A lifelong fan of Jennifer Herrema and her decades-long spree of impossibly freewheeling rock, I lack the willful faux-objectivity necessary to describe her current band Black Bananas in accordance with hallowed industry tropes. But I’ll give it a shot: a rechristening of RTX, Black Bananas differs primarily in its implementation of the performative recording workstation software Ableton Live.Their new record Electric Brick Wall, released June 24 on Drag City, rides the mystical, hilarious edge of the rock and roll switchblade: dancing on the flame. If I failed to describe their music, you’ll have to do it for me. Put “Eve’s Child” in your brain, stat! Earlier this summer in NYC, I interviewed Herrema, bassist and keyboardist Kurt Midness, and guitarist Brian McKinley in their makeshift greenroom grotto behind the South Street Seaport stage, where nearby rocks turned out not to be fake.
Zach Phillips: It’s bizarre meeting you — I saw High Fidelity when I was 12 and I’ve been listening to Royal Trux since. By the time I was a true fan and really knew what was going on with that music, you had already started RTX and done Transmaniacon, and Neil was already on to the Howling Hex. So for me, Royal Trux didn’t exist and subsequently break up; I’ve been following it all the whole time. For me, it’s all always been contemporary, all from now. And for the past ten years, I’ve listened to your music more days than not. So it’s a serious honor to talk with you, and it’s also weird. If I had it my way, I’d be meeting you under less structured circumstances. At any rate, I know you’ve all been involved since the beginning…
Brian McKinley: I don’t play on the first one.
Kurt Midness: He toured it.
So you didn’t record that one at Brian’s studio? In Virginia?
Jennifer Herrema: Transmaniacon was before I moved to California, where [Brian] lives, before I met him. Jaimo [Welch] was playing guitar at that time. I met Brian and there were two guitar players. But Jaimo hasn’t been playing with us for a few years now.
Brian, that’s you on “Creeping The Line” playing that beautiful solo?
JH: All the guitar.
KM: That’s a nice solo.
BM: That was an experiment in MIDI guitar. I was playing the beat on the guitar, looping it and then soloing.
I’ve been listening and I don’t have any clues. I don’t know how you did it, what’s going on.
JH: You’re not supposed to know! It’s a mystery.
KM: We’d have to kill you.
JH: If we told you the details, we’d have to kill you.
KM: It’s really not that mystifying. I mean, a lot of it is working with the computers. Working with Ableton, but then adding an actual performance. This is how I would say it happened: Brian would have a lot of ideas he built in Ableton. And I think he probably has a lot more we didn’t do anything with for whatever reason. The right idea sparks the right inspiration — maybe Jennifer comes in and sings something off the top of her head. There are a couple songs I worked on at home, added a melody or some lyrics… So it goes from being a more raw idea, to take a more of a shape that we could sort of refine into what people would recognize as a song.
JH: Yeah. The ones that took shape were the ones that made it onto the album. The others are just sitting there. Maybe we’ll start new shit.
I know you don’t want to say what they were specifically, but would you say you used new methodologies on this album compared to Rad Times Xpress IV? I liked the last one, but this one kills me.
BM: It was more about bringing a real time element. When people use computers, it tends to be a regimented-tempo, click-track kind of vibe.
KM: Or like a “composition.”
BM: Yeah, where you’re basically playing beats as background. This is more about generating the music in real time, being able to affect the music in real time. Instead of —
JH: Being stuck.
BM: — the static tempo kind of vibe.
KM: So no click track.
BM: We would just do takes, multiple takes of stuff. Playing the computer as an instrument rather than a playback device — there’s too much straight playback when you see bands now. There’s no opportunity to move off the grid.
That’s a relatively new engineering convention, the one you’re avoiding. The idea that you set the levels and hit record, then you edit out the “problems.”
BM: Yeah. You just keep the problems.
JH: Keep the problems, write the problems.
KM: I would say in general we don’t fuss too much over takes. A lot of stuff on the record could’ve been a first pass through. Those are always better than if you fuss over it and get in your mind, “it’s gotta be perfect.” We don’t mess around with that too much.
JH: And two of the songs had been worked out; we tracked them. But we were rehearsing for a live show and the songs were just sounding really cool so we just threw up a room mic and a direct out of Brian and just recorded it live. And all the tracking we had done prior, we just threw it out. So two of the tracks were done live. “Powder 8 Eeeeeeeeight” and “Eve’s Child.”
“Eve’s Child” is cool to hear — Neil wrote that one?
JH: Yeah. Neil wrote “Eve’s Child” & “Powder Eeeeeight” with us. Via email, he’d send some words and just a rough, one-mic, guitar and drums kind of thing. And we took it, changed some stuff, made it our own.
It reminds me of some of the places his writing’s gone since the Howling Hex. It has that Hex feel but you guys interpreted it. The drumming is hot… Skip beats.
JH: Yeah, it’s crazy. That wouldn’t have been hard to write… But I liked the way it just kind of tumbled out like that.
KM: The technology is cool and it helps us get to the sound, but I think the way the songs are written, when Neil sent the demos thing, it could just be played by a regular band. It wouldn’t be as good, I don’t think…
JH: It would be too linear.
Listening to the record, like you said, I hear you taking the recording process seriously as a kind of performative tool; it’s not just a stable representation of a stable thing…
KM: I think we’re lucky because we have our own spot to work in. A lot of people, you get a few days in a studio and it’s a different process. “I gotta go in and get this right.” We don’t have any pressure like that.
JH: Our process is just open ended. Brian’s at the studio almost every day, and I’m there almost every day. Kurt shows up after his work almost every day. Sometimes absolutely nothing happens but hanging out. There’s no strict schedule or anything like that, no tight parameters.
I think a lot about what you guys were talking about, not fussing about takes, paying attention to things that are strictly speaking not there: ethics, energies. Dynamics within the process that end up structuring the results. And it’s funny to me that more bands don’t take up the recording process as a creative tool that might not be “transparent”: live mixing, for example. There’s some stuff on this record where it feels like someone’s riding the master faders, the whole track goes down for a second. Are you doing that?
KM: Maybe somebody’s drunk… [Laughs]
JH: Yeah, well, you know… Some of that, Brian has built into the dynamic of his playing, but in the final mixing, yeah. I would fuck around with Nadav [Eisenman]… I like the idea that things come in and out, so there were faders involved, definitely.
Why isn’t Nadav here? What was his role in making this record?
JH: He doesn’t play live or come to our shows. He’s a very particular type of guy. It’s a symbiotic relationship. All of us together create what you hear. Nadav is technically very good at organization — keeping shit we might have accidentally erased or thrown out. He’s the archive dude, and he helps a lot with mixing ideas. But it’s hard to put a label on what any of us really do.
KM: Nadav is skilled in certain things that I know I’m not.
JH: The material. A total gear head, big time gear head. Also the Ableton thing that came in for the first Black Bananas. He was talking about the capabilities of it, talking to Brian about it. He bought it and we started utilizing it. And it became really apparent that that was gonna be a big part of how we were gonna start doing things.
BM: I think he had to convince me a little bit that Ableton wasn’t a bunch of BS.
[Someone, rapidfire]: Hey check it out guys if you get hungry there’s a free granola bar right around the corner awesome nutrition check it out!
KM: Free granola bars; make sure that makes it in.
Jennifer, I want to ask you about your history as an engineer. You went to school for engineering.
JH: I did. And Neil and I had our own studio in Virginia. When we sold the farm in Virginia, we dispersed the gear… I really hate it. I hate the engineering process. I’m not very good at wearing two caps. If I’m really trying to think of “where’s the ins and outs” and what we’ve got going on, that’s a whole different thing where it’s hard for me to then go back into just open mind, thinking in real time when I’m listening to Brian. I really wanted to get away from that. That’s when I met Nadav. Nadav and I started RTX together; he was the yin to my yang. He let me be free. So as far as engineering stuff, I don’t do any of that. With the mixing, yes, at the end of the day when we’re doing final mixes, I’ll do that. But as far as any of the other stuff, it’s mostly Brian and Nadav. I don’t deal with that.
Why did you wanna get away from that?
JH: I just didn’t enjoy it. It was hard for me to do one thing and then get back to the creative side of it. I wasn’t considering it a creative thing at the time — other than mixing. I have created things in mixes that absolutely did not exist before I fucked them up. I like that. But all the rest of it… I just didn’t enjoy it. I was kind of over it and I wanted somebody else to wear that hat. Until it’s time to mix…
KM: I don’t think you need that stuff so much anymore. A big board and lots of gear. It’s a drag. Cords, wires… It’s the bane of my existence.
JH: I learned on analog and I taught myself digital, on the ADATs. We’d have four stacked up: 32 tracks of ADAT digital. After the digital stuff came in, I didn’t want to deal with it. The analog stuff is still fun for me but we don’t really do a lot of that.
I had to get into tape stuff because I’ve been doing legal work since I got into recording. Actually, I think I worked on a case against a jail near where you and Neil lived out in Virginia. Did you live near [redacted]?
JH: Totally! Some weird ass people out there.
So after being at the office all day I didn’t want to go home and work on a computer. I started working mostly dry to tape. I call it “manual effects.” I have boxes, but most of it you can actually do with the instrument and voice.
JH: I hear you. Totally.
KM: I don’t think any one way’s better than the other. When you get into it, you just kind of take off on some process and that tends to stick with you.
BM: For me it’s more about being mobile. I don’t want to carry a bunch of big shit. Even in RTX I was using a laptop on stage —
KM: But with a full stack.
BM: There’s a mentality that guys get into and they can’t really get out of it. Analog sounds good, but who cares. I don’t even think vinyl sounds that great, personally. You can do digital shit that sounds better. I don’t have to hear music a certain way to appreciate it.
Well, it’s how you approach the process.
BM: But if it’s one way, if it’s just Pro Tools or just tape, you can get stuck there. A lot of people are stuck. “Everybody does it, so…” I got really tired of the Pro Tools thing, creatively.
The whole analog vs. digital thing is obviously a straw man. I like Tony Visconti’s argument — digital makes things easier, but if you’re chasing an “analog sound,” you’re missing out on certain methods that are exigent when you’re working with tape and which you have to reach for more with digital. On tape you have to creatively anticipate things whereas on digital you can do all the tracking and then get in there.
BM: You have to make decisions here and there in the analog world. But how beneficial that process really is, it’s up in the air.
KM: I think people use digital recordings to try to make a “retro” sounding analog record, but nobody’s recording analog and trying to make it sound digital.
JH: I am, I do! Digital distortion is my favorite effect.
KM: But we’re not doing that on tape. It’s like Instagram. You put the filter on your photograph that makes it look like old film. The “retro” filter.
BM: Digital clipping is a good sound.
KM: The first time you hear it, it’s kind of like “why am I hearing this.”
BM: Iggy Pop remastered Raw Power for CD in the 90s, on a Sony reissue. And there’s the most heinous distortion — he pushed everything all the way up, but there’s also a layer of digital clipping on top of the analog clipping. It’s the best fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Everybody hated it, too, but it’s so fucked up, it sounds great. I have it on CD.
Zach Phillips: I reread all the interviews with you guys and it seems like you get asked a lot about your “aesthetic” or your “style”… “What led to your newfound ‘80s funk style? What made you decide to start embracing the vintage sound of warped VHS?” and so on. And it seems to me you can’t possibly think that way. I think of you as being dynamic musicians who travel where your intuition tells you.
JH: That’s exactly it. There’s no endgame, no preconceived notions as to “we want this to sound like this” and take the steps to achieve that. That just doesn’t happen.
You want it to sound like it is, to have identity.
JH: There’s so many collective influences, but they don’t tell us what to do.
KM: It seeps in.
It seems like there are these sedimented European concepts about art that bands have to answer to. The idea that there’s taste, and that creates influences, and those get filtered through decisions to create a product.
KM: A big funnel.
They should diagram that and teach it in music class. “This is what you’re going to have to deal with if you want to make music.” Excuse me for repeatedly mentioning the ancient past, but when you were in Royal Trux, you talked a lot about harmolodics, about Ornette Coleman. I’m wondering if you still think about those concepts.
JH: I don’t start thinking about the concepts and how I want to apply them to anything we’re doing, but it’s so ingrained in the way that I work…
KM: You don’t have to think about it anymore.
JH: … it’s not normal. I don’t think it’s like anything else. When I met Brian and Jaimo, they all got to know me better through the decisions I would make and the things I would say. Like the whole idea of digital distortion: I would be pushing the fader and Nadav says “oh no!” and I would say “what, it sounds awesome!” Nadav: “It’s in the red, bring it down! The phasing, dadadada…” I’m like “pshhhhh.” And I’m not being that way just to be contrary. It’s what I hear, what sounds fresh to me. I’m lucky enough that I’ve never had to work within somebody else’s structure. It’s kind of like going to school, being taught, learning about the “great books,” the great works of art. They’re teaching it to you in a very specific way. When I dropped out of college, I felt like I was being brainwashed into seeing things in only one way. With music, I’ve never had to subscribe to anybody else’s methodology. It’s all I know, the way that I work. Even when I’ve produced and recorded other bands, I just go about my business. But Brian gets the fact that we need a PZM [Pressure Zone Microphone].
BM: It’s not like jazz so much, but there’s heavy amounts of improvising when we’re recording. I like to be able to take a song in a certain direction, on the fly. I wouldn’t call it harmolodics, but that’s basically the idea.
KM: I think harmolodics might occur, but we’re never thinking “now’s when we use it.” We work on a song, forget about it for a while, and then we get booked to play the Seaport Music Festival and we’re like, “what are we gonna play?”
BM: I do appreciate improvising when you see a band. They can play a structure and it’s fun when they move off. They could crash and burn, and it’s more exciting that way. That’s why Ableton is a good tool for improvising, because you can control a whole band. Each of us could control a whole band by ourselves just by making certain moves, note choices. You just multiply that to the other instruments in your set. You can just play single notes and basically direct a whole band.
KM: It gets really dense.
Do you guys have a vocabulary you use to describe what’s going on? Like “this is forested” or something? “Encrypted?”
JH: We’ve been talking about density a lot lately. However random an adjective might be, I think we all understand what it means when it’s coming out. Whatever crazy word might come out of my mouth, we all get it. We’ve been working together for over ten years, and we’re around each other every day. What did you say, “forested?”
JH: We’ve had some weird words, but they come and go.
KM: “Shit waves.”
Is that good?
JH: Oh yeah. That’s very good. That’s digital distortion.
It makes sense what you said about harmolodics. The whole point of that word, right, is to describe something outside of the realm of functional western harmony, outside the mechanistic, European spectrum of stable musical definitions. Ornette said something about it — it’s like being in a French bakery and saying “gimme some pain.” Don’t worry — this is gonna be pretty straight, this isn’t gonna be titled “Black Bananas (Ex-Royal Trux): The Harmolodics of Ableton,” even though that’s a good name for an album.
KM: I wanted to call our album “Guitar Center,” but I figured that’d be a problem. And we already had a problem with RTX; we got a cease and desist over an album title. Western Xterminator — we had to pull it and put new covers on it. Western Exterminator’s an extermination company. They said our music was disparaging of their industry.
JH: That we were evil or something. The letter they sent us was amazing! They’re a “family company” that kills things.
I had a friend who was working for a company like that in the Pacific Northwest a few years back. His first day of work, they go over to deal with a mouse infestation, and they collect the mice in bags: “All right rookie, jump on it. Jump on the bag of mice.”
JH: Oh Jesus.
KM: I don’t think they actually thought we were disparaging of that kind of work. I think they thought maybe they could sue us and get some money, but we don’t have any.
JH: “Family values” was very prominent in that letter. “We are a family oriented company with family values…”
BM: Centered around death! They’re inhumane.
KM: Even to humans — human bands.
You should’ve called PETA!
JH: “We’ve got a situation over here!”
BM: Yeah, why isn’t there a rat sanctuary somewhere?
KM: It’s called New York.
[Kurt and Brian exit for soundcheck]
JH: I’m not seeing my mic stand… I’m bummed. This happens a lot. I always end up with a boom stand. I’ve chipped my front teeth so many times…
So I read an interview with you where you were talking about the fact that these guys hadn’t been in bands before.
JH: Kurt had, but Jaimo and Brian and Nadav, no. And that was a really big part of why I wanted to work with them. They didn’t have any set ideas about playing with other people, the dynamics of it, what a band’s supposed to be… It was very fortuitous.
It’s cool that was a selling point, and then at the same point you’re giving them a lot of control. You talk about not being autocratic, stepping back from the engineering…
JH: But it took ten years to get to that point. I was leading things in RTX, and they were waiting for me to tell them what to do… Over the years, it became “What would you do?” And it took them a while to get the confidence. Even in doing interviews. I’m sick of talking about my same old shit — this is the second time ever I’ve got ‘em all here. I wanted to be more of a collective. But if I don’t like something, we’re still not gonna use it. The whole idea of a band democracy, that kind of rubs me the wrong way, because usually it breeds mediocrity — “everybody has to be happy.” I’m the only one that needs to be happy! But they have complete freedom, and I’m just the head editor.
Well, if it’s a band democracy and everybody decides their way of voting is to be a dick, then you just have five dicks.
JH: Right. Or say there’s a bunch of different takes, and person A likes this one, person B likes this one, person C likes this one. So there’s this one mediocre one that everybody says has certain values they can enjoy, so they pick that middle ground, just to make the peace.
What are you playing these days — mostly shit off the new one?
JH: Only. We don’t know what we’re doing. I mean we do know the songs, but we don’t know how it’s going to end up. I didn’t want to pare it down and just play the songs in a real time, sparse way. I wanted it to sound as dense as the record. So we’ll see how it works, but we brought different backing tracks, and some sync, and my mantra about running it through different shit… We’ve done it at the studio and it sounded really good. It might sound crazy on the stage, but we can’t stop, gotta keep moving, keep moving, push through it, push through it. And then cool shit happens there, too.
So this is your first show playing all the shit from the new record.
JH: Yeah. We’ve played a couple of the songs… we played “Hey Rockin’” in Finland…
What about “Bullshit & Lies?”
JH: That’s my reality show song.
So it’s like “quit telling me these bullshit lies” — internal to a character on the show, or about the show?
JH: It’s kind of a feeling… I watch these different reality TV shows and it’s so easy for people to be such assholes to each other. So I was in the studio pretending I was from this one show. It was kind of a two-sided thing... I didn’t even write that on a piece of paper, that was just like blah blah blah blah. That went on forever and I just pulled a bunch of shit out of it and culled into something that would be a song.
I’ve definitely noticed that your music has gotten less, to my mind, oppositional, less “fuck you” to certain sources. I think about “You Should Shut Up,” for example — I don’t hear anything like that on this record.
JH: None of it’s ever taken that seriously anyway. “You Should Shut Up” — the delivery of the song on the album, we let it stand as if it was a real “shut the fuck up” — but that was just a moment in time. “Oppositional…” I don’t know.
With kids today there’s “Oppositional Defiance Syndrome.” It’s medicated. Talking back might be a symptom.
JH: I might have some of that. Actually, my friend at Drag City, Rian Murphy, he told me, “You’re the queen of oppositional rock.” And he thought that was an awesome marketing thing. He writes all the press releases and these types of things, and that was in one of them. I don’t really read the reviews, but Kurt said it’s spread: “now you’re the queen of oppositional rock.” I get what he’s saying — because when the world is saturated with very particular “sounds” and “scenes,” I do tend to feel that saturation and want to push myself away from it. But that’s as far as it goes.
Well, there’s worse things than being associated with the rejection of bullshit. But the problem that you’re dealing with there is that there’s these structural conditions of bullshit having to be generated. There’s a demand for concepts like “Jennifer Herrema, the ‘queen’ of a new genre we’re making up to go on your mental iPod.” To me, what makes your music so fresh, so contemporary, is that you really hit on what life is like in the information economy that exists now. I wouldn’t call it oppositional, but there is a certain clarity about what we’re dealing with.
JH: Yeah — we all get it. It’s not inherently evil or awful; it is what it is. You make decisions: you can jump in and try to belong and be part, or you can just accept that you’re not part and you never will be part.
“Physical Emotions” — you must know that Roger song, “Emotions”?
JH: Oh yeah. About a year and a half ago, we had got a bunch of new vinyl, and we were listening to a lot of Zapp and Cameo, stuff like that. That dancer, Flat Top [in the "Physical Emotions" video]…
He was in the Tiffany video [for “I Think We’re Alone Now”]!
JH: Yeah! He was really inspirational. I feel like we wrote that song with him in mind, because we had met him and seen him do his thing, and we were always talking about how we had to do a video with him. And years later this song came spilling out, and it was like “that’s for Flat Top.”
Have you seen that Tiffany movie, the one about her super fans? Mostly these middle aged men — they aren’t scary, but…
JH: The creep factor?
Yeah, or even more like some kind of Japanese phenomenon. The adults who exclusively play video games, nothing else [hikikomori]. There’s gonna be more of that shit in America soon.
JH: I think you’re right. I’m not afraid of it, and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. But I think we’re at the beginning of a drastic change. I really believe in Gaia. You push a piece of sand…
You mean the organism of the earth?
JH: Yeah. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing exists all by itself.
And I guess it’s probably demonstrable — there’s probably immunological responses to New York in the environment around it. Containment.
JH: And people’s behavior changes depending on where they live, how long they lived there, what kind of relationship they have to the land…
Do you have some kind of formalized relationship to this concept of Gaia? Do you have do some kind of… some kind of thing?
JH: No, I just think about it. When I went to the New School, one of my favorite teachers, Paul Mankiewicz introduced me to Lovelock, to Gaia… I took two classes with him…
Lovelock? All I know is it’s a town in Nevada where they sell commemorative locks and have a giant prison.
JH: A writer, a thinker, whatever. James Lovelock. It was one thing that really interested me and I didn’t feel manipulated into thinking about. Even my Shakespeare classes — I felt inadvertently I was being manipulated, and it made me nervous. But the Gaia hypothesis, I always felt copacetic with that.
I was wondering if you might have some I Ching-like ritual associated with it, a consultation…
JH: I used to do the I Ching. It’s been like twelve years. If I’m bored, just looking for some kind of direction to move in, I used to throw the I Ching to see what the fuck was up. Tarot cards sometimes… I haven’t done any of it in a long time, but it fills a need at certain points in your life.
I’ve used it a lot but not this year. Sometimes you’ll throw it and it says, “Don’t use me. I don’t have any information for you, get out of here!” Another thing: my understanding is you don’t listen to your own music. What’s up with that?
JH: Not a lot, no. I have a problem listening to a lot of music I love in general, because I don’t even hear it. I would love to have fresh ears and hear it for what it is, but it always just takes me to a different time and place, something not in the present, because I identify so strongly with my own life. Zeppelin: I still love it, but when I hear it, I don’t hear Zeppelin.
You hear your history of listening to it.
JH: And I can’t do anything about that — it pisses me off. Kurt’ll put on a record, and it’s “great, but dude, I really don’t wanna hear that right now.” I can’t control it.
So that must happen particularly strongly with your own shit.
JH: Absolutely. It’s been so long since I listened to a lot of it. I actually did listen to the last two [Royal Trux] reissues because I did a bunch of press, and they also had it remastered, so I had to check the test pressing. I put it on and listened straight through, and I was really happy. I really liked it a lot, and I didn’t know if I would. And I haven’t listened to it again: perfect!
Does that freak you out, the idea that you might not like it if you checked into certain things? Or it just doesn’t have anything for you at this point?
JH: That hasn’t happened. I can get obsessed, a hamster on the wheel. The tiniest things I can get obsessed with.
Well, it’s like the I Ching. You don’t have a principle in place to the effect of “I’m not going to listen to my own music,” but you get the right occasion, and maybe it’ll have something for you, maybe not.
JH: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
It’s interesting to me because a lot of musicians listen religiously to their own music. “This is why I fucking make it, so I can check it out!”
JH: Well, obviously I listen to it a lot when I’m making it. But you hear it so much, it’s great to step away. I usually do a step away before it goes to mastering. We’ll do the final mixes and I won’t listen to it for a few months, and then I’ll go check it out. And if everything sits right then I’ll send it to be mastered.
That’s a good idea, ‘cause I’ve fucked up like that before.
JH: Yeah, ‘cause you’re so in it?
Yeah, send it in, and then you smoke some weed a week later and it’s, “Oh no, what did I just do?”
JH: If you’re super stoned and in the wormhole, and you come out of a couple days later totally sober and you listen and it doesn’t do it for you… God damn it! Now this is the conundrum: how to translate that feeling, what methodology can you use to translate that feeling so that anybody sober or not will have that feeling? How can that happen? I get hung up on that.
For me it’s the opposite: the stoned guy doesn’t like it. The stoned guy doesn’t wanna hear the ego speak — “this has too much of you in it.”
JH: That’s maybe the paranoid nature of some strains of weed. I stopped smoking weed for so many years. I started when I was twelve and stopped when I was maybe nineteen. I only started again maybe four years ago. When I stopped, it wasn’t hard to stop — all of a sudden it didn’t affect me in the same way. It started making me really excitable. Four years ago I was hitting a joint and it was like the first time again. It’ll probably turn on me again — it will.
Do you use it to work? Does it help you right?
JH: Yeah, sure. But it’s not like I sit down to smoke weed to go write.
I want to take this into one more area: the lyrics, your words. You know they’re insane, you know somebody else is never going to find them. Not to throw a bunch of hyperbolic praise at you, but —
JH: It’s not praise, it’s observation.
Do you have anything to say about what it’s like for you to write lyrics?
JH: When I sit down with pencil and paper, oftentimes not much happens. It’s more an in-the-moment thing: sitting in the studio with a mic and hearing something we’ve been working on, finding a melody line. It’ll spark words and I string them together. And sometimes they make no sense at all on first blush, but listening back to a recording of it, some of it really does. It’s a subconscious thing. I don’t work very hard at all — I just let them be. That’s the work: letting them be. Sometimes I’m like, “This is so dumb.” And that’s okay, because it is.
So once you feel like it’s attained a kind of self-identity, you’re done.
JH: Yeah. Whether I like the identity or not, I just leave it alone.
So you’re saying that the melody comes first. Do you have an idea of the sound of the words at that point, the — the phonemes?
JH: That’s how I do. And certain words will start coming out… Sha-bit-dee-rull…
JH: Yeah. I do notice I talk about the sun.
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In case you missed it, read an oral history of the Royal Trux by Ian Svenonius in issue 23.