INTERVIEW: Earles, His Comedic Pursuits & Becoming Matador 'Alumni' (Pt 3 of 3)
POSTED WEDNESDAY 12.15.10
Andrew Earles first book, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, is available now.
I noticed an occasional dip into a joke (for levity) here and there, but did you ever have to consciously divest your comedy alter-ego while writing or interviewing people for the book? Were any interview subjects aware of exactly who you were as a writer and comedian?
My comedy alter-ego? At first, I was a little put off at the suggestion that I have a “comedy alter-ego” – like my girlfriend is constantly forcing me to leave the portable P.A. system at home because of a personal tendency to do stand-up in the middle of a restaurant, or as if I carry a rubber chicken around in my back pocket. But then I realized that I did treat my work in the comedy field as a secret life whenever I did work on the book. My comedy album and what I’m known for relative to the comedy genre…none of it had any place in my work on the Hüsker book, and I consciously tried to separate the two. I had two sources mention it during phone interviews, and I was mortified when they did. I tried to promptly change the subject. Those two worlds felt like different planets, and the Just Farr A Laugh 2CD set was released by Matador when I was five months into working on the book! The color probably drained from my face when Lori Barbero answered the phone one morning with, “I know about yoooooooouuu…..” I mean, the year before I got the book deal, you and I were on the “Comedy and Indie Rock” panel at SXSW! Most of my book work was done in a mindset that had no room for humor, for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, and I felt like it attached an unprofessional feel to my demeanor if my sources knew that one of the largest and most successful labels around had released a double CD and massive booklet based around prank phone calls I’d done with a friend (Jeffrey Jensen). When the phone call 2CD set was released in May of 2008, the whole world seemed to act like it was covered in feces and live ants, and it went on to be the worst-selling release on Matador in the past ten years, I think. If not the worst, then close to it. I guess it speaks to my supreme failure in the comedy genre that I was able to keep these two worlds separated….for the most part. So the really short answer to your question is….no, it was not hard to turn off that part of my life when I was doing book work.
To address the question as to whether or not it was a challenge to silence my usually uncontrollable irreverence, or whatever, while writing the book, I will admit to having a small handful of barbed sentiments were poo-poo’d by my editor, but they were directed at entities removed from my subject. More genres and demographics than specific bands or artists, really.
Is there anything you want HD fans to take away from this book that they wouldn't get from anywhere else?
Meaning, the stuff they can’t get from the other books written exclusively about Hüsker Dü? I’m not sure I understand this question. At least 80% of the text between the two covers comes to mind…excluding some of the info at the end of the book, which is available in another form and presented in a totally different fashion on Paul Hilcoff’s Hüsker Dü Database.
HD backstage at The Channel, Boston, 1984. © Patrick Smith
Other than Bob Mould and Greg Ginn, are there any other principal interview subjects you wish you could've reached?
Reached? Oh, I reached a lot of people, including those two, I think; it's just that they decided not to participate. Jello Biafra would have been a nice interview, and he was one of the few that actually reached out to me before I had attempted to reach him. Problem was, he only wanted to do it if all three members were involved, and I can respect that decision. I had a rather awkward experience with Henry Rollins. I found his manager, and sent her my request for his participation.....via e-mail. She called me up. Let's just say that very few personalities have actually made me feel like the naive bumpkin stereotype that shrewd movers-and-shakers from the West Coast and NYC might associate with this part of the country. This was like trying to talk to a character from a Neal LaBute movie about entertainment managers, if such a movie were to exist in real life. It was clear that she didn't read or didn't consider anything I'd written in my e-mail, or her brutally-toned questions would have been rendered unnecessary. And the incredulous undertone, like I was some unpublished dipshit writing about Hüsker Dü in a spiral notebook. Also, all of the "What exactly do you want to ask my client?" and "Why do you want to interview my client?" -style questions imply that she knew nothing about her client. She would ask me to explain the connection between Henry and Hüsker Dü, then cut me off after I got four words out of my mouth....with another question that was either obvious, or covered in my e-mail. After we got off the phone, I got an e-mail within five minutes. "Henry won't be participating in your book." So here's the funny part: Two days later, my editor at the Memphis Flyer assigns me a preview of the Henry Rollins spoken-word performance that's coming up in town, so I had to get back in touch with this woman and ask for a totally unrelated interview. I went ahead and preemptively stated that I wasn't going to disrespect the decision to remain uninvolved with my book while I was conducting an interview for my Alt-Weekly about a completely different and removed subject; something I felt stupid clarifying, as I was basically saying "Oh, and by the way, I'm not an integrity-challenged weasel." When it comes to ease of acquiring sources, my book had two major attributes going against it: It was about Hüsker Dü, a band comprised of three people who are more-or-less unfriendly or uncommunicative with one another, so you automatically have three camps of sources who could conceivably have a problem with discussing the subject matter. And it should be clarified that Greg and Grant are not unfriendly with one another, though they only speak over the phone about Hüsker business. The other red flag for potential interviewees was, of course, not having Bob on board. I made sure to tell all of my prospective sources about this on the front end, within the invitation. In hindsight, there's no telling exactly how many potential interviewees this cost me, because there were a lot of people who simply didn't bother to respond to my request. That was a little irritating, but hey, these folks don't owe me anything. Lastly, I must issue a terse comment about the people who agreed to participate, seemed fine with the dynamics of my book, and received a list of questions only to give me the silent treatment when I attempted follow-ups. I was not using a stock set of questions, and put a lot of time and thought into each individual interview. To not have the grapes to say, "You know, I've decided I'm not comfortable with this" or to just blow me off due to laziness or apathy? You shouldn't do people like that. Is it not somewhat flattering that a writer deems you worthy of quoted commentary in a published biography or historical text? Oh, there was a third factor going against this book: Previously-published books or other examples of music press that I had nothing to do with. I had one very, very important source turn me down based on a bad experience with previously-published book that will always be associated with my book. I shouldn't elaborate on this one, but it wasn't the only book that indirectly costs me a source or two. One book guaranteed that an entire band wasn't going to speak with me, and it would have been nice to get at least one of these guys on the horn. Lastly, I'd like to drive something home: If an excluded source pops out of my book and bothers you, dear readers, please understand that there is a really, really good chance that I contacted this person and their absence is based upon a personal choice. Sadly, a reader's, or a critic's, first impression tends to be that I didn't even know to get in touch with certain sources or that I did know but made no effort. ?
Were there any people you interviewed for the book who despite giving plenty of good information were just not able to be used?
No, I used at least one or two quotes from everyone I interviewed, unless I'm forgetting someone. It is entirely possible that I'm forgetting someone. Now, there are hours of unused interview content when it comes to the frequently-used sources, like Mike Watt and Grant, and I wish I could have used more of Ray Farrell's excellent interview.
(Another) recent photo of the author
In retrospect, looking back at your time on this, your first book, what would you have done differently? What could you have done better?
Ask me this in nine months. This isn’t where my head needs to be at the moment, though I will say that I will make more of an effort to guarantee that my personal life isn’t in a tumultuous state. Pretty tall order, considering the unpredictable nature of several key factors. I know that I will be more financially secure when I’m writing my next book. Terrified and broke is not a condition that I find conducive to creativity/productivity. I had a large percentage of my side work disappear due to the economic downturn in the fall/winter of ’08 and into the first half of ’09.
And about nine months into the book-work, I suffered an acute case of appendicitis that was the single most traumatic situation I’ve ever experienced. The offending organ actually ruptured a few minutes prior to surgery, which occurred a short 12 hours after the first pangs of pain became noticeable. I was told that I would have been dead within two or three hours had the surgery not happened when it did, and I was in the hospital for almost five days of post-op recovery. Prior to any notable medical attention, I was kept in a room for several hours, delusional from the worst pain I’ve ever known. It was during this time that I became convinced I was going to die. There were other complications, too, but this isn’t what anyone wants to read about. Nor do they want to read about my mom falling ill, which also happened while I was writing this book…
Do you have any future writing plans you can discuss? Are you anxious to start working on another book or did this one cure you for a while?
I am very anxious to start work on another book, or two books at once, depending on what type of book we're discussing here. I am tightening up the proposal and putting feelers out for a book that I’m afraid to explain. I really don’t want someone to steal the idea. Elsewhere, I'm carefully deciding whether or not it's a wise idea to start proposing a biography of an particular artist who is no longer with us, I'd love to write an encyclopedia or history of the independent label that began a quarter-century ago and went up to present day, then there’s a book about how eBay has altered if not become the gold standard by which vinyl worth is now determined (or basically a history of the vinyl record's relationship with eBay), and I'm trying to settle on an angle re: a book about deregulated "extreme"/underground metal. Oh, since other factions of 90’s hardcore have gotten book or large-scale bio treatment, what about the crust or metallic side of things that had nothing to do with NYHC meatheads or sports jerseys…the early part of the d-beat revival, huge riffs courtesy of Neurosis, His Hero is Gone, etc, power-violence, you know what I mean. No one’s done that book, yet. One idea I'm pretty excited about is a book telling the recent history of the budget-level guitar and how many such brands/models now feature a quality-level that rivals guitars costing much, much more, starting in the early-90's with the Yamaha Pacifica and moving forward to present day. This book would also serve as an expose of some expensive brands that are now coasting on the power of their name yet building decisively shoddy products, not to mention the powerful strain of now-unjustified snobbery shown by guitarists and magazines that snub brands like Squier and Epiphone and invest so much importance in the name on a headstock, thus promoting some dubious rip-off schemes on the part of mid-to-high end manufacturers. I'm also starting to compile either one or two volumes of my own writing as it was done in a certain tone and published for several years as a column and in an entry-based section of well-known alt-weekly, and this is to be combined, somehow, with the content created by Dave Dunlap and myself for our late-90's zine (1996 - 2000), The Cimarron Weekend. Finally, I still believe that my life's work will be an epic-length biographical treatment of the man who is perhaps my biggest hero, if not the strongest interest I have in a single personality, the untouchable Bill Drummond.
This is what I do, and I'm not doing any other type of work at this moment. I have to keep an eye on my mom, whose health is worsening, and up until recently, was splitting my physical work areas between the makeshift office I made in my mom's guestroom and my office at home, in the house I share with my girlfriend. Trying to do writing work in two physical places is a fucking nightmare, and it automatically creates this default third workplace known as "the automobile". Point is, I wasn't sending out pitches at the rate I once was (or should be now), and I have less work in the pipeline than I've had in years. That doesn't dance with having a recently-published book, especially one that's getting some attention, and the irony is painful rather than funny.
What about Earles and Jensen? Are you two still recording phone calls?
On Christmas Eve of last year, Jeffrey sent me an e-mail encouraging me to take a look at the Matador home page, where 'Earles and Jensen' had been removed from the "Current Roster" drop-down menu and placed in the "Alumni" drop-down menu. As a result, our 4LP/Book/DVD conceptual set entitled "The Blues 2" has no home. Jeffrey aligned with American Apparel to create an album of prank phone calls to AA locations, which he did with the help of East Village Radio (each call was done on the air). To explain it further would only serve to confuse readers, but the calls are brilliant and can be found online by searching the archives for the "Gay Beach" program, I believe. He invited me to contribute, but I could only manage some creative consulting long-distance, as book-work didn't allow anything more involved at that particular time...I was trying to remedy a content dry-spell and get up to Minneapolis for some face-time with people. Someone should release those AA calls, though. Solid stuff. ?
Care to elaborate on anything?
You sure you want me to do that?