Thursday, April 15, 2010

But Mid-List Authors Don't Have Groupies, Right?

You know something about Bloomfield, New Jersey that I unambiguously and unambivalently think is the shit? The (apparently now-closed) Short Stop Diner. I like the extra definite article in "Eggs in the Skillet" and I liked the actual eggs in the actual (tiny) skillets and... yeah, it was good and important to me, that frankly crappy diner. It gets a shout-out in my (actually being worked-on, again) novel, which I'm sure will help it turn back the clock like 30 or so years and become a viable concern again. But the skillets... I liked the little skillets. Related: I apparently hate my body's digestive system? It surprised me, too, but the evidence is right there.

You know what I do not unambiguously or unambivalently like about Bloomfield, New Jersey? Ted Leo, with or without Pharmacists. This has always been tough for me, because I feel like I would actually really like Ted Leo were I to meet or talk to the dude. And not just because he's from Bloomfield, or named a pretty song after New Jersey's state bird, or anything like that. I like some of his songs a lot, and have always enjoyed seeing him live -- two or three times, but that's a goodly number of times to be fun to watch, given that I'm not a super-fan -- but his records just do not get listened to. For awhile, I dutifully bought them anyway: there was some great political power-pop in there! Songs I could believe in and conceivably rock out to! Might well be true, still, although I honestly couldn't tell you, since I do not listen to those records. This is true, too, of the recent "The Brutalist Bricks," which I (ugh) didn't even pay for and still haven't made it all the way through. There's either something wrong with me or there isn't. It's not like I don't agree with Ted that George W. Bush was one of history's all-time Godfather Nightmare Dickweeds, but I'm not sure I can really listen to a whole album (or two) reiterating that. Power chords be damned, and I don't damn power chords lightly.

But what's missing in his songs -- or missing in them for me, at least -- is very much there in Leo's interviews. Via this characteristically strong Village Voice piece from Maura Johnston -- about the ultra-uninformative way in which the pop charts are written about and (not) understood -- comes this very interesting, very smart interview Garden State Ted did with the Voice about the life of the mid-list indie musician.

This is especially interesting to me because I basically aspire to the life of the mid-list author of literary fiction as a best-case scenario, and yet have always looked at musicians -- who do something like what I do, kind of, but do it in front of actual people and get to look cooler for doing it and presumably enjoy more Sex Opportunities for all that -- as existing in a different realm. All that cash money from live shows and the Seeing The Country/World and all those -- appetizing? are they still supposed to be appetizing when you're in your 30s? -- make-out seshes back at the La Quinta Inn... what could there be that's lame about that? Except for being basically as broke as I am while displacing a much larger carbon footprint while "making it" to a much greater degree than I? Ted, what up?

How close were you to calling it quits?

I've never been close to calling it quits. I think that the point was maybe a little bit overstated on my part. The point I was trying to make was that the reality of the financial situation, being a musician full time as I've been, is really that touch and go. No pun intended. I've been doing this over 20 years and I'm unable to tour in the kind of comfort that I think allows rock stars to do, like, year-long world wide tours, you know, and it's a grind. It's a great thing to do, there's no question that in one sense it's the best job you can possibly have. But in another sense, it's gotta have a time-stamp on it. I'm already about to enter the first tour on this new record just dead. I'm exhausted from all the work I've been doing, it's just not healthy. And it's not sustainable at that level. And when things are going well, financially, it's more standable than not.

But it's really like a razor's edge that we walk, everyday. This is not meant disparagingly in any way--it's the nature of the beast--but you know the public can be fickle, and we already don't sell that many records. If that took even a minor dip, it would have to be a hobby band for us again, instead of a life...

Do things even really flop anymore, because it's hard to tell with the way sales are. Nothing sells very much. What would a flop be--bad reviews or something?

No, a flop would be... at the level that I'm at, it's like this weird middle-class of musicians. So when you're selling, say, a relatively small number--less than 5,000 or something--you're not living your life around your music at that point. And I can say that from experience, because I spent the first 15 years of my music-playing life doing much less than that. But it starts to become this potentially self-sustainable thing when you get into the next bracket, which is a sales bracket in which you're not like putting money in the bank, you're not buying new cars or houses or anything, but you're covering the expenses of doing what you do. So it becomes a non-losing proposition at that point, which opens up the door for the possibility of it becoming an actual viable job and life. And then just like with the other actual wage earners in other areas of America, it's not until you really leapfrog into the 99th percentile that you actually start earning serious money. For the rest of the lower-middle class of people who are where I'm at, record sales actually still matter quite a bit, because again it's the difference between it being a self-sustaining thing or not.

Read it. It's illuminating and amusing and he comes off really interesting and well. Maybe I just like this dude better in print.

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