Hi Martin, welcome back to VENTS! How have you been?
Hello! Thank you. It’s great to be back! How have I been is a bit tricky to answer — Musically, things have been ascending; I’m in a deeply productive period. But the untimely death last year of my friend and long-time collaborator, Jimi Zhivago, has led to a reckoning. I’ve learned more about what a wonderful person, friend and supporter he was, and about how much he taught me in the years we worked together. I miss him every day.
So you are finally back with your new record Death Waits II: The Writers – tell us about the time spent to prepare this material?
Finally, yes. It took a couple of years longer than I expected. For two reasons: Firstly, I had a few songs to write, and some of them proved obstinate in their vivification, as it were. Like the song for Camus, which went through at least half a dozen iterations over several years (the earliest pre-dating the recording of Death Waits I!) and ended up being the last song I finished, after coming up with the chords on the fly in the middle of a recording session — Camus, you could say, was having a little joke at my expense by insisting that the song should defy reason. And, secondly, because Jimi and I entered a kind of musically induced state of levitation — we raised the bar, as he would say — which resulted in all of the songs being re-recorded at least once, sometimes two or three times, until they reached the correct state of elevation. That took a while, but we were very happy in the end.
What’s the story behind the title?
Death Waits started out as a single collection of songs inspired by and about artists from various disciplines — music, painting, sculpture, writing. But I had too many songs for a single album, so I broke out The Writers and gave them an album to themselves.
Would you call this a direct sequel to the previous installment?
Not a sequel so much as another piece of a whole. My First Goose, inspired by Isaac Babel’s story of the same name was, I think, in its earliest form, the very first of the Death Waits songs. But here it is on Death Waits II with a haunting accompaniment by Jimi on acoustic guitar.
Will it share the same themes or this is a beast on its own?
The themes of mortality and immortality, of trauma turned to beauty, of art transcending loss — these are all there again. With “The Writers” though, these themes become so much more explicit, and informed by the work of the writers themselves. I was able to weave together ideas and even lines from the writings of these authors and make them speak for the song, for the meta-story. (On Death Waits I this happened with the lyricists like Sappho, Lou Reed, Wagner and Bowie, but it wasn’t every song, as it is here.)
And with The Writers a new theme emerged, one that I feel particularly drawn to — a theme of self-interrogation, of introspection and second guessing. ’The word came first, the tongue refused it,’ Seamus Heaney’s character says in A New State of Men, echoing Murakami’s protagonist who reveals ‘I’ve never been much of a writer.’ These writers, and many others, feel an urge to put words to their experiences and ideas, while simultaneously doubting that they have anything to say, or can say it effectively. That was a surprising thing to uncover, and in some ways reassuring. I personally grapple with these competing impulses; it didn’t stop them, why should it stop me?
How was the recording and writing process?
Jimi and I stuck with the process we’d established for Death Waits I. A couple of times a week he would show up at my house (a testament to his dedication, because the one thing he disliked more than Brooklyn was taking the subway to Brooklyn) and we would descend to the basement for several hours, tracking or re-tracking. Then he’d leave and I’d tinker or supplement for a couple of days, try to come up with something to surprise him, like the orchestral interlude on Existentialist Nostalgia; something out of left field.
We did drums and vocals in the basement this time around, too, which was great because I was able to more easily get deeply into the character of the song. A traditional recording studio has an engineer or two whose presence needs to be filtered out, or engaged with. And we reached a place where we were maintaining a musical conversation as we worked. We would finish each other’s musical sentences, as it were. Ideas from Jimi inspired me to nudge the conversation sideways, and vice versa. Not a note made it onto the album that we weren’t both happy with.
Songwriting, like singing for me, is one of those things that gets harder as I learn more about it. Like life, I suppose. I’m easily bored, so the songs can’t be straightforward, even when they might sound fluid and timeless. I’m always looking for ways to develop a narrative through harmonic transition, or play with timing to shift the mood, or evoke a character through lyric and melody. (So much so that as I’m relearning the songs to play them live, they’re surprising me, too.) I came to The Writers at a good time, these complex and fascinating subjects deserve the hard work and diligence and a complementary level of complexity in the songwriting process.
You pay homage to some great writers – how did you choose them? Were they handpicked or did they just develop throughout the writing process?
Camus I’ve loved since I was a teenager. My mother would take us regularly to the local library and I would pick out books that seemed like my kind of thing — mysteries, science fiction, spy novels, etc. Then one day I went home with a copy of The Fall, and the world became a different place. Camus changed my life by granting me access to the world of ideas. So, no matter how long it took, no matter how many mis-starts, he had to be in there somehow. Beckett made me realize that you can write something that 99% of people will find too weird to read, and it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Babel is a great favorite, and not enough people know his work. If you want the real world to smack you in the head with a beautifully wrought bat, read Babel. Paul Bowles’ book Points In Time is like dipping into another universe that looks a lot like ours; each time I read it, it seems somehow familiar and distorted. And Murakami is the only contemporary author I’ve read in recent years who I couldn’t put down — I read all of his books in a couple of months, like a literary Netflix binge.
As for Dickinson, Plath, Joyce, Heaney and Dante, these were authors who interested me but I didn’t know much about. I was drawn to something in them, and the songwriting became a way of digging deeper, familiarizing myself with their work and their lives, always waiting for them to speak up and tell me what it was that the song should say. Those were exciting moments, when germ of the song suddenly sprang up out of the dirt.
A couple of my favorite authors didn’t appear — Faulkner, for one; I have no idea what a Faulkner song would sound like. And also Gabriel Garcia Marquez — but his book Chronicle of a Death Foretold is such a favorite that I’ve written a whole song cycle based on it. That’s to come. At some point.
What aspect of these writers’ work did you choose to dive into?
When I tried to choose the thing to write about, it didn’t work. If I went at a song head-on, I would end up, inevitably, frustrated. As human beings we are like filters for the many ideas and impressions and feelings that flow through us. The world washes over us and some things stick, like bits of seaweed. We develop a crust. Barnacles attach to us. We become idea ecosystems. And somewhere inside us, if we’re lucky, we’ll occasionally discover that over time a bit of grit has become surrounded by mucus and silk and been transformed into a shiny hard ball. Carefully, we pluck it out and cast it off into the world, wondering whether other people will see it as a pearl.
Sometimes it was a line in a poem or a story (—Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death reminding me of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil). Sometimes it was a biographical insight (—Plath’s father being a bee-obsessed national socialist who died because he was convinced that his diabetes was lung cancer.) Voila! a bit of grit becomes a pearl. Every song on the album had a moment like that.
The liner notes reveal what each song is about, and although you don’t need them to enjoy the music, I think they can enrich the experience — context = greater joy. And for those who don’t have a CD player and so won’t see the liner notes in print, you can see them on my website, along with the amazing illustrations for the songs, courtesy again of the fabulous artist Eric Collins. Liner notes and artwork here:http://artschopmusic.com/death-waits-ii-the-writers/
Where else do you find inspiration for your songs and lyrics?
I read and re-read Jose Luis Borges; he’s like an ultimately unfathomable but tireless wise man and mentor. I listen to NPR; Radiolab in particular has a way of pushing me into new dimensions of thinking. The New Yorker and The New York Times have also provided inspiration for songs. And when I go out into the world with a spirit of openness and naivety, I am always amazed by what I learn.
Any plans to hit the road?
In his foreword to the second edition of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess says something along the lines of “Only one tenth of one percent of the population would read a book like this, but here it is in its second edition.” I feel a little bit like that about Art Schop. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are plenty of people who like their tea dark and strong. Finding a way to reach them and then get enough of them in one room at the same time is a trick I haven’t yet mastered reliably. I’m playing a record release show and Jimi Zhivago tribute on Friday March 15 in New York at NuBlu Classic. If I can get enough tea-drinkers in other locations, I’ll be there with my pot (teapot, that is).
What else is happening in Art Schop’s world?
Can I say something about the next album? Something completely different? OK. This is where Radiolab comes in. I’ve written an album that reflects on human life in the context of our universal experience, our place on an imperiled planet, orbiting a mid-sized star, one of trillions of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies, our lives lasting for the tiniest imperceptible fraction of a sliver of the extent of universal time. And yet, what we do with that fraction of a sliver still matters immensely (to us, and to the planet). It’s very exciting.