Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wednesday Duologues: Michael J. Epstein

Michael: Hello!
me: drat! i've been sitting here drafting an email for the last two hours when we could've been having a pre-midnight conversation?
Michael: Indeed. Apologies for keeping you up late.
me: i'd be up anyway, no worries.
Michael: Excellent. I don't trust people who go to bed early.
me: why's that?
Michael: Going to bed early is so unthinkable to me that I must conclude that one who chooses to do so must have had some kind of cognitive injury.
me: that's where logic will get you. what people do you trust?
Michael: It is true that there are a lot of behaviors and philosophies that I just can't comprehend. It is likely a result of my narrow-mindedness. Either way, I prefer not to have to trust anyone. Then I don't have to think about whether I trust an individual or not. That is the only way I can get along with people who prefer early slumber.
For instance, I really don't like Billy Joel, yet Billy Joel attaches himself to my musical accomplishments, however objectively minor they are. He has a song about how it's just a "matter of trust" and I positively do not trust him.
me: Billy Joel attaches himself to your musical accomplishments?
Michael: Do you trust Billy Joel?
me: no, he's a drunk.
(hold on i gotta get a drink.)
Michael: He is a drunk that SPIN thinks I make lyrical shout-outs to and VH1 thinks I want to help celebrate by counting down his hits.
me: wait, what's that last bit?
Michael: and respectively, but my doctor asked me to reduce my Billy Joel perseveration, so perhaps we should move on.
me: okay but maybe we'll come back to your lyrics in a bit.
Michael: My Billy Joel shout-outs? Incidentally, I tried to contact that guy to ask him what he was referring to, but did not receive a response.
me: so you don't know which song he meant, even?
Michael: I haven't even the slightest clue. I probably spent two hours poring over the lyrics on that album to try and figure out what could possibly be perceived as associated with that guy.
me: wow.
that would be infuriating. also, now i want to pore over the lyrics on that album to figure it out. i probably know more billy joel lyrics than you do.
Michael: I should probably hire a private detective to solve the case. I like the idea of private detectives. I really like the classic American film noir stuff. I almost feel inspired to make a hard-boiled documentary/drama about the Billy Joel lyrics. Actually, this might be the first official announcement, but there is a small group of us working on a sitcom based on our lives. We have an assignment to outline episode ideas. This just might be one.
me: let me ask you something that keeps me awake at nights.
first i have to ask you the traditional first question.
Michael: These are the lyrics to the album in question by the way:
I once wrote a song called "Destroy Tradition."
me: i know it may seem like a formality at this point. you've been featured in SPIN, after all.
but my mother will be reading and she has somehow managed to get this far in life without knowing you.
who are you?
Michael: For your mother...I am Michael J. Epstein. I am most well known for having a mustache and liking things on Facebook. Neither of those things is important to me at all of course, but the things that are important to me don't make for good sound bites. Declaring that a mossy patch of grass on the sidewalk is a national park and wildlife preserve for mummified squirrels does. So, your mom will only find out about the squirrel, the mustache, and the liking. Also, most recently, she should know that it's my birthday.
Mothers tend to like me for whatever reason. I guess I seem okay, at least on the surface.
me: that's useful. mothers usually do not like me. grandmothers, however, do.
Michael: Also, I bet you have more readers, and you certainly have more important readers, than SPIN.
me: ahhh and that's why mothers like you.
Michael: Yes. I do actually like SPIN, particularly, so I don't mean that as a dig at them. Not everyone can reach the acme.
me: i really have reached it, by the way. have you heard?
Michael: I don't know, I hear a lot of things (practicing lines for my noir sitcom episode).
me: (i like it.)
(i think this is the announcement, by the way.)
Michael: That is very exciting news! I am delighted to hear that!
me: all thanks to you, but we'll get back to that too.
Michael: This chat is like ten press releases in one!
me: right?
Michael: I like to make an event out of everything.
me: and i think i have even convinced ashley to give me a weekly column on lyrics.
"column" - it'll be short interviews.
Michael: Ooh, I like that even more! Lyrics are very important to me. Back to distrust, I distrust people that don't pay attention to lyrics when they listen to music.
me: on this we agree.
Michael: How does your mother feel about this?

me: my mother forgets most lyrics and fills in with a trailing "laaadaaa" until the chorus comes back around.
Michael: That makes me almost as sad as lyrical shout-outs to Billy Joel.
me: she also likes billy joel.
Michael: Mom!!!
me: i know. i know. okay so here's my question.
how many hours out of your day, on average, are NOT spent on creative pursuits (directly or indirectly, i.e. promoting creative pursuits)?
Michael: This is tricky to answer. I don't discuss it much publicly, but I also spend a very high percentage of my time on academic pursuits. I consider those creative as well in a sense. I know it's a sort of cop-out approach to answering, but I don't really believe there is a distinction between art and science. I spend every possible moment working on one or the other. I even consider goofing around on Facebook a part of my creative endeavoring. I kind of hate (what I think are probably) post-modernist ideas like everything is art, for example. At the same time, I do think there is something to it. Perhaps it's not that everything is art so much as nothing is art. The distinction being that, rather than everything and anything deserving high treatment, perhaps nothing deserves high treatment. I sort of view my activities that way. I do very little that I really don't like doing and very little that I feel carries no value with it. One thing, of course, that allows me to spend every waking moment on creating is that most of these projects involve Sophia (my wife, to keep your mom up to speed).
I realize that was a very nebulous answer, but the problem is, I don't really segment my time in a structured way.
me: but you did get at the heart of the question anyway, which is that everything you do seems to be infused with the same essential ... i don't know how to name it...
creative spirit? that's a very mackian phrase.
and that's part of it but the other part is the degree to which you seem evenly engaged in all that you do.
Michael: Thanks. Everything is about context. Science is just a framework for exploring and creating, the same way that music or painting is. The more people view them as distinct, the more the point is missed. I know that sounds pretentious and I don't mean it as such. It's all about creating messages you like and believe in and then hoping you luck out and people get interested in what you're saying. It's the same game playing music, teaching class, writing an e-mail, etc. In a way, I love the Tower of Babel story.
It presents this idea that there is some way that we are all alike and all share a common way of thinking and interacting (I think it transcends language) and now all we do is struggle to find tiny moments where we get to peek at that experience.
me: i was just wondering what is important about people getting interested in what you're saying. is that it, then? the struggle to find those moments of common-ness?
Michael: It's a hard question to answer and I think it's why so many people find comfort in religion. It's terrifying to think about pupose and meaning. My "objective" mind thinks nothing about any of us, our lives, our time in history, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and probably even our universe have any meaning or significance. In practice, you can't live that. It would drive you mad. So, I guess my practice is trying to build my own facade of meaning and structure into the chaos. It's fun. Why is it fun? Objective mind says that doing "fun" things makes it more likely that I will survive and procreate and therefore, natural selection will result in my survival over someone who doesn't think life is fun. I am probably scaring your mom at this point. I believe it was Arthur Miller that when asked about the significance of his work and if he could identify his most significant contribution to humanity and society, replied, that the only significant legacy he could have is children. Everything else will vanish over time, whether it's 50 years or 1000 years, it's insignificant, but even in 1000 years, his genetic and social influence upon his children would live on.
me: my mom, like most people, has defenses built-in for just such nonsense. but it's kind of you to think of her.
Michael: When I make decisions about what lyric to put in a song or what chord to play next, I am not consciously concerned about any of this. I just have to do it. I don't know what force drives me to, but it's there. My mind races all night if I try to sleep when I have a good idea instead of exploring it. I don't always get along with my body or mind, but it's what I've got.
Why do you create?
me: because i have to. it would be easy to step back and try to talk about creativity as a response to that dissonance between our objective and subjective selves. a way to try to reckon with it.
to either make order of the chaos or, if you're really brave, to point to it.
but i don't really know if that's why i have to.
Michael: ...or to dance in it!
me: yes. exactly.
i just know that if i don't create... i'm just... not.
Michael: What fascinates me is seeing the people who were once at the top in a socially objective sense...big rock stars. Those people fall and still can't stop. People who played arenas in the '80s are still willing to play tiny clubs now and while some are bitter, some are still really grateful that 10 people want to engage and hear what they have to say.
My music "career" as you know it was really an accident. I had been playing music for 10+ years and kind of decided to call it quits. I wasn't going to stop writing music, but I wasn't going to make efforts to showcase it for people.
I decided to make one final document of songs I had worked on that I felt good about and then be done with it. You know, grow up, or whatever. That ended up being the first album for The Motion Sick. Once it was done, I sent it all around and started getting all these weird positive responses to it. Objectively, again, these are small things, but to someone giving up, it felt like a sign of sorts. The album went to #1 on a bunch of college radio stations and got picked up by SPIN. All these people wanted to interview me and they started asking all kinds of questions about when we were going on tour and stuff. I felt ashamed to admit that there was no band nor plans for a band to exist. I guess I was embarrassed enough to form a band. So, more or less, I was shamed into starting The Motion Sick. Now, it doesn't look like I'll be retiring from music ever.
me: and how do you feel about that?
Michael: I think I just wanted to stop because my expectations and desires didn't make sense. Now, I could go on forever because my expectations and desires match my reality much better. It was all part of a lesson that I'm still learning.
me: ugh. reality.
i'm working on a reality lesson myself.
Michael: Did you ever see the movie In The Mouth of Madness?
me: nope
ah. horror.
Michael: I can't decide if I'd say it's a good movie or not, but...
It has a kind of fascinating premise. Basically, this horror writer becomes so famous and so revered and everything he writes seems so real to everyone that it becomes real. It kind of explores the idea that there is some objective reality out there and our senses only gather a tiny portion of that objective reality, so we have physiological and psychological bias about what is fact and what is fantasy.
You can't be too worried about reality. I guess that is my point. We live in our dreams anyway.
me: our stories. i need to make a conversation happen between you and my roommate. remind me later.
want to talk lyrics?
Michael: Sure.
me: i'm rather arbitrarily selecting Pre-Existing Condition* because the lyrics just appeal to me at the moment.
Michael: All right. First, my question to you notice any Billy Joel references?
me: wait...
no i don't think so.
Michael: Okay. We're 1/11th through that search.
me: there's some stuff in the billy joel song "and so it goes" that's maybe kinda similar in sentiment to the "fail to say what i feel" bits?
but it's a stretch.
me: and certainly not a call-out.
you okay?
Michael: I'll be okay.
me: red wine works for billy...
Michael: I am originally from Long Island, which exacerbates the Billy Joel situation.
me: yeah, you know the more i think about it, the more i think you could really be the same exact person.
Michael: Maybe I need to think about our similarities and stop focusing on our differences.
me: aha!
you both speak english!
Michael: Very tangential, but a friend of mine once had a crush on this guy and her friend ended up dating him. So, my friend was upset about this and really felt like they had nothing in common. She asked her friend what she had in common with this guy and she replied that they both hated racists. I thought that was kind of hilarious. Anyway, lyrics....
me: i knew a couple who, in advance of their wedding (after dating for only a few months) set up a website that said "we know we don't seem to have very much in common... i'm a democrat, he's a republican... i'm social and he's an introvert... but we do find some common ground! for example, i'm bisexual and he's working on accepting homosexuality."
it was a great wedding. when the minister did the "speak now or forever hold your peace" bit, you could actually hear everyone in the room holding their breath.
they divorced less than a few years later.
Michael: I always think of my role models, Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat.
me: it ain't fiction, just a natural fact.
there's a lyric for you.
Michael: My marriage is based on their teachings. Mostly the part about stealing the covers.
me: anyway, lyrics....
i'm sure some people will be sad i'm not pursuing the part about you and sophia and the covers...
but my mother is reading this, after all.
Michael: We'll save that for another day on a password-protected blog!
me: whoops. back.
Michael: Not much has changed while you were gone.
me: stu just started snoring behind me. that much has changed.
so. where did those lyrics* come from?
if not billy joel
Michael: Well, I'd say it's all at least based on truth. There are a number of references to specific experiences that I had. The brief annotated version is girl breaking my heart, girl breaking my heart, actual experience playing sports as a kid and commentary on obsession with single incidents, seeing my grandmother near death upset because she didn't want us to leave, and girl breaking my heart. I had a number of incidents as a kid that were so humiliating to me that they really drove anxiety for years and affected my ability to do all kinds of things. One example is that I fainted in class in 5th grade (or maybe 6th grade, I can't remember for sure) when we watched a video about a visit to a blood bank. I had a fear that kids would become obsessed with teasing me about it. I don't think they really did much, but I saw things like that happen to other kids. In retrospect, I don't care about the incident nor my squeamishness (I'd probably still faint), but I found that playground culture of giving people permanent nicknames for single incidents or really just remembering something that happened once and doesn't reflect anything meaningful, really fascinating. So, I wanted to write an unrequited love song from that angle.
I really like presenting deeply personal material masked in tongue-in-cheek humor. I also feel a responsibility to write something new and different. There are so many songs out there that I feel like I need to include something that justifies consuming 3 minutes of someone's time. It actually took me years of Sophia nagging (she calls it requesting) a song for her before I could actually come up with something that was unique enough beyond a standard love song.
me: why is it easier to write about "girl breaking my heart"?
even the one song i've written lyrics for, start to finish, that is considered a love song really was a break-up song.
the wine is starting to affect my sentences. sorry about that.
i'll try to keep them simpler.
Michael: I think positive songs are often perceived as cheesy or corny. Most people go to music to deal with pain, not to deal with happiness. No one is like, this music saved my life, I was so happy and I listened to it and I was still happy. Inherently, I think we want music to be about pain.
Writing about love, good or bad, feels pedestrian, so if I want to write love songs, particularly now, I push myself really hard to extend further and further.
"30 Lives" was the song I wrote for Sophia and the process really was just me thinking about a unique angle. First, I thought, okay, I don't know any songs about spending multiple lives together and I thought about writing a reincarnation love song, but I am just not quite embedded in the right cultural stereotypes to pull that off, so I went over to something I know, video games! I thought, hey, in video games you get multiple lives.
Anyway, if you are hoping to drink the wine and wreak havoc, dom'
don't let me hold you up all night with my babbling!
me: well let me say one more thing about this and then there are 3 more questions and then you'll be off the hook.
Michael: No hook, I can chat until the cows come home! (...and we don't have cows, so that's a long time.)
me: good, then maybe i'll get in a who question.
Michael: Is your mom still reading?
me: so what i want to say about lyrics is that while i actually think people in good moods do listen to happy songs and extend or enjoy their high that way, the thing about happy songs is that (and i'm going to be smashing my TBH image here, i'm afraid) they don't ultimately ring true.
i have to admit i'm pleased i've gotten you to say "your mom" so many times in this conversation.
Michael: I kind of feel pressure to make sure your mom is entertained.
me: aw
Michael: So why don't you think they ring true?
me: you're really good. i'm taking notes.
because even happiness is only truly awesome in juxtaposition with... the rest.
Michael: Sure, but sadness is only terrible in juxtaposition with happiness.
me: and people also get impatient with songs they see as "whiny"
e.g. the nineties
Michael: That was a bad decade.
Musically speaking.
Also, life speaking.
me: but even so, i think sadness makes more sense to most people than happiness.
Michael: Sure. I think we hope to relate to one another more in sadness than in happiness.
That is when we need it.
I am going to listen to a song that makes me cry a lot more than a song that makes me smile.
me: okay now my mom wants to make you cookies.
time machine question!
Michael: I love time machines!
me: time and space machine, really.
so where and when in the universe would you want to go?
Michael: All practical and safety matters aside, I'd most like to interact with other "intelligent" life somewhere out there in the universe. I don't know if I care where, but it would be amazing to see another planet full of life and lifeforms that I couldn't even have conceived. If I had to stick to Earth and I couldn't end up disappearing from a Polaroid, I'd love to see my parents as children. I think it would be really fascinating.
Speaking of time travel, Primer is one of my favorite movies.
me: somehow i didn't thing it would be hot tub time machine.
so. as one of the founding fathers, what do you think is so great about Boston Band Crush?
Michael: I just think we should have as much of a "tide-rising-motivated" community as possible. I am just not into competition or rivalries amongst bands. So, I think BBC ended up (and continues) helping a lot of bands get their first "press," meet other bands, and get a better sense of who is playing in town. Nothing is perfect, but it's relatively democratic in that I know we had always tried to cover as much good stuff as possible given limited resources and knowledge, while still trying to treat "good" as objectively as possible. I love that BBC has become a recognizable, known entity within the Boston music world and I also love seeing people joining in as contributors. It really was always a community effort. It was never an "ours" or "mine" type approach and I am just thrilled every time I see another excellent contributor get involved. In addition, One Night Band is just an absolutely phenomenal event.
me: i really feel that the music community in boston is absolutely the best thing about this town.
Michael: I agree. There are a lot of people pushing a negative perspective on it, but I think those people just have their eyes closed or refuse to leave their houses. Sometimes, there is a serious disconnect between expectations and reality too, but for anyone out there to have fun and do what they love doing, this place couldn't be better.
me: absolutely.
Michael: I've played in a lot of cities and talked to lots of bands from all around and I don't think anything compares with Boston. Maybe, DC has something really good going too, but that seems to be about it.
me: DC, really? i didn't know that. i'll have to look into it.
Michael: I think it's hard for outsiders (i.e., us) to break into, but it seems like they've got a lot of the right kinds of things happening.
me: right on
Michael: I do feel the same way about Boston. If bands from out of town want to play here, it's really tough. I can only rarely help them out.
me: that is really true.
Michael: This is a much longer discussion, but there needs to be a reversion in the way venues operate. I have ideas about models that could work and did try to convince a few places to give it a go, but nothing yet.
me: you have ideas, eh?
Michael: I didn't say good ideas!
me: :D
okay. ready for the last two?
Michael: I am sitting down.
me: i suppose that could help. you have to come up with them.
one question i haven't gotten around to asking you that you'd like to answer.
and one question for me to answer.
Michael: Question for you while I think of my question...we already discussed our need to create. If you could achieve the ideal, what would be your model of success musically and/or creatively (in any format)?
me: my model of success?
Michael: Yes, what outcome would result in you sitting and thinking you've achieved all you hoped to achieve?
me: well i would like to complete and, ideally, publish at least one book and feel it was the truest thing i could have written.
Michael: What kind of book?
me: i always thought fiction, but the lines keep blurring on me.
(and not just because of the wine.)
i was supposed to be finished with my mfa at columbia by now. it's a rather long story. 
Michael: Not that I like this guy, but I read an article about that James Frey fellow and his philosophy and truth vs. fiction.
What stops you from completing it?
me: the pain of the reapplication process and the thing that stopped me from going in the first place which was, officially, the $100K tuition.
Michael: I can't go making a public rant regarding my thoughts on school tuitions, but it's a pretty unsustainable situation to say the least.
me: book aside, though. you said earlier that you spend every possible moment on creative/academic endeavors. i think i'll feel successful when i've whittled down to a minimum the things that limit those possible moments for me.
i would rather creativity saturate my days.
what was the article on frey?
Michael: I like that answer. I agree with it. I also think it's strange and perhaps "untrue" when people are only interested in creating in one format - (i.e., only music or only writing or only painting).
me: is that sophia on the right?
Michael: On the right of what?
me: in the picture at the top of the article
Michael: Looks a little like her, but I am guessing not.
Okay, to ask myself...
What is the meaning of life?
Answer: strawberries.
I say this to demonstrate one thing.
My 5th grade teacher told us a story that lasted all year about this guy on a quest to find out the meaning of life. The entire year, the guy went through adventure after adventure and when he got to the end, he found out the meaning of life...strawberries.
(It's pretty Douglas Adams there.)
me: (i was going to wonder why it wasn't 42)
Michael: Right, that is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
me: actually, it is butterscotch pudding.
Michael: I think the point is good. The end is never very fulfilling. It never is. There's no way it could be. So, you have to enjoy the interwoven plot twists that bring you there. That is why Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author. In most of his books, he explicitly reveals the events that will occur at the end of the book right away.
There's not anticipation related to what will happen. There is interest in how.
Also, I do love pudding ball.
me: i really love how we've tied this all up so neatly.
Michael: We've changed the lives of the readers, even your mom I think.
me: all that's left is to say goodnight to my mother.
there you go.
Michael: Yes, goodnight readers and mothers. May your life be full of strawberries.
...and with that, I go to sleep. Good night.
me: goodnight!

*Pre-Existing Condition

let's go for a walk in the moonlight
so I can fail to say what I feel
'cause your green eyes make everything
too difficult to reveal

I wrote you a thousand letters
and you said every word made sense
but I know that you haven't gotten around
to reading a single one yet

I learned to run away before I could crawl
I used to play third base and then I dropped the ball
everyone only remembers your mistakes

I lost half of my lovers by telling the truth
lost the other half telling them lies
now you roll back your eyes and fall asleep
like my grandmother did when she died

Sit back and just paint me a nervous smile
and sigh with every muscle taut
and I'll never stop thinking about the way
you were too scared to say what you thought


The Cocktail Girl said...

Fine conversation with the ever amusing and insightful MJE.

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