Conflict arises very naturally in human societies because we are a passionate species convinced (rightly) of the emergence/transcendence of consciousness. The Middle East happens to be the locus of this conflict in our day, and oil happens to be the commodity we're squabbling over, and that's probably why I'm drawn to those sorts of images as frameworks and environments for lyrics rather than being drawn to them as a prescriptive utopian creed about the way things ought to be.
How do you manage your science teacher and indie rock personas? I recall a lyric involving something be too 'dense' to move somewhere on the new album, loved it!
I see no conflict between these two aspects of my life, as my overly-wordy responses to your really fun questions probably show. I love and respect the sciences, but I am not a scientist, at least not right now. I'm an artist who happens to know enough about physical science to barely meet the provisional requirements for teaching it to high school kids in the states with the more slack rules.
I hope to go back to teaching someday, by the way. I quit because I was distracted by the impossible-to-ignore urge to make rather than teach. Hopefully there will come a time when I'll have enough creative momentum, and will want to spend some of my energy teaching others how to get started. Maybe I'll do this as a physics or chemistry teacher who sponsors a music or poetry club, maybe as a music teacher who can help out in algebra study hall. Regardless, I miss teaching and if I'm lucky some day I'll go back. But not before I put out a couple hundred more tracks and cross the continent again a few dozen times.