Highlights from a year of in-depth conversations with musicians and artists.
The Q&A format, when used well, is not the path of least resistance that it sometimes appears to be. It takes attention and care to have meaningful conversations, ask thoughtful questions, and get people to open up. Also, transcribing is not fun. Not at all. But it’s worth it to give people a deeper look into the minds that create our art and shape our community.
Throughout the year, Tone Madison journalists have been talking with touring and local musicians, visual artists, and other folks who contribute to Madison’s arts and culture community. As we look back on 2017, here are some of our favorites.
Tone Madison: We talked at WSUM in the past and you pulled out a California noise compilation from the library and played some of it on the air. Especially after more pop-oriented albums like Taiga and Okovi, how does noise still play a role in Zola Jesus?
Nika Roza Danilova: Noise and industrial will always be my favorite music, like that’s my prefered music to listen to. But still when I write, it usually comes out as pop songs with melodies and choruses and stuff. But through the years, especially with Taiga, I didn’t bring noise into it because I was trying to understand myself as a songwriter. But after that, I felt like I needed to balance out the two sides of my writing. So, with Okovi, I tried to go further into the beginning where noise was a huge part of the way that I wrote and a huge part of my process. And I think I see myself continuing down that path for the next record as well. For me, experimental music and noise music and industrial make up an enormous part of my creativity, whether or not I choose to use it from time to time. But it’s not just a part of me that’s gone—in fact, I see it becoming more prevalent in the way that I write right now.”
Tone Madison: What are you trying to correct about the way people view trap music? What needs to be fixed in that regard?
Branden Higgans: I want people to view trap music as if you can actually be creative with it. A lot of people just view trap music as “oh, you’re talking about guns, oh you’re talking about killing people.” That’s not the reality of how trap really is. I’m trying to make it where you don’t think of trap as shooting guns.
“I’m standing out on the highway and all of a sudden this pickup truck pulls up right next t where I’m standing like literally almost runs me over I walk over to the driver’s side, he doesn’t get out, it’s the farmer who says ‘What’s up? This is my farm.’ ‘Oh I’m so glad! I tried to find you!’ ‘Yeah, so what are you doing?’ I was so nervous ‘Well, I’m with the The Wisconsin Film Festival… maybe you’ve heard of it? I’m just taking pictures and shooting some video as a test to convince them that your farm, and these cows, should be in the trailer.’ He said ‘Oh! OK! Great! Why don’t you get closer?’ He couldn’t have been any happier. He let me into his farm and then he left. The cows were fascinated by me. It was easy to set up the camera and have them not in the frame because they were following me, and then start the camera and run back over to the camera and they would come back with me. It was pretty easy to get the shot that I was hoping to get.” —Ben Reiser, Wisconsin Film Festival
Tone Madison: So where is the train going to be taking the audience during the comedy?
Jake Snell: It’s a stationary train. The train is going nowhere. Just like all the comics on the show.
Tone Madison: I didn’t mean literally. Where is the train taking the audience emotionally?
Jake Snell: Ah, well then, the audience should just close their eyes and let the comic take them on a journey of imagination. It’s like The Magic School Bus.
Tone Madison: That’s not a train. What’s your favorite fictional train?
Jake Snell: Polar Express. No, wait, Platform 9 and ¾. Dammit, that’s what we should have called this show. Too late now. That what we’ll call it next time.
Tone Madison: How much material on trains is each comic doing?
Jake Snell: Well, they’ll be on a train the entire time so you could say all the material is on trains.
Tone Madison: You’ve also said in previous interviews that you look for a bit of dissonance in your tunings. Why is that?
Sarah Louise: I do enjoy dissonance. Certain composers that I really like, like Henry Cowell for example, would play with tone clusters, as opposed to a chord. And I’m not really good on music theory, but I know a bit about this from reading about him, is that you’d play notes next to each other. Sometimes he’d put his whole forearm on the piano. I think it’s nice because it can sort of lead you to move outside of one- or two-string fretting and it really makes me search for chords and different chord sounds. I think if you can write something in a dissonant tuning, it can help lead to more harmonic diversity in there, because you’re actually fretting quite a bit.
Tone Madison: It’s insane. Sometimes I hear people talk a bunch of negative bullshit about safe spaces and complain because they can’t get into this party or that party because they aren’t queer or POC and it’s just like “aw, I’m sorry, this must be your first time being denied access to something.”
Sarah Akawa: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t mind explaining to people who are confused or don’t get it. But if you’re pissed because you think you’re entitled to this space, then fuck you. For Queer Pressure there are definitely things we have to address—like consent in touching. We are not free from oppression and power issues in our queer community. I think Madison is challenging. It’s one thing when we have shitty interactions with white-dude bar owners, but there’s another level of trying to explain and break down barriers to people who consider themselves allies. Then there are some super special cases of people who claim queerness who are also still very pro-police and anti-black. Or, there’s the issue of people thinking queer parties will make them a bunch of money—thanks to recent news articles about the queer dance party as a protest. So, we get people who just see us as dollar signs.
Tone Madison: You’ve mentioned before that the speaker in your poems is slightly not you. I wonder if that’s still true with the new book, and where that slight difference comes from. Is that simply from committing yourself to words?
Danez Smith: That comes from playing around with image and sound. The world of play in writing a poem requires you to fictionalize and reach above and beyond truth, or to reach towards something that is emotionally or imagistically or texturally true to that story. Most of my poems are me or an extension of myself if I’m using “I.”
Tone Madison: I see your work moving as a movement away from the imposition of unnaturally simple structures that are used to control people, towards a more complex view of identity. Is that a productive way of reading your poems?
Danez Smith: Maybe it’s uncontrollable. I don’t know. People are complex. I’m complex and that’s all I know how to write. I don’t think I was ever concerned with that simplicity you’re gesturing towards. I don’t think I’m interested in it and I don’t think about it. I don’t see the world as simple. I love the complexity in things that seem simple. I’m just writing what I know and so I don’t think that imagined simplicity exists. Poets of color and queer poets cannot have the luxury of writing toward a simple world. I hear what you’re saying, but simplicity is a luxury that I can’t afford. I’m not starting from simple. I was born into complexity, and that’s where we’re at.
Tone Madison: You’ve crafted this immersive narrative, but at the same time, each piece also has to stand on its own from an aesthetic perspective. Is that something you have to balance?
Douglas Bosley: Not exactly. It’s kind of the first and the last thing with any artwork. It has to absolutely be at the top, it has to be excellent. It needs to be a masterwork of its craft, otherwise it’s not going to get any individual’s attention. If I was being very slapdash, or showing things that we’re messy, it’d be a very different statement, but I also think it would be a lot harder to grab people’s attention.
Tone Madison: I guess for me, when I think about art, whether it be visual, music, literature, a rigid structure, whether it be a narrative or political one, can often dilute the aesthetic quality of the piece, or vice verse. Take a book like 1984, for example. But for you it seems that those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Douglas Bosley: Well, I think part of this comes up in the question of what it means to be avant-garde. But I think in the context of Orwell, for example, it’s really about Trotskyism and Leninism and that transition. I’m sure a historian would slap me in the face for saying some of those things. But at the same time, it is very much abstract, which is why it has managed to stay with us and stay relevant. If he was very explicit about what he was talking about, it might seem outdated.
Tone Madison: I really like that there’s a wide range of frequencies being utilized and explored. Do you tend to play versions of your recorded work live? Or do the live sets sort of stand on their own as something totally different?
John Daniel: It really varies. I usually play different iterations of work that’s been released—basically outtakes. I also try to create material based on the show that I’m playing, specially for that location. I played a show in Switzerland last year where I captured these ringing church bells on my phone and later used them for my entire set—slowed down and looped. It creates this special moment in time and makes playing shows more meaningful to me. It’s been different every year because of gear that I’ve either lost or broken. I spend more time thinking about a single feeling or idea that I want to share with people and I’ll select material based on that. The type of venue and bill also plays a part.
Tone Madison: It has to be nice having a setup that grants you that sort of flexibility.
John Daniel: It’s a privilege. I don’t have to worry about using a static instrument or something.
Tone Madison: I’m curious if certain elements or building blocks of sound have stayed with you over time. In my memory alone, I’ve seen you play hardcore, no wave, dub, free jazz, and techno. Or at the least, music tangentially inspired by those styles.
Jacob Long: It’s interesting to think about what ties different music I’m interested in together. I have always been drawn to a wide variety of music, but I do think there is a certain physicality or presence of sound that I am drawn to and a raw/rough/unpolished feel that I like, that I think ties a bunch of those different kinds of music together. I find I’m much more interested in how sound feels and what sort of emotion it directly implies rather than having a sort of dramatic or narrative arc to it or something like that.
Tone Madison: Can you give an example of an emotion you are trying to express on the new record?
Jacob Long: I don’t consciously ever sit down and think “I’m going to make this sound about this,” but I definitely do use what I’m working on as an emotional outlet. It kinda just comes out? Its interesting to think about because I really don’t “think” about making music a lot in terms of thinking things out ahead of time (whether it’s the meaning of things or the music itself). I work just by sitting down and letting what happens happen. That said, my new record was made mostly during a year or so of pretty tough personal times so that certainly had an effect on the overall feel/vibe of the record.
Mary Begley: So I laid down my vocals and there’s a little empty space at the end of the line where he started popping up and going, “I think you’re so cool.” The whole idea behind that song is he’s a nice guy, being very fawning, and then as soon as I’m like, “Nah, not interested,” he goes “I think you’re a bitch.” And we totally fought over that line, because I was like, “Don’t call me a bitch! People are going to think that we actually don’t like each other.” So it was “brat” at first, and then we went back and changed it. I’m glad we changed it, but every time we play it now, I’m laughing my head off at [Luis]. I always look over and smile when he calls me a bitch onstage.
Tone Madison: I guess that’s more true to those interactions, where some guy’s being really persistent and then eventually turns out to be an asshole.
Mary Begley: Yeah, and then the next line is, “Come on, give me a shot.” So it’s the nice guy who thinks that women owe him something. This is something that Luis likes to read about on the Internet.
Luis Perez: There’s a whole Reddit called “Nice Guys.”
Mary Begley: And I’ve experienced it in real life many times.
Tone Madison: Before we get too deep into the studio prowess of classic Hanson albums, which could surely merit its own article, let’s get into this list of Zombies-related tunes you wanted to chat about. Chronologically, the first one up is “Summertime,” from The Zombies’ 1965 self-titled debut. I love the mysterious, waltzing vibe on this one. What pulls you in here?
Amos Pitsch: Well, first off, it begins with that bewitching dissonant chord on the Wurlitzer, which was love at first sight for me. It’s perfect. The way Colin Blunstone drawls out the last syllable of each line is so sublime, too. His phrasing on this song rivals the best balladeers. The “oohs” during the verses are straight out of an early Les Baxter album— I’m thinking of his 1961 album Jewels Of The Sea, in particular. And finally, I just love early-to-mid-20th-century pop standards and seeing what each performer does with them. This is my all time favorite standard and somehow a rock band did one of the absolute best versions of it.
Tone Madison: Oh yeah, that first chord just screams, “Do I have your attention, asshole?” So beautiful. I think Les Baxter is a perfect reference point for the “oohs.” There’s some kind of bleak, 60s-lounge exotica thing going on there.
Amos Pitsch: Right. That wordless vocal in classic exotica albums—I was always a sucker for that.
Tone Madison: How do you reconcile taking a surreal or sometimes abstract approach to narrative style with being direct when it comes to getting a message across?
Katie Alice Greer: I think what you’re describing is the essence of being an artist. You’re not an academic. You’re not a lecturer. You’re not an activist. But then at the same time—especially when you’re making commercial art—you’re probably not being so inscrutable, and dense, and complicated that a person who’s not familiar with your work wouldn’t understand. You’re constantly trying to weave these two different paths together into something that is consumable without being junk food, essentially. You still want the ideas to be in there.
Tone Madison: On that same note, do you think songwriting and lyricism in punk need to be direct to be politically effective?
Katie Alice Greer: “Direct” is such a subjective word!
Tone Madison: That’s true. I was thinking of how to phrase that question, and it’s tough.
Katie Alice Greer: I think what you’re saying is sometimes people want to hit you over the head with their politics, and nine times out of ten if someone is hitting you over the head with their politics, you’re going to be like, “Dude, get the fuck off of me.” That’s annoying, you know. That is where it becomes important to really hone your art because art is not coercing people into believing what you believe. Art is presenting something on a pedestal and leaving it out for people, hoping that you’re enticing them into wanting to learn more and wanting to do their own critical thinking.