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The Popdose Podcast Interview: Part Two of my Conversation with Dave Lifton, Jeff Giles and Jason Hare

May 20, 2011

As referenced in Part 1, three of Popdose’s most esteemed writers / jokesters dial up the 18.8K modem and converse about music, books, films, and a mess of other topics. While all three have caught my attention for their comedic-yet-informative look at pop culture of vintages recent & antiquated (Jeff and Jason’s Mellowmas, which chronicles the best and usually worst of the Christmas album phenomenon, is another personal fave, as was Dave’s ridiculously-prolific daily World Cup coverage, like an American version of Sean Ingle), it’s the podcast format that allows us to hear them chat with author Steve Almond (of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life) or Gorman Bechard, the director of Replacements’ doc Color Me Obsessed. That, and mom jokes.

Part Two gets heavy on the Billy Joel, and a few bands that deserve more pub than they currently get (Jellyfish, the Damnwells). Off we go!

The Brown Tweed Society: You all share a childhood where Billy Joel played a prominent part, at least musically (unless one of you emanates from a family that sells furniture polish or specializes in auto repair). Of my dad’s ten or so 8-track tapes, The Stranger, Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain were his favorites, so those albums became our family’s official soundtrack for long drives through the southern California desert.  From Cold Spring Harbor through The River of Dreams, Joel covered almost every style of American popular music (outside of rap or metal, unless there’s a BJ-Eazy E collab out there on the mixtapes) , with 33 of his songs reaching the Top 40. Of the recent wave of singer-songwriters, whom do you find yourself rooting for as a possible heir-apparent to Joel? Is it possible for a Billy Joel-style career trajectory to occur in these culturally-splintered times?

Jason Hare: For me, when it comes to Billy Joel, the largest that culture extended was my hometown on Long Island: finding that every single one of my friends owned Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2; that you were the cool kid if you had heard Billy drop the f-bomb in “Laura”; that you could see him at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday and everybody would be talking about it, from their own nosebleed seats, Thursday morning. If Billy was more/less popular than that, I didn’t know it, and it didn’t matter. But no, I don’t think we’re going to see that again, so what I’m more interested in is the cultural perspective you had, from the back seat of your father’s car. (One day, when you’re older, I’ll tell you about my perspective from the back seat of Dave’s mother’s car.)

Dave Lifton: Hang on.

The Oldsmobile or the Mazda? There was a big difference in room back there (although that might not have been a problem for you).

Jason Hare: The family soundtrack. Who’s the heir-apparent there? I don’t know who it is for me yet, because I don’t have kids, but it’s most likely going to be the music that my wife and I enjoy together. Barenaked Ladies, Indigo Girls, smaller bands like the Guggenheim Grotto and the Damnwells. Stuff that we sing along with at the top of our lungs and make us unbelievably joyful. But I don’t expect you, or Dave, or Jeff to understand that and it doesn’t matter anyway. You grow up with what you grow up with, and this is my way of apologizing for my love of Starland Vocal Band.

Dave Lifton: No, I do understand because I had that in my family with Broadway music. That’s what we listened to in the car because my parents didn’t like rock music. Stephen Sondheim was the only thing the five of us agreed on. I can totally see Jason and his wife turning their future kids into big Guggenheim Grotto fans, and then Jeff’s son can beat them up for being wimps.

Jason Hare: But speaking of the Damnwells, and it could just be because I’m so in love with the new album, but Alex Dezen is one of the singer-songwriters I’m really rooting for. I don’t know if he has the variety that Joel had, but he’s writing thoughtful lyrics and catchy hooks and I’m waking up most mornings these days with either “Werewolves” or “The Great Unknown” in my head. I’m hoping, if nothing else, he enjoys a long career of releasing music that means something to him.

Dave Lifton: Great songwriters like Dezen will always be around, even if they might not get the stardom they deserve, but I think somebody like Billy Joel won’t be around again. Remember that Joel and his generation of musicians were that group that were influenced by seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but there were still things before then that you absorbed. Joel wanted to be a combination of Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, and George Gershwin. I hear Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem trying to pull a bunch of disparate elements together, but as much as I like them, I don’t think they’ve got the chops for that. They’re better at straightforward, balls-out rock-n-roll.

Yeah, I don’t know what I can add to the stuff Jason and Dave have already said. Great points, eloquently put.

The Brown Tweed Society: Every Popdose podcast concludes with enDOSEments, where you each trumpet the virtues of whatever item in pop culture has caught your attention at that moment. When I watch Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations, I wonder how a guy that has dined on the world’s best cuisine can still get excited about another piece of slow-roasted pork. The three of you have been reviewing music and other cultural phenomena for several years, and have experienced wave after wave of incredible music. How are you able to maintain that sense of wonder, where something so simple, like a guitar tone on a Teenage Fanclub song, can still matter to you?

Dave Lifton: Basically, I’m always searching for something that hits me the same way that The Beatles did when I first heard them in 1976. I trust my ears enough not to believe the hype on every Pitchfork Flavor Of The Week, but once in a while I hear an act that intrigues me. Sometimes it’s a genre that I’m not familiar with. Other times it’s a band like Teenage Fanclub, who aren’t innovative, but do that Beatles/Byrds/Big Star thing so well that my heart melts whenever I play them.

And it’s not only with new music. I also love revisiting songs I haven’t heard in years to see what I can get out of them today. We talk a lot about Billy Joel on the show (probably more than we should!) and he’s a good example of this. Growing up on Long Island in the late-70s and 80s, his music was always playing somewhere. And over the years, I moved away from it. I didn’t even have any of his albums on CD until I talked about him with Jason and Jeff on my old podcast, which made me want to hear those songs again. Now I pick up things in there, like some of his chord progressions or the quality of Phil Ramone’s production, that I couldn’t have understood 20 years ago.

Jeff Giles: You know what? It’s harder than you think. It’s easy to grow jaded and numb when you’re listening to music for hire, and it’s also very easy to lose touch with your reasons for listening in the first place. And maybe most importantly, it’s really easy — and it can be a lot of fun — to write a scathing review. I mean, it’s certainly a lot easier than writing something that conveys the joy a great record brings you. Shitty albums are easy to identify, and writing about them tends to go hand-in-hand with an emotional distance that helps prevent you from falling over yourself at the keyboard. But an album that feels subjectively like a work of genius doesn’t always bear up under objective analysis, and so it falls to you to try and put into words the extraordinary way this ordinary music makes you feel. I mean, really, I think we all know that something as simple as the right level of reverb on the right chord can send us reeling for an entire song. How do you convey that?

So anyway, you can quickly fall into the trap of being the guy who ends up sitting at the end of the conveyor belt, sifting through garbage records and cranking out benumbed columns that sound like jeremiads but are really just musical passion’s death rattle. The answer, for me, has been stepping away from all that, and not worrying so much about hearing everything — being more selective about what I spend my time with. Music is really a communion between the artist and the listener, and there’s so much of it now, and so little truly shared culture, that it’s become really easy to forget that. I’m trying to make sure I really hear what I’m listening to these days.

Jason Hare: My writing, either at my own site or Popdose, is very rarely review-based; when it is, it’s because I genuinely truly love an artist or their album. I think that’s why I have never really considered becoming a professional writer. I pretty much never want to listen to something because I have to. As Jeff mentioned, he’s changing the way he’s listening to music these days, and I’m proud of him for that. I remember many days where he’d listen to an album at 9 AM and have a review up by 11. Somehow Jeff was always able to sum up those albums in a thoughtful way (which is another reason why he’s a professional writer and I’m not), but I often recall thinking, how is anything special anymore? At the same time, I’ve been a lucky recipient of that output, because he knows my musical tastes and passes the best stuff on to me. That’s one way I find new music that I’m excited about. But honestly, I have always had some kind of trust that the best music will somehow find its way to me. I remember one late Sunday night when I realized I had forgotten to pick up something at the grocery store. I rushed to the car, absentmindedly turned on the radio, and Guggenheim Grotto were live on WFUV playing a song called “I Think I Love You.” It was one of those moments you always hear about but never believe are true: I pulled the car over and just sat there, kind of transfixed. They’re now one of my favorite bands, and I see them as often as I can. You can’t find moments like that. They have to find you. Maybe they don’t come that often — I guess I forget about all the times that I turn on the radio and Bon Jovi is on — but when they do, it’s like it’s the first time I’ve ever heard music. And I fully trust those moments will continue to come.

Jeff Giles: Oh, how I love that last sentence. That’s perfect. We all feel that way, right?

The Brown Tweed Society: A few weeks ago, Golden Smog played a two-night stand at the Fine Line (it was their first Minneapolis appearance since opening for…Barack Obama at the Target Center? Wow). While I was unable to join the scene, the post-show histrionics got just plain weird. When my friend Mike spotted Gary Louris at the bar, he drunkenly ambled over and placed Gary in a headlock, because…why not? He followed that with some fairly intense slaps to Gary’s chest, as he shouted, “Gary fuckin’ Louris!” Gary, a good sport, understood that Mike meant no harm, and was merely a superfan. Instead of expressing his appreciation by normal means (applause, purchasing of merchandise), this inebriated gent gets violent. If you could place any musician in a headlock (other than Mike Love or Glenn Frey), who would it be, and why?

Dave Lifton: I have a friend in the Twin Cities, and Gary Louris makes so many special guest appearances at shows there that my friend refers to him as “the always-available Gary Louris.” He’s been known to check Louris’ touring schedule before buying any tickets just so he can guarantee that he won’t show up.

But to answer your question, it would have to be one of two groups of people, neither of which Love or Frey would fall into (i.e. mediocrity that got lucky through working with very talented people). The first would be the person who squandered their gifts. Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton are the ultimate examples of this. The other is the hack masquerading as auteur, like Jim Steinman.  I don’t think Diane Warren or Desmond Child even like the crap they inflict on us, but you get the feeling that Steinman thinks that Mozart couldn’t open for him.

Jeff Giles: The list of artists I’d like to put in a headlock is long and varied, but tonight I think I’m going to have to go with Andy Sturmer, on behalf of the millions of people he’s selfishly depriving of his gifts. WE NEED A JELLYFISH REUNION, ANDY.

Jason Hare: Do we really think a Jellyfish reunion would be satisfying? I just can’t imagine it would live up to the hype, although I guess I’d be willing to be disappointed. And why are you placing all the blame on Andy? What about Roger? I’m just saying.

Jeff Giles: I’m not placing all the blame on Andy, but Roger is out there making music on his own, and Andy is…doing whatever Andy’s doing. I think if fun. can make a good Jellyfish record, then Jellyfish should make another one, too.

Jason Hare: And either these guys aren’t understanding the question or I’m not understanding the question. They’re answering it as if they want to put someone in a headlock because they love them but they’re not meeting their expectations (well, in Jeff’s example and Dave’s first one, anyway), but your example seems to imply that the headlock is simply out of drunk, fanatic love. So, first I will answer in the manner they did — I’d like to put Billy Joel (CAN WE STOP MENTIONING BILLY JOEL?) in a headlock for getting so far out of touch with reality that he’s now become the Vegas act he vowed he would never become. Second, I will just mention someone I want to put in a headlock because they annoy me, and that’d be Jason Mraz (he’s talented and I like Waiting For My Rocket to Come, but needs to stop with the scatting and the breathy bullshit). In terms of someone I’d want to put in a drunk headlock out of love and admiration, this scenario is so far out of my realm — partially because I’m not “that guy” and partially because I have had a couple disappointing personal experiences with musicians I’ve idolized — that I can’t really think of someone. Guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Emmanuel is so talented that he renders me mute, so he’s the closest I’ve got, I think. But now I really want to try and get Gary Louris in a headlock.

The Brown Tweed Society: I’ll conclude by – what else – asking for your enDOSEments in the world of podcasts and online columnists. Whose words should be on our computer screens, and what prerecorded conversations should accompany our daily commutes?

Jeff Giles: I’ve only recently gotten into the world of podcasts — of listening to them, anyway — so my recommendations are probably pretty lame, but my favorite one right now is How Did This Get Made?, an Earwolf show hosted by Paul Scheer and a couple of his friends. It’s just another one of those shows that attacks bad art (specifically, shitty movies), but I think the hosts have pretty solid chemistry. I’ve also really gotten into The Nerdist over the last few weeks. But I’m generally pretty disappointed in the shows most people seem to think are great. I made it through about 10 minutes of Paul F. Tompkins’ rambling on his podcast, and I can’t stand listening to Julie Klausner when she doesn’t have a guest. Bill Simmons sort of bores me. I just downloaded my first episode of Who Charted?, and I have high hopes for that.

Dave Lifton: Ours, of course! Like Jeff, most of the shows done by comedians don’t do it for me. I genuinely think ours is funnier. Jason describing his exasperation with his neighbors having loud sex is funnier than anything they come up with. As much as the editing of the show can be a chore sometimes, I’m the only person that has the raw, unedited conversation, and that makes it totally worth it. But underneath the zingers about my age (41, for the record) or our mothers (not a joke when referring to Jeff’s), there’s an actual conversation going on, usually about music, between three guys who know who know what they’re talking about, that’s pretty damn interesting.

Other than that, my favorite podcast remains Five Hundy By Midnight, which is done by my friend in Minnesota that I mentioned earlier and his wife. I love Las Vegas and every week they talk about everything that’s going on there from the perspective of frequent tourists, and they’re incredibly funny and knowledgeable. They’re the reason I got into podcasting. Brian over at Coverville still finds new ways to put together theme shows even though he’s done over 750 podcasts. He’s pretty much the standard-bearer for home-produced shows. Of the ones that aren’t done by my friends, The Sporkful is great, too, and I listen to an assortment of NPR and WFMU shows, as well as Slate’s Gabfests.

Jason Hare: I go through fits and starts with podcasts, and it’s been a long time since I’ve listened to any particular one on a regular basis. There’s no point in listening to one unless you can really dedicate 45 minutes to an hour with it, and I don’t have that kind of time anymore. I used to listen to them at the gym until I realized that the spoken word offers pretty much 0% motivation to try and lift heavier, do more reps, or run/bike faster. That said, I do have my go-to podcasts when I’m in that mood. Like Dave, I absolutely adore Coverville, and am frustrated that I’ll never be as clever or likable as Brian. I love listening to Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, especially when either Paula Poundstone or Adam Felber are guests, and I really love Car Talk which is, on the surface, baffling to me and everyone I know as I don’t have even a passing interest in fixing a car — but makes more sense when it comes down to the endless ways Tom and Ray entertain their guests and each other. Everyone should be so full of joy every time they sit down to talk to people.

As for my favorite online columnists, I consider myself incredibly lucky that most of my favorite writers are doing so at Popdose. I don’t want to highlight just one at the risk of offending any others, but…ehh, fuck it: Rob Smith gives good column.

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4 Comments
  1. May 20, 2011 5:36 pm

    Thanks again for this, Todd!

  2. May 20, 2011 9:09 pm

    I thought I was the only one nerdy enough (I guess calling one’s self a “Las Vegas Enthusiast” is nerdy, right?) to admit in public that I’m a monster fan of “Five Hundy by Midnight;” I’ve been listening to it every single week for three years. I take a lot of heat from friends for driving around and listening to it in my car while they’re listening to the new Eminem.

    I’m also a big proponent of “Who Charted?” (I actually find it to be the soundest and most defined podcast they have over there at Earwolf) and while I can completely see the argument against Paul F. Tompkins’ podcast, if you’re not hanging on to listen to his phone conversation with Jen Kirkman every week — about 2/3 of the way into the show — you’re missing one of the absolute best things in podcasting.

    Great interview Todd, Dave, Jeff & Jason. Great stuff.

  3. May 20, 2011 9:12 pm

    “Enthusiast!”

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