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May 4, 2009

Ben Greenman Interviews Rhett Miller

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

The author Ben Greenman has written several tricky, twisty books of fiction, from Superbad to A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both to Correspondences. The singer and songwriter Rhett Miller has presided over more than a decade of fine music (running from power-pop to country-rock) with his band, the Old 97’s, and also cultivated an solo career on albums such as The Instigator and The Believer.

Now, both men have new projects out, and there’s some crossover. Greenman has just published Please Step Back, a novel about a funk-rock star. And next month, Miller will release Rhett Miller, his new solo record, which is as writerly and intimate as any work he’s ever recorded. A writer writing fiction about music? A songwriter writing nakedly honest songs that could be memoir or essay? Crossover.

The two men met to discuss work, life, and Charles Manson.

Author Ben Greenman interviews musician Rhett Miller:

BEN: What's the first song you ever wrote?

RHETT: The first song I ever wrote was a little ditty about Charles Manson. My mom and two younger siblings were summering in Brainerd, Minnesota. In a cabin deep in the woods, by a bug-infested lake, I read Bugliosi's Helter Skelter aloud to the family each night for an hour before bed. Way to mess up the kids, mom. When we returned to Dallas, I couldn't stop thinking about those poor rich folks in Hollywood and the weirdos in the valley who were murdering them. Sample lyric: "You killed the actress/and the hairdresser too/Charlie what'd they ever/do to you?"

BEN: They triggered his mental illness. That’s something.

RHETT: My first question is a version of yours. What was the first short story you wrote that you really feel proud of?

BEN: The first thing I really felt proud of was a long short story called “It,” which I wrote when I was probably ten years old. It was a kid’s book in both senses, by and for, and it was a somewhat menacing fantasy about a boy who had psychic and telekinetic power. That was It. It was always with him. It gave him access to things other boys only dreamed of. He loved It. Those last four sentences aren’t a description of the story. They are excerpts from it. It had little or nothing to do with Charlie Manson.

RHETT: You finished it?

BEN: Yeah. I also wrote about half of a James Bond book – it was about Bond when he was older, coming out of retirement — and my brother left it at the house where my family was vacationing. It was unfinished and then it was gone.

RHETT: Did you try to restart it?

BEN: No. I couldn’t recapture that. But that leads me into my next question. When does a song start for you, on average, and what does it start with? A lyric? A melody? A piece of something else?

RHETT: For me, it's usually a phrase that suggests a melody and a melody that suggests further lyrics. It's as if one tiny, pleasing thought creates a need. And that need gnaws away at me until I do justice to the initial phrase. I imagine a surfer paddling out into big waves, seeing one that looks good, deciding to drop in on it and then immediately regretting the decision. But he has no choice, right. He must ride the wave. When he gets to shore, he is so proud of his accomplishment, he forgets the terror and paddles back out.

BEN: I haven’t surfed ever.

RHETT: Didn’t you grow up near the water?

BEN: In Miami. But we sailed instead of surfed.

RHETT: You were there until when?

BEN: Until high school.

RHETT: At the beginning of A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, there is a short story purported to have been written during your high-school years. Is that for real?

BEN: Yes. It’s a story that is a kind of philosophical exercise about a man who does not like his life and feels small in it. He lives on a low platform next to a high platform. To feel better about himself, he jumps to the higher platform. As soon as he lands, that platform starts to sink and the one he had been on begins to rise and he realizes that the only thing making the low one low was him. When I redid that story, I updated some of the details to make it seem more adult and less likely that it had been composed by a teenager.

RHETT: When you get the itch to write something, do you have to go write it immediately? Is inspiration always cracking the whip or do you have it under control? Can you work on a schedule?

BEN: I am always scheduled but always mad about it, and when I break schedule that’s when some of the best parts happen. Standing up and walking around, that’s great for ideas. Turning on the radio for a minute, that’s excellent for triggering dialogue. It has something to do with stepping away from myself for a minute.

RHETT: It’s like playing a song and then listening to it play back.

BEN: Right. And sometimes you get closest to the work by getting distance. Which reminds me: People are saying that the new record (the self-titled Rhett Miller), which comes out in June, is highly personal. But everything a creative person makes is personal, in some sense. How is this differently personal? More painful? Less filtered?

RHETT: Now that you mention it, I realize how silly and annoying that description is. This record feels pretty blatantly first-person. Is that first-person me? Not entirely. Not always. The most "personal" song I've written is a song called "Hospital Wings", an bonus track. It didn't make the record because it's too personal. It's the most specific, honest, and autobiographical thing I've written. Like verse by verse, the harshest truths I could come up with from my life. Who wants to hear that?

BEN: Me.

RHETT: Well, get the bonus track. Okay. Now your new work. Your new novel, Please Step Back, which is about a funk musician in the sixties and seventies, deals with, among many other things, the African-American experience. How does that come so seemingly easily to you? Is it just that you're a writer and you put yourself in the head of whomever is living the story?

BEN: Well, in this case, it’s more a matter of my connecting with the main character, Rock Foxx. When I was a kid and I bought funk and soul albums I knew that the singers were black but I didn’t think it through. They seemed the same kind of person as I was. That may sounds crazy, but it was indisputable at the time. It’s like a thirteen-year-old California girl connecting with Picasso, or a fifty-year-old Catalan man connecting with David Archuleta. It happens. Don’t you have fans who are totally unlike you?


BEN: And they could probably write a book where you were the main character.

RHETT: Enough about this book about me, though it sounds great. There's a part in your story "Oh Lord! Why Not?" where a famous musician talks about running into other famous musicians and notes that they have very little to say to each other. It rang so true to me. Is this the case with writers? The shared experience is so strong, and the role so singular that when they meet, they render each other redundant?

BEN: I’ll go you one better. I think it’s the case with people. I think writers talk around the issues. They talk business, or they talk publishers, or they talk agents. But the thing in the middle, the hot center, doesn’t get touched. And I think it’s often true with people, too. Once a million years ago I was on a date and I was sitting with the girl and we were talking about x, y, and z. I mean that we were actually talking about the end of the alphabet. And it was very sad because all we wanted to do was to take each other home. I know this because I compared notes years later. We didn’t do it. We discussed the alphabet. We parted. In that case, the shared experience of need was so great that we rendered each other unsatisfied.


BEN: Sad but inevitable. I'd say that both of us are, in slightly different but related ways, romantics. Do you sometimes feel embarrassed by that, like we should set all that aside and write songs/books about military history or mechanical engineering?

RHETT: You get way more tail being a romantic. Just kidding. But kind of not kidding. If I wanted to say something about military history or mechanical engineering I would write an op-ed piece for the Times. And then cry myself to sleep. Because I couldn't get laid. Get it? God, I'm a jerk.

BEN: Ha. If life were less blurry, do you think there'd be as much art? Let me clarify. Many of your songs are about the joys and pains of love. Many: let's say "Meteor Shower." If life wasn't that awe-inspiring, awful mix/mess, what would people make art about?

RHETT: You, my brilliant friend, Ben Greenman, have nailed it right on the head. That mess is what it's all about. The awesome ambivalence of what it means to be human. That's what drives me. In the Western scale, there are eight notes. But in much of Eastern music, there are an infinite number of notes between each of those eight. Imagine that the same is true of feelings. There are an infinite number of complicated emotions between the eight big ones. Those in-between, indescribable, messy feelings are way more interesting to me.

BEN: Ok. Now is the lightning round.

RHETT: You go first, then me.

BEN: I’m not answering lightning-round questions.

RHETT: Why not?

BEN: That’s a question during the lightning round, so I’m not answering it. Okay. Lightning round. Go. What is a song you wish you could have written, and why?

RHETT: "Sunday Morning Coming Down" is one that I'd like to have written. It would make people like my father-in-law so happy. Plus, what a great use of the word "stoned"?

BEN: What's something you noticed in the last two days that might be the seed for something that you might later write?

RHETT: My son keeps yelling "Noodle!" for no reason. I might not make that into a song, but I might use it in a song. Right before the guitar player goes into a solo, I'll yell, "Noodle!", and then he will.

BEN: What's the last song you think you'll ever write? I don't mean that in a morbid way -- I just wonder if you think about things like that.

RHETT: I will probably go out on a silly note. I write a lot of songs that are way too goofy to play for anyone. I will probably die trying to come up with a rhyme for "catheter."

BEN: You can rhyme stuff with “tube full of urine.” Like “Martin van Buren.”

RHETT: Do you ever just feel like you're going crazy? Seriously? What's up with that?

BEN: Or “sickly Honduran.”

Ben Greenman links:

Ben Greenman's website
Please Step Back website
Please Step Back theme song

The Stranger review of Please Step Back

Ben Greenman's Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist for Correspondences
Ben Greenman's Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist for A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both

Rhett Miller links:

Rhett Miller's website
Old 97s website
Rhett Miller's short fiction at Five Chapters

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)