And may I introduce to you Mr. John Lindenbaum, the extraordinary songwriter behind Rust Belt Music and half of the heart and brain of San Francisco’s very own melancholy synth-folk wonders, The Lonelyhearts. I’ve known John for almost ten long years. We met in college, back before reality’s wrinkles began to etch themselves into our faces, back before we really had a sense that songwriting and music would become such a dominant force in our lives.
If you’re just making John’s acquaintance, you have a lot of catching up to do. He’s pumped out enough songs over the last five years to fill at least two full-length albums and six EP’s (it’s possible I’m forgetting a couple). The hit ratio is simply astonishing - John has written more devastatingly powerful songs than three-quarters of the songwriters out there, beautiful songs filled with Neil Young’s sense of melody and a Ghostface-esque attention to detail. Unjustly, he’s received a fraction of the notoriety that he deserves, even for the moody and elegant writing on last year’s Dispatch (DIY…or Else Records).
Living in New York, I don’t get a chance to see John often - once a year if I’m lucky - but via the miracle of MSN™ Chat I was able to catch up with him about everything from his writing habits to Hip-Hop, from the precise geographical classification of Iowa (Midwest? Great Plains?) to specific techniques of lyric-crafting.
We started off, as most conversations do, by discussing the functional role of religion in songwriting:
ASG: It's funny, I've noticed lately that religious themes have crawled into my music more lately, and I'm not religious at all, though I do feel some connection to Judaism.
JL: Shit, I write songs about Christ. Non-sarcastically. The Bible is full of parables - so are most other religious texts. It's good material for discussing the world we leave in or hypothesizing about ones we don't. Plus, religious imagery resonates because it is important to so many people, even if the AZA [AZA=ASG] is not in their number.
ASG: Yeah, you could point to a lot of different mainstream artists who have referred to Christianity, but most of it isn't objectionable at all. I don't mind Common mentioning Jesus.
JL: I mind Common. But not that he is religious. Kanye is definitely riding the Capitalism-and-Christ thang.
ASG: Yeah, I agree about Kanye. You don't like Common? I only mind when he periodically throws in a homophobic line.
JL: I like my rappers hard and mesh-hat-less.
ASG: Have you seen him recently? Looks like he's been working out. Bet he'd kick your butt.
JL: The Pet Shop Boys could whup Common in a fight. I could vanquish him with my Erykah Badu hair wrap.
ASG: Anyway, I think you're right; there is something about religious themes that goes beyond religion itself. Prayer as an abstract concept is something that really appeals to me.
JL: Religion appeals to me, in the sense that it involves envisioning something other than oneself. In that sense it sorta like communism but without those awkward gulags.
ASG: Lyrically, you do some of the same kind of stuff that I do sometimes. Like in "Ntozake Nelson" you say, "God bless them, God bless them all." It doesn't indicate your own belief about notions of God, or whether one can really be blessed, it's just a reference and a feeling thrown in. Something familiar.
JL: Our daily parlance is chock-full of religious terms. What do you say when you stub your toe? "Ballsnax" aside, most say Jesus Christ or something like that. Our culture is imbued with religious references – for example, Jezebel.
JL: Plus at some point one needs to refer to a higher power to add gravity to a claim. Saying "I hate the masters of war" is sorta weak but "even Jesus himself could not forgive what you do" is real. I just read a book that claims that line is the only one Dylan regrets, because Christ is inherently forgiving. There's a whole literature of Christians telling other Christians they can like popular artists.
ASG: Dylan does a lot of that, using God as an authority. An expert witness, so to speak.
JL: Yeah, it's an effective two-way view on a situation - the myopic narrator and the omniscient deity.
ASG: Were you a Dylan fan growing up? I didn't really start a relationship with his music until after college. Or the end of college at least.
JL: I got into Dylan in like 8th grade. But I never got too hard-core, like some do. I really do think there are 10 or so albums that are incredible, but I wouldn't listen to him sing the phone book. I vastly prefer the Guthrie era (early) and the figurative stage to the later literal stage.
ASG: Yeah, there are probably about 10 or so albums that I've come to love and to find essential. I think it was just that as a teenager I was friends with a lot of people who were making punk and hardcore music, and Dylan just wasn't part of our world. Thankfully people grow up.
JL: While I was a teen and people were doing punk and rock-rap and ska and jam band stuff, I was listening to classic rock and indie shit alone in my bedroom. But I also got down with the other stuff. I didn't meet a fellow Neil fan until college.
ASG: It's interesting that both of us can count Dylan as big influences, and yet I don't really hear too much of Dylan in either of our music. Then again I don't hear too much Ghostface, either.
JL: My folks had a few Dylan albums on vinyl. I think Ghostface was more of an influence on me than Dylan. If anything, Dylan brought lyricism to rock music, and both of us like lyrics. But stylistically - we don't play that style.
ASG: True, good point. Have you heard Fishscale?
JL: I have Fishscale and love it. Who knew he would be the Wu member to rock the naught aughts?
ASG: It's such an awesome record. There are at least seven or eight songs that get me so pumped. "Dogs of War"? That shit ROCKS.
JL: "The Champ" is my shit.
ASG: I'm waiting for you to lay down some freestyles with The Lonelyhearts.
JL: Dre [Andre Perry, the other half of The Lonelyhearts] is in a band in Iowa with a dude who has a side hip-hop project. I am going to make them some beats. I have always fancied myself a hip-hop producer. I can write decent hip-hop lyrics but am a terrible, terrible live rapper. I should ghostwrite for someone.
ASG: Nice. How are Lonelyhearts faring with Dre in Iowa?
JL: Well, The Lonelyhearts are more or less on vacation during the school year, but Dre comes to SF at least once a semester to play a show. We've been writing and sending demos back and forth. So this summer we will probably complete a ton of songs. Sure, you don't really build a fan base by not touring and not playing shows, but we're fortunate enough to have folks who still want to see us play.
ASG: That's cool. Any curveballs that we should expect?
JL: Last night's show went well but we will soon be abandoning most of the songs from Dispatch, except for perhaps encores or requests or whatever. We've been playing "The Loneliest Boy In the State of Nevada" and "Ntozake Nelson" every show for two years and have a bunch of new songs we are desperate to finish up. We will be recording as well, but probably nothing that will see the light of day for a year. Live we will still be a two-man show. On record there will be the fuller sound than one finds on Dispatch, but maybe with a tad more electric guitar and fewer all-acoustic songs.
ASG: It's hard to keep playing the same songs over and over again for two years. That's part of the reason I've hardly played any shows for Fulton Lights so far. I don't want to get burnt out on the songs before they even see the light of day.
JL: Yeah it's also tough when you write hundreds of songs (I am the Ryan Adams of unheard of musicians) and then keep playing the same ones live while most of the songs from The Christmas Day EP got played live once, ever.
ASG: I was going to ask you about that. I've got mad respect for the amount of writing that you do. It's really not easy to consistently create that much. There are ups and downs, I mean obviously not every song is going to be a winner, but it's also remarkable that considering the quantity of songs you write that so many of them could be so damn good. You've written some of my favorite songs of the past five years, songs that really choke me up. "When Kings Fought In Their Own Wars," that is one hell of a song. There are many others. And incidentally, all of the arrangements of the songs on Dispatch that I had heard earlier versions of grew on me.
JL: Thanks much. It's weird, since you and I seem to have different release approaches. You seem to only release the hits, whereas I put it all out there, at least to friends. I've never heard your demos or whatever. But your albums are all really polished and professional and sound awesome.
ASG: Yeah, I don't really do demos. Although - the Fulton Lights album that will hopefully come out soon did essentially have a demo (the Andrew Spencer 4 song cdr).
JL: Did you record the full album at Inner Ear?
ASG: No, I built on some of the tracks that I had recorded for the demo with Alap Momin, and then spent all of last year working with Steve Silverstein and Rob Christiansen. We did most of it in Steve's apartment, since he has a lot of nice gear. Bits and pieces of it were done elsewhere.
JL: There's definitely such a thing as too many songs. So many albums would make better EPs. So many (almost all) double albums would make better single albums. But the iPod is making us go the way of the single, which is bad.
ASG: Yeah, I'm glad for the existence of exactly three double albums. Blonde on Blonde, The White Album, and Wu-Tang Forever. I don't necessarily think that the idea of the single is bad, but I agree that people don't seem to be thinking about albums as ALBUMS these days.
JL: The Wall is great. I would actually cut a lot from BoB and The White Album.
ASG: Yeah, I was going to say that a good case could be made for paring those 2xlp's down.
JL: Lifter/Puller's Soft Rock is two good discs, but it might be a comp
ASG: I'm not familiar with them. I think Dispatch was good as a cohesive album.
JL: Yeah we tried to have it be an album, not a singles collection. I prefer the album listening experience, when a record can be a part of your life (for a while).
ASG: I'm with you.
JL: Lifter/Puller is the old band of Craig from the Hold Steady. Great lyrics. I put him and John Darnielle [of The Mountain Goats] as the top two since Biggie died.
ASG: Ok, I knew the band sounded familiar. I don't know The Hold Steady too well, but the songs I've heard definitely sound like the lyricist has put a lot of time into his writing and his delivery. Do you feel that writing a lot helps with some degree of consistency with your own songwriting?
JL: It's all very not on purpose. Writing with just myself makes it more consistent because it reinforces my own styles. Which is why working with Dre is cool. Songs just come out when they come out.
ASG: But the amount of songs that you write, it can't just be that they come out when they want to come out.
JL: They want to come out a lot. Lyrics are the easiest for me. So if Dre writes a song I can write the lyrics in minutes. I don't play enough music (with people or along with records) to get tons of musical ideas every day.
JL: One of my regrets is that I never got good at guitar. So lyrics is where it's at.
ASG: I think for me I've entered into a weird stage. The album that I just finished has a lot of lyrics that I'm very happy with, and I think they work together with the music in ways that will hopefully resonate. But since that album, I've written few lyrics but a lot of little music parts that will probably eventually become the second Fulton Lights album. It freaks me out - a lot - when I pass through periods of no lyric-writing.
JL: I feel the same way about the music parts...I'm just like, wait, what if a song never pops into my head ever again? Then I realize that I already have enough songs to last me the rest of my years.
ASG: What are some of your favorite songs of Lonelyhearts or Rust Belt Music from the lyric perspective? I mean there must be some that feel better than others, right?
JL: That's a tough one. The two versions of "Ntozake Nelson" I think tell some good stories.
ASG: The first version of that one in particular I think is truly remarkable.
JL: "The Loneliest Boy in the State of Nevada" resonates with people, which I guess means it was successful.
ASG: That one, too.
JL: I hate to bash the Black Eyed Peas and all, but lyrics should mean something to the listener not just the songwriter.
JL: Yeah, I like "Kings." I've always liked the song "Numbers," but I might be the only one. And "This is a Colma Train" is okay. "Absinthe" I wrote back in college so it's tough to remember how well or poorly that captured what I had in mind.
ASG: You wrote "Absinthe" in college? Wow. That song is much more mature than college. It really conveys a dark but hopeful spirit, a despair about drinking, but still a wish to be better. That doesn't really sound like college to me. How did you come up with the idea for "I'm Gonna Tell it Like a Murder Mystery?" I thought that one was the best on your most recent solo album.
JL: The title is (obviously) a Hold Steady reference, but that has nothing to do with the song. Uh....I guess the first few lines popped into my head and then I finished the story more on purpose. Does it make sense?
ASG: It is? I missed that reference, but that'd be because I don't know The Hold Steady. And sure, it makes sense. I think.
JL: Sometimes I try lyrical gimmicks (like in that one using lines from other songs as the last line in the verses) and I pray they don't come off as cloying. Also, what does cloying mean?
ASG: I have no idea. Let's go to the judges. Judges? Cloying = excessive.
JL: A key aspect of songwriting, in my stadium-packing-career opinion, is the details. And the songs we listen to and the media events that we live through are as important as the chairs we sit on or the sunsets we watch.
ASG: Yeah, what I like about "Murder Mystery" is that it tells a story, but more than that it really tells a story from a perspective that you don't get a lot of in songs. Together with the music, the lyrics give the impression that the narrator is just sort of burnt out, kind of lackadaisical. Which makes sense in the end, when the blame for the murder gets turned around on you and me. There's a word for this. German, probably. Damned if I know what it is.
JL: Inconsistent narrator? Unreliable narrator?
ASG: Yes, in German it's inkonseistinnarrator I think.
JL: This gets into geography a bit - part of life in Indiana or Brooklyn or whatever is the locally specific stuff, but some is the MTV or new Built to Spill album or NBA Playoffs that comes from somewhere else. And it's the combination of the two that I notice sometimes - what I remember about my hometown involves rap music as much as farming. The "I" in my songs hasn't been John Lindenbaum for a long while. So it's good to use that for effect, I suppose. Plus, John is boring and no one wants to hear songs about pleasant life with a lovely girlfriend in the suburbs.
ASG: Yeah, really. Go get shot or something. I tend to agree with you about details being important, but on the other hand I think there's a lot to be said for abstraction, which is even more difficult to do well.
JL: I live next to a really bad city - Richmond. People are getting shot a lot. Surprisingly, the people getting shot tend to be African American and white people don't seem to care much. Weird, reminds me of something.
ASG: Every other city in America? Hey, I just realized that the "Richmond" in "T-Shirts" is in Cali, not Richmond VA, which is also kind of a rough spot.
JL: California is weird like that - I live between Richmond and Oakland and I drive an old Volvo and go to grad school and my house hasn't been invaded since I left San Francisco (knock on wood) but people are dying not that far away. Richmond, VA is rough?
ASG: So I’m told. I once took a bus from DC to NYC and sat next to a guy who used to be a truck driver. He told me several stories. One was about him getting his license taken away. Why, I asked. (He makes the hand sign for drinking.) The other story he told was about his nephew getting shot and killed.
JL: I took the bus once in Florida and had a similar experience. Except I was 10 and scared. Regardless, I hope to finish the final RBM album before I or anyone else gets shot. Not counting hundreds of American troops in Iraq of course.
ASG: Final? So RBM is retiring for good? Or is this a Jay-Z retirement?
JL: Well, until the reunion tour. I think our fan base is now finally at zero. There are a lot of songs we never put out and so Chris laid downs some drum tracks before he moved away and I did some stuff and my old roomie Will has been mixing it. This is Jay-Z retirement in that if anyone ever wanted to play in or listen to RBM again I would be totally willing to revisit those songs and that sound. But not in that I won't be doing a mash-up record with Linkin Park. And I don't own a share of the Nets.
ASG: And you don't sleep with Beyonce. No diss on your girl.
JL: I'm pretty happy with the one I got. No offense, Shawn Carter.
ASG: I'm sure he's not offended, but I'll pass that along if I see him. Are you still playing shows (even solo) at the rate you were playing a few years ago? It seemed like you were playing every weekend for a while.
JL: RBM tried to play a lot of shows. We needed to get good on stage, we wanted to develop the songs, and we wanted to get our music out. Now I play at most a show a month, except for summer, which is chock-full. Playing live is a lot more fun with people, or person, in the case of the Lonelyhearts.
ASG: Yeah, I think I'm through with playing by myself. With Fulton Lights it'd be impossible anyway.
JL: It's hard to play a solo acoustic show to an uncaring audience, but those rare good solo shows can make it seem worthwhile. Your [John Guilt] show with us in Brookyn was like that (even though some biznatches were talking). You connected with people. Then I connected with a poor night's sleep. By the way I never told you, after we dropped you off, we got lost in the hood and drove around for an hour.
ASG: That's awesome. I feel like you had about two blocks to go, too.
JL: Yeah, Andre stopped in to get us some chicken at 3am and I didn't dare join him in the restaurant. Brooklyn has a nightlife, which is cool to see. People using public space and all that.
ASG: It's weird that it was only a year ago that we did that show, and that John Guilt was out West when we met up. It really feels like much longer than that to me. I was talking about this recently with [John Guilt bassist] John Berry. You know how people say, "It feels like only yesterday when..." No, it feels like forever ago.
JL: Yeah touring seems like it happened to my Dad or grandfather or something. But I have a really bad memory anyway.
ASG: So what's the ETA on a new Lonelyhearts cd? You said you've been working on stuff with Andre.
JL: It'll be a long-ass time. Axl will have the sequel to Chinese Democracy before we are done. Right now we are just starting to write the songs. But since there are only two of us, it's fun to lay down overdubs and stuff to work with a song in a way that is different from our live show. So I would say the RBM album will be done in a month. The Lonelyhearts album....maybe in a year. Plus he's back to Iowa in August. I think we are gonna be re-recording T-shirts as a band for a comp that a friend's label is putting out. That'll be the next Lonelyhearts release.
ASG: Are you guys touring this summer?
JL: We are heading down to SoCal twice and playing quite a bit in the Bay Area. No Eastern tour this summer, alas.
ASG: That's alright, we still love you.
JL: Next summer we've talked about maybe hitting up the Midwest. But who knows.
ASG: A little homecoming for you? Bloomington tickertape parade?
JL: Just went back. Almost everyone I know has left town, although I did run into some old friends at the local townie bar, which I'm told is being colonized by the college kids. But yeah it would be weird to tour the Midwest and not play Bloomington. If we do tour the Midwest it will help me decide whether I consider Iowa to be in the Midwest or the Great Plains. There is a difference.
ASG: Iowa is flat as shit, but I think it's Midwest. Great Plains in my mind is more the next column of states over.
JL: Yeah, I consider the flat-ass states to be mostly Great Plains but Iowa is in the Big Ten and was part of the Northwest Territory (I think). Plus, they gave us Slipknot.
ASG: Yes, Iowa's major exports are corn, and metal bands that wear grotesque masks.
JL: Oops, Iowa was not in Northwest Territory. And is flat. So I'm saying Great Plains. Maybe. Iowa I am told is the most redone-by-humans landscape in the country.
ASG: And prime alien-landing turf.
JL: Do you mean [basketball star] Sam Cassell or real aliens?
ASG: Careful, I think Cassell might read SCTAS.
JL: Hey, he's great. And I think it's a contract year for him, which means he can take that 'saving the L.A. Clippers franchise' tag all the way to the bank.
ASG: Definitely. It was strange to watch them doing so well. When did they sneak out of the gutter of the Western Conference? Have you been watching the playoffs?
JL: Yes, I have been watching way too much basketball, especially since my Pacers and my adopted Nuggets were so disappointing.
ASG: Neither of them had much of a chance.
JL: Incidentally, I am hereby incorporating Minnesota and Iowa, along with the more obvious MIssouri, into the Midwest.
ASG: I think that's a strong move. Meanwhile, thousands of Iowans are simultaneously saying duhhhh. And a Californian and a New Yorker are congratulating themselves.
JL: The Clippers traded the picks for Chandler and Tyson for Elton Brand, which was a good start. And then Sterling started paying for Magette, Cassell, Mobley, etc. Livingston was just a smart pick. It's the Chris Kaman phenomenon that is tough to explain.
ASG: Did you see Kaman get his nuts pulled by Reggie Evans? That was a funny and incredibly painful thing to watch.
JL: Homophobia in sports is pretty funny – Kobe [Bryant] can elbow [Raja] Bell in the face and it's all good but once you start grabbing balls, the whole world is against you.
ASG: He didn't grab 'em in a sexual way. He grabbed them as if he was trying to rip them off. The reaction isn't homophobic so much as ballpullaphobic.
JL: I am myself ballpullaphobic. Kaman's response after was pretty funny.
ASG: You know what's weird, speaking of things homosexual and sports? You know how after great plays, game-winning plays and such there are always very emotional hugs, men jumping on each other and what not? You would think that once, just once, somebody might slip and plant a kiss on someone else. But you don't see it. Ok, maybe that's not so weird.
JL: Magic and Isiah kissed in the playoffs back in the day. One of them went on to beat AIDS and be one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs in history. The other one ran the CBA, Raptors and Knicks into the ground.
ASG: Did they really kiss?
JL: They kissed, but on the cheek. Euro-style or whatnot.
ASG: I'm sure the jocksniffers had a field day with that.
JL: Don't know what a jocksniffer is, but it sounds like every day might be a field day for them.
ASG: I don't know what a jocksniffer is, I just made it up. It's a kind of dog, I think.
JL: Dogs sniff so much crotch.
ASG: They do indeed.
Andrew Spencer Goldman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. You can blame him for the songs of (chronologically) Maestro Echoplex, John Guilt, and his latest project, Fulton Lights. He still thanks John for letting him rework "Trip McNeely Syndrome" into "Last Night I Saw God on the Dance Floor" on the Maestro album.