Coffin Pricks

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I interviewed Ryan Weinstein and Chris Thomson of Coffin Pricks last fall for Maximum Rock ‘n Roll. I guess it never ended up running, so here is the complete conversation. Thanks to John Lombardo for the epic undertaking of transcribing this whole thing. Photos courtesy of Ryan – I don’t know the photo credits more than that.

TK: There’s one issue of MRR that I think about probably once a week for the last 7-10 years. In 1992 they had a special issue called the “Punks over 30” issue. You guys remember this? I was an avid reader from ’89-’92, but there was a “Punks over 30” issue and I couldn’t imagine being over 30 and being a punk. So I wanna ask you guys about being punks over 30. I mean what does it mean to start a band at this point?

CT: Well, I think what’s interesting for me. Is that when I do the math, I’m kinda working on close to 30 years, well no 25, 20 at least… as a performer. So it’s kinda weird. I think numbers are a weird thing and I think if I was paying attention to numbers and age and what I should be doing then I’d probably be in a mental institution. So, this is an opportunity to continue to explore music and maybe that’s a cop-out to say, but that’s…

RW:  I feel like it’s completely irrelevant. It must be relevant in terms of experience. In terms of what you can do. And everything you’ve done wrong through all the years. I personally feel like I have as much energy and interest as I did when I started. Probably more so now because I feel like I have a better grip on my ideas. I don’t feel…I think maybe my back hurts sometimes.

TK: But there’s expectations of starting a band. When you’re like 19 or 25 or something and you can all be like “what’s the big deal? We’re gonna live in this van for six weeks.” And the band is the center of your life. And everything else – relationships, jobs, whatever, they’re all fit-in around the band. So those sorts of expectations must change.

RW: They do. I would say yeah that aspect, like the idea of being a functioning entity that works all the time is kinda like this thing that’s sorta dangling in front of you and it’s way more difficult to be that, then maybe you were then. I don’t know, that’s really tough to answer because I haven’t really led this straight life that I’ve had to get away from all that often, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.

CT: Maybe to me, music is like this ugly girlfriend that you call every now and again to get with. And now, I’m kinda realizing the importance of that relationship and that it is important. What I like most about this band is I think that there is a better foundation and I can just do what I wanna do in the band.

TK: What’s foundation? You mean technically?

CT: Yeah, there’s kind of a band in place. Ryan is the musical generator and Chay and Jeff are rock-solid. So it’s not like we go in and it’s like “ok, what are we gonna do? Who’s gonna write the songs?” I do feel like I’ve been in bands where people are kinda looking to me to be like “Ok, tell me what to do.” And I don’t really succeed in those situations.

TK: Right, but now that you’re saying there’s a foundation, you’re free to do your own thing.

CT: I’m free to kinda focus on just what I can bring to it and hopefully take the lessons I’ve learned and be a little more efficient at it.

TK: Right, well it’s funny that you say that you appreciate it like an ugly girlfriend, which I don’t even want to get into what it means to appreciate the ugly girlfriend, but it’s a deeper and different satisfaction? However weird my bands might have been when I was 23, there was still always in the back of my mind “and we’ll be the next David Bowie” you know? Or you know “people are gonna love this.” But then once you get realistic about doing it is its own satisfaction, then the satisfaction becomes more immediate.

CT: I mean definitely when I was younger, I was foolishly caught up in comparing myself to friends’ bands. And I’ve had a lot of friends that had great “success” and always was kinda longing for that and then realizing that maybe that isn’t the be-all end-all and that it’s more like “you know what, I just gotta do my own thing.” And you know that’s the satisfaction for me – growing as a singer and as a lyricist.

TK: It’s funny. We’re basically saying the basic lessons of punk rock. But it started from the question of the “Punks over 30?” (MRR) issue. And it’s so funny that you take these things in as a kid when you’re starting this stuff, but it doesn’t really get meaningful until much later when you’re like “Oh, this really is it and this is the satisfaction.”

RW: Well, you know it’s strange. The only thing I can say where age comes into play is that I have a definite different degree of satisfaction that I get from playing. That means something totally different.

TK: What is it compared to what it used to be?

RW: It used to be…maybe part of it was like the thrill of being seen or something – Or the thrill of actually just being somebody in a band. Where now I feel like my complete goal is just personal satisfaction always, in terms of some internal feeling.

TK: This is something I come across. I have a very regimented schedule and at like 1:00 every afternoon I come up against this issue: Is each new song – because you’ve both written so many songs at this point, both of you in many different contexts – so is each new song harder to write or easier? Is it simpler because you’re like “I’ve done this a million times, I know how to begin” or does it get tougher, because you keep throwing stuff away because you’re like “I’ve already done that”.

RW: Well, I think it gets tougher because you constantly want . . . I’m not afraid of repeating myself. In fact, I’m a huge advocate of people that have a thing that they do really, really well. But I think with the music and stuff, it’s maybe different in this band because I’m writing mostly to the strengths of the people I’m playing with. I’m writing things that I want Chris to sing on. I’m writing things that I want Jeff to play drums on. And that’s how the whole band started. So it feels like it’s more of a challenge against itself more than the thought of something that I’ve done before or might do later.

TK: Do you have an idea about that, lyrically?

CT: Ryan is very prolific and we’re generating songs like crazy. Which, I think is a very good thing. And it’s almost that fear of like – it’s kinda cliché’, but staring at the blank page and being like “Oh fuck, what am I gonna do this time?” And in some ways, it’s easy to get caught up in the angst of “Oh fuck, I gotta write these brilliant lyrics for this song.” And then in other ways, it’s like, “You’ve done this before. You know how to do it. Maybe that should be a starting ground”. Because it’s kinda like about recognizing gifts, I think. And maybe that’s where I’m coming to this band. There are times I’ve attempted to write really creative songs with creative lyrics and I think what I’ve realized my own talent is – it’s screaming to loud songs. And basically, you can play me a loud song and I can figure something out pretty quick.

TK: It’s like negotiating that ratio of the fear of “I need to out-do myself” and the confidence of “Oh, I know how to do this.”

CT: Yeah, also just getting something going. I kinda think of it as whoever’s gonna listen to us isn’t gonna listen to whatever my genius vision of a song is. The person who’s listening to us, they just need some lyrics to live within the song. And I’m not saying that as a copout.

TK: No, no, it makes perfect sense.

CT: It’s like when you watch a movie, you want action and dialogue. You gotta have something to latch on to. And if you’re just kinda like in the air trying to figure out too clever lyrics or obtuse – which I would really like to write obtuse lyrics – but there’s nothing for people to really latch on to. So now, I’m just kinda trying to go with it and be a little more immediate and not over-thought. You know, in some ways, things work out that way; spontaneity, you know?

RW: Also, the whole idea for the band at its inception was to be just this completely direct thing. And maybe that was kind of a challenge too, because a lot of the time you find yourself trying to fight against the simplicity of something. You know you feel like you wanna tap into something more esoteric and you feel self-conscious about doing something that is just super direct and super simple. And maybe that also goes back to the original idea that we should have some level of sophistication, after all we’ve done, or something. But I don’t think it’s any less sophisticated, it’s just getting deeply into something direct.

TK: Your two answers lead me to two different strains. Having been the bass player for a minute (note: I played bass for the first few Coffin Pricks practices before scheduling conflicts made me duck out), and having seen the process from the inside, I have a sense that the music comes together and that the lyrics are sorta put on top. Right? As opposed to maybe Andrew Bird writes songs where he’s like “Oh, I whistled this to myself and now how shall I accompany it?” But you were sorta using “lyrics” and “singing” as synonyms earlier. So how do you see the relationship between the two? Like is melody something you’re aware of? I think of hip-hop a lot because I have some sort of allergy to melody, so I’m always thinking of cadence. How do you think of melody versus lyrics? Which comes first?

CT: I think they kinda exist together. I don’t see them as separate things. But I get what you’re saying, because I think cadence has a lot to do with, you know, making things interesting. I think when you talk about cadence, and I’ve relied on that before in other bands, it’s almost turning the vocals into its own instrument to a certain extent. Where it’s accenting what’s going on in the music. Sometimes it weirdly goes along, sometimes it doesn’t.

TK: Right, which creates a tension when you’re pulling away from it.

CT: Yeah. I guess going back to Ryan – I’m kinda into the idea of just making it simple and not over-thinking it and kinda relying on melody. It’s weird. I got into punk rock music, like a lot of people, and The Ramones are definitely a keystone. They’re a big part of my early transformation. And then I had a lot of friends who got into The Ramones later and I was always like ‘Aw man, who the fuck cares about the Ramones? They’re so simple,’ to a certain extent. ‘They’re so juvenile’ – Not juvenile, but there’s a certain simplicity to it and I guess what I’m getting at is, just like within this band, like kinda relying on some of those tricks in terms of adding melody. I really like the way The Ramones were able to add melody to some of the initial punk rock bands and I think if you read the lyrics by themselves, you’re like ‘Oh this is kinda silly,’ but then they work with the lyrics. I guess what I’m getting at is – what I’m gravitating towards or what I’ve discovered – that what I appreciate is that there’s just a certain honesty. In my new-found appreciation for The Ramones . . .

TK: You’re going through a phase right now?

CT: Well, no I wouldn’t say that. But I think it always plays on my mind. Just that the singer can be just…that’s the way they’re able to communicate. There’s something very honest and genuine and almost emotionally retarded.

TK: Well, when you say The Ramones are boring to you at a certain point because it’s simple, something like The Scissor Girls were equally as simple in terms of manual dexterity. So the simplicity of The Ramones isn’t like ‘Oh that’s hard to play’ or not. It comes across more as like emotional simplicity? Cause there’s not like tension in the music?

RW: Well, yeah cause it’s not really about the people who are playing it. Not to say that there’s not some…everybody’s personality is intact fully. But I think that there’s a distinction to be made there.

TK: That leads to two things I don’t know how to phrase as questions. There’s personal versus tradition or community, right? So, saying that The Ramones weren’t supposed to express themselves implies that we’re supposed to express the next step in like how this folk-form is expressive. So are you guys more aware of expressing yourselves personally or more aware of, well I’ll use two words that I mean differently: community or tradition. Right? Cause there’s a way to be in a band when you’re young where it’s like ‘Oh, we feel part of a gang. This is about a community. This is about being part of a scene.’ Or there’s a way to be like ‘This is personally gratifying because it’s about being part of a tradition.’

RW: More the latter than the former, but neither in a way – The former being the personal expression, the latter being the community. I think it’s really interesting because I don’t really see – at least in our immediate thing – that we really have a place. So it’s a different thing for us.

TK: Have a place where?

RW: In the music community.

TK: Chicago or in general?

RW: Chicago, especially. That doesn’t mean we aren’t being accepted. It just means that we don’t have an easy place to fit. I think things right now are super fucked-up because we’re in this hyper-regimented, uniform music world where you have to play with bands that sound like your band, otherwise people feel weird about putting you on a gig. And if you don’t have reverb on all of your vocals, somehow you’re not accepted by this group of people that loves to douse everything with reverb. Also, the thing with the band is we have a different kind of thing where we don’t really spend a lot of time together. We’re all friends and everything, but it’s sorta neither really in that way. Definitely writing the music is some expression of something that’s going on inside of my mind and my body, but I don’t really know what it’s supposed to mean. I know that honestly, I just wanted the band to have a simple, powerful sound. I don’t know what that means to me at this point.

TK: There’s this term “negative capacity” that people use in art school a lot that I think about a lot. It means like being able to be comfortable not understanding something for a long time. I feel like that’s what you’re talking about. And I get obsessed with how long can I sit with this thing and not know what’s good or bad about it.

RW: Well, I think that for us, we’ve never really had a lull where we weren’t writing something. And I think if maybe we get to a point where we have a full LP out and we’ve done more, maybe then some kind of understanding will come to us. But I think at this point we’re just playing, playing, playing, playing. There’s not much that we do that doesn’t stick somehow. So it’s kinda hard to tell what any of it is. But it’s not like some flummoxing fucking thing that we can’t grasp. It just seems like maybe we don’t spend a lot of time stopping and thinking about it. I know that I don’t (think) when I write music. It’s just like “What can I hear that I think will work well for us?”

TK: Do you have any idea of this personal vs. community, personal vs. tradition, Chris?

CT: I think just by virtue of who we are and our roots, I think we’re just coming to this punk as a folk concept of amateur musicians expressing something. And being true to ourselves, I think that’s kinda like the avenue we’re following. In terms of personal expression, I think the songs are at least for me about, you know, frustrations and things that everybody can relate to.

TK: Yeah, well, there’s a way in which all of us can just take the folk form of punk as a given, so then personal expression is just accepting ‘Well I fit it within this folk form.’ But Ryan, you’re saying how you don’t feel like there’s a comfortable spot for your band to fit in, in the Chicago music scene. And we all know there are certain codes of rebellion and I wonder what you guys think about that. Codes of rebellion versus rebellion itself, I mean, because there is something viscerally shocking about aggressive music. Like I’m really in the habit of listening to music on shuffle, which has been a real epiphany to me – to not choose what I’m going to listen to, but just hit shuffle when I get on the bus. And sometimes a Bad Brains song that I might have heard a hundred million times over 25 years, I’ll hear and be like “Holy shit! These guys are pissed!” You know? So there’s a way in which we read all that as like a code, but how do those codes work into playing aggressive music? Because like you said, you play with bands like Joan of Arc or Cairo Gang or Eleventh Dream Day or whoever I’ve seen you guys with and it is the same way that Bad Brains hits me on shuffle.

RW: For me, when I came up with the idea of the band, maybe in that sense it was sort of a rebellion to what was happening around us, because I wanted to do something that didn’t sound like anything anybody else was doing. And I’m not saying that we’re doing something that has no foundation, but it was an overt reaction to what was going on. I felt like there was a lot that was going on that seemed like it didn’t have a sense of real urgency or purpose. I can’t define that for anybody. I can just say it for us. The reason I wanted to do this music was I knew that I wanted to do something that was direct and completely purposeful all the time. And so in that respect, I would say that the band itself is a direct response to everything that’s going on around us – Everything going around us in the music community. I think obviously, subconsciously, I’m a pretty critical person I guess you could say. So I think that through my own sorta criticism of things that I didn’t place on a level of value or interest, something clicked in my brain; something clicked, ‘this is what I need to do.’ Something that really bothers me is when I start reading things about us like “The throwback punks . . .” I think what we’re doing is totally fucking relevant now. It’s not like a bunch of older guys getting together and listening to their old records and playing music. It’s not even about that. So it’s kinda like a jumbled idea, I guess in that way, you know? It’s coming from a bunch of different places. I knew it would be responded to that way, even from the first gig that we did. It was like ‘Yeah, but you guys are like some all-star band, guys that were in other bands. You should headline your first show.’ And I was like ‘Why would we do that? We’re just a band. That’s just starting to play.’ It would be really easy to be like ‘we’ve done all this stuff so we’ve got some cache’ or ‘we’ve got something,’ but it’s not even about that. Maybe in that way, almost everything annoys me.

CT: I don’t know if I’m gonna take the conversation on a different tangent, but I was just thinking about when I first started listening to bands and seeing shows and stuff – to me what was most exciting was just the element that anything could happen and often times, it did. It was more about the performance. It was about the energy that you saw and I kinda feel like because I think when punk started everyone was sloppy musicians and over time the newer kids coming to it came with more skills, better equipment. And not to pigeonhole Chicago, but I think there’s some incredible players and there’s incredible people doing music. It almost seems like everybody going to see shows now relates it to ‘Oh, what an incredible performance!’ or how this performance sounded exactly like the record and all that kind of stuff and so I think – and maybe for me, what excited me was more about the performance and that sort of thing.

TK: That comes back to an issue of being punks over 30, right? To bring it back to MRR. When you’re 18 or 20 and you start a band that plays aggressive music – I’m just gonna use that term, “aggressive music.” It’s like you’re comfortable being pissed at everything and you can’t say what it is, but you just know that you’re pissed at everything. But as an adult you can’t help but notice ‘there’s a world I’m responding to.’ Maybe this has to do with deepening a connection to a folk form. I guess I’m wondering how much is consciously political – in the most expansive sense of the term. How much is an adult’s sophisticated understanding of the world compared to the immediate impulse of a younger person’s anger? Is that a fair question? Does that make sense?

CT: No, that doesn’t make sense. I mean . . .

RW: I kinda see where you’re going with it, but . . .

TK: I’ve never been able to get into bands that have very explicit political anger that’s set in the immediate or has some sloganeering like “Reaganomics killing me. Reaganomics killing you!” It’s like, it’s not very meaningful to me, except for that the “Reaganomics killing me. Reaganomics killing you!” can expand, like this is the specific that they’re talking about, but it can expand to –

RW: Sure, and I don’t know if this is what you’re saying, but I think it’s equally as boring to have just some guy yelling at you about ‘My work sucks . . .’ blah blah blah. These things are obvious, you know? So it’s kinda like hard to find . . . I dunno. It’s weird. To me, I think the music – maybe this is the difference, maybe it’s more about the visceral quality of the music now than it was about the actual rage I was feeling towards something, you know? I feel like, for instance, there’s no difference between our performance when we play a show than when we’re rehearsing – in terms of the way that we approach what we’re doing. So I don’t know that there’s some sort of thing, some conscious sort of rage that’s going out from us to the people that are coming to hear us.

CT: I’d also like to just – from my perspective I just feel like so many – like when I think about angry lyrics to a certain extent there’s a certain amount of righteousness involved like ‘The fucking slaughterhouses are feeding you poison!’ And it just – I mean, I can appreciate that perspective. But from just my own historical perspective, everybody who gets really mad about that stuff cops out at some point. You fall off the straightedge wagon. You fall off the Vegan wagon. And so it’s like whenever somebody’s telling me to be really angry about something, I’m like ‘There’s some catch here.’ Like it’s not genuine.

TK: So to get back to where I said there was two tangents. It gets back to aggressive music. There’s the aggressive music like Slayer or even Pig Destroyer, where you listen to it and it’s like dazzling proficiency, right? And then there’s the aggressive music that can be so simple technically in terms of manual dexterity. In that like anyone can do this, but they’re really expressing aggressiveness. So I’m wondering what you guys think of technical proficiency. Is it meaningful? Because part of what’s so awesome about Jeff’s drumming is that it seems like he’s about to fall down at any moment. It’s like he can hardly keep up with himself. And that’s what’s so great about it. But you keep talking about music being immediate. And the songs are quite complex.

CT: Yeah, I mean I don’t think we should underscore . . . I mean I think there’s definitely . . . I think Ryan can fucking play the guitar and Jeff can wail and it definitely takes . . . I mean, I don’t wanna underscore like we’re just fucking around, you know? There’s definitely some thought that goes into it. There’s definitely some thought that’s going into the music. And I think Ryan does a lot of homework on his own and that when he comes in, it’s like “This is ready to go.” And I dunno, I think there’s a level of commitment that we’re all into. I mean that’s like what you say about Jeff. It’s like he’s going for it and he’s just gonna do know what he knows how to do or he’s gonna die trying. And there’s something like . . . there’s kinda like an underdog quality to that, you know? There’s something worth rooting for in that and if that’s what’s coming across in the music, then I think we’ve succeeded. And maybe not to dwell on The Ramones entirely, but you look at them as individuals and you’re like “How can those guys . . .?” You know, there’s a certain level of commitment and you wanna root for these guys who are able to do what they’re doing.

TK: Yeah, and that totally is so much more expressive than the worst post-rock bands or something that got to a certain point in the late 90’s, early 2000’s where it was like you’re watching a band, scratching your chin, “Wow! Is he doing that in eleven?” Who gives a shit?

RW: Yeah, Yeah! That’s sorta like that really staring at you’re belly. There’s nothing about this band that’s not about the sum of all its parts together. It’s not really about any individual’s contribution. Chris’ voice obviously is the thing that is sort of laid on top of this foundation, but really the whole sound of the band is the group. And it’s always, the whole concept of the band for me was to just keep fucking going – just to keep playing, keep playing you know? Don’t waste any time. You know, just do it. And so maybe in that way, there is a connection to something like The Ramones because I feel like we are approaching it from like a . . . like there’s no time to waste.

CT: Not to belittle anybody in the band, but I think it’s also becoming comfortable in terms of what I do as a singer. I think I was telling Ryan very early on, I know how to do one thing really well and that’s singing to this kind of music.

TK: I really just have one more thing that’s occurred to me to ask you about and that would be, you’ve both lived in Chicago a decade each, so I’m wondering for each of you . . . You, Chris have more experience in a sort of iconic scene of 80’s, early 90’s Dischord and you, Ryan in all sorts of bands, so I’m wondering how does being in a band now, here in Chicago relate to that? Your expectations, how you had always been in bands before, how does that relate to now?

CT: I don’t know if I think about it . . .

RW: Yeah, I don’t think about it all . . .

TK: Well, I’m asking you to think about it.

RW: Well . . .

TK: Well, there’s a big difference between Chicago 2012 and Miami late-90s or DC mid-80s, early 90’s, right?

RW: I mean, it’s completely different in that sense, if we’re gonna think about that because I grew up in Miami and played in bands in Miami and having toured a lot at that time, being in Chicago, you can go to a show any night of the fucking week and see whomever you want to see practically, whenever you want to. The only thing I think about and I’m extremely thankful for is growing up in Miami was like learning to play in a completely disparate situation. Meaning everybody that you played with didn’t really have the motivation to be anything other than what they were. I mean, sure there was some people, but they were completely outside the community that I was involved in. Which was, you know, there were all these great bands like Kreamy Lectric Santa and the band Cavity that I played in and The Crumbs and all bands that really had aesthetically nothing in common, other than the fact that you felt completely desperate in the situation that you were in. Here, I remember coming to Chicago the first time on tour and walking down the street in 1995 or whatever it was and seeing a guy in a Dead Kennnedys shirt walking down the street and just being like “I have to talk to that person! I should meet this person. Who is this person?! They know about stuff I know about!” Obviously, you know, whatever. But now I see the guy in the Dead Kennedys shirt and I just wanna go on the other side of the street, probably.

CT: Yeah, I don’t know how to relate to that. I feel like expectations are maybe different. I don’t know what to say. But I do feel like it’s like Ryan said, in Chicago there’s . . . I mean, what we’re lucky for in Chicago is that this is an incredibly music-focused town and there is almost every night of the week there’s great bands to see, there’s committed venues, and there’s an audience – people who go see live shows. Which seems to be drying up in a lot of other places.

TK: Right, but you’re saying it makes sense for him to respond in that way with Miami. Well, you know Miami in the late 80’s, mid 90’s . . . no one is iconisizing those bands. But you have this experience with this Dischord scene. I mean, I remember every month one record came out. Maximum Rock and Roll had the ad with the arty photo and the type font. And it was like each month I bought that record. I never liked High Back Chairs. I liked Three and Grey Matter OK. But everything else, it was like each month, each band had their specific identity, but it was also a part of a thing, you know? From the outside, that seemed like so much of a unified thing. So I’m wondering how that’s different.

RW: If I can say something real quick. One thing that’s really different now, that doesn’t exist, that once did, is label identity. You could always sorta trust –

TK: Yeah, I always did buy every Dischord Record.

RW: Dischord, SST, Touch and Go, Crypt, Kill Rock Stars . . . because a lot of the time you kinda knew what you we’re in for and you we’re hoping that it would be the next record that you would love.

TK: Yeah, AmRep and Dischord were the two at the time for me.

CT: Yeah, sure, exactly.

RW: Now, that doesn’t really exist, at least not to . . . maybe it does to a degree, but not as prevalent as it once was. Where I think that was sorta maybe a different thing.

CT: I don’t know. I think for me it was more . . . the further away I got from Dischord, the more liberated I felt. Almost to the point now where I wanna distance myself from that. Because I think you set yourself up for failure if you’re like ‘I come from this long tradition of Dischord Records’ and you know especially being one of the more obscure bands on Dischord, like nobody gives a fuck. So to just let that go, I think has been liberating for me, you know?

RW: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a strange thing. It’s like the idea of the past. You know, referencing the past. Subconsciously you’re always referencing your past. But it’s weird because . . . you know anybody would say this about what they’re doing, ‘Uh, I’m not really even thinking about it.’ But it’s like that stuff doesn’t really factor in to what I think we’re trying to do at all. I mean we’ve experienced the things we’ve done. You know . . . the bands we’ve been in, the tours we’ve done, the people we’ve known, but I feel like right now, we’re at this time where I personally feel like we’re doing something super decisive. Like at times that’s almost breaking away from other things . . . things we’ve been associated with in the past.

CT: Or defined by, you know?

RW: We’re not breaking any new ground that I can tell. But I mean personally, I feel like we’re just getting the lead out. I mean, really, it’s kind of a joke to say that. But, I just think it’s really dangerous to think about that kind of stuff. I mean every year there’s talk of an old band of mine getting back together. And I’m always the one who’s least likely to say yes. And this is just a continuation of that thought. This (band) has nothing to do with anything I have ever done before. It’s me, it’s Chris, it’s Jeff, it’s Chay. I don’t think that we have any . . . maybe there’s like a linear aesthetic connected to it, but I think what we’re doing now is probably coming full-circle, a complete reaction to everything that we’ve done in the past.

CT: I do think it’s weird that a lot of people that I’ve grown up with that have been playing music equally as long are still . . . (They) kinda disappear from it and then whether they reunite old bands or whatever are still like “going for it”.

TK: In a way that you feel like you aren’t “going for it?”

CT: No, like in the same way. But if you told me 20 years ago that I’d still be doing this, I’d kind be like ‘Oh, I don’t believe you.’ But I think the same phenomenon for me holds true for a lot of friends – is that it’s just like this thing they can’t walk away from. Not so much because I feel like ‘Awww this band is gonna be the one that’s gonna break it.’ But it’s just something about . . . I dunno. Like in DC it’s weird because it’s such a music-focused town and everybody gets into bands and you’re kinda like ‘Why is everybody in DC in bands?’ And I think it’s kinda like, you know in some cities everybody gets into sports or they get into skateboarding . . .

TK: You don’t have a pro sports team in DC?

CT: Well, yes and no – basketball and hockey. There were pro sports, but I’m thinking like you go to some towns and everybody is on the football team or if you wanna be somebody, you play high school sports. Or if you wanna be somebody, you try to be a pro skater. And in DC, and I think in some other places, you kinda just turn to music because that was kind of the road map that was written and that you followed. I guess I just feel like there are a lot of people who are still on that, you know, path, doing the same thing.

TK: Don’t you think that’s positive?

CT: I don’t know yet.

TK: More than if you were all playing Pro-Am sports right now?

CT: Yeah, but I think the same thing exists. It’s like kids who were skaters when they were kids have come back to it later in life because it’s just something you’ve always done and you can’t kinda shake, I guess.

TK: I like the idea of you not controlling the music, but you’re subject to it.

CT: Yeah, not to drag someone else into it, but I was reading this Stephen Malkmus interview and he was like ‘Yeah, I guess I’m a lifer now . . .’ and I guess that’s sort of a similar correlation.

TK: Yeah, that is funny. I like thinking about these old Blues guys and it’s like ‘Oh, it’s just what you do.’ Too bad my job doesn’t pay better, but it turns out this is what I do.

CT: Yeah, exactly.

RW: That is interesting. That kinda opens up a whole new way of thinking about it for me, because I guess in that way we kinda are those people, even if we didn’t see it happening to us, you know? One of my biggest fears is being some old, grizzled “rock guy” who’s just fuckin’ hanging’ around at the bar doing nothing.

TK: You shave too close to be grizzled.

RW: I do shave too close, but that’s a super weird thing to think about because we totally are the people who . . . all three of us are the people. And you know Chay hasn’t really been playing as frequently, but Jeff has been going the entire time. It’s interesting to think of ourselves as these people. I mean, I can at least speak for myself and say I don’t have a choice in the matter. I don’t wanna be like “THIS is what I do,” but . . . it’s kinda like this is exactly what I do.

TK: Which is why Dead Meadow is awesome. Right? There’s a way in if you don’t look at Dead Meadow, you’re like ‘Aw, this sounds good, but it’s not a big deal.’ Or maybe even ‘This sounds really good, but I’m not blown away.’  But if you look at them, knowing who they are makes it just that much deeper, where it’s like, “Damn, they’re True Believers!” It adds such a gravity to it.

RW: Sure, I mean if you think about music inspiration – Being inspired by the idea of people that are completely for real. Like if I think about The Cramps, for instance. I always think of them as this super big touchstone in my life. You never had to worry about whether the Cramps were going to be lame.

TK: Right, they weren’t gonna make some 90’s P.I.L. record. Or they’re next record’s not suddenly gonna sound like Sisters of Mercy.

RW: And that goes back to what we were talking about before – Proficiency vs. vision. Sometimes when you focus too much on the idea of playing, you lose sight of just being fucking great. I like things that you can count on like that. I’m not saying that’s always great, but it works for me.

CT: For me, proficiency always reminds me of masturbating, you know? It’s like every guitar player I ever knew who got better and better ended up in the land of Steve Vai because they wanted something to showcase.

TK: Yeah, in a lot of ways it’s exciting to push yourself, like ‘here’s this new way I can express myself.’ So I can understand it, but it is also a fault.

RW: One thing we’ve always been able to safely count on I guess, is if you’re not really looking back you don’t have to worry about falling forward. You know what I mean? The sense of ‘I know that no one that I like is gonna do something super fucking lame. And I trust in that’ and maybe that’s the most inspirational thing, you know?

TK: That means a lot to me that you say that because I’m actually really psyched about occasionally doing things that are super-lame. It means a lot to me to sometimes annoy the people that thought they trusted me. For me, that’s like part of my vision.

RW: Well, it is kind of a fear of mine. I always want the people I know who are doing stuff to be doing something that’s super fucking great – Even if I don’t like it. I just wanna know that people are doing something great. And I’m not putting myself in that category, or the band in that category. But anyone that knows me can trust that I’m not gonna fuck it up too bad? You know? I mean I probably will at some point. A lot of people didn’t like Maximum Wage. That’s ok.

TK: I love Maximum Wage.

RW: I did too. But the idea of punk – now I’m thinking about punk and I’m thinking about the idea of being a punk. What does that mean? People say we’re like a punk band. I don’t think of us as a punk band and the idea of being a punk in my mind for a long time kinda became this super lame thing.

CT: The costume or something?

RW: Exactly.

TW: That’s what I meant by codes of rebellion. There’s a way in which you guys can be identified as a genre band.

RW: I’ll say this much, I don’t feel like I’m trying to be part of a music community. The same way you and I have talked about going downtown for any of the Occupy stuff. We have completely different . . . my viewpoint is ‘I’m there, you’re there. We can be together, we can be apart.’ I used to dream of a movement, you know, I really wanted there to be a movement of people that were doing things. I just don’t feel that it really works that way. I just think the things I admire the most are just full of character and it’s not like this autonomous thing, you know? I don’t know if we have that.

CT: Without really trying, I think we’re just gonna be true to ourselves and be genuine. I think more than anything, that’s what people are gonna latch on to or be excited about.

RW: But I think the most important thing to say is that one of the things I like about (this band) is that we’re being genuine but it’s not this hyper-sincere thing. Sincerity is where I feel like a lot of stuff got really lost.

TK: I feel like you are using the word sincere in quotes. Because what you’re talking about being true to yourself is being sincere. But yeah, the same way I’m using “codes of rebellion,” there’s codes of sincerity. What’s that word? Charlatan? That’s like a fake priest or holy man. That’s why something like Lungfish . . . man, I totally bought it. It’s like ‘Holy shit! This guy’s a mad shaman. And it’s like some eastern Black Sabbath. It’s the real deal.’ But then there are bands that try to sound like Lungfish or try to do a fake Dan Higgs and it’s like “Oh you’re like a Charlatan!” and it’s the most offensive thing – The fake holy man.

CT: Yeah!

RW: Yeah, totally. I mean that’s like the most offensive thing you could ever foist upon the people who have come to check you out, right? Big time.

CT: Well, as Dan Higgs likes to say “My way is the only way you’ll get out of me.”

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Fucked With by Drunk Off-Duty Cops

October 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

OK. I will report these events as plainly and accurately as possible.

This happened and I walked the 50 feet back to the bar I live in where a dozen of my friends were hanging out for our man Dean’s going away party, but I couldn’t even tell anyone this happened because it seemed so insane to me that I thought no one would believe me. I sat and ate my tacos in silence and split.

I bounced into the taco stand around 9:30 on Monday night to buy a couple tacos. I was excited. I’d been a little anxious all day that I needed to figure out how to make a little money and I’ve been a little bummed out that I can’t motivate myself to work on getting my new songs together and then I got an email offering me a little money to get some new songs together. This prompted me to get another couple hours of revision-work done on this writing I’m wrapping up, so I was feeling good – two extra hours of work I wasn’t expecting to get in today.

So, feeling great, I hop across the street like a happy goddamn carefree fucking bunny. Four men stood in there. The place is very, very tiny. Five men hardly fit unless they are all aware of granting each other some space and these men made it clear immediately that they did not deem me worthy of granting space to. They wouldn’t step aside to allow me to order. Three of the men were obviously together and they all knew the fourth guy who was alone. That fourth guy was taking to the woman behind the counter about being a cop. The other guys looked very much like cops – white guys, flat tops, clean, militant-preppy. Those three had obviously been drinking. Their eyes were flushed red and their voices were loud, their gestures broad and obnoxious.

They all got quiet when I entered and stood around me, looking me up and down. I said, “Excuse me” to step up to order and none of them moved. The shortest guy, real arrogant, coming up to barely my nose, pressed up very close to me, his chest puffed out and his face up close to mine. He said, “Hey you were downtown the other day.”

I was surprised and said, “Excuse me?”

“At the protest,” he said. “Downtown.”

We stood almost twenty blocks North and twenty blocks West of OCHQ. I don’t know why I would’ve possibly stood out to this guy. There have sometimes been as many as thousands of people there at once. I’ve been there about six times out of the 32 days it’s been happening and none of those times has been longer than a couple hours. So I’m hardly drawing attention myself there and probably just should’ve said no.

But my goddamn Catholic upbringing – of course I think of St. Peter denying Christ three times before the cock crows and that means that I can’t back down from some bully at the taco stand. So I said, “Yeah.”

Then I stepped past him to order. They all stood close to me, silent, while I ordered. I asked a couple extra questions about the Super-Nachos I had no intention of getting to buy myself a little time. I was looking for any sign from the woman behind the counter that she recognized something was happening, but nothing. And we have a little camaraderie. I’m in there a lot. She comes in Rainbo sometimes and we talk. But nothing.

“Vegetarian Tacos” gets a big laugh from my audience. They repeat it a couple times – “Vegetarian!” like they’d never heard anything so funny before.

I step back to the wall after ordering and the asshole short guy steps up close to me again.

“So how’d that go for you?”

“I’m sorry?”

“How did it go for you downtown? Did you get what you wanted? Was it a success?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. By this point, surrounded by four men: three of them obviously drunk, all of them obviously cops and at least one of them obviously looking for a fight, I was very nervous, aware that I was shaking a bit and my voice was wobbly. So I said, “Yeah, I think it was a success as a day, but obviously the changes people are out there looking for are bigger than one day can accomplish.”

“What are you all doing out there?”

“Well I couldn’t speak for everyone.”

“You!” At this point his voice rose and he pressed up even closer against me. The other guys were all listening close, smirking. “I want to know what you were doing out there.”

I was very nervous, but really wanted to articulate this in a non-divisive way, a way that wouldn’t provoke him and might help him understand that the protests were as much on his behalf as everyone else’s (the rights of right-wing thugs to intimidate people must be preserved!)

But mostly I was just so fucking confused. Why me? I guess he just figured this is a neighborhood in which people that might go down there live? And I look like one of those people maybe? My fashion sense can hardly be described as conspicuously smash-the-state. I’m a pretty low bar of non-conformity to get them frazzled. Shaven, my tattoos were covered, my hair washed. No one would mistake me for a surly teenager. So this must be happening to a lot of people?

But what the fuck grownup bullies another grownup? I just couldn’t believe it was happening.

I said something about standing in solidarity with people protesting systemic injustice. He looked incredulous. “What is that? Systemic injustice?”

I shrugged. His friend, a tall ugly goof laughed and said, “I don’t think he knows why he was down there.”

I shook my head and this was the weirdest part. I said, “No, I can explain exactly why I was down there, but I’m afraid you guys are about to hit me, so that’s why I’m too nervous to speak well. I think I’m about to get beat up.”

It was a weird thing to say, but now I realize that what was even weirder was that none of them were taken aback or looked surprised when I said it.

The short guy said, “I just wanted to take my wife for a nice evening downtown and then we get off the Blue Line at Jackson and there’s this angry mob. You don’t think I was afraid of being hit?”

I laughed, “Well you don’t need to worry about those people.”

“Well, how would I know? You can’t explain to me what everyone was doing down there.”

This guy was the self-satisfied ruddy face of the future storm troopers that I’ve been dreading ever since Bush’s stolen election over a decade ago. I just repeated myself. “I was there to stand in solidarity with those protesting systemic corruption.”

“Who do you want to see out of office? The incumbents?”

“Not just the incumbents. It’s systemic.”

“So you’re protesting all those who serve the public?”

“No, not those that serve the public. Those that serve their own interests at the expense of the public.”

“And you know? You know who that would be? What makes you think you know anything?”

I shrugged. He’s right. What the hell do I know? I thought of my sign I’ve been carrying and mustering all my strength to concentrate and be articulate in the face of the bully, I said, “Well, for example I’m very concerned about environmental devastation and I’m afraid that unchecked corporate power allows the destruction of the environment to continue. That is an example of a systemic problem.”

He shrugged, seemed to give me that one. You can’t argue that it’s probably not a bad idea for the earth to continue.

His friends got their food, got bored with me, realizing I wouldn’t be provoked into an argument, stepped out with their food. Other people continued to walk in and the short guy insisted on continuing this conversation around them. Everyone else stood silent and tense, occasionally glancing at me sideways to see how I was dealing with being stared down and taunted.

I asked him, “Why did you ask me that?”

He said, “I’m just curious. I want to understand what’s going on down there, what you people think you’re doing and you look like maybe I saw you down there.”

I nodded.

There were thousands of people last Saturday, hundreds most other days. If it’s been going on 32 days that’s over 750 hours, of which I have been present for about maybe10 hours total which would be what – one-and-a-half percent of the time? I wasn’t one of those brave enough to get arrested.

So there is no conceivable way that this asshole actually recognized me from being down there. This is just an example of the kind of person that grows up and wants to be a cop? A bully.

It’s been a long time that I’ve been jumpy about those that have a more confident step than myself. Are they that afraid? So afraid that an off-duty cop can just press anyone on the street and play dumb to the fact that he’s being intimidating? And if they are this shaken by a bunch of peaceniks standing around chanting and banging on rubber buckets – if they are so defensive against that, then how can anyone doubt the lengths that they go to behind the scenes to maintain power?

And of course, I realize as I do my best to report the facts accurately here, there is nothing – not a single thing in his words that is officially anything more sinister than one citizen making conversation with another while they both wait for tacos.

However, if it was really nothing, why was I shaking and too nervous to talk for half an hour after that?

When my food was up I grabbed it and walked out. The fourth guy, their friend they’d run into, didn’t step aside so I could reach for my food. He told the woman behind the counter that he was dreading Halloween, but at least he’s a sergeant now, so it’ll be a little bit easier.

 

Brent Decker of Ceasefire and ex-Racetraitor

September 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

A theme has certainly emerged here on this blog which I didn’t intend, but I think is interesting. I’m not sure how I’ll respond to it now that I recognize it. But this is a transcript of a conversation I had with Brent Decker. I first met Brent in the mid-90’s when we went to school together and he played in the band Racetraitor along with a couple other dudes we went to school with. So, like most of the interviews I’ve done on here, I’ve known Brent a long time, but never very well.

As a group, those Racetraitor guys were pretty inspiring and cool. They were the toughest, most controversial band in hardcore at the time and they were awfully badass about living up to the politics they preached. But at the same time, they were always super-cool with me, maybe laughing at me a little bit as I was stoned every moment of that era, but never in a mean or condescending way. I always took that as proof of their politics coming from a point of compassion more than righteousness. And funny as this would seem to anyone that is aware of Racetraitor but doesn’t know them personally – for me, Racetraitor actually put a nice human face on a hardcore scene that I felt entirely alienated by. So, years later, learning that Brent has the ultimate badass-insane-awesome-terrifying-necessary job on earth, was not surprising, but very exciting.

That new movie The Interrupters is about his co-workers. I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s great – I imagine in the same way that talking to Brent about his work at Ceasefire is pretty great.

***

BD: Yeah, it’s really crazy.  That’s what’s so insane about Chicago. I feel like in other cities, like, as segregated as other cities are you know, Chicago’s more so. In fact, there’s no overlap. You know what I mean?  It’s like this viaduct, and all of a sudden it’s like all African American, all Latino, all Puerto Rican, you know what I mean?

TK: Yeah.

BD: Which is crazy.  When I started- I’ve been at Ceasefire for almost nine years now.  I finished grad school-

TK: And it started in 2000 and you were there in 2002?

BD: It started in 2000.  Yeah, I was there in 2003 basically.  So eight and a half years.

TK: So you went to grad school for what?

BD: Public health and social work.  I went to Tulane in New Orleans.  And before that I was doing different kind of volunteer work or work in Latin America, Bolivia, Mexico and Guatemala.

TK: And that’s the sort of degree that’s characteristic for someone who would end up at Ceasefire?

BD: Yeah, well… Ninety percent of our workers are people who were formerly incarcerated, you know what I mean? I can get into that in a second. So my role in it, in terms of helping develop the strategies and the trainings and all that.  I think my public health degree helped a lot.  In terms of thinking things through.

TK: Were you aware of Ceasefire?

BD: No. After DePaul, when I knew you I was all political science and radical about shit you know, and then I graduated and I was like, “I can’t fucking do anything”.  You know what I mean? I could tell you about U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua, but what to do about any minor thing? And I was working in a warehouse and stuff and I was really thinking about what would be something like practical.  You know what I’m saying?  Like I can actually do something and- public health just kind of made sense to me.  It was very broad-

TK: The reason I ask if you were aware of Ceasefire is because you said Ceasefire based their strategies dealing with public health.

BD: I had no idea and actually how I got the job was, my dad makes furniture. I was doing a delivery one time after I finished grad school-

TK: That’s the warehouse you were working at?

BD: Yeah, and we met someone on their board and they’re like “Oh what are you doing?” I was like “Oh I just finished grad school, da-da-da.”  They were like “you should talk to this guy” and stuff like that.  I think they were really interested at that time in getting someone who had had some more public health training to kind of develop the documentation and all that stuff and I thought I was going to be there for like six months.

TK: Right.

BD: You know what I mean?  And it’s like eight and a half years later, so-

TK: Right.

BD: I had no idea about it.  I knew very little about United States inner city violence.  I had spent a lot of time when I was younger in Guatemala during the civil war.

TK: When you were how old?

BD: Junior high.

TK: In junior high you went?

BD: Yeah, my parents were super –are – super crazy hippy-type people.

TK: Right, well that was my next question after ‘what one needs to go through bureaucratically or administratively.  Like what kind of degree leads one to this?’ ‘What kind of life experience leads one to this?’

BD: My parents were involved in a lot of solidarity movement during the eighties.  In Guatemala and Nicaragua and stuff, like basically U.S. Intervention, death squads and all that stuff. We went down there pretty young and spent summers there.

TK: And you were in Evanston or Rogers Park?

BD: I was in Wilmette. My parents were stoned. They thought they moved to Evanston, but they moved to Wilmette. When they signed the paper they were like “Oh shit, we moved to Wilmette!”  Like on Isabella, kinda like right on the border.

TK: I don’t know it, but I know they’re next to each other.

BD: Right, yeah.  So I think that informed a lot of my thinking about violence as an issue.

TK: Right, so your parents are probably better equipped to deal with this as their son’s job than anyone else’s parents would be.

BD: Yeah, they’re really stoked about it. My dad is always calling to check in and very interested in the work and a documentary actually just came out about where I work-

TK: Yeah, someone told me that last night.

BD: They went to one of the screenings and they were very very happy that that’s what I spend my time doing.  So they’re really cool.

TK: And when you travel, you’re mostly traveling solo?

BD: We work with other agencies or other government institutions to help them kind of think through and implement what their violence prevention program is going to be.  And so sometimes there will be a team of us, there will be like two or three of us.  For example this summer we went to Trinidad twice.  There was three of us that went.  All kind of different expertise in the organization and kind of did different things and things together while we were there.  And then come back and come up with recommendations and some planning and things like that.  But sometimes it’s by myself.  Like the Iraq project we’ve- I know I’ve seen you a couple of times coming back from Iraq.  I went to Iraq, I think three or four times. I don’t remember. One time one other person went with me.  And I would meet up with our local agency there at the airport.

TK: So do you go solo on certain trip’s only because no one else is needed and just your specific expertise is needed in that situation?

BD: A lot of the organization- we don’t have a lot of money.  So it’s hard to raise funds for three plane tickets as opposed to one.  Best case scenario would be good to have more than one person go.  With the Iraq trip specifically I know that no one else wanted to go.

TK: The reason I even have a sense that you went solo is one of the times I saw you in passing, you were like- you just must have mentioned in passing that you were there by yourself because it really rang a bell with me and I figured there must be some sort of a strategic advantage or something?

BD: Yeah, there is, right.

TK: I didn’t know if there was a strategic advantage to having just a person, a single representative or if it was just a simple administrative thing?

BD: I think it’s both.  I know with Iraq too, after I went the first time I really connected with a lot of our workers and the partner there.  And I think they didn’t want it to be seen as such an American thing and so it was much easier to have one person there and not a big convoy of- you know what I’m saying?

TK: Yeah, that makes perfect sense.  That’s the sort of psychic strategy that I thought.

BD: Yeah, and it’s easier to get around. It was crazy, the first time I went by myself.  We met with people who were working on the project in Beirut and flew over.  I remember coming off the plane just being like “what the fuck are you doing, dude?” And we took a cab in the middle of the night  through the mountains from where we landed three hours to where the training and the meetings and stuff were going to be.

TK: Is that the most scared you’ve been?

BD: It just seemed surreal.  I remember this particular trip was around the time when that guy threw the shoe at George Bush in Baghdad or something like that.

TK: Loved it.

BD: I remember watching it on T.V. And being like “fuck, I’m here right now.”  You know what I mean?

TK: Oh, it was at that moment?

BD: Yeah, it was like the first or second trip that I was there.  It was interesting because, you know there was a lot of security and there was a lot of blast shields and stuff but like, where we were at in northern Iraq there wasn’t a lot going on.  There was, but there wasn’t really.  It felt more surreal than unsafe.  You know what I mean?

TK: Yeah, sure.  So how often do you feel unsafe?

BD: Not that much.  The way that this program works is like the whole idea is working with individuals who are highly credible in whatever community it is.  So if it’s on the west side of Chicago or if it’s in Iraq, the individuals who are involved in it are well known and well respected and so by going with them . . . do you know what I mean?  If I showed up by myself and was like . . . It would be a much different situation.

TK: Right

BD: So for example in Iraq, the woman that we were working with was based out of D.C., but her grandfather was a big Shia leader in southern Iraq.  That’s where our program is mostly based out of, Basra.  And so her credibility and his name alone is enough security in a sense, you know what I mean?

TK: Yeah.

BD: It wasn’t perceived as a U.S. Intervention or we weren’t with the military-

TK: So in that case you used the term ‘local agencies.’ She would be like-

BD: Yeah, implement agencies.

TK: So what’s their relationship with the governments?

BD: It varies.  So in Iraq it’s an N.G.O. A Non governmental organization, the whole thing.

TK: What is? Her thing?

BD: Yeah, she’s not a part of a political party.  And I think that’s really why she’s able to operate the way she does.  Before she got into violence prevention work, she did a lot of womens rights, education, minority rights stuff in Iraq.  So she knew everybody because of her grandfather and so when she met Gary at some conference a number of years ago she-

TK: Gary was the founder?

BD: Yeah, sorry if any of this is unclear you can write me an email.

TK: Sure.

BD: When they kind of thought through some of this process you know. So what we did was, myself and one other person traveled to D.C., spent a week kind of going over the model, the different components of it adapting to what the Iraqi context was going to be. And then we went and did kind of the first training session with the people she assembled to work on the project. A lot of the training was very open ended.

TK: This your first trip to Iraq?

BD: Yeah

TK: So the first trip, you aren’t doing actual work with the communities, you’re working with people who will be working?

BD: Yeah. And they’re all guys from the community. So the way that it works, in Basra, we were working in two neighborhoods she strategically picked. The conflicts – there are a lot of inner personal stuff, but it devolved very quickly into tribal or religious stuff. So she picked, in the target areas she picked individuals from each of the different tribes and different  religious sects or groups. And hired them on to work on- it would have already kind of shown some like- wanting to work towards peace and not being violent about things.  So she strategically picked all of them to be the staff.

TK: Right, so that anyone in the bigger community would be able to look and be like “oh, I personally am represented by someone.”

BD: Exactly, so if something happens between tribe x and tribe y in this neighborhood, one of their workers can go talk to the tribal leader, talk to the religious leader.  It’s the same thing in Chicago. All of our workers are guys who used to be involved in different gangs or crews or whatever. So they have a legitimacy that a social worker or a law enforcement officer never would. So, I think where we’re effective at is helping structure some of that work and strategize about it. And provide some training just in terms of different stuff (inaudible) or things of that nature. But it’s largely run by people who are from the areas and who are formerly involved in the conflicts.

TK: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel like one side is more clearly right about something?  Obviously you can’t take sides as a negotiator, but there must be times where you just look and think to yourself, “you know these guys are being assholes.”

BD: Yeah, our workers do. The thing is to try to remain neutral and try to get out of the area of right and wrong.  Because everybody have a grievance. You know what I’m saying? And a lot of times it’s very well founded. But at least in our thinking about it, just because there’s a right grievance doesn’t mean okay it’s cool to kill somebody about it.

TK: Oh yeah, of course.

BD: So I think the conversation a lot of times is- you know if you see the film ‘Interrupters’ you kind of see that.  They’re not negating what people are saying or people’s kind of like grievance about stuff but it’s like “Okay, what are we going to do about it?” You know what I mean? If you get violent about it, it’s going to get worse. So it becomes difficult dealing with issues of like law enforcement. Like in Trinidad this summer a lot of violence is perpetrated by law enforcement and so it becomes very hard not to be like ‘fuck them.’ You know what I mean?

TK: Right, so what’s the relationship between Ceasefire and the Trinidad government then?

BD: We met with a lot of high level law enforcement. They were the one’s who told us that “a lot of our line staff are corrupt and don’t get paid enough.” They might have family members who are involved and stuff.

TK: They recognize it’s a problem?

BD: They recognize it’s a problem and I think even in Baltimore and other Cities we have. I think kind of higher-up law enforcement get that A. You’re not going to be able to lock away this problem. They realize they have a very antagonistic relationship with communities and stuff. So sometimes they’re cool with it, other times they’re not. The current, I probably shouldn’t say this but, you know there’s different administrations in police departments even in Chicago that view us one way or another way and largely we try and maintain a good relationship with them. Because we’re not anti- law enforcement per say. It’s just like a different perspective on how to deal with it.

TK: It’s very interesting that like I- when I asked the question I really meant more in an official capacity – ‘Does the Iraqi government in some form or the Mexican government in some form really endorse your presence.’ But then you answered it in a much more street-level answer.  Which is like, well it really comes down to this is the situation in the street.

BD: Yeah, for example for Trinidad, we were invited by the government of Trinidad to work with different partners and agencies who they thought were working on this issue in an appropriate way. They thought that they’d have a good chance of doing something about it. It’s complex. In a lot of ways just dealing with governments, political parties, law enforcement and all that stuff. Each country and each city is different and that’s where it’s funny. You get the right workers – it’s in training. The media and the conflict seems to be the easy part of it. But the politics surrounding everything is where things become very difficult.

TK: You mean how it expands from the people present at the meeting. How it’s implemented?

BD: Yeah, and funding and things of that nature.

TK: So when you’re in those situations and they’re totally complex, however much training you have in conflict-resolution, however that relates to the specific and however much of the details you understand of the specific situation, how much of it comes down to intuition in the moment? I mean are you making quick decisions or is everything deferred and come back to?

BD: So on the street level stuff, like our workers, the reason why they’re hired is that they come street wise. A lot of times they have to make snap decision based on their history and they’ll make a real quick decision. When it comes to broader conversations with law enforcement or government officials, I might be sitting there listening to some guy talk and be like “this mother fucker is full of shit.” But I can’t just go on that. I have to maintain a level of professionalism and try and –

TK: Well that’s the sort of negotiations with one’s intuition that everyone does all day everyday.

BD: Exactly. I think, at least for me, I’m much better now than when I first started with Ceasefire and I’d see something and be like “fuck that!” You know what I mean?

TK: Well, you were younger and more hot headed.

BD: Exactly. My initial thinking about a situation might be right. But it’s better to- at least I found it better to kind of . . .

TK: Is that the most frustrating part of the job then? Administrative?

BD: It can be. I think what’s fucked my head up in a lot of ways is just like the amount of shit people are- I mean just how painful existence is, you know what I mean?

TK: Sure, you know, to keep it light.

BD: I think what’s great about this job is seeing the program work and seeing people being able to use their own fucked-up histories, guys who are involved in all sort of stuff, and be able to kind of have a moment of rebirth or whatever of like being able to change the situation. And that’s super inspiring and super motivating.

TK: That must be the most satisfying part of the whole job, right? When there are moments where you can actually witness that sort of change.

BD: Yeah, and getting to know- I’m really close friends with a lot of our workers now you know. We hang out all the time and stuff. Things can change, people  can change. Not everything is as bad as it seems all the time which I feel super lucky to have that all the time, you know what I mean?

TK: Yeah, sure. We just very quickly changed the question of what’s the most frustrating part to a very hopeful answer, which I guess must come natural to your disposition to be able to deal with this job to just be like,  “that’s the worst but, now the inverse”.

BD: It’s hard and sometimes I like sometimes, you know, drink for like three days straight.

TK: When you get home?

BD: Yeah, the situation is so crazy.

TK: The big situation?

BD: Yeah, the big situation, the world and even when you get on those individual levels. We were in Juarez, Mexico in December I think it was. And it was me and another worker there and they were having a conference on how they were going to deal the violence issue. And they had been working on some stuff and we went out to this one area, this one community and there’s this mural on the wall and I was talking to somebody and they were like “Oh yeah, the cartel came here. There was a birthday party, and just killed all the children in this neighborhood.”  You know what I mean, there’s stuff like that where you’re just like “fuck man.”  You know what I mean?

TK: Well, yeah, except for that’s incomprehensible.

BD: Exactly!  You know, I get on my flight and fly home and I’m like . . .

TK: So okay, so do you find it hard after these to like . . . I mean that must be a totally unique or distinct skill besides the job itself – reorienting yourself in your home-life after a trip like this.

BD: Yeah, I think I’m much better at it now. And growing up, spending a lot of time in Guatemala I remember one time we came home when I was a kid and I was like, “Mom, why did they put lights underneath the carpeting?” Because I had not been around carpeting for six months or something. She said “what are you talking about?” I thought it looked like there was like fluorescent lights underneath the carpeting because it looked so clean and bright, and I was like “what the fuck is going on here?” ha!

TK: Ha! Clean?!

BD: I think now I’m much better at dealing with it. It’s definitely taken tolls on me.

TK: Occasionally I’ll see you at the bar or something. And I assume on the average night, oh, about eighty percent of the people out at that hour are either free-lance designers or might work from home or maybe slept till noon that day. And everyone has money to burn and is looking to get laid. Do you have an easy enough time still getting along with these people having just seen – What I mean and it’s sort of a stupid question because I too sometimes look at these people and I’m like “Uh, what are you people doing?” You know? But I’m not really doing anything else either. But you actually are doing something. So is it hard?

BD: It goes in waves. In my best situation I don’t care. Do you know what I mean? It’s cool and people are just trying to do whatever and I try not to get caught up in it and thinking about what other people are doing. That’s best case scenario. Worst case scenario, I remember it was like new years eve or some shit and I was at some bar and I had literally flown home from Iraq the day before or something and just like seeing everyone, it just seemed so gross, you know? I was just like “what the fuck?” You know what I mean? But I found that not to be the most helpful way. What I do now when I come home, I don’t put myself in this situation where I’m going to be like uber-pissed at everybody and judgemental and “who the fuck are these-”  You know what I’m saying, I try not.

TK: Well, you’re aware of a specific situation that would make you feel self-righteous or that would just stand in such harsh contrast to it?

BD: Yeah, the reason I do this work is not to- it’s coming from a loving place you know. And I feel like . . . you know what I mean? Coming home and then being a fucking dick, you know what I mean? Ha!

TK: Of course the desire to be a dick couldn’t be motivation enough to be like, “Man, if I went to Iraq or Juarez then I could really be a dick when I come home.” I mean, of course that can inspire it, but-

BD: I feel like it’s all connected, you know what I mean? I feel like I can’t be like trying to do this really good work and important stuff and then to a lesser extent be violent in my way I look at people and what I want to do to them, you know what I’m saying?

TK: Yeah, sure.

BD: And so I feel like that is something I’m conscious about, to not be that way when I see myself getting there. I just go home and . . . I don’t know if that makes sense?

TK: That makes perfect sense. I’m not totally changing the subject, but what are your thoughts on Racetraitor and how you guys existed because Racetraitor was obviously the most confrontational band  possible.

BD: Haha! What’s interesting about Racetraitor is- so I quit that band- like when I was still in that band we were still getting into fights and getting beat up by skinheads and being total assholes to everybody. I think part of why I quit was because I was like, “this is not fucking doing anything.” You know what I mean? Who am I to be so up in people’s face about shit when I don’t have anything figured out. You know what I mean?

TK: Yeah, sure.

BD: Right, I still don’t. Haha! What’s interesting about that because like Fall Out Boy and those like weird bands became big and so like Racetraitor is mentioned in Rolling Stone and all this shit. So there has been like a lot of people who have like followed up with me years later. My friend did this book about nineties hardcore, I don’t know if you were interviewed in it?

TK: No, I knew it existed. I mean, there has been a couple. There were some more hardcore one’s and some less hardcore one’s.

BD: Right. I feel like I’ve run into people that were like pissed at me and I was pissed at them and afterwards it was weird. I didn’t care anymore, you know what I mean? And they were still like “blah-blah-blah” and my friend was like “Oh, I was at some reunion show and they were talking about Racetraitor,” and I was like “Really?”  You know what I’m saying? It’s weird. You’ve been in bands that people talk about them and shit, you’re just like what?

TK: Yeah, and generally I feel very little in common with the person that people sometimes talk about when talking about my bands. You know, like ‘ugh, really, that’s how it comes across?’ But it’s different.

BD: The one thing I think is cool about Racetraitor – not necessarily like how we said stuff. Or . . . at least we were like- I think our group of friends that was kind of surrounding that band, like we’re all still friends and everyone is still trying to do something cool in the world. To me that’s like, You know, like Mani, the singer, is doing Human Rights Watch. Dan, the guitar player, does all this cool stuff in mental health. Isaac, who is a friend of ours, who roadied and stuff, is doing all this leading research in PTSD and working with vets from the Iraq war. So it’s like- that to me . .

TK: Yeah, super-awesome.

BD: That’s cool and at the end of the day like that’s, that was like kind of our group of friends and we were younger trying to figure out what was up in the world. What I like about it is that I think a lot of us who were involved in that scene or whatever kept on trying to grow, you know what I mean?

TK: Yeah, super-awesome.

BD:  It was our first stab at stuff and like, of course calling people “crackers” is ridiculous, but you know what I mean?  I think the one good thing about it, when people ask me about it – about that – I’m like, you know when everyone who was in that band or who was our group of friends at the time if like continue to try and like do cool shit and like that to me is like . . .

TK: That’s specific to Racetraitor and your group of friends. How do you feel, then, Racetraitor, who had sort of declared war on the hardcore scene, right? How do you feel the hardcore scene informed that? Like for your friends to get to that point. Because what you’re talking about is sort of the ultimate potential-extension of political music.   When I ran into you and you told me what you are doing, that was sort of my first thought about why I need to interview you  – Because I was like ‘holy shit, that’s the coolest thing that the dude that was in Racetraiter has followed it through to the furthest degree.’ So how did being a part of a hardcore scene . . . ?

BD: Art, music or whatever to me has always been important. Maybe not as like it could be the way of organizing people per se, you know what I mean? But I feel like, to me, I mean in that scene I think I learned a lot and was inspired by a lot of those bands, even thought after I met them I wasn’t super-inspired. But you know, I think music or any of the arts, I feel like are very central even to who I am right now. Even like processing stuff and like the whole flight home I’m listening to music and reading, you know what I mean? I feel like it’s connected in that way. As like a vehicle for change I don’t necessarily think that a music scene or a band can do that. But I feel that it’s definitely important in informing an individuals perception of the world and feel like it’s-

TK: Right, which is a form of personal change which could then lead to-

BD: Yeah, you know- so it’s like- I’m sorry if that’s not making any sense. Haha!

TK: No, no it makes prefect sense, yeah. Is there anyone in the hardcore scene that – I imagine you don’t follow hardcore particularly?

BD: Not so much. Haha!

TK: You seem pretty busy.

BD: Yeah.

TK: But are there people from that scene or era that you still are inspired by in any way personally or that even occur to you? I’m not asking you to be like “you know man, Rollins made a huge influence…”

BD: Yeah, well I have a Black Flag tattoo.

TK: That’s probably why I thought of it. But like anyone that you still . . . And it’s not weird to say no.

BD: No, I’m trying to think about it honestly. I think . . . it’s weird there’s this Krishna band called 108.

TK: Oh yeah, we played with them a couple of times.

BD: Really?  I remember they were in this other band called Resurrection. That singer, I can’t remember his name. But –

TK: Norm and Chris – who the last time I heard of them playing music, they were playing in an Oasis cover band with my brother. So quite different.  Haha.

BD: Okay, haha! To me the kind of . . . I liked their spiritual tinge they had. I mean not the Krishna conscience, like no. You know what I mean? But I mean, I just remember we were at some stupid show and people were fighting and this dude just said something you know he was like ‘you know unless you change my mind, you’re not going to change anything.’  I think that’s when I really diverted from thinking about things to be a bit more thoughtful and not just “Oh-blah blah.” You know? So I think those bands definitely inspire me. I haven’t probably listened to the record in fifteen years, but you know . . .

TK: I did listen to a Shelter record about eighteen months ago and it was fucking awesome.

BD: Yeah, I think a lot of those bands were really cool. Groundwork was a band that I was super into. I haven’t – my musical taste is a little bit different now.

TK: Sure, my question was more like ‘does it ever even occur to you?’

BD: Yeah, definitely. I think being in that scene, being in that band has definitely informed me. Rob Fish, that’s that guy’s name, Rob Fish.

TK: Oh yeah.

BD: I haven’t met him and I probably don’t want to because if like I changed- I’m sure he’s cool or whatever – but like, you know, I was like eighteen or something and they were like a little older and they were kind of into some heavy shit. And I was like, ‘that’s serious.’

TK: Yeah, it was actually addressing serious issues.

BD: Yeah, you know. Which I thought was cool. I still listen to a lot of music and stuff, but yeah.

TK: I think we have very quickly and easily covered all the issues that I was curious about. There’s a couple . . . You started to mention regretting . . . You know you said there’s been situations you got in – When you talked about the mural in Juarez, you used the word regret I think? So when the specific situation feels like, ‘Oh god, how’d I get into this?’

BD: What was crazy about that too, I forgot to say is that so Juarez and El Paso are along the border together. So we’re sitting in this neighborhood and it’s like, you got this mural with forty dead kids or something and then there’s like a fucking Wendy’s and Best Buy and like El Paso is the safest place in the country basically because there’s a war going on. I don’t remember exactly what I’m saying, I’m sorry. But that was when I was like fuck everything. You know what I mean? Nothing can be done and this world is a fucking waste. And so trying not to let that get too deep into- you know what I mean? How one looks at the world because it’s just like-

TK: Yeah, I’ve often wondered- you know because I’ve been to El Paso a few times, we had a night off there a few months ago, ate at some restaurant and were standing out front smoking afterwards just like looking at Juarez and just being like-

BD: A sea of lights, right?

TK: Yeah, because there are no buildings over however many stories tall, right?  So you’re just seeing so far and we all just got in the conversation of like, what in the world does this look like from that side?

BD: Yeah, the situation in Mexico is just so heartbreaking, you know what I mean because it’s just like- it’s so like- because you have like- this guy Calderón or whatever, the President who like declared war in ’08 or I can’t remember, on the Cartels and they were like, “Okay!” They were better funded, better organized, and you know given the history of the United States and Mexico or Latin America, you know what I mean?

TK: Right, they have more credibility to-

BD: That’s really what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  So you’ve had kind of like the colonial era or in the 40’s and post-WWII where we basically installed all these military dictatorships in Latin America and just fucking killed thousands and thousands upon thousands of people so that we could have cheap fruit or whatever. Or baseball in Haiti you know. And then it seemed like in the mid-nineties a lot of those wars ended and there was a lot of excitement about the possibility of the future for Latin America and a lot of countries. And what happened, which is so fucked, is we started deporting a lot guys that got in trouble here. So a lot of refuges fled to Los Angeles, to California. Formed their own gangs, kind of deal with the situation there, serve some time in prison and were sent back.

TK: Served time in prison here and then went home there and start again?

BD: And the violence in Guatemala now is worse than when there was a full on civil war going on where they were basically trying to exterminate the Mayan people. I was there in February or something and it’s real heavy because it’s like- for me – for my benefit you know what I mean? Like in general, like for fruit and how much people had to suffer about stuff and it’s like- what’s been very . . . it’s like fuck. It’s like, enough. And now the situation there is like, it’s really fucked up like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras-

TK: Even on however small of a scale, I imagine actually seeing it, it must be overwhelming and just be like, ‘enough, I’ll do without my fruit,’ if that’s the true cost of it. But then however much you might have resolution on a certain street scale, do you see any real solution when the whole design is so flawed?

BD: That’s the question.

TK: I like this idea that people misunderstand nihilism as like hating everything when in fact it just means like no, I’m pretty disappointed in everything compared to the potential of things. You know, so I don’t mean to sound too nihilistic.

BD: Sure, I don’t know that anyone has presented or there’s been a movement or anything like that, you know? That seems to address anything on a systematic level that would make everything cool. I doubt that that exists. I don’t think that- I think in the mid-term right, in the existence in however many years we get here, it seems like some shit can be changed you know what I mean? I feel like that ‘s enough reason to do it.

TK: Enough inspiration to keep going?

BD: Yeah, I mean like- and certainly different policies and different governments will get you elected into our White House. I mean it’s a difference, there is a difference between- it might be subtle, but that might be a difference of one hundred thousand lives, you know what I mean? There is a difference in certain policies and stuff. Which I think are important. It’s not going to change the relationship of the United States and Guatemala for example, but we have different immigration policies and people are fighting for not deporting people or if they’re going to be deported, they have to provide funding for kind of some sort of rehabilitation when they get- I mean that’s a big difference, you know what I mean? I try not  to get too overwhelmed by the magnitude of all the crazy shit that’s going on when there are certain things that can be done.

TK: I guess if you’re dug in deep enough to the particulars, you don’t need to focus on how intimidating the whole thing is.

BD: Right.

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Dmitry Samarov

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Look at these two links before you read any further.

http://www.chicagohack.com/

http://www.dmitrysamarov.com/

I think I probably first met Dmitry in about 1998. I was a barista at Jinx and he’d sit in there painting all the time. When I crossed the street on my 25th birthday to start working at Rainbo, Dmitry was already sitting there waiting for me. Given the unlikelihood of either of us approaching a stranger to talk, he and I probably had to be in the same room a few nights a week for five years before we ever approached anything like a conversation. And since then we’ve enjoyed that sort of easy-going camaraderie between people who never make plans to see each other, but see each other a couple times a week and are as likely to talk as not.

I’ve been a fan of his paintings since the first time I saw them years ago – impressionistic urban still-lifes and fleeting landscapes as expressive with a wild and sophisticated use of color as they are in austere black and white. His eye for finding composition in the world he inhabits and his technique for rendering it are equally exceptional. Many time over the years I’ve enjoyed watching people discover his work, witnessing cynical people or people I’d never known to think about painting, unexpectedly stop in their tracks when coming across one of his paintings, saying, ‘hey, wait a minute. This is pretty good.’

His blog is one of the few that I’ve ever been in the habit of following, his narrative voice calm, dry and observant, empathic and funny. University Of Chicago Press will be releasing his book Hack this coming October. It collects stories and paintings from his blog. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo11074174.html

Last Monday I met a guy about a thing for an hour around lunch, then worked on mixing a song for four hours until around dinner, then went to Minor Threat cover band practice before meeting Dmitry for this conversation over a bottle of wine at midnight. So, yeah, as the interviewer I think I talked a little too much and as is our nature in common, the conversation drifts a bit. But at least this time I recorded it correctly – I’m getting better.

And it’s important to note, to understand the tone, that Dmitry is laughing most of the time through this entire conversation. I started adding (laughing) in parentheses, but it became quickly redundant. So just assume the man is chuckling whether you think it’s funny or not. He’s got that kind of sense of joy in the world, you know, loveable-curmudgeon-style.

DS: I’m trying to write less and not more. I think I’ve been writing too much.

TK: So how has the blog changed since the book has come together?

DS: Since the book has come together, I think it’s changed a lot. Because it’s the first time, last spring I was sending blog entries to the Reader for a while, for about four months. So that was my very first exposure to an editor, ever, you know.

TK: They would see what the blog was . . . and?

DS: I’d send stuff to Allison who was the main editor. She’s gone now. She was the editor there for 5,000 years.

TK: Yeah, I remember when she left.

DS: So I’d send her the things and she’d you know, correct things. So that was my first exposure to that and then I got working with the guy that edited the book.

TK: So the book deal was already happening by the time you contacted The Reader?

DS: The book deal happened, I mean, by the time the book comes out in October it will have been close to two years. They take their time over there.

TK: Well, how long did it take to put together?

DS: Um, probably about three-quarters of a year. Going back and forth.

TK: And you were still doing new blog entries at the time?

DS: Oh the whole time, yeah. My cut-off for the stories that are in the book was the fourth of July last year. That’s the last thing I wrote. It’s not the last thing in the book because the book isn’t chronological.

TK: So how did the structuring work?

DS: I didn’t want to do a reprint of the blog. So I knew it wasn’t just gonna be a chronological thing where I pick whatever, the greatest hits, because I didn’t see the point of that being turned into a book. You could just go into Kinko’s and print that. You know, that’s not a book. That’s a blog that’s printed. Which I guess is happening a lot.

TK: Well, what’s the distinction? Because the blog has a natural order, you know this thing happened and then this is the next thing that happened.

DS: Right because it happens in reaction to actual events. So I knew I wanted it (the book) to be different than the blog. I didn’t know how at first. So the first time I grouped the stories together thematically, basically. So I’d have a chapter of drunk stories, a chapter of cab-headache garage stories and so forth. And one of the first people that ever read that was Shay (friend in common) and she read it and said, ‘well, all these things are all the same together, you know? Too much of the same.’ So, that made me sit there and try to come up with a different structure and what I came up with was the days of the week.

TK: And were you strict about looking back at the blog entries and knowing – this is the day of the week that this really happened? Or it was more impressionistic?

DS: Fairly strict. Some there was a gray area. I mean, obviously I kept rereading and rereading this stuff, which was sort of painful. But it was more obvious in some of the entries than others.

TK: More obvious which day of the week it’d fit in?

DS: Yeah. But some were more general – early in the week, late in the week.

TK: And then making those decisions it becomes about how the book reads? Because you’re expecting a different thing from a reader reading a book than reading a blog. So how were you aware of shaping the reader’s response?

DS: Well, I knew I needed some sort of structure and the big central problem is that there is not a beginning, a middle, and an end to these stories. They’re not linear. They’re just episodes. You could throw them in a pot and reshuffle them in many, many different ways. And there needed to be some sort of beginning, middle and end. And because the job is an every-day-job and it happens all the time, the days of the week seemed to make sense.

TK: Well, it’s a very natural sense people have of that beginning, middle and end.

DS: Yeah.

TK: So do you have days off?

DS: I used to have more days off. I used to have more days off until I got this brand new cab.

TK: That cab out there, it’s yours?

DS: Well, no. I rent it, but it’s a brand new cab and they assigned it to me and the problem is that if I give up that cab then somebody else will get it and I’ll be forced back into driving a crappy Crown Vic.

TK: So it’s a matter of circumstance that you were given the brand new cab?

DS: I’d been there long enough, I guess. There’s a waiting list for brand new cabs as they enter circulation. Prior to that I’d just do sort of ‘catch-is as catch-can’ for most of the years because I wanted the flexibility of just taking time off. But more and more the problem was I’d come back and they wouldn’t have anything for another week or two.

TK: Yeah, that happens in the book.

DS: Yeah. The stuff that’s in the book, like waiting 18 hours or a week or two for a cab, that gets old.

TK: So working more now means you can keep this new cab indefinitely?

DS: Well, I always could. I could’ve kept any of them indefinitely.

TK: But after a certain number of days it becomes more expensive to keep it and take a day off than it is to turn it in?

DS: What I used to do before I got this cab was I’d work three or four weeks and then I’d take a week off. I’d come back and put my name on the list and wait however long it took for the next available cab.

TK: So the three or four weeks you were working, you had no days off?

DS: Yeah.

TK: And so how many hours a week is that?

DS: Probably average 70, 80 a week. But, whatever hours I wanted. So, I’d have to fit everything else I do around it. So basically, I’d have to sleep, paint, write, you know, drink every once in a while and then drive. That’s my whole life.

TK: So do you sleep, paint, write every day? I know you don’t sleep every day because I read the book.

DS: I try. I try to. Let’s put it this way: It’s a better day when I’ve done something creative or whatever you want to call it to start the day than when I haven’t.

TK: To start the day?

DS: Yeah, I do all that stuff before I go drive. Especially for painting I like daylight. So, yeah, it’s all after I wake up, early afternoon for the couple hours I’m awake before I go drive. I like daylight. I like windows.

TK: Yeah, I got that thing too. There’s something about if you wake up and start working on something creative, it’s so different than doing your errands and then trying to do something creative. Different life force invested.

DS: Yep. The chores definitely take a backseat to a disgusting extent sometimes, you know?

TK: Yeah, 80 hours a week of chores?

DS: There’s not much time. There’s not much time. But yeah, those are my priorities. I need to get the art-stuff done. Then I gotta make a living driving the cab and then if there’s any time left over I’ll clean the bathroom.

TK: Right. So the back of the book, it refers to Mike Royko and Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren.

DS: Right. The hyperbole?

TK: Right, well I realize that’s the way people sell things –

DS: Yes, they need to sell things.

TK: Yeah, right. I understand that you weren’t like ‘I’m gonna insert myself into this tradition.’ But they are all very Chicago-centric guys.

DS: Right, yeah.

TK: So, as someone who was born in Russia and then you didn’t move to Chicago until college, right?

DS: Yeah, 1990.

TK: So you were 20? 18?

DS: 19.

TK: So if they’re going to sell the book as part of this tradition of Chicago-centric people, what’s your sense of how Chicago shaped the book?

DS: Oh, a lot. In fact, Nelson Algren introduced me to Chicago before I ever got here. I read Nelson Algren in high school. I had weirdo, hipster older friends. I worked at a movie theater kind of like The Music Box here in high school and had these weirdo, hipster, older friends that hung out a lot around there, one of whom was actually a cab driver briefly. So who knows if that played into it, but he was the guy that introduced me to stuff like Nelson Algren and weird Z-Grade slasher movies.

TK: So Chicago was romanticized for you before you got here?

DS: I don’t know if it was romanticized, but that’s what I thought Chicago was. It wasn’t Al Capone. It was all junkies, two-bit whores and stuff.

TK: So how does your image of Chicago live up to what you as a twenty year old expected it to be, now that you’re obviously –

DS: A 40-year-old?

TK: Well, now that you’re a 40-year-old that’s pretty ingrained here right?

DS: Yeah

TK: You don’t see yourself moving?

DS: No, no, no. I really don’t. I don’t know what that would take. It’d surprise the shit out of me.

TK: But Nelson Algren, Studs and Royko, those are guys that loved Chicago deeply, right? So do you feel that sort of sense for the city? You drove a cab in Boston, right?

DS: Yeah.

TK: Can you imagine having written this book about driving a cab in Boston?

DS: No, no I couldn’t. My first writing project was writing about Boston, cab-driving in Boston. But that thing, that was barely writing. There was a sentence or two on each page and mostly it was just pictures, because you know, I never had any ambitions to write ever. Writing happened because of the job.

TK: So writing takes a backseat to painting and the writing happens because of the job?

DS: Yeah.

TK: So when you wake up in the morning, are you more drawn to write or to paint?

DS: Writing has always been the side-project. I think it always will be. It’s like if you’re in a band for 20 years and the band never went anywhere and then you started this side-project doing stupid covers and it blew up. That’s what this book is to me. You know?

TK: So, then do you imagine a second book? This goes back to the first question of how the blog has changed since the book. Are you self-conscious writing the blog now thinking, ‘oh, can this be anthologized?’

DS: I’m certainly more aware from the editing and re-editing and re-editing and re-editing and having input from people that have spent their careers and lives reading and writing.

TK: You’re more aware of choosing an active verb on the first pass?

DS: Structure, sentence structure. The sources of it (the writing) still don’t change at all. But, I think I’ve gotten a little better technically. I mean, when I started the blog, and I didn’t change any of the old entries; they’re much more polished in the book. But I had this whole thing that I think I got from Celine with the ellipses that I was just addicted to. Everything had ellipses.

TK: What’s . . . Oh, Journey to the End of The Night?

DS: Yeah, that guy. Like I had this idea that’s that how I was going to write. I wasn’t gonna write in sentences. I was gonna write in fragments. And it took me awhile to sort of quit that.

TK: Yeah, my first draft was all dashes. I got pretty obsessed.

DS: And one of the great things these editors beat out of me was like, ‘Just stop it. Put a personal pronoun in at the beginning. Say “I” every once in a while.’ I wouldn’t say “I” in any of the sentences. Shit like that.

TK: What’s your sense then, if you’re leaving the “I” out, and the whole time I’m reading the book I’m thinking, ‘is this about Dmitry or is this about Chicago? Is this just about people?’ So what’s your sense of your role as the narrator?

DS: Well, it’s not a memoir. It’s not. I really struggled, really wanted to not insert myself. Every once in a while it was unavoidable, like where I enter the stories when I need to intervene or do things.

TK: And obviously your opinions –

DS: Yeah, there are judgments all over the place. The guy actually, the acquiring editor at U of C Press remarked that there was a lot of moralizing in this book and in the shit I write. Which I guess is whatever, a part of my personality that can’t be helped?

TK: Well, that’s not saying so much about you as much as that’s a risk of writing something that is a memoir of sorts by nature, even if you’re aware of not wanting it to be one, because you are writing as yourself, not a first-person narrator.

DS: Well, yeah, there are judgments made all over the place in the book. I realize this. But what I mean it’s not a memoir is that it’s not about the every-day details of my life. I really was more interested and am more interested in these people and the city.

TK: Well, that was really interesting. It didn’t hit me at first, but it was a sort-of bubbling-up, this ‘oh, I know Dmitry.’ So I have a real sense of who the first-person is. But if I didn’t know you, there’s nothing that says, “I have red hair and a beard.”

DS: Yeah, none of that.

TK: You refer to being Russian.

DS: The people I meet, 95% of them or 99% of them, never learned anything about me. I didn’t offer anything about myself. You know, I didn’t give anyone my life history aside from maybe like, “I’m from Russia,” which was always so incredibly fascinating.

TK: The race thing is definitely very interesting in the book.

DS: Well, I could’ve written the whole book about the race thing you know, because it happens all the damn time. And it’s happened so many times, I have fun playing it different ways because I know when it starts, you know. Sometimes I’ll goad them on. Sometimes I’ll completely stay silent. I’ll just want to see what they’ll keep saying, because that’s interesting.

TK: So what ratio of Chicago cabdrivers are white?

DS: Oh, a very, very small.

TK: So these peoples’ shock –

DS: Oh, it’s legit. It’s from experience.

TK: There’s nothing about how people state it that isn’t offensive. Obviously, that’s part of why you choose them to write about, like when it’s shocking.

DS: No, but I didn’t, you know, some of the times when it was offensive I didn’t write about it – many times. But the offensive part is that they feel at ease that they can talk about this stuff because I’m like ‘one of them.’ That’s the part that really fucking pisses me off. That’s when like, you don’t know a damn thing about me, and like I’m gonna fuck with you now.

TK: Yeah, that’s a very real thing . . .

DS: Of course, and so the recurring thing is like, ‘Why are you, you who is one of us, doing this, which is what underlings should do? Which is what the under-class should be doing.’

TK: Yeah, that underclass which I can identify according to pigment.

DS: Yeah, pigment or thick accent or weird outfit or whatever – the ones that don’t look like me. But I look like them, at least enough like them to confuse them.

TK: So, what is your camaraderie with the other cab drivers?

DS: Zero

TK:  Zero?

DS: Practically zero. One of the things that I like about the job is that I’m free now to have – I don’t have coworkers or bosses. And I have plenty enough going on with other stuff that I can think about and do in my downtime.

TK: You know something interesting that comes up, when you’re at the garage in the book, you’re referring to situations and characters that are archetypical and frustrations are always familiar. But maybe only once or twice do you explicitly acknowledge that you know this or that guy.

DS: Yeah, I do not know them, no.

TK: They must look familiar?

DS: There are familiar people. There’s a couple. I think I only mention one or two cabdrivers in the book, maybe three specifically. Early on there are a couple things about cabdrivers – The little episode called “Burnout” about the old white guy who was like The Ghost of Christmas Future or whatever, this horrible vision of the future. A couple other ones, but other than that, no. Not too much interaction at all.

TK: So are any other drivers or the owners aware of the blog or the book? Has it ever come up?

DS: Almost never, although, there’s a cabbie newspaper that was up until recently reprinting blog stories.

TK: But it didn’t identify you in any way?

DS: Well, it said Dmitry Samarov. But no one ever came up to me and said or figured out who it was. There’s this guy Ed who I mention in the book briefly, who’s one of the only lifers I’ve ever met who’s happy to be a cabdriver. I actually hadn’t seen him for awhile, but we were next to each other on Halsted in Greektown the other day, just a couple of days ago, and he saw me and was like ‘hey, I’ve been liking your stories in the newspaper.’ And that was the first time I ever knew if anyone even read them or gave a shit.

TK: Any cabdriver?

DS: Yeah, the cabdrivers. Because I don’t make any money on that either, but it’s such a different demographic that it was totally worth it.

TK: Any money on what?

DS: Contributing stories to the cabbie newspaper. Even if a couple of them read it just out of boredom you know, that’s pretty cool. But there’s no feedback practically. The people at the garage don’t seem to know. I mean they have my name and everything, so I guess they could figure it out. Maybe when the book comes out maybe a couple of them will notice I imagine.

TK: Right, well that bike-messenger book came out some years again. You mention it in the book.

DS: Yeah.

TK: And you know Sam that used to work at Rainbo?

DS: Sam that was in your bands, yeah. I never knew him personally, but I know who you’re talking about.

TK: So he used to work with the guy that wrote that book.

DS: Travis something –

TK: I don’t know. But there were these displays even.

DS: Yeah, “the Ninja-Warrior of the street.”

TK: Well Sam used to work with him and popped up in the book a couple times.

DS: Really, not flatteringly?

TK: Eh –

DS: Sam was a messenger too?

TK: Yeah, yeah.

DS: Oh I see.

TK: And it’s not that it wasn’t flattering, but it was sort of a caricature of him. And that book, it was like you’d walk into Borders and there’d be like a cardboard cutout of the guy.

DS: Well, they asked if I wanted an author photo and I didn’t. I don’t have an author photo. I don’t want to do that. I mean, I’m gonna probably end up being on like Public TV at least for this thing. They have connections with the local stations. But I don’t have very much interest in, you know, the personal whatever or putting my face on the cover of everything. No, I have no interest in that at all.

TK: That’s because of your personal disposition?

DS: Yes.

TK: Well, sure of course. That’s a given, but I mean, does any of it have to do with feeling vulnerable in some way for writing these – vulnerable to other cabbies or the companies?

DS: Oh, no, no, not at all. It’s funny, one of the marketing things we’re hoping to do is putting an ad for the book on the top ads, you know on the top of a few cabs. Which was my idea. I thought it’d be really funny at least to put it on my cab. An ad for my book on top of my cab, at least it’d be a funny picture. So we’re working on that. We’ll see if it works out, if there’s money. That company that has that contract wants to put it on 25 cabs, which is a lot of frickin’ money and it’s a University Press and I don’t know if they’ll go for it. But, yeah . . . It’s an open question, marketing. But I just think it’d be funny to at least have that ad on top of my cab.

TK: So that’s very different compared to when the book was written, that you have one cab that will be your own.

DS: Well, yeah, that’s the plus side I guess. But, eventually I’m thinking, well, one of the reasons they resisted assigning me a regular cab in the past is they looked at my history of leasing from them and they saw all these gaps where I’d take a week or sometimes two weeks off, several or a bunch of times a year. And they think, ‘well, for the new cabs we need somebody who’s just gonna always be there.’ So that’s the thing.

TK: So does that change things? You said before you’re better when some of the art-practice gets attention before work and that’s the priority.

DS: Oh yeah.

TK: So are you gonna have to re-shuffle your approach?

DS: I’ve been trying. I’ve been adjusting. This has been going on for about four months now. I’ve had this cab four or five months.

TK: But at that point the book was done, at least the first drafts?

DS: Pretty much, yeah. It’s been done and I had a final look over it about a month and a half ago or something, two months ago.

TK: And the last entry was a year ago, Fourth of July.

DS: The last writing, but then lots of editing and reshuffling stuff.

TK: Well, what I’m getting at is, I wonder if knowing that that’s all done allows you the sort of mental space and freedom, you know that mental space that opens up at the end of

a big project. So you’re thinking at least subconsciously, ‘oh, maybe I can just work a lot now.’

DS: Oh yeah.

TK: Because there’s something validating about the book, right?

DS: Sure, yeah. Seeing that (points to the book) was really validating. It’s an actual thing now. You know, because up until a week or two weeks ago, before I got that, it’s still . . .

TK: Abstract?

DS: Yeah. And I’d been involved with all this on-line crap for a while now and a part of me still doesn’t think it’s real.

TK: Well and this still isn’t the hardcover, so it’s still –

DS: Yeah, but it’s like almost like a real book.

TK: This is definitely an object.

DS: Yeah. And where I come from is like a place with paper and canvas and paints and pencils.

TK: You got a Facebook page?

DS: Nah. I don’t do the Facebook. I love the twitter.

TK: Oh yeah, you say in the book that it helps you take notes.

DS: I’m the kind of person that can’t skip anything. So Facebook, if I’m gonna participate I’m gonna fucking be on there all the time and I’m gonna look at everything everybody said. I’d have to. The great thing on twitter is everything is 140 characters . . . and the double-edged sword of the Internet, now everyone can share every minute detail of their lives, but it hasn’t made anyone more interesting, you know?

TK: The tough lesson of punk rock.

DS: The good thing is that anyone can start a band and the bad thing is that anyone can start a band.

TK: And it turns out that not everyone should.

DS: Yeah, so, about the blog being different from a book, I still was hoping and am hoping that the episodes can be read separately. That you can flip the book open and read one of the little entries and get something out of it, you know.

TK: Yeah, it’s super-engaging. I read it in I think three sittings and every time I had to stop reading I was wishing that I could’ve kept sitting with it.

DS: Well, that’s a great compliment. Thank you.

TK: Well, it’s especially a great compliment because it is episodic. There’s something about short chunks that keeps you reading, because it’s not like John Updike or something and if you start the next chapter that means you know you’re sitting there for another hour. You keep flipping if it asks only another minute at a time of you.

DS: Yeah, nothing is more than a page or two. Three I think is my record.

TK: But that keeps the reader engaged in a counter-intuitive way, because when you think of getting sucked into a book, you think it’s because you need to know what happens next. But there is no cause and effect in your book.

DS: There isn’t. Yeah. There really isn’t and that’s part of the randomness of it all and that’s the way the job is, that you get these little fragments of things and then you can fill in the stuff in your mind. But there’s not any connective tissue between one thing and the next really. It’s only that I saw them or heard them you know.

TK: Yeah, I think you did a really great job of stating how people pop in and out and you have no sense of their lives before or after.

DS: No.

TK: I also really liked, and I think I really liked it because I’m always really guarded against it, in my own stuff or in whatever I see, I’m always guarded against sweet moments. But you do a really good job with those couple moments. Like the moment where you and the woman hug each other, you do a really good job of not coming across cloying or sentimental.

DS: Well, unfortunately or fortunately, sentimental is not a thing I’ve ever been accused of, or (of being) really romantic for the most part. But I was definitely aware of I didn’t want it to be so one-note, so dreary and horrible. I didn’t want it to seem like it’s just all horrifying drunks. It’s not all awful. The majority of the rides are just plain and nothing really happens. So I wasn’t gonna write about too many of those because there was nothing to write about.

TK: Well, they’d become about you and your drifting mental space when nothing happening.

DS: Yeah. And that wasn’t what this whole thing was about.

TK: So then, do your interactions with so many different people – I mean so many different people that can afford to ride in cabs –

DS: Yeah, that’s certainly not every kind of person that can afford to take a cab.

TK: So does this more often reconfirm cynical feelings towards the common man – the phrase “common man” being a phrase I use self-consciously –  or are you aware of feeling pleasantly surprised?

DS: I have been actually. Every once in a while I’ve been surprised. And also, part of it is personal. Part of it is, ever since I was a kid, my – I don’t know – my manner or whatever, people have accused me of being negative. ‘Oh Dmitry hates everything.’

TK: That’s just a Russian thing, man.

DS: It is a Russian thing. But it’s made me self-conscious enough about it that it’s like, ‘okay, this is not what it (the book) is gonna be about.’ And I’m gonna make an effort.

TK: Well, not the book, but the experience of driving the cab.

DS: Well, yeah, strangely I don’t think it’s soured me on humanity any more than I was soured before. I mean, I still think 90% of it is shit.

TK: That’s a self-respecting ratio.

DS: Yeah? That’s optimistic?

TK: Eh, it implies a sense of dignity, high standards, but also openness.

DS: No, they’ll surprise you every once in a while. And I just, my main thing is I just can’t get enough of watching people and listening to them. It’s just endlessly fascinating. It’s my own little theater and I get to sit in it and they all perform.

TK: And you’re an audience of one.

DS: And they’re performing for me. And it’s not always, it’s really not to make fun of them or judge them or think that I’m better than them. I’m certainly not.

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