On Capitalism, Country Music, and Gibberish
BD: What is Sparky the Dog Records? In my interview with Lucas [Richards], he said that it's a purely fictional organization. Which made me think, "Why, then, am I doing all this work?"
SA: [with professorial airs] I think that's a very relevant question. Adam Smith, the great economist, author of The Wealth of Nations ... wait, maybe it was Marx. Anyway, somebody said once that there are two ways to spend your free time: buying shit or doing shit. Sparky the Dog Records is fictional in the sense it cannot be bought …by the fuckwads that run the capitalistic world in which we dwell . Lucas is absolutely correct when he says it's a fiction.
BD: I talked to your sister in Portland recently. She made a comment, "If Greg [Soapy Argyle] didn't have all his pet projects: writing, making music, administering STD Records, that he would...
SA: What? Go nuts?
BD: What was the exact phrase? She said, "He might be destructive to himself or others." First off, what's your reaction to this comment?
SA: I want to kill my sister.
BD: But do you think the existence of Sparky the Dog Records has steered you away from certain criminal tendencies?
SA: [distracted] That's just great.
BD: She meant it in the nicest way possible. It's because your mind is so active and so full of ideas, you need to channel it into healthy outlets. Otherwise, you'd become frustrated and begin to look for ways to mail bombs to embassies.
SA: Why couldn't she just say, "I'm proud of Greg that he's found a way to occupy his time." Instead, she accuses me of being a homicidal maniac...
BD: [correcting] Potential homicidal maniac.
SA: My family!
BD: This brings up a question about the shadowy corridors of your mind. Your new album, Honey Bucket, has quite a few tracks of darker subject matter than your last album, Sycamore ...
SA: I wouldn't say that.
BD: What would you say?
SA: I don't think the [album's] darker. Sure, Sycamore was funnier and goofier. But Honey Bucket , well, if you compare that to anything else out there…I don't know, anything by Munly , for instance, it's a ride in a merry-go-round.
BD: Yes, your new album has a lot of fun, upbeat tracks, I didn't mean to color it grey. I was just commenting on the disturbing subject matter of a few of the tracks. For instance, the title track - about a kidnapping.
SA: [correcting] Kidnapping?
BD: Okay, Potential kidnapping...
SA: Or is it sanctuary ?
BD: Right. That's ambiguous in the song. Or, there's "Small," about a girl in mental asylum. Or "Sisters of the Poor." All pretty dark subjects in those.
SA: Don't say it's "dark"! Say it's "profound" or "thoughtful" or "deep"! Oh, yeah, I finally figured out what "Sisters of the Poor" is about. It's told from the perspective of a Marine in Iraq who's been shooting at Iraqis for months and months and is now giving them candy and trying to be friends with them. Part of it. The other part is told from the perspective of a dwarf. On top of a big rock candy mountain. In a maple syrup rainstorm.
BD: Speaking of your politically inspired material, I was trying hard to make out all the lyrics on "I Lost the Will to Live," and when I finally got the full line, it was really funny:
The swelling in my brain's gone down / You must try the beef eye round
You've got a penchant for amusingly nonsensical lyrics.
SA: Is there question in there? Just kidding. Nonsense? No, my amusical friend, I wouldn't say that. Would you dare call James Joyce a "nonsense" writer?
BD: You're comparing yourself to James Joyce?
SA: No, I'm not.
BD: But you just did.
SA: No, I didn't.
BD: Yes, you did.
SA: If, by saying I'm better than James Joyce, I'm comparing myself to him, then yeah, okay. But I'm talking about James Joyce the musician. You know, he played violin or fiddle, or something. He played in the Chieftains for a while. Or maybe I'm thinking of Einstein.
Every bit of nonsense there's a reason for. If you've taken the time to walk the streets I've walked, you'll know there are no haphazard lines in songs. That's what differentiates "great art" from "shit."
The song "Lost the Will to Live," is structured much like Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me," where there's two people talking. Where one person might be a) Plato , and the other, b) Phaedrus . The main subject of the song is denial. About that fuckwad [George Bush] getting reelected, and the people who don't care, and about the people who did care and don't care anymore. So person A will say...
BD: "I tumbled through the looking glass..."
SA: "...The plastic donkeys kicked my ass." But that's actually person A talking, too, in both parts. So that's not a good example.
BD: What's the other line that rhymes with that "looking glass" line, near the end?
SA: "Now point me towards a bonnie lass." See, that's person B, who's just out for his next pleasurable distraction. The whole thing is [Soapy Argyles wife, Maux, enters the kitchen, after walking the dog] very hard to focus on. You and I are trying to talk about some very complicated issues, and it's like a mother coming in with some glasses of milk, "Here, I've baked cookies."
[changing voice to that of a burned-out hippy] But why sweat it, man? Why don't we rock out a little while we're here, in this transitory thing we call life , you know? Shit! No, but it's bigger than that, man!
BD: You started out writing mostly country music, which was predominant during your days in Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts. You now jump from style to style, but there's two or three country-ish songs on your new album. And they're unusual for the genre, such as "Shit in Your Bed," -- slightly humorous at first blush, yet at the same time it's a serious admonishment against infidelity...
SA: I'm not as militant about country music as I used to be. I've come to accept that it can be pretty annoying to some people. But, man, I do think country is a great vehicle for some songs. My intention with “Shit in Your Bed” is for the listener to assume that, because it's got a country feel, that the song is gonna be silly and full of one-liners. But by the time that last verse comes around the song has become a fairly disturbing tale of self mutilation.
BD: Sparky the Dog Records isn't simply a vehicle for your solo projects. Certainly, your recent output shows your musical talents have grown vertically in stature, but with STD, you've also expanded in bushiness...
BD: Yes, you've not simply grown taller in terms of your own stuff, you've branched out to collaborate and include other people in the creative mix - become horizontally more bushy, you know? For example, Sparky the Dog has recorded a few people who wouldn't be considered, or don't consider themselves, musicians. They don't play live shows or practice with a band. These are friends of yours who might write a song sitting in their bedroom, but no one gets to hear it, ordinarily. It's their hobby, but an isolated one. These lucky few get their songs produced with a competent instrumental backing on STD, and you put out their CDs for whoever cares to listen. Why?
SA: Well, the professional musicians I know are not returning my phone calls. I'm kidding, of course. For two reasons I include the amateur. First, to include as many friends as possible, and secondly, the brute rawness of the non-musician helps me stay grounded in the essentials, the immediateness.
When Flori Davis [aka Mrs. Tree] put down violin parts to "Small," she was so good—she's got a P H freakin' D in violin—it made me feel a schmuck , like I don't know the first thing about anything. On the other hand, when I play with Maux, when she's on drums...then, well, I'm in the top position of power, you see?
[Maux comments from across the room: "That's funny because he still acts like a schmuck."]
What I really dig about STD in general is that it affords the opportunity to work with friends on projects. That whole concept of collaborating on art projects is something which Lucas Richards really...[searching for term]
BD: [offering] Engendered?
SA. Yes, thank you. Engendered. Lucas has gender issues. The annual compilations [Sparky the Dog] has done the last two years, and is doing this year, where everybody can submit a track, best illustrates that. It involves all sorts of people - friends who are barely musicians get to be included, and then we'll have some fairly hip, well-known local musicians on there, too. For the hip ones, they get to slum it and just have fun, and amateur people like my sister can mail in a 13-second song about pumpkins and get mentioned in the Westword . Sure, as Lucas said, we're fictional in the context of the world economy, but we're hugely relevant to ourselves.
BD: You're in a new live band, Six Months to Live, made up of mostly your STD mates. Explain your intentions.
SA: What we have in Six Months to Live is an assembly of the greatest musicians ever assembled. And our intention is to play high school assemblies. [laughs] I meant everything but that last part.
The idea with Six Months to Live is to see what happens when you have four guys who are all on the same page musically. There's no dictatorship in the form of a single front man. A band's not supposed to be an authoritative activity. It's anarchy. It should be. Anarchy's not the term I'm looking for.
BD: Democracy in action?
SA: Bingo. Democracy in action. My personal goal with the new band is to play ten gigs. [at time of writing, the band just finished their debut outing].
BD: Ten gigs. In the space of six months?
SA: That would be ideal, wouldn't it?
BD: No long-term expectations?
SA: All things in life are transitory , Brett. Our little band is no different. People move away. People get sick of me. Or ambitions start to clash. We only want to make the greatest music we while we have the chance to do it and we do. And we have. And we will, in the time we have to do it. And we will play as if we only had six months to live .
--Brett Duesing, June, 2005