Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is only the second album you've ever toured to promote. Are the things that kept you from wanting to go on the road in the past still an issue?
I like it for the amount of time I'm committed to. I like being on stage and I like afterwards, talking to people. Getting used to traveling with other adults in close quarters is... because they're friends of mine, it's not so bad. It's not really natural. It's more of an activity for high-school athletes or gangs. Youth groups and church groups, stuff like that. We're using the form and the vehicle to move us around. I do like it. The things that held me back from it in the past—there are so many that, yeah, a lot of them still stand. But enough of those things were neutralized or argued out or proven to be false to make it bearable. Still, the things about songwriting—as a songwriter, I take the song to a point where I call it done. For years, that's what felt right. That's what a poet or a painter does: They abandon the work at a certain point, 'cause you can always keep working. With this idea of playing your music live that you just made a record of, you definitely go into the second step of mechanical reproduction. There's one level, when your songs get copied onto CDs, and there's another when you create other versions. Versions keep multiplying; words get changed, da da da da. I do feel like it devalues the song. I don't like other versions to exist. It's not as pure. That's kind of the theme that runs through everything. I have to get my hands dirty to do this touring. I have to do things that are not necessarily good for my art, but good for my survival as a human being. I'm not out here for my art. I'm only out here for personal growth and financial survival.
Don't those things affect your perception of the vulnerability of your art?
No, because both those things—taking care of yourself, making a living, forcing myself to socialize, to keep stretching, to not harden like I could so easily at home—are... the art is on hold when I'm on tour. I brought a notebook that had a bunch of little bits of songs. But it's impossible to be creative when you're touring. It's just a completely different mode. You're in a much more animal-instinct mode. But as long as I return home quickly, I don't see that it can do me any harm.
You've started touring in the age when it's impossible to safeguard against live recordings of these impure versions not only existing, but being widely available the second after they're performed. Does that make it harder for you to enjoy live performance?
I'm not thinking about it. In no way am I trying to control what's happening. I know better than that. People recording shows, I would never say, "Don't record it." At the same time, doing interviews, making sure I do them all differently, making sure I contribute to whatever publication some idea, something novel, something interesting, something good—and then I'm not contributing crap by repeating the same stock answers. Because there is that desire to not want to heap more bullshit onto the world and, to the degree that you are, to make it quality bullshit. I consider live-recorded versions crap, but I also am aware there are millions of bands and millions of live recordings and I feel protected by the huge volume of it all. Someone could find everything live by the Silver Jews and make the case that this band needs to quit. But I'm just going to ignore that case if it ever comes in the mail.
That's probably a good policy.
There are so many secondary and tertiary versions of songs and remixes and da da da da da. But because I do the records in a certain way, where the songs are like volumes of a larger work, I feel like it underscores the fact that there is an official version. I can see a band and see how interested they are in other versions of their own songs when they release all these remixes and things. So then when I see bootlegs of their stuff, I just assume it's more of their philosophy of their music as being sort of vegetative and growing and covering the media landscape. That's not what I do at all. I try to make these things that I want people to come visit and leave behind for the moment, to listen to the record, all the other stuff. As long as I continue to manage the output in a way that is nongreedy or nonaggressive, or the way I perceive a lot of bands in their ruthless desire to get as much of their superfans' money as possible—as long as I put these individual documents out, and not send people scurrying for the rare and unreleased, and then not reselling it to them in a collection—the end result is that people will be more trusting to buy any individual album I want to put out. I feel for those bands because the albums they really want people to hear, the ones they put out every two years, can't really be distinguished easily when you're looking at a band for the first time from their live album or the one only one original member is on. But if something by the Silver Jews is for sale it's, to some degree, as good as anything else you've bought by the Silver Jews. Consistency of product.
That idea of being protective—not just quality control, but of a band demanding that listeners come to them a little bit—was a lot more common when you started making records.
Bands would go away. They'd put out an album, tour, and then they'd go away for a little while and you'd wonder what they were doing, and then they'd come back. Now, bands are afraid to do that. They're afraid to go away for even a second, because there's so much energy toward grabbing market share from these little bands that are very energetic businessmen.
Maybe it's not that they're scared, but that they just can't even conceive of going away for a while. Just like some people can't imagine why you wouldn't want to publish a chronicle of every instant of life as it happens. Maybe that's not how time works for bands anymore.
Right, you can't turn your MySpace page off for a couple months, like businesses used to close for the summer or on Mondays or whatever. But the economy insists that your products always be for sale and you always be available for interviews, and so you never really go away. Now, I'm fearful of that, because those sabbaticals... my whole life was lived in those sabbaticals, I guess. Living from album to album, each interlude was very different and dramatic. Because I wasn't touring and because I'm a private person, no one knew about it. You'd get the albums, you might hear something, I don't know. But for the most part I was able to live because the Silver Jews were a band—never a huge band—and, because I lived in Nashville, I could live in a music community and be completely public and be a weirdo and a freak and no one would ever know about it. And for years I was. This never-going-away thing, the fear of never closing up shop or not being open 24 hours, is one of the many things I don't see being discussed. People like to write about changes in technology and MP3s and Napster and stuff. Nobody talks about sociologically what's happening to bands and between bands because of this—I think because applying analysis to the situation would yield a lot of truths that would be uncomfortable to an older generation that isn't really paying attention. For instance, people who the last time they really cared about music was 1983, and it was Public Image and Sonic Youth, they would be surprised to find out what's considered normal in band behavior. In a lot of ways the older generation is just silently standing by. Younger people don't know any different. They don't know that it's not from a certain ethic to sell your songs that are on your album to a commercial—they're not even aware of it. And the people above, they don't want to ruin the party. "Everybody's having a great time and we all used to struggle and now we've got jobs and the parties are sponsored and SXSW is luxury..." Nobody wants to say anything negative about it. I don't think anyone who works for a paper as a writer is going to get very far criticizing—you know, the amount of credibility musicians get is so ridiculous. They're so unquestioned. I noticed this when we went to the Southeast and I tried to cancel the show—the promoter told me, "No, it's really important, people really want you to come." I thought we'd just be in the way 'cause of the hurricane. So we came, but in the paper it was written up as if I had done this amazing, heroic thing. It was unbelievable. And it followed me to Austin: I was a hero! It was ridiculous and stupid, and it was only because I was a musician. They cut musicians so much slack. It's a really unrealistic place to be. It must be divine what has happened here, because there's not a single thing a band could improve on. It's so corrupt, but it's all sweet. Sweet corruption, you know? When you're in the middle of it, it just means that it's working the way you wanted it to work. If you could've called the shots in 1989 where rock 'n' roll would go, well... would I call the shots so that rock would evolve so that a band like the Silver Jews could actually be taken seriously? Okay, yeah, I'll take that one-in-a-million chance, and I'll enjoy living in it. But at the same time, it makes me uncomfortable.
Nobody wants to be the one who starts saying, "It was better in the '90s." But have you noticed '90s nostalgia beginning to emerge? At some point there's bound to be a film set in the '90s with a soundtrack of Pavement and Guided by Voices.
Right and people will be shown bad history like, "Sonic Youth told the PMRC to fuck off on their Goo album!" Which was totally out of the blue at the time. They never mentioned the PMRC during the '80s. It was just like a play for the kids. And so kids'll get that bad history where Sonic Youth were the heroes. And they get a free pass for the Starbucks thing, as you notice on the web. Nobody talks about it or writes about it.
It seems like no one's critical of things like that because the answer is always built into the question—"Commercial radio is dead, MTV is dead, the music industry is dead, so Sonic Youth have to sell records at Starbucks." Like the writer's job is to head off any aesthetic or spiritual objection you could raise in advance.
It's kind of like Republican talking points, because it's so untrue that Sonic Youth have to do those things. I mean, you don't have to look at their tax statements or know where they live to know that they don't HAVE to do any of that. No one ever thought they were going to be on TV or the radio anyway, so why is it suddenly like a necessity that must be replaced? But nobody wants to make those arguments because you're also working against the market ideology that all these kids have grown up with: that entrepreneurs are the best and anything that gets in the way of business... it really ties in with Republicanism. Of course, just like the Baffler was writing so many years ago. This is a collaboration; this media economy, this entertainment economy is a collaboration with these times. These festivals exist because of a time of easy credit. All of this stuff is connected and nobody wants to say it. Just like maybe people don't want to admit that Obama really isn't going to come down on business the way we want him to.
You can't be remotely critical of Obama right now and expect anyone to even hear you.
Right, people would say, "Hey, that's not helpful." But I would say in the discussion of music, there's nothing at stake like there is with Obama, so to me it's kind of gluttony. It's closer to gluttony than anything I've experienced. The bigger shows freak me out. It's so hard to fight the asymmetry between the fan and the band. You have to do silly things. I'm not talking about stage diving or crowd surfing... The fans subject themselves to you and everybody seems to enjoy the way it's all divided up. I don't get it. The festivals are so creepy, and yet they're so lucrative that no one can say no to them. But they're just like the '70s, everything we were all supposed to be against: the fan down there and the stars up there. But that's really what everybody really wants, it seems like.
But don't you think, because of web-based marketing and that stuff you were saying earlier, about being open 24 hours, that fans have a much greater illusion of being on the inside? Maybe they don't mind the massive separations you're describing because they've successfully been duped into not seeing them.
Right, they feel inclusiveness, but what's really happening is the band has all its best customers in a small area, and it has really high-marked-up products for sale and they want to move them to these people, and they've got the addresses and cell phones of everyone in the club... People don't know about it, but whether the band is doing it or not, somewhere down the line, the manager or whoever, it's a site of predation when you're trying to get as much of people's money as possible. I've talked people out of buying too many things. They shouldn't be spending all their money on records. But they get excited. "Will you sign this?" I don't feel comfortable taking hundreds of dollars away from somebody who probably should be spending it on other things.
And who has already paid to be there.
Exactly. The '70s distance is still there, but the difference is now the people on the floor are feeling really confident, they're doing well, they can afford to be there, they love their music. And the band isn't up there partying, forgetting about the audience. They're involved with the audience, but they're involved with the audience's money. And that doesn't get talked about.
What you're talking about can be seen at every level of music, from big stadium bands to people who begin advertising themselves before they even write songs. And I completely agree it's worth talking about. But there's also the fear that creeps in as you get older of being the asshole who says, "It was better in my day."
That fear—to the degree that it stops discourse—is ridiculous, because there are other ways of expressing all this without comparing it to the way it was before, like you're rooting for a certain way. It's more that the system has to be critiqued, maybe not in comparison to the way things were, but in comparison to the people who are doing it right. There needs to be a distinction made between people who are totally buying in and the people who aren't. Every time I turn down a commercial use of a song, I don't get brownie points for that. No one hears about it. So people assume I do whatever Wilco does. But I can't control that either. I'm continuing to work, not in the hope that things will become like they were, because that's impossible. And I couldn't work back then for other reasons. I do hope for a day when the greed and rapacity of the business side of things will become suspect by the general music listener again. [long pause] I just won't be happy until there's a mainstream critique of selling out.
I think the reason the critique doesn't exist is that the concept doesn't even really exist anymore. The notion that there is such a thing as selling out is sort of an antique in rock culture, like the Twist or something. Part of it is that the record labels are dying, so bands get a free pass to do anything they can to make money, because somehow, talking and thinking about how other people make money has replaced talking and thinking about their work.
And because there's a built-in... everyone agrees record companies suck. But while we're all agreeing with that, nobody wants to make the analysis a little more complex and say, "We don't want bands to suck, too." If they're going to do their own business, it's not all good. There should be some discourse about it, at any rate. I mean, it's a pop phrase, "selling out." It has its weaknesses. "You're sold out from birth," "you don't have anything to sell," da da da da. But colloquially, euphemistically, what it means is that you have some standards that separate art from commerce, church from state. Again, another comparison between Republicans and how people want to do music nowadays: They want to break that wall down. And it makes sense to them, but they're not basing it on knowledge or history. It's just their emotional preference. All of this culture, not just art, is something to be passed down. And when people make decisions about the world when they're on it, and what they're gonna do with common property that's gonna be handed down, and they're negligent about it, it pisses me off. My country, I feel, was hijacked and screwed over. And I feel like, in a way, rock 'n' roll has been put under wraps. It's ugly to me when it's all about sales and money.
But from within, right? I mean, rock 'n' roll did that to rock 'n' roll.
Oh yeah, I'm not sticking up for rock 'n' roll. I just mean that its critique of society, its position against society, even symbolically against... there's no site for a young person to stare back from society. I mean, when I was 14 or 15 and you decided to be a punk rocker and "I'm gonna be weird and listen to music," it was an incredible, incredible boost to your ego. This most powerless person on earth, all of a sudden you can look down on everybody as an idiot. "Everybody is a businessman, a Reagan-loving motherfucker, an uptight old lady." All of a sudden you've found the elevation from which you can look down and critique. Critique was so necessary in the '80s because so much bullshit was being fed to us. But it was being fed by like the WWII generation, kind of clumsily. They didn't really have their heart in it, they had creepy old grandparent smiles. Now, it's being fed by these kids' parents, who are down with it all... Wow, another rant! [Laughs]