May 14, 2010
Kleenex Girl Wonder
Three cheers for Kleenex Girl Wonder, one of my all time favorite bands. Singer and writer Graham Smith has a deep, primordial grasp of the whole fuzz folk lo-fi thing that seems to constantly elude the other guys and lead them astray. With eleven full-length albums under his belt and an arsenal of untold melodies he probably just keeps to himself, Graham embodies what musicians can usually only achieve during some hideous, drug-addled tornado between the piano and a straitjacket. Except for Mr. Smith, the approach is obvious and logical; music is less an anecdote to everyday life, but integrated and related to what’s happening, a mid-afternoon snack. I suppose it’s easy to be prolific if you don’t take it all so seriously. And he’s a really nice guy. Come to the Jezebel Music Feature Show June 3rd at Cameo Gallery. Epic!
JM.com: Having booked you for the Feature Show, it’s been interesting to see that pretty much one in five people I talk to about you are super stoked.
Graham Smith: That’s a lot. It’s probably one in five hundred, maybe. But the people who like it like it a lot, that’s the trick. The people who like it aren’t just like “oh yeah, I’ll throw it on”… either you dig it or you don’t. That could explain it also, because the people who are into it are passionate about it for the most part.
JM.com: That’s true, there is an aura about your music, where the fandom can reach a very intense level.
GS: And I have no idea why that is, honestly. I don’t know if that’s about the content, or because I used to try to cultivate a persona like that. Not that I tried to cultivate something that people would dislike, but I think I tried to cultivate something that would be remarkable. I don’t think I really do that as much any more. I think i try to do some online brand management type things, but I’m not saying insulting things anymore, or not showing up to gigs, or being irresponsible. Whatever I used to do. I just thought it was funny, I mean, I still do think it’s funny; I just don’t think it would be as funny to do it now. Because it’s more appealing to be earnest I guess. If there’s a fair amount of depth – depth in the lyrics – people tend to get more attached to it. I think that most people who like my stuff don’t think of it as deeply personal necessarily. It’s personally affecting to the listener, but it’s not necessarily that it’s my personal reflection on my feelings, it’s more observational. It’s still the same sort of thing that people would have for, say Dashboard Confessional, it’s the same basic thing. You have a different reaction to music like that than you do to, say, The Hives… these are all very old references.
JM.com: I started listening to your stuff in high school, and that was a time when I liked to listen to music as a way to appropriate other people’s feelings and get personally involved in them.
GS: Right, does that age ever end though? Not so much that I was necessarily appropriating feelings; maybe co-opting them, dissecting them, analyzing them, or trying to learn from them. It seems like high school is a time for that, but I feel like the people who tend to be into the KGW jams tend to be kind of analytical in general.
JM.com: So for people who don’t know you, where are you from?
GS: Chicago, suburbs of Chicago. Illinois, Downers Grove to be precise. Lived there for most of my life, went to college in Madison, Wisconsin, moved back to Chicago for a couple of years, then came out to New York in 2004. Basically lived most of my life in the Midwest.
JM.com: When did you start composing music?
GS: I mean, it’s hazy because I started real young, but it was all a cappella, bad. And then it was real but it was still bad, and then it was REAL, and we started playing gigs, and they were bad. Right around 13, 12 or 13. But then Ponyoak was around 18 or 19, and that’s when I started putting out records that I could kind of still listen to. Other people still like the stuff that was before that, but it’s not good, to me. Some of it’s interesting. Ponyoak, Graham Smith, and Sexual Harrassment – everything that’s on CD I can listen to.
JM.com: What is your attitude toward songwriting? Is it compulsory, an everyday task?
GS: It’s kind of omnipresent now. I’m certainly never like, “I have to write a song, what should I write it about?” A melody will pop into my head, or a lyric will, and songs will just start to take shape. They used to percolate a lot less; I’d say that the older I get, the longer songs percolate. To a certain extent that was a conscious decision, that’s how I work now. Sometimes a song will float around in my head, I’ll have the first verse written and then one day I’ll sit down to write that out, write another verse that sounds like it, write the choruses in. I never set aside time for writing, it’s just always going on. Last night as I was going to sleep, I had these lyrics in my head that were pretty good and I managed to remember them this morning, that particular 4 bars or 2 bars, pretty consistently throughout the day. That doesn’t happen that often. It used to be, record some music and then think of some vocal melodies and lyrics; I’m hoping it leans to having something half finished as I’m recording. Now it’s very product-focused. My job always effects the way I approach music. It’s weird because I have a real job and I’m married and I have stuff that I have to do. I have plenty of free time, but if I didn’t record an album in a year, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I have other bands too, if I was always writing KGW-style music I would get tired and have to reset my brain.
JM.com: You’re so verbose lyrically, I find that to be an amount of respect for the listener. The listener wants to feel smart, and feel like they’re in on something clever. And your lyrics are very clever.
GS: It’s funny, if someone describes lyrics as clever, and it’s something that you can’t control, it’s a compliment right? But if I say my lyrics are clever, and I’m trying to be clever, it’s almost more of a detraction. I never really thought about that. Most people would think that “clever” is a critical assessment. The best thing is to try to be clever, and succeed in being clever, and having the person who’s feeling that cleverness think that it was unintentional.
JM.com: Pretty sure that’s the thing about Shakespeare…
GS: And all the populist artists. I probably haven’t read any of them. Like Tolstoy, people love it. I think that there’s two sides to it. I mean, that’s a really great way to put it and I had never really thought about it that way. It’s also respect in that you may not completely understand everything I’m talking about at first, but partially, because a lot of it is meant to have no meaning. But the hope is that it will cause you to think about things in a different way – new modes of thinking. So it’s really smart people who want to learn more, and think about things in a different way. But there’s the flip side to that, that it’s trying too hard, or that it’s snobby, or overly-precious, or full of itself. And that’s one of the things that I consciously value – trying to make sure that it never gets to that point. That planned effortlessness: how do you make it seem like you just threw it together and still have it be relatively elegant?
JM.com: I read on your site, yeah I read about you on your website – that you’re working on trying to add space instrumentally in your music.
GS: The lyrical passages are more dense, but I have made progress in that there are more sections that are purely instrumental. It’s been a condensation – what’s the word for making something more dense? – densification… densation, that’s pretty good. I think that this record probably has more lyrics-per-minute than even Mrs. Equitone, and I thought that one was way over-packed. I put instrumental passages in there to just let the lyrical sections breathe. And for the most part, I don’t know what to do about that. One of the early songs I recorded for the record, I’d play it for people and ask them if they feel like they just listened to a rap song. It really is – it’s got a rap beat, there’s kind of a melody but it’s mostly rapping, it’s a rap song. I felt like that was impossible say, 15 years ago, when I put out After Mathematics, a record where I did straight up rapping next to pop music (people didn’t like it), you couldn’t have done that necessarily. But now you have artists like Drake, who is a rapper right? But every song he releases is half-rapped, half-sung, and people wouldn’t think of him as a singer; and then you have Kanye West who is very deliberate about making the transition from being an amelodic rapper to melodic rapper/singer, whatever you want to call it, it’s just way easier to do that now. Since people are receptive to it, and that’s what I like listening to, I feel that that’s just going to continue.
JM.com: What do you like listening to?
GS: I listen to a lot of instrumental stuff, I listen to a fair amount of rap. I listen to a decent amount of just normal indie rock. Evenly split. There’s not as much good rap music coming out, I still listen to what I did in 2005. Irregular, jungle, dissendent beat-based stuff. Stuff that’s on Planet Mu or Warp, that brand of electronic or dance music. And then mainstream rap, East Coast rap and some Southern-East. And then basically the sort of indie rock everyone listens to. It’s still the case that if Pitchfork likes it, I will generally like it.
JM.com: What’s your go-to equipment, do you record to tape?
GS: No, all digital now. I use Logic, I switched to Logic when Logic 8 came out, which was September 2007, and more or less haven’t looked back. I’m using Ableton more, but not really for KGW stuff yet, more so with my other band. And so, yeah, that’s all Logic basically, various hardware things, Controller. I have a Seagull acoustic guitar which is great. Now I play bass a lot, so it’s changing the dynamic of how I approach recording. Hopefully there will be a third record this year, and for that it will probably be much more bass-driven, just the three of us, with no flourishes. Makin’ beats, whatever the kids do these days. Make those records into gold.
JM.com: You’ve sailed along as sort of this predominantly reclusive artist. Where did you go? And why not quit Google and just tour forever?
GS: Oh no, no. I’m much more likely to quit music, (that would never happen), quit promoting music. For instance, with Mrs. Equitone, I did this very conscious thing, where I literally did nothing to promote it, and I wanted to see what would happen. Because all the records as of right now, there are so many old records that are up on iTunes, and I don’t get any of that money; I could, but I don’t ask for it. So every record that I sell now is directly sold from me. And I think that it’s interesting to see, how can you just spend time doing what you like, at a speed that you like? And how much money can you make from that?
JM.com: And how much ambition can get in the way and make it into something that’s not enjoyable anymore?
GS: Oh absolutely. Especially because of the fact that I REALLY love my job. Like, when I worked at Kinko’s before I moved out to New York, that pull was strong. But when you really dig your job, and you feel if not directly applicable to music, music-making, and music promotion, there’s parallels between the problems that I solve at work and the problems that I have to solve creatively too. That’s the first factor – there’s nothing about me that dislikes my job; unless they fire me, I’m not leaving, and it will be kicking and screaming. So in 2004, right before I moved out here, I put out Final Battle, which was the last record that had any kind of promotion behind it. Skippy – Jack now – who books in Brooklyn, set up a big tour, and I was having a quarter life crisis or whatever the kids call it, and I was looking to get a job as a copywriter. I called Skippy and said that I couldn’t go on this tour, I could only do five days of it. And he tried to talk me out of it, but I made that decision, that I hate touring, I don’t like the way that the music industry works. At that point I thought I would move out to New York and record at Electric Ladyland Studios or whatever, but none of that really happened. So I realized that my future was getting a real job and trying to do music in my free time, trying to maximize that free time and trying to maximize the efficiency with which I record. As far as where did I go? Nowhere. I’ve been recording and putting out records pretty consistently. I used to have a label that paid for promotion, and I got most of the return on that because all the cash went straight to me, and he never got his return on that. So I’ve thought about promoting these records and shopping them to serious labels, it is something I think about. But do you need to anymore? All it would take is the right few people latching on to it and promoting it. Right now, the system still runs the way that it used to. Eventually people are going to get sick of it. Not to go on a tangent, but the reason advertising works is because people have become accustomed to waiting until they’re told, through an advertisement, that something is available. And I don’t think that way, I’m going and scouring stuff. The infamous case being the Roku box – the Netflix instant streaming box – it came out in the Spring of 2008 and it had no marketing, but I read all the gadget blogs and I knew it was coming out. But just because people weren’t aware, they didn’t buy it yet. So right now, people who promote music, or curate music, still read press releases, or go hear from publicists or whatever, and that’s their input stream. Now that stream is widening. For example, I can’t think of that many bands that have broken without promotion. Not that that doesn’t happen, but it’ll start happening. The more and more listeners that are comfortable just buying shit from wherever – not necessarily having the routine of going to their record store, buying on iTunes – and that’s the way I am. I probably sound like I posit myself as the perfect consumer. But I’ll just put out an album, and you’ll have to Paypal me to download it. There is a minority of people doing that. Somebody has to make the connection, that somebody paying me 10 dollars to buy a record is significant. This record, I made it all myself, and Paypal takes like 50 cents. That’s it. It’s direct revenue, and listeners don’t really care at this point, they think they’re paying 10 bucks to the man, and that’s fine. But once that becomes more concrete, it’ll be really easy for somebody like me to spend basically nothing, which is how much I spent on making this album. I didn’t get it mastered, I recorded it all myself at home, so I certainly already broke even. I haven’t sold all that many copies, but again, I haven’t advertised it at all. I’m kind of on the fence as to whether I should drop a thousand bucks and see if that makes a difference. I don’t know. I feel like there’s better ways to do it, and I’m trying to figure out what they are. So. As far as where did I go? I kind of slowed my roll a little bit. But there’s a ton of stuff, and I couldn’t even advertise it at the rate that I’m putting it out.
JM.com: Auxiliary questions.
JM.com: What’s the best idea you never followed through on?
GS: I guess I’m trying to still follow through on the idea we were just talking about. I pitched this to my company actually. The idea that you can just sell records, as an artist, direct. You find a way to profitshare directly on every record that they sell. This is not something that would be difficult to do, but I can’t do it by myself. There’s weird hacks that I have with existing platforms, but I mean, I’ve filled a Moleskine notebook with crazy mocks I have for powerpoints, and all this dumb stuff. I still think I’m going to follow through on it. I’m still convinced that I’m going to make it happen somehow. Somebody will, and honestly, that’s fine. As long as somebody does it and I can use it. Anybody reading this please, send your postcard, via the electronic mail.
JM.com: What’s your favorite possession?
GS: Probably my phone right now, I guess. It’s not very sentimental. It’s functional. Sentimental possession would be different. That’s a horrible answer though. My cellular phone? What a horrible answer. I do have an Omnichord that my uncle’s girlfriend gave me in 1987 that I had a circuit bender modified for me. And I can’t really use it because if you touch it it will give you a shock. I’m too afraid. But I also can’t sell it, my uncle’s girlfriend gave it to me. Obviously the sentimental stuff too. My wife has this… I was kind of obsessed with her, we had this jewelry class together, that’s how we became friends, and we each had to make a piece. I made this weird ugly, gold and silver thing and then I found it in my parent’s house, and it has this blade on it, so I couldn’t carry it back on the plane with me. They mailed it back to me and I gave it to her. That’s definitely one of the favorite things in the house.
JM.com: What’s going to play at your funeral?
GS: If it’s one of my songs it will probably be “2 Guitars,” because it has a reference to funeral music, and it’s also one of my favorite songs that I’ve written. But if it were up to me? Have you ever heard of this band Boiled in Lead? They were from Minneapolis I think, my brother’s 10 years older than me, so he graduated from college in ’92, so I was, I still am, big into music like that, Too Much Joy I think are amazing (nobody likes them). So, they’re just a band that does rock versions of Irish songs, and there’s a song called “The Man Who Was Boiled in Lead.” It’s amazing. That would be a good choice. Also, probably something really pretentious, like somebody could read a whole novel. Some people are real into fantasizing about their own death as artists, and I’m still mad terrified.
by Drew Citron
Hey, did I mention that Graham and the whole band are playing the Jezebel Music Feature Show June 3rd?! Get there!