Episode 075: John Porcellino

I’d spoken with John Porcellino not all that long ago for Publishers Weekly feature discussing The Hospital Suite, the indie cartoonist longest self-contained work to date. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, the book is deeply personal, exploring long standing health concerns that caused Porcellino to be hospitalized numerous times over the years.

Toward the end of that conversation, I asked the artist whether he’d be willing to meet up again for yet another interview when his book tour brought him to New York City. He’d only be in town for a couple of days for the Brooklyn Book Festival and would only have a couple of hours to spare, but he happily agreed to devote one of them to sitting down with me in front of a microphone yet again.

Porcellino greeted me in the lobby of his Brooklyn hotel a few weeks later in a white t-shirt bearing the visage of celebrity cat, Lil Bub. He recognized me before I recognized him. He looked different than the last time we’d met, when I’d interviewed him on-stage at the Minneapolis Indie Expo a few years prior. Back then, he’d been in the throes of the health concerns at the center of his new book.

“I’ve put on a little weight,” he said proudly. “I just turned 46, after all.” He didn’t look overweight, he just looked, well, healthy.

He offered me an English muffin and apologized for tucking into the hotel breakfast that had only just arrived. He was making the most of his limited time as I set up the recorder. After five ten minutes of discussing the relative niceness of various hardcore frontmen (Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds and Keith Morris all get gold stars), any concerns I harbored about our ability to fill yet another hour’s worth of SD card with conversation melted away.

For episode 75, here’s a wide ranging one with one of the most fascinating and longest lasting figures in the world of self-published comics. Punk rock, buddhism, nature, health and art all abound.

@5 days ago with 1 note

Episode 073: Art Spiegelman

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Two years ago, while on a take a half day off following a photography convention, I ran into Art Spiegelman on the streets of Cologne, Germany. Actually, I spotted his wife first, and it took me a moment to place the familiar face so completely out of context — New Yorker editor and former RAW Magazine partner in crime, Francoise Mouly.

I reintroduced myself, having interviewed Art a year or two prior for a HEEB Magazine cover story. Spiegelman nodded his recognition and invented me to a talk his was giving at a modern art museum later that night. Naturally, I obliged.

It was one of the more surreal experiences of my comics-adjacent life. What began as a conversation about the cartoonist’s beloved holocaust book Maus, soon transitioned into a slideshow featuring holocaust denial gag strips Spiegelman had drawn, answering then-Iranian president Amedinijad’s call in the wake of the uproar over the massively controversial 2005 Dutch Muhammed cartoons.

Watching the German audience crack up at the work offered a fascinating glimpse at the coping mechanisms of a country whose psyche is forever changed by the topics Spiegelman has unflinchingly embraced. It was also a reminder that, along with being a vocal pundit in the ever-shifting give and take between “high” and “low” art, Spiegelman has long been a showman.

His new touring act “Wordless” is the most direct manifestation of these two qualities. The event mixes multimedia, lecture, a live jazz band and conversations revolving around the influential if often forgotten pictorial novels of artists like Lynd Ward.

Spiegelman spoke with me ahead of his upcoming tour about Ward’s on-going impact on his own work, the power of the visual medium and the often questionable pursuit of multimedia comics.


@2 weeks ago with 2 notes

Episode 071: Mike Doughty

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In retrospect, there’s probably not a heck of a lot that we talk about here that Mike Doughty didn’t touch upon in Book of Drugs. His 2012 memoir is candid and rock — everything a rock and roll autobiography should be. As evidenced by the name, the book tells the musician’s tale through a series of inebriated anecdotes, including the rise and fall of his beloved 90s electro-alternative group, Soul Coughing.

That’s not to say that there’s wasn’t plenty of good stuff left to talk about when we sat down for lunch at a Brooklyn Diner. Doughty has been keeping busy with his solo career in the years since, including a recent crowdfunded effort that found the singer songwriter reimagining a number of hits from those heady Buzz Bin days.

Doughty also plays around the city as much as possible these days, a willingness to perform that has made him a regular on comedy bills all over a city — a challenging but welcoming environment he insists he prefers. In fact, it was a recent appearance performing at a friend’s Greenpoint stoop sale that brought the singer-songwriter to my attention once again.

We talk about the beginning of his career during the twilight of the record industry, surviving in New York City and how stumbling into a show with then unknown Elliott Smith and Stephin Merritt changed his life and music forever.

@1 month ago

Episode 069: Wreckless Eric

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1993’s The Donovan of Trash, just might be Eric Goulden as his most unhinged — which is, naturally, saying a lot for a guy who’s borne the “Wreckless” qualifier since the late 70s. It’s rough and fuzzy — a cardboard box was involved percussion at one point in the process. It’s a sort of lost low-fi, shambolic masterpiece, finally back in print for the digital age, alongside its contemporary, the also terrific Le Beat Group Electrique.

The reissues, thankfully, shine additional light on period of Goulden’s career that seems forever destined to take a backseat to the early Stiff Records output that gave the world his best known hits, “The Whole Wide World” and Semaphore Signals.”

The singer took it upon himself to shed even more with a short US solo tour that capped off with an intimate but sufficiently energetic set at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, power through a set on less than pristine instruments older than many of this in attendance.

I sat down with Goulden in the short space between soundcheck and showtime to discuss his long and fascinating career on the fringes over a bowl of overpriced New York City chili.

@1 month ago

Episode 067: Dave Wakeling

There’s always been some degree of confusion over what, precisely, constitutes The Beat. Here in the States, the group has long added the word “English” to its name, so as to avoid confusion with the contemporary Paul Collins’ power pop project. In recent decades, things have only gotten trickier as the band’s two frontmen have pieced together their own versions of the group.

If you go see The Beat in its native UK, it will likely be the project led by toaster Ranking Roger and his similarly named progeny. Here in the US, lead singer Dave Wakeling retains the name, heading up a revue of the band’s greatest hits, with a few choice cuts from his followup band General Public mixed in for good measure.

It’s a strange thing, of course, to hit the road playing decades old songs without the aid of any original members, but Wakeling, to his credit, puts on a tremendous show each night for packed houses, middle aged women inviting themselves on-stage as the opening notes of “Tenderness” ring out during the encore.

Of course, that he’s still able to tour on songs like “Save it For Later” and “Mirror in the Bathroom” is a testament to some quality in their DNA that has made the music outlive subsequent generations of ska bands, who have come and gone like so many porkpie hats.

Wakeling and I sat down in the back of the band’s tour bus to discuss longevity, life, Margaret Thatcher and what keeps bringing him back to the songs that made him famous.

@2 months ago

Episode 074: Jason Nash

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The best interview subjects and the best comedians share a common thread: brutal honesty. There’s a sense that nothing is off-limits in pursuit of the perfect joke or honest answer. Jason Nash, to his credit, is nothing if not honest — often times brutally so. About his career, about his life and, most frequently, about his marriage.

In fact, the comedian recently released a movie on the subject — the fittingly straightforwardly named Jason Nash is Married. “The secret to a great marriage is very simple,” Nash sums the whole business up in a voice over at the end of the film’s trailer. “One person eats shit and the other person soars like a bird feeding off the lost dreams of the first person.”

Nash and I sat down at the Sidewalk Cafe in Manhattan while the comedian was in the city promoting the film’s video on demand release. And just as one would expect, things got really real.

@1 week ago

Episode 072: John Darnielle

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“Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods.” That’s the first line of The Magical Bugle, a short story written by a young John Darnielle after acquiring an old Royal typewriter for his seventh birthday. It was a line so good his father taught it to his Freshman composition students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Darnielle has, it turns out, been a writer his whole life, and if that first sentence is any indication, he’s been always been a pretty good one.

Since the mid-90s, he’s been best recognized as the frontman and sometime sole member of The Mountain Goats, a southern California indie rock outfit defined by the musician’s intensely emotive vocals and narrative song structures that play out like two to three minute short stories.

His early career was also marked by lo-fi recording techniques, with songs often taped directly to a cassette boombox. In 2002, Darnielle released Tallahassee, a concept album relating the story of a embittered Florida couple perpetually near divorce. The singer’s second LP that year, the record also marked the first Mountain Goats record to be performed by a full band.

An arguable disappointment to some of his hardcore fanbase, the record was a perfect manifestation of Darnielle’s desire to pursue new challenges, having taken home recording to its logical conclusion with the equally brilliant All Hail West Texas.

Wolf in White Van marks is a similar pursuit in some sense, the novel serving as a manifestation of his desire to perpetually challenge himself,  though Darnielle’s decision to pen a novel likely didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his songwriting abilities — or any mid-70s Cal Poly composition students.

Darnielle and I sat down in the Manhattan offices of his publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a veritable shrine to the written word, to discuss the novel, his life long science fiction and the importance of being able to throw things away.

@3 weeks ago

Episode 070: Whitney Matheson

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“It’s funny how life can change on a dime.” That’s how Whitney Matheson put it, asking whether I was still planning on running this interview. That’s the downside, I suppose, of stockpiling these interviews, though in my defense, these conversations tend to have a shelf life of a bit longer than month.

When the news came out last week that USA Today would be pulling the plug on Matheson’s beloved pop culture column Pop Candy after 15 years, the thought of killing the piece never actually occurred to me. We touched upon some really interesting topics during our conversation in a midtown Manhattan tea shop. And in some ways, it’s perhaps even more important in light of Pop Candy’s end.

What really struck during the interview was a conversation about a piece Matheson wrote about Seinfeld, which the titular comedian referenced during an interview with the writer. The essay was part of a larger Pop Candy project exploring the ways in which popular culture effects us on a personal level, with Matheson revealing how the iconic sitcom helped her survive a bout of depression.

Matheson touches on similar themes in the Pop Candy farewell letter she published on her site today:

Every major event in my entire adult life took place while I wrote it, too: marriage, three moves, the losses of loved ones, my daughter’s birth. With each of them, I received a stream of unwavering support from thousands of people I’d never even met.

It’s a good conversation about the power of popular culture to connect, inspire and persevere.

@1 month ago with 1 note

Episode 068: Sean Nelson

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Harvey Danger was one of the last of the Buzz Bin bands, in those waning when major labels were still forces to be reckoned with and MTV rotation was all it took to cement a song’s status as a generation-defining hit. Fresh out of college, the band scored its one major hit with “Flagpole Sitta,” the second track on the band’s debut record, which, all told cost around $3,000 to record.

Through some combination of unpopular choices, one major flub on the part of some crew member for 120 minutes and poor choices from above, the band would never manage to recapture such success, in spite of, quite arguably, releasing two far stronger records before disbanding for good in 2009.

In the days since, Nelson’s seemingly tried his hands at everything, playing keyboards for indie darlings The Long Winters, taking on backup vocal duties for the likes of Nada Surf and Death Cab for Cutie, taking roles in a number of films and writing for Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger.  Last summer, Nelson even returned to songwriting, releasing his first solo record, Make Good Choices for the tiny Seattle label Really Records.

Nelson and I met up while he was in New York to help a friend work on a musical, also using the opportunity to play an intimate show downstairs at Brooklyn’s Union Hall, along with his new wife Shenandoah Davis, who accompanied him on piano as he worked through solo songs and the occasional Harvey Danger number.

We spoke about gauging one’s own accomplishments in the wake of massive success, occupational diversification and how to take a backseat to someone else’s creative force.

@1 month ago with 2 notes

Episode 066 (Mini): Peter Diamandis

A short one this week because, well, Peter Diamandis is a busy guy. Recorded at a financial tech conference in Manhattan, we managed to get 15 minutes alone with the X Prize and Singularity University to discuss what he refers to as “the most extraordinaire time in human history” and the role he’s played in pushing rapidly advancing scientific and technological breakthroughs even further.

@2 months ago