I’m told that at some point, usually around age 30 or sometimes later, a great many people basically stop seeking out new music. They circle back around to the same old albums, their favorite albums – the albums of their childhood, or of some time when they were happiest. Their iTunes library (if they have one) may slowly grow, but the amount of records they actually listen to contracts. It circles around the same twenty records, and then fifteen, and then maybe ten. They might occasionally be curious about their favorite band from fifteen years ago putting out a new record, or doing an overpriced reunion tour, but mostly they’re indifferent or even hostile towards the idea of new music. And then – and I’m scared to tell you guys, because I don’t want to believe such a thing could be true – it’s said that somewhere out there are people who have actually stopped listening to music.
When I was in high school, a kid gave me this Velvet Underground tape. It was the first two records, dubbed onto a cassette pretty carelessly, with songs cutting off at the end of sides A and B. The kid who gave it to me was a fellow guitar player, but a lot cooler than me. He was a slouchy guy with greasy shoulder-length hair, and he told me stories about the Velvets tuning all their strings to the same note, or physically carving the frets out of the necks of their guitars so they could slide dissonantly between microtones during guitar solos. I put the tape on and it sounded like what I imagined taking drug (a lot of drugs) felt like. It scared me. And it made me want to take drugs, which also scared me.
John Agnello and I met for the first time about a year ago, in a bar. We were feeling each other out. He was deciding if he wanted to work with me and I was deciding if he was the right guy do take over production duties for a collection of songs that was really close to my heart. I had loved recent records he’d worked on by Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur, Jr. (Agnello’s J. Mascis association goes back decades), but it also appealed to me that he’d been involved with some of the defining records of my pop childhood, singles like The Outfield’s “Your Love” and Scandal’s “The Warrior,” pop milestones like Cyndi Lauper’s incredible She’s So Unusual, and even grunge records I’d enjoyed like Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion.
The meeting went great. John and I talked for hours. He really got where I was coming from with the project. I left the bar feeling very excited.
In the early days of touring with Okkervil River, the van would be filled with boxes and backpacks of CDs from home, personal favorites we’d all brought with us, that we couldn’t imagine going several months without. We’d observe a strict rotation on the van stereo; if Jonathan wanted to listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin and I wanted to listen to my weird CD of Irish octogenarians singing a capella jigs with nonsense syllables it was tough shit; Jonathan needed to wait for his turn to roll around. We brought a log-book with us where we’d write down every CD we listened to every day, in what order, and who picked it. I suffered through some stuff I hated and I was turned on to some stuff I will love for the rest of my life.
My Blackberry (when I had a Blackberry) did that thing of letting you put words it didn’t recognize into a “custom dictionary” so that it would recognize them and not try to correct them in the comical way that Apple phones do. I recently found the drawer with all my old phones, going back years, and looked at that custom dictionary file and realized the list of inputted words reads like this weird glimpse of my touring life circa 2009 or so. It’s like a tour diary where I don’t need to tell you too much more because you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Last year, I was asked to arrange and produce an album by cult legend Roky Erickson. The project was a massive undertaking, the often-troubled singer’s album first in 15 years. I culled 60 songs down to 11, and it took me about a year of my life to complete. Once it was finished, I thought, “What the hell, I guess I’ll write up some liner notes for this thing too.”
One morning months later, I was woken up by a chorus of text message alerts. All my friends were writing to tell me I’d been nominated for a Grammy – for liner notes.
In the early part of last year I started renting a room down in a basement a couple neighborhoods over from my apartment in Brooklyn and I started going in and working every day of the week there, just shutting the door and writing until evening. I decided to do a project there I’d wanted to do for years and years, which is to make an album by myself and for myself, an album that doesn’t owe anything to music I made before.
Last year I spent most of my time in this basement room I started renting by the East River. Made an album, kind of just for myself. I played everything myself pretty much. It was sort of something I had to get off my chest.
My last entry in this Top Ten Experiences With Music In 2012 series happened on Thursday night. I had a whole other entry planned, but Thursday topped that, which is nice. It’s nice when music can come out of nowhere and change your plans and change how you feel about the world going forward.
My father studied film at the Film School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he launched into grownup life with the goal of being a filmmaker, starting out with usually-silent short films in a more experimental style influenced by the European auteurist directors of the 1960s and 70s. But after a long and frustrating string of disappointments, rejections and setbacks, he set filmmaking aside and pursue another goal he had, to become a teacher. He and my mother moved to Meriden, New Hampshire and joined the faculty at Kimball Union Academy, a college preparatory boarding school.