The subject of the final song on the new album is the suicide of poet John Berryman. Like a lot of your songs, it seems to be more about painting a portrait of a character than passing judgment on his actions. If all of the characters in your songs were gathered at a bar, who would you avoid and who would you want to talk to?
Answering that question would be difficult because I feel a huge amount of affection for John Allyn Smith. But, I guess I do tend to like the girls — not like fantasy girls but girls that I think are cool girls. So I think I’d want to hang out with the girls more. There are certain people I really wouldn’t want to hang out with, and those characters are usually a reflection of something in myself. I love writing songs that are ostensibly about me, and I tend to portray myself in the worst possible light. Usually there’s a kind of a horror at the core of those. That’s the person I would want to have kicked out of the bar so I could go home with the girls.
How did you end up segueing into “Sloop John B” at the end of “John Allyn Smith Sails”?
That’s an example of something that happened that I didn’t plan on. I hit a part of the song and it seemed like that was the next step. It’s also just that I continue to be really interested in the idea of being referential — the way that, in folk music, there’s a tradition of people using each other’s songs and transforming those songs.
Last year you released a single that could have been interpreted as a political statement — “the president’s dead.” It’s really a fairly neutral snapshot of an imagined event. But what kind of responses did you get from it?
I’ve had people who are Republicans say to me that they liked our band but they don’t like us anymore because of that song. Which is legitimate. But I’ve also had liberals react negatively. One guy wrote me and said that “it’s cowardly” because I chose not to be political. He cited Dylan as an example and said that he was disgusted. But the thing is, that song is as political as it needs to be.
One verse that really jumped out at me on the new album is on “Title Track” — “a Hollywood Babylon bike-athon for breakdancers all broken down in their beds, now intravenously fed from a bag hanging over their heads.” I wonder if you’re trying to catch the listener off guard with the surreal humor of that image.
Yeah, sort of. Any time I felt like I was getting too weighty, I wanted to just throw something that’s stupid and off-the-cuff in there. Because I didn’t want it all to be overly melodramatic. I wanted to have a sense of levity on the record. Not silly, like Frank Zappa humor, but a kind of wryness. For me, when you listen to the early Dylan stuff, on his first four albums, he had joke songs. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” — those songs are funny, and that’s disarming. You don’t hear people do songs like that these days. I wanted it to succeed on that level. Just pleasure. That’s one of the things we were definitely going for.
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