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Music : Interview

Donovan Quinn and Ben Chasny of the New Bums discuss Christ's music career, hunger strikes, and their new album Voices in a Rented Room.


Ben Chasny and Donovan Quinn of New Bums. Photo by Jason Quever

Donovan Quinn So, I’ve got something: The band is going to be on the road for forty days and forty nights on tour. How do you think that will affect us? Mentally and aesthetically?

Ben Chasny Well, I don’t know. How did it affect Jesus? He came back stronger, right? Not sure about his aesthetics.

DQ No, actually I heard that after touring for forty days and forty nights Jesus never did a good album again.

BC That’s true! But he only had one adversary. Something tells me we’ll have many.

DQ Do you feel like we’ll be tempted?

BC I haven’t seen anything that looks tempting yet. So no, I don’t think so. But I do have a strong suspicion that there are many adversaries out there, but that might just be my general paranoia. What do you think?

DQ (laughter) Yeah, I don’t feel like anyone is tempting us in any way. In fact, maybe we’re the one’s that are tempting others. That’s the thing! You never think you’re the bad guy in the story.

BC Forty days seems to be the standard to figure it all out.

DQ It’s a common trap, known even in biblical times. I think the longer we are on the road, the more real the band becomes. Know what I mean? Every band kind of starts off as a concept that’s shared between the band members. Then as you travel around and come into contact with people that are hearing the band and you’re having drinks with them, or you’re staying at their house, then, through those people, your band becomes more and more real to you and more defined.

BC So you think we’ll be more defined and real when we get back.

DQ Yeah! Exactly. I mean, you start off with your own idea of what you think the band is and what you are creating but as you go on, you find out that people don’t have that exact same idea and then they start to influence what you think of your own band. I feel like it changes it. It grows.

BC Right.

DQ It’s like we got asked this question recently: “Did we intentionally make the record low key?” But for me, I would have never thought of the record as low key. I feel like it’s a fiery mess of emotion.

BC So you think that’s a good thing?

DQ Yeah, I think we’re in a Pinocchio-like situation where we need to become more real. It’s always kind of sad ditching the fantasy though.

BC Are you telling me that you’ve found out things about yourself from the way that people have heard what you do?

DQ Yes. Remember when we were talking on the phone and Drag City was saying that we should play centers for troubled youth, not because we are positive, but because it sounds like music made by clinically depressed people? I never thought of myself as clinically depressed until they said that. Then I started to think maybe I am. I started taking notes of my habits and the way I spend my days. So when I wake up at three in the afternoon with my clothes still on and YouTube still on the computer I think, “That’s what a clinically depressed person does. They’re right”

BC Well, I don’t know if that’s a healthy thing. Also, I didn’t know you traded in romantic idealism, as if the “real” works its way to truth through the relationship between two elements.

DQ Yeah, now I’m only romantic after the third cocktail but as usual we might be having two different conversations at once. You’re talking romantic philosophy which I’m foggy on. It makes me think that we should not write all our songs about slow death and drunken sadness.

BC Hm. Ok. So, what else is on your mind?

DQ I don’t know. There’s my non-profit, there’s my back taxes . . . . But I feel like those might de-rail us.

Here’s something: How do you work non-musical influences into your music?

BC What do you mean?

DQ Well like you read a lot of non-fiction. Do you feel you are able to get inspired and work in ideas say from non-fiction, or movies or things people say? Like Elisa (Ambrogio, of Magik Markers) is really really good at jotting down what people say.

BC Yes. I learned that from her. Just today I was watching a thing where David Lynch was talking about what a failure he thought Dune was and there were so many good lines in what he was saying so I jotted them down. It’s a good technique.

DQ Yes, it’s a great technique. And she’s a master of it. It’s something I would never think of doing myself. Maybe I don’t have the discipline.

BC You seem to get a lot of inspiration from fiction.

DQ If I am reading a novel, it won’t be one particular thing that I can use, but sometimes there is a big idea that I’ll take or will inspire me. On the construction end of things. Like how to set up a comedic line or nail down a character in a few lines.

BC I’m just thinking how if I’m reading fiction it gives me more ideas for songs than if I’m reading, oh, I don’t know, how the geometric mean of an octave is the square root of two and how there’s no precise middle ground of a whole tone between the 4th and the 5th. That’s kind of hard to turn into something you could turn into a song, even though it actually is about music.

DQ Hmm. That’s beyond me. Most of the time I devote to guitar is spent figuring out the amount of slack on the guitar strap that looks coolest. I know you don’t approve of my Dave Clark 5 chin-high guitar style. Who are some guitar players around today that you think have good style?

BC It’s not up to me to approve of that style, though I have heard it referred to as “above nerd level.” It’s actually quite popular nowadays. As far as who has a good style? I take it that you mean a combination of looks and playing? I don’t know. John Christ maybe? I like his muscles and blues metal chops.

DQ Maybe I go a little more, in terms of style, I probably go for a little more of the quaint, like Buddy Holly. I like Buddy Holly. I like Phil Everly. I like Zal from the Loving Spoonful. He was kind of what you might call a top hat guitar player, know what I mean? Not like he wore a top hat but just that if he saw a crowd of children he might make a couple funny faces and they would all gather around him and cheer. Maybe Zal actually did wear a top hat sometimes.

BC Ahh. That’s the sort of style that you are drawn to.

DQ Yeah. I mean, I don’t do it myself!

BC A Zoot Horn Rollo kind of style.

DQ Oh Zoot Horn Rollo’s got a fuckin’ great style. There’s no one in the Magic Band that didn’t have tremendous style. That, to me, is the ultimate band style. But you know, I’ve got more of a scowling and motionless style.

BC Indeed you have. But we were talking about transposing techniques from non-musical sources. Let’s get back to that.

DQ Yeah you can get a lot of ideas on how to craft music by looking outside of music. That’s one of the reasons I keep trying to consume as much shit as I can so it’s not just me sitting in a room by myself coming up with ideas. I don’t think I could do it isolated.

BC But you don’t have to consume things that would be considered the arts if you are just talking about technique. You should be able to just look out your window and note the way a roofer is working and use that in mixing.

DQ Yeah, absolutely. If it’s a roof that really appealed to you. Or if it’s a roof that you really hated you could think, “What don’t I like about this roof . . .” What I don’t like about a lot of roofs is that, well, I’m looking at this roof right now and it’s blending into all the other shitty roofs which are blending into nothing. Whereas sometimes when I am taking the bus through San Francisco I’ll see some kick-ass roof and it’s like, "BAM."

BC I think roofing is really hard and I’m glad I am not doing that right now.

DQ Hey, I’ve done roofing in my time.

BC (laughter) Oh, back when you were in the roofing game?

DQ Back on the ranch! When I was on the ranch my father would make me help him with the barn roof. To be honest I was shitty at it.

BC That ranch life seems hard.

DQ Not usually. It was OK.

BC You had a crazy Dad.

DQ Yeah. That reminds of me something. Let me look up a quote real quick: “Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction.” Donald Barthelme said that.

Did I ever tell you about my hunger strike?

BC No, I don’t know about that.

DQ Well, when I was in my early teens I would have these epic battles with my father over dinner. My father would never actually eat dinner with us, but he would make you dinner and then watch you eat it. These dinners were terrible. It was always spaghetti, which I like, but then he would throw odd things on top of spaghetti that would make it disgusting like sardines, or blue cheese or whatever. So of course I would say, “I don’t want this disgusting shit on top of my spaghetti” and he would just say, “get a job and you can buy whatever you want.”

Anyway, this battle rages on for years. Then one day I’m through with it. He makes some disgusting concoction and I say, “I’m not eating this. I’ll have some normal spaghetti but I’m not having this hellish mixture of, you know, this blue cheese, bacon bits and hamburger and tomato.” So he says, “If you don’t eat that, you aren’t getting anything else until you do.” We start screaming back and forth. Then I take this plate of spaghetti on a paper plate and I just toss it across the room. And he’s raging at this point. He gets down on the ground and scoops up all the spaghetti and he puts it back on this paper plate and says, “You still have to eat it, or you don’t get any food.” So I began a goddamn hunger strike.


Donovan Quinn and Ben Chasny of New Bums. Photo by Jason Quever.

A day goes by and by the end I’m loosing my mind I’m so fucking hungry. Then I go out and start roaming around the ranch and there’s a walnut tree, so I’m gathering up these walnuts, taking them back to the trailer home where I live and cracking walnuts and eating them, but it doesn’t satisfy me. So I wait until after dark, after midnight, and I walk down to the 24-hour grocery store. It’s a mile-and-a-half walk. I’m too afraid to shoplift but what I will do is pretend to put coins in the sample candy bin. So I’m pretending like I’m putting quarters in the bin and loading up on sample candy. I go and I eat this candy and feel disgusted and sick. Then go home and sleep and wake up early, about seven or eight in the morning with my father pounding on the trailer door yelling, “Get up, piss ant!” I open up the door and there he is, holding up this disgusting spaghetti on this soggy paper plate and he says, “You’re still not eating anything until you eat this spaghetti” and I’m like, “Fuck off! I’m not eating that goddamn spaghetti.” So he takes it back, more enraged than ever.

The confrontation gets my adrenaline running and my hunger subsides for a while but then it comes back and I’m ravenous. Like a crazed animal. I go to the storage space and I’m rummaging through all the dusty old cardboard boxes and, as luck would have it I stumbled upon this huge cache of canned beets, which this elderly Polish gentleman had given us some years earlier and had been totally forgotten. Boxes and boxes of them. I’m just ripping through these canned beets, which previously I’d hated but ever since, I’ve loved.

BC It’s interesting that you’ve loved beets ever since because that’s the sort of thing that would make most people hate beets afterwards.

DQ Oh yeah, yeah, and in my eyes that’s where someone would go wrong. So I’m destroying these canned beets and my Father is showing up with this molding spaghetti and he can’t believe it. He’s like, “How is this hunger strike continuing?” Finally, he comes to me one day with a fresh plate of completely normal, good ol’ American Spaghetti and he goes, “Here.” He doesn’t say anything else and walks away. That was my first, and perhaps last, major life victory. After that I knew nobody could make me eat their disgusting bullshit. I say, “Fuck you, I’ll go on hunger strike.”

BC Man, that’s fucked up.

DQ Eh, it builds character. I miss those days sometimes.

BC Seems like you had all your temptation and adversary right there on the ranch. Forty days not needed. I hope you learned something that you can take with you on this first tour, whether true or not-true.

Donovan Quinn and Ben Chasny the New Bums. Their recordings can be purchased from Drag City Records. They will be on tour all spring.

Tags:
Folk Music
Psychedelic
Rock music
Experimental music
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