Did you grow up in Provo, Utah?
I grew up in Las Vegas. I moved to Provo to go to college in 1998. I only lived there for two years, but I had a lot of formative experiences there. You know, first kiss n’at. My parents got divorced when I was 18 and it was hard on me, so I graduated from high school and I was gone. Three days later I was in college. Provo was not a worldly place, but for me, riding that first wave of independence it felt like the most cosmopolitan place in the world. I studied art, I watched a lot of movies, I roamed the stacks. I liked my classes and it was all new to me. I made new types of friends. The architecture and topography of Provo, the grid streets, the strict BYU housing rules ironically made it a fertile place for a fun house-show scene. You could get around on foot. You could pay 100 dollars a month for rent. I did. A lot of kids didn’t have jobs because they were students getting money from their parents or loans. It was before 2000, so there was still this obvious line between normal kids and the kids who were like us. So you could walk down the street and recognize somebody by the way they dressed, and say “Hey, you should listen to this band. You should come to this show.” I remember one day I was wearing a Smiths shirt and I got into this elevator, and as the elevator door was closing a kid with a kind of greaser haircut came around the corner. As the doors were closing I saw his eyes get really big and he actually called out “Hey!” but the doors were closed. I ended up meeting him and becoming his friend later, but it was like that with almost all of my friends, the spark of recognition. In the background, there was always the Mormon church and for 19-year-old boys, the Mormon mission. When I was 20 years old, I felt like I either had to go on a mission or leave, so I left. I moved to Chicago where the church was kind of a non-factor in my life. I actually moved back to Provo for two years, later in life, but that is a different story, and Utah County has changed a lot since 2000.
Your songs seem so intentional and carefully constructed, both lyrically and musically. How do you know when a song is finished? Do your songs change a lot during the writing process?
I get a melody. If it is simple, then it is probably something that just came to mind. I also use a computer to write melodies and guitar parts sometimes. But anyways, I have my melody and if it is catchy enough to stay in my head, then it stays in my head and as it stays in my head, and I’m singing it to myself while I’m walking around, waiting for the bus, in the bathroom, etcetera my brain starts to fill the void and attach some words to the melody. I don’t have a way to go out and find the right words, so I just choose them at random, throw them together until I find something interesting. But it’s like a cud, and I chew and chew on it, sometimes for a couple of years, without really having an idea of what the song should be about. I put down any ideas that come to me: words, rhymes, sounds, eventually lines, verses, etcetera. I used to keep notebooks, but now I use computer files and they can get pretty long, like 5-10 pages. And in the end, sometimes I have something that’s puzzling even to me. One time I read that Natalie Merchant wrote 100 verses for this 10,000 Maniacs song “Verdi Cries,” so I kind of keep that in my head as a goal. I figure, if I write 100 verses and use 3, then I will get something interesting. The downsides– my songs take forever to write, and they are kind of guarded, emotionally.
Your political beliefs sometimes find their way into your songs, often in surrealistic images. Is that an extension of your consciousness or are they deliberately written that way?
Kind of both. Like I said, I don’t know how to just go out and write a song on a certain topic. I have really tried! There are several songs where I was like, “No more obscure stuff. This is going to just be straightforward. I’m going to write a real protest song that people can sing on the streets!” And then, nothing, flop. The song “Here We Are” was like that. I wanted it to be something that it isn’t. It ended up sort of being about the movie “Pelle the Conqueror.” In general, I think my songs are too pessimistic, too much about frustration and isolation. I want to write visionary revolutionary songs. I haven’t figured out how. I want to write topical songs about current events and history. I haven’t figured out how yet.
Do you think folk music or music in general can still be a vehicle for protest? How so?
Woah, flashback to Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There.” Yes. I guess I want more from myself and from music and from other people and famous people. There’s a lot of rebellious feeling floating around, but we have a hard time turning that into music that isn’t nihilistic, or narcisisstic, or anxiety-obsessed.
You’ve played in Viking Moses, Flaspar, and Dirty Projectors. Has playing in bands with other songwriters influenced your songwriting process at all?
Yeah, definitely. Viking Moses taught me about DIY music, and touring, and playing solo. Flaspar taught me about improvising with a band. Dirty Projectors taught me how to approach music with some rigor, to practice really hard, and to not settle for a faithful copy of some other music you already like.
Ethereal Sequence, a subsidiary of Drag City Records, released your second album Bad Blood, Good Blood last year. How did that come about?
I had made a CD-R that I was selling at my shows. It was called “Free Doom.” My friend Cody Brant, who played in Flaspar with me, turned most of that CD-R into a tape called “Bad Blood.” I think he made 50 of them. Through that, Douglas McGowan, who runs Ethereal Sequence, heard about me. He contacted me about making a record. I recorded a couple of new songs, and since it had its roots in Cody’s tape release, I called it “Bad Blood, Good Blood.” I had never really made my own recordings before, other than four-track, so I was glad to learn. I did it in my living room on Saturday mornings. I used free software– AV Linux, Jack, Ardour.
You have a busy home and work life these days. Is there still time for playing shows or going on short tours?
A little bit, some. Really I am glad that my life isn’t all music all of the time.
Thai food or pizza?
Both. I have been trying to learn how to really cook Indian food. I would like to be eating Indian food as just like a normal everyday thing, you know, like they do in India. I spend a lot of time being ravenously hungry.
Dawn or dusk?
Dawn, after an all-nighter.