How was the bagel?
[Muffled] I'm actually chomping on it right now! I only got one bite left, so you can fire away.
Whereabouts are you?
I'm in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, at a place called Ressler's Bagels. It's basically the only place in the state that I can get a really good bagel.
In another interview, you were in Dunkin' Donuts. Do you spend a lot of time moving between fast food institutions?[Mighty laugh] Well, I wouldn't call Ressler's fast food. I think the owners would probably punch me in the mouth if they heard I said that. But yeah, I get around the coffee/bagel places quite frequently. I need to eat lunch, so that's my favourite lunch.
You're working on some stuff for the live show at the moment?
We're ironing out how to make the hybrid computer-human experience happen flawlessly, so we're able to improvise with solos or extended jam parts and not get bogged down by beats and computery nonsense. I love the idea of having this wild drumbeat with samples, and then a dude doing a lap-steel solo over it. It blows my mind to hear it.
One of the interesting things about your music is that you apply technology to a kind of country/Americana atmosphere. It seems to strip the nostalgia from that style.
I don't have this ethos about folk music, where you have to stay simple. To me, the instruments that make folk music what it is are changing. So I can still make folk music with a computer, because really, who doesn't have access to a computer now? It's not like some rich kid's game. I made my first record on a 2002 HP that had half-a-GB of RAM and was a piece of crap. At some point in time, that will be looked at as an archaic instrument. For me, I'm not good at guitar, I play drums, but I still have melodies and rhythms in my head. So I should be able to do them in a way that doesn't take classical training or some kind of course. To me, that's folk music.
What specifically about Pennsylvania does your music evoke?
I'm inspired by rural scenery. The thing about PA and where I live is, I go from being in an industrial, forgotten town and immediately I'm in the country. This erosion in industry. And it transitions so nicely into huge trees, a lot of lush green fields, rolling hills.
I think your sound is sort of the inverse. The core is a rural thing, but there's a city influence flitting around the outskirts.
I think, like, why did all my friends gravitate to Black Sabbath? Well maybe it's because Bethlehem, PA looks like fucking Birmingham. It's an abandoned steel town. What is it that drives us to like that music and try and emulate that music? Why did they make it and why are we copying it? Because similarities are there. As for the electronic stuff, I got into Shackleton, Demdike Stare, Burial — these UK producers. I'm not trying to jump genres, but that stuff in particular really evokes such stark imagery. Mostly criminal and dreadful and awful. [Laughs]
And that's something you relate to PA? Or to you, personally?
I guess [personally], yeah. I don't know why I like that stuff, but I do like shitty horror movies and crime movies, bad stories and bad people. So it all sits in my brain pretty comfortably.
I know you've worked many interesting jobs — non-air-conditioned warehouse, climbing broadcast towers with potential radiation factors, working in an adult bookstore. Did that stuff seem gruelling to you at the time?
All those jobs were great in their own way, and pretty terrible too. It's weird, sometimes I get nostalgic for those jobs, even though at the time they sucked. Sometimes I think back on them and maybe wouldn't bat an eye at not doing this any more, and going to do that. Because at the end of the day, it's all work, there's just different kinds of stress. The adult bookstore stuff was just hilarious, but something I enjoyed doing in a very short term way. Even if I was given the opportunity to own a place like that I wouldn't do it. Because you'll be in court every week for somebody taking a shit in the back parking lot, or cruising around in a van trying to pick people up.
Did someone actually shit in a parking lot?
Yeah, oh yeah. We had all kinds of lunatics come in there. I caught a guy taking a dump in the parking lot, kinda yelled at him.
When you say you caught him...
I was taking out the trash and he was squatting next to the garbage can. I was like, "Er, hey, you have to totally leave now." Or people shoplifting dildos, 'cause they come in and get nervous. They don't wanna buy anything 'cause they're embarrassed, so they steal it. And then when they get caught, it's like ten times as embarrassing 'cause they're stealing anal beads. We don't care if you bring it up to the counter and buy it! It was a mess there. [Thinks a moment.] Figuratively and literally.
What was your best experience in the less glamorous jobs?
I was a court reporter for a while. I didn't do the stenography — I just whispered the proceedings into a little mask. That was one of the best jobs I've ever had, working these court cases, some of them criminal, and having to repeat all the court proceedings into this little mask. And I was getting so much delight out of it, you know? Having to repeat what a lot of the defendants would say, or the judges would say.
It seems you somehow ended up with the resumé of an unemployed sitcom character. Did you push towards that?
I never had ambition to be one particular thing. When I was 23, I thought, "My career is to have a bunch of different jobs." I like hoarding experiences, like people like hoarding records or comics. And they didn't have to be special — they just had to give me an understanding of another way of doing things. Again, this wasn't conceptual in any way, like I'm doing art or I'm writing a book. It was kind of like, "Well, I'm not gonna be really good at anything, but I can be okay at a lot of things." I'd take a job, work there six months, another opportunity would come up and I'd quit. The periods of unemployment were pretty infrequent, 'cause it was always like, oh, something cooler came up, wow, awesome. And that's how I'm here [as a Sub Pop-signed solo artist]. This came up and it was cooler than the thing I was doing before, so now I'm doing it. If someone wants me to go be vice president then I'll go do that.
Tell me about some of the characters in your songs. Were any of them specifically influenced by your working life?
A little bit. One thing, over the years — if I had a cellphone on me I would take notes. And to be honest, I forget where a lot of the notes come from. And I couldn't remember if I had heard the story, or sometimes you hear somebody tell you something and it reminds you of something else. It was kind of like free association. I had all these things and never knew what to do with them. And when I started making music, I was poring through all these notes, like the Rolodex of human misery. This song "Franco" on Me Moan, their son killed himself. That sounds actually kind of boring, but once you can elaborate on the detail, you can get into the nitty-gritty of what makes tragedy.
Another one you mentioned was "The Pisgee Nest." The way it was described was "An incident in the words I heard about that disturbed me to the core." Can you elaborate on that?
It was, basically it was a sexual... it was an incident of a gangbang. And that's kind of it. There's no tidy way to sum it up without sounding crass and awful. But that's what it's about: a disturbing sexual encounter.
Is there much optimism in your lyrics?
Some of the lyrics are personal, and I think there is in the more personal songs, where I'm clearly not referencing a character, or speaking with another character's voice. I'd like to think there's optimism — I never thought of it before.
Is it fair to say the characters you're drawn to have no optimism, but you personally do?
I think, if I'm honest with myself, and I look at people who live in what I call a cold cave, I don't think there's a lot of optimism. And I don't think there's a lot of help, and I don't think it's going to get better. And maybe the problem is that we think it is going to get better by some kind of lucky happenstance Hollywood moment. And the truth is that the chaos will continue to unfold for a lot of our lives. So I suppose you could say that at the end of each character, there probably is not a lot of hope. But the songs aren't necessarily about their downfall, it's about a moment in their chaotic life. It's really just a painting. I guess maybe there's people out there that would be jealous of that circumstance.
Do you find yourself drawn to tragedy?
I guess so, yeah. To me, a story of any kind has to have that element. To be good. If I'm reading Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, they end so abruptly with their characters. They don't redeem them in any way — maybe they do a little bit. And that's actually the more tragic part of it — we're expecting redemption, and all we get is a fraction of it. And we have to say, I guess that's good enough. It can go one of two ways: complete sadness, or totally hilarious. There's a fine line.
It's interesting you mention Raymond Carver; previously I'd been thinking of your music in terms of movies — Lynch, Wenders — Paris, Texas especially.
Love that movie.
Right? And, I suppose I'm saying there's a filmic quality to the music.Yeah, well Paris, Texas is clearly cinematic. It's certainly easier to tie music to the cinema.
People have brought up this masculine vibe in your music. Do you feel that?
I... Yea-... No, not really. No. I'm not try-... I'm definitely not trying to make things masculine. Aside from the way I sing, which is the way I like hearing myself played back and really nothing more. We did a video this weekend, in this bar in the middle of Pennsylvania, kind of in the Poconos. And the bar was so grotty and... manly. And there were posters of big-breasted bikini models, Budweiser signs, sportsy kind of manly anecdotes and a stripper pole, all these things. And it was great, you know? I thought, I couldn't dream this place up. However. I had to go to the store and buy flowers, put flowers everywhere. Just to kind of defuse the manly cliché of it, and give it a little more life.
And I kind of feel that way about my music: I want to keep it light and airy too. I don't want it to be punishing in a heavy metal kind of way, or a rap kind of way, where everything is relentlessly man-oriented. I don't think that I do that in my music, and if I do then I need to change it. Because it's certainly not my intention to celebrate masculinity. It's nowhere near the point. There's a song on Me Moan called "You Don't Fade." Without me saying it no one would know, but it's from a female perspective, having this baby and being left with it. The challenge for me is to have as much empathy as I can and write from different perspectives. To me, that's the fun.