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April 27, 2016

Author Paula Bomer Interviews Musician Nick Zubeck

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

Paula Bomer is an author, her most recent book is the short story collection Inside Madeleine.

Nick Zubeck is a singer-songwriter who also plays guitar in the band Sun Kil Moon. His most recent album is Skydiving.

Author Paula Bomer interviews musician Nick Zubeck:

Paula Bomer: In titling your album "Skydiving" you set the tone or the reading of the album. Titling is something that both fiction writers and musicians have to do, and the chosen title usually is embedded with meaning. I feel like the theme of feeling unanchored and needing love and people to anchor us, or catch us, permeates the entire collection of songs. But clearly there are other themes, too, which seem related- loneliness, trust and – well, love, to name a few.

Another theme, related metaphorically maybe, but also distinct, is the idea of being ‘Lost in Space", so to speak, which is a title of an Aimee Mann record. Have you heard it? Musically, it's very different, but it touches on that idea of not being grounded, the need to be grounded. How we need others to ground us.

Nick Zubeck: It took me a long time to settle on the title of the record. At one point I had a list of about 20 possibilities. It's really true that a title sets the tone and influences the initial perception of a book/album/film - it's the first impression. Once I settled on "Skydiving," it seemed like an obvious choice; it was one of the first songs I had written from this batch, and reflects some of the central themes of the album as a whole. Although I didn't explicitly set out to write a collection of songs tied together by these ideas, they all do, to lesser and greater degrees, reflect on allowing oneself to be vulnerable, to take risks, and yes, to trust in others to anchor and catch us in moments of fear and loneliness. I'm not familiar with that Aimee Mann album, but I'll check it out. I often do feel "Lost In Space", but mostly in a good way!

Paula Bomer: In many ways this album seems like an anti-break-up record. The break up album has long history, as do love albums. Which albums do you feel were your strongest influences regarding the content of your lyrics, or were those more organic, and the musical influences were larger?

Nick Zubeck: That's interesting that you describe it as an anti-break-up album. It wasn't meant to be, but without getting into details, some of the songs/lyrics did wind up having strange predictive qualities in my personal life. I don't think any particular album or artist was a direct influence on the lyrics, but in terms of love/break-up albums, Joni's Blue is always a touchstone. For a long time, lyrics were secondary to the music for me, and looking back I cringe at some of my early lyrics, full of cliches and overused metaphors. Then I went through a phase where I thought good lyrics should all be profoundly poetic, and mine starting coming out all forced and pretentious. I hope I'm getting better at editing myself and identifying when I've arrived at some decent prosody.

Paula Bomer: To further the discussion of musical influences, as the guitarist for Sun Kil Moon, you play a very different style of guitar, or so it seems to my ear. For your own work, you seem to choose something very distinct. I imagine then you have a broad involvement and interest and background in music. Is it ever difficult to traverse those different styles?

Nick Zubeck: I wasn't too familiar with Mark's music when I first joined Sun Kil Moon two years ago. It's been interesting to play the recent material from Benji onward and to get inside his literal, stream-of-consciousness songs - it's a very unique approach to songwriting. I feel if anything, I'm getting influenced by his narrative and lyric approach. Musically, I think there's some crossover - we both grew up on a steady diet of classic and prog rock, and gravitate to fingerstyle guitar in our playing. Otherwise, I do have a broad interest and involvement in a wide variety of musical genres. I always find it refreshing and inspiring to explore new styles and sounds, and when it's difficult to traverse, I think it always leads to growth and learning.

Paula Bomer: Is the song "Devil's Tide" metaphorical in the use of words like "brother", and "fallen son", or is it a non-fictional way of working out some real grief? Generally your lyrics don't make me think of the autobiographical elements of Sun Kil Moon, but this song had me wondering.

Nick Zubeck: You're right, this is the most personal and autobiographical song on the record. It's about my brother, who died at the age of 52 in 2001. He was a chronic alcoholic, and died way too early in a tragic and shocking way. I've written a few songs over the years in attempts to process and understand the grief and confusion surrounding his life and death, and I feel that this song is the most poignant result.

Paula Bomer: The fun thing about this series of authors interviewing musicians -- similar to Bomb magazine, which has authors and visual artists in discussion - is how the two art forms share aspects and how they differ. What is, if any, your relationship to fiction? Does it have any impact on your writing of music? I imagine that writing a song can be a solitary experience, but it doesn't have to be and is generally more collaborative.

Nick Zubeck: I love fiction and used to read a lot more. I'm slowly getting back into the habit - frequent touring has helped! I'm not sure if there's a direct relationship between what I read and what I write, but I do enjoy good prose that illustrates complex characters and relationships. I never really write "story" songs; my tendency is to turn inward and reflect on my own experiences and how they might be relatable and meaningful to others. I'm curious about trying to write from other people's perspectives as well and experimenting with other approaches, but my default is personal ruminations. It is generally quite a solitary experience, as I imagine writing a novel might be, but for this album I had the pleasure of working with my friend Sandro Perri from the early stages of these songs. I played him a bunch of songs I was working on, and together, we edited lyrics, tweaked structures, recorded everything at my studio, and then he mixed it all. So in that sense, it was very much a collaborative endeavour.

Nick Zubeck links:

Nick Zubeck's website

Paula Bomer links:

Paula Bomer's website

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Baby & Other Stories
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Nine Months
Largehearted Boy interview with Jimmy LaValle

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)