Isolation; Being in a Band


Ask The Paris Review

This week our friend Sasha Frere-Jones was kind enough to share his good counsel. By day, Sasha is the pop critic for The New Yorker, and by night he is a member of the bands Calvinist and Piñata. By day or night, he gives darn good advice.

My family members are music lovers. They are obsessed with rare albums (dad), Internet radio (older brother), and attending live performances (mom; anything “spiritual” or classical). I’m done giving them novels because they don’t read them. Can you recommend any books for the music enthusiast’s library, or, even better, DVDs?

Both volumes of the The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD collection are fantastic. It’s all pop music from the seventies, played live and immaculately filmed for the BBC. I have no idea where the BBC got such fancy, high-res cameras: the footage looks a decade ahead of whatever the Americans were producing. The performances are uniformly great. (If these linked clips of Bill Withers performing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Talking Heads playing “Psycho Killer” don’t move you, I’m out of DVD ideas.) As for books, Christopher Small’s Musicking is appropriate for any music lover, irrelevant of preferred genre. Small’s openness and attention to the social aspects of music are unmatched by any other music writer.

What’s your opinion on job-interview etiquette? Is it sufficient to send thank-you e-mails? The handwritten note seems to me a thoughtful gesture, but it takes a day or so to arrive. Is it overkill to send the e-mail, as well as the old-fashioned note?

The handwritten note is a red flag; it’s really only a charming move when the two parties already know each other. A brief, cheerful e-mail is best. Nothing startles like an e-mail that blooms open into several screens’ worth of type. I have not hired people on the basis of e-mail length, as it usually corresponds to loopy behavior (as do multiple e-mails sent within the space of an hour).

Do you ever use a thesaurus? My favorite teacher had nothing but negative things to say about it, she thought it made students into lazy writers. What do you think?

If you are bad with words, using a thesaurus won’t help, as you’ll just choose a clumsy word to replace whatever clumsy word you started with. If you have an ear, everything helps.

What author captures the experience of being in a band the best?

Franzen captured a common band-member type in Freedom, with the Richard Katz character. I have been meeting black-hole narcissists like Katz since I started playing, though I have never found myself with a Katz in a rehearsal space. Franzen imagined a pretty great playlist for Katz, though, so if he made mixtapes for you and stayed out of your house, you’d be fine with a Katz in your life.

Bob Mould’s See A Little Light is a healthy and self-aware take on the miserable politics of being in a band, where people spend ninety-nine percent of their time alleging that other people are getting too much credit for their work, facts be damned. Mark E. Smith’s Renegade is an unreliable and utterly oblivious account of leading a band, and is probably the best book about being in a band that I’ve ever read. It doesn’t matter if Smith is fudging the facts half the time—when you’re in a band, you feel as right as Smith asserts that he usually has been.

As for being in a band, no book can capture the tedious parts. Perhaps Chantal Ackerman could do it, in film. The good parts are much shorter in length but equally impossible to record. Mostly, they begin and then, some time later, you’re on the other side of the stage and you have little idea how you arrived there and the good moment is over. You do the tedious bits just to get to those lovely lapses of memory and reason.

What do isolation and insularity teach us?

Insularity produces blind spots we may not be able to discover. Isolation is essential for finding those blind spots.

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