delicate sound of an explosion
written by timothy greenfield-sanders, taken from interview magazine
timothy greenfield-sanders: elliott, your new album
is the first since the music you did for "good will hunting"
dramatically increased your exposure. how long did you work on the record?
elliott smith: i worked on it for about two months, in california. it
was all done in one big block of time, unlike before. usually i'd write
songs pretty much on the spot, but this time i had written them all
before i started the album.
tgs: do you have one particular song that's a favorite?
es: my favorite is the newest one, since i haven't heard it as many
times as some of the others. it's called "oh well, okay."
it's slow and quiet and sort of describes a silhouette of someone. it
would sound ridiculous to talk about it too much, but essentially it's
about how a silhouette is permanently turned away from you. the person
is being described as if they were this photograph. and they weren't
always turned away from me, but now they are and they seem to stay like
that. it's kind of a sad song.
tgs: is it about a particular person?
es: it's probably about a combination of people.
tgs: is there a theme to the new work, a concept?
es: no, it's not a concept record. i just lived with the songs on it
for a long time. there are a couple of bars i go to on most nights to
write. they're used to my sitting there, doing my thing. if something
seems good i'll usually remember it, and then it'll turn up the next
night again when i'm writing. it gets whittled down that way.
tgs: these are drinking bars?
tgs: and you just sit there in the corner, writing?
es: well, i'm drinking, too. they wouldn't like it so much if i wasn't
a paying customer. i drink irish whiskey, beer -- i've kind of narrowed
all drug use down to that.
tgs: i assume your favorite writing bar is near your
home in brooklyn.
tgs: what's the name of it?
es: i don't want to say because i don't want people going there. i'm
left alone and i usually don't get weird people talking to me. they
see you sitting there, scribbling, and they want to know what in the
world you are doing.
tgs: do you feel that you're part of the writer/bar
es: i don't know. at first i felt kind of corny about writing in bars
because it seemed like a call for attention, but i got over that. i
just think it's cool because you're around people, and i personally
can't get anything done sitting home in my room with no noise, you know?
i can't think because i'm thinking too much. it's much better to go
to a loud place and just dream it out and figure out what that is. maybe
that's why most of my writing is done in this kind of setting.
tgs: are your songs autobiographical?
es: they come from me so they must have something to do with me, but
they're not like a journal or particularly factual.
tgs: how would you compare the new album to your three
es: the first one was recorded on cassette four-track. it's kind of
a beat-up, shabby way of recording that works only partially well. it
was done in my friend's basement, in portland, ore., in 1994. the other
two albums were recorded eight-track, so there were twice as many opportunities
to pile stuff onto the songs. the first was called "roman candle."
the second one ["elliott smith," 1994] didn't have a name.
and the third one was called "either/or" . (the years
are off?) the songs have got progressively more instruments and other
things going on in them.
tgs: your new album seems the most polished of them
es: yeah, it sounds like it was done in a real studio as opposed to
setting up my eight-track somewhere and then moving in a week to somewhere
tgs: i find that your singing is very sweet and beautiful,
but the lyrics are often terribly disturbing. the contrast is wonderful
but also upsetting. is that quality patterned on anyone?
es: most of the bands i liked when i was growing up sang about how they
really felt. a lot of them were punk bands; they weren't folk troubadours
tgs: where did you grow up?
es: texas, but i lived in portland for a long time.
tgs: what bands did you like?
es: the saints, the clash, lou reed, the velvet underground, elvis costello.
i pretty much like most of the music that influenced everybody, i guess.
i played by myself, but i didn't really come from the pete seeger camp
of here's the moral to the story, here we go, listen up people, got
something to tell you, that kind of thing, you know?
tgs: your sound is extremely unusual.
es: up until this record it's just been a total accident because it's
so time-consuming if you are wearing all the hats and recording yourself.
some people have a lot more patience, but if i'm playing drums, i just
set up the mikes, play the drums, see if the needles are moving. and
if they are, i go with that, unless when i listened back it sounded
tgs: you play all the instruments?
es: there are a couple of people who play on a couple of songs, but
most of the new album is me. i play guitar, piano, bass drums, chamberlain,
melotron-track piano. i played a big suspended orchestral bass drum
on one song. that was really fun. i play acoustic guitar and then pile
the other instruments on from there. i want to be able to play all of
the music live by myself.
tgs: how do the lyrics come into play?
es: sometimes the music comes first, sometimes the words. most of the
stuff i make up when i'm walking between bars or on the subway or moving
around. then i sit down, write it out, and put it away. i don't write
out the music, because usually i can just remember it. but for some
reason, writing out the words makes me remember them better.
tgs: sometimes, as a photographer, i feel that every
portrait i take is in a sense a self-portrait. how many of your songs
es: i used to think about that more but it didn't help me. the only
thing is to just write as much as possible. it's sort of like throwing
cards into a hat across the room. the more cards you throw, the more
go into the hat. the more i write, the more likely it is i might catch
myself off-guard, surprise myself with something i actually like, something
i didn't think i could do. but i have no idea if i'm getting better
or worse or if there's any such thing as getting better or worse.
tgs: when i look back at my early work, it's often the
pictures that i thought were terrible back then that have become more
interesting. the image i picked up fifteen years ago as the best portrait
might today not be the most interesting shot. my eye has changed. can
you relate your work to that?
es: sometimes, although i'm not a very good judge of things that come
from my imagination or whatever. i'll pick things that i think are the
best but they may or may not be. but i've been writing songs since i
was a kid. i'm twenty-eight now, so it's been about fifteen years.
tgs: that's a long time. when you look back at your
work, do you still like a lot of it?
es: well, i see little things in the songs that couldn't happen now
because i won't make the same mistakes i did then, even though part
of the thing i like about those songs depended on making those mistakes.
tgs: you learn from the mistake and use it.
es: right. how could you get any better if you didn't see a mistake
in what you'd already done? you'd just keep doing the same thing over
and over. as soon as i'm done recording a record, i absolutely cannot
listen to it. i hate it for about a couple months because i can't change
it anymore. all the excitement just goes straight out of it, and all
i see are the things that were like, "aaaahh."
tgs: do you want a band?
es: i always thought i'd be in a band but it's looking less and less
likely. i was in one and it didn't work out. in the meantime, i've learned
to play some instruments rudimentarily enough to play them on my songs,
and i'm pretty happy being alone.
tgs: do you live alone?
es: no, i live with two roommates.
tgs: what's it like today, after an oscar nomination
for your music on "good will hunting" and performing live
during the ceremony, as oopposed to just a year ago?
es: on the one hand, it's pretty much the same in that i think a lot
about the same things. on the other, it's different because there's
quite a fuss made over people who are on tv for some reason. personally,
i watch tv with the sound off.
tgs: what do you watch?
es: just whatever's on. but i like books better.
tgs: what are you reading lately?
es: i'm still trying to wade through all the stuff i never read that
i want to read before i die. right now i'm reading a new translatation
of [proust's] "remembrance of things past," which is really
great but i can only read a few pages at a time.
tgs: do you read in english only? do you speak any other
es: oh no, i'm terrible with languages. before proust i was reading
beckett's fictional trilogy "molloy and malone dies" and "the
unnamable." i don't go in a whole lot for suspense novels or whatever.
there are things that i just want to read while i can still read, and
i'm kind of glad i didn't come across them in at school because school
tends to really ruin books for people. once you're out of school, it's
like, "i'll never read again." now i want to read all the
books that people back then told me were really good.
tgs: do you want to write a novel?
es: i don't think i'm cut out for that . i mean, if i could, i would
be very happy, but i don't think i can do that.
tgs: because music is as important as writing to you?
es: yeah, music, just the sound of things. that's my favorite thing.
i love words and it's good to love words if you are going to sing them,
but the bottom line is the way something sounds. sometimes i'll compromise
a lyric before i'll compromise the way something sounds, even though
i hate doing that.
tgs: do you have a lot of problems with censorship of
your songs, going on mtv or radio and stuff?
es: no. it's not as if mtv and radio really play anything like what
i'm doing, so for me to be on them is an anomaly, anyway.
tgs: what's important to you right now?
es: my girlfriend.
tgs: where will you be a year from now? certainly a
year ago you didn't think you'd have an oscar nomination.
es: i'll probably be playing shows, making up songs, and hopefully i'll
have recorded another record by then. it's nice when people like what
you're doing, but it's also weird. i guess it's just what happens when
you have people paying attention to you. things will probably go back
to normal soon.
thanks to floydyorke