DATE June 9, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steven Seagle discusses his new book, "It's a Bird..."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
What comic book writer would pass up the opportunity to write Superman? The
answer is my guest Steven Seagle. After resisting, he eventually gave in and
spent a year writing stories for the Man of Steel. His new book is a graphic
novel based on that experience called "It's a Bird..." The paradox at the
center of the story is that as Seagle writes for a hero who has inherited
superpowers, he's haunted by Huntington's disease, a hereditary illness that
killed his grandmother and his aunt that he may or may not carry. Seagle has
also written the comics Uncanny X-Men, House of Secrets, Sandman Mystery
Theatre and Vertigo.
Steven Seagle, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to read a passage
from your new graphic novel, "It's a Bird..." And this is the part in which
you--May I use the word you?--are on the phone.
Mr. STEVEN SEAGLE (Author, "It's a Bird..."): Sure. It's like me.
GROSS: Yes. OK.
Mr. SEAGLE: It's me-ish.
GROSS: Good. So you, or you-ish, is on the phone with your editor, and he's
trying to talk you into writing Superman comics. And his name, the editor's
name, is Jeremy. Would you read it?
Mr. SEAGLE: Sure.
(Reading) `I can't Jer. Sorry, it's not working for me. I'm not the man for
this job. I've been thinking it over, and the pieces don't add up, you know:
the costume, the secret identity, the origin. Superman doesn't hold water in
the real world.' Jeremy makes this face every time he's plotting out how to
contradict everything I've just said, and he says, `You don't work in the real
world. You work in fantasy. It doesn't need to be logical. Just take the
costume for granted. He has the costume. And the secret identity, don't tell
me that's not believable. Everybody's got secrets. I've got some, don't you?
Look, you don't have to reconcile every piece of his history.' But I tell
him, `I like things to be believable. For me to write Superman, I have to
believe he could live in our world, but he can't. Everything about him is
ludicrous. Even that mantra, "faster than a speeding locomotive, more
powerful than a bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, look,
up in the sky, it's a bird"'--he cuts me off. `You've got the mantra
wrong. Don't expect to understand Superman if you haven't done your homework.
I don't accept your refusal. Here, read these, then come back to me. You
won't say no.' He gives me a stack of Superman comics. I know it's a
challenge, but what Jeremy doesn't know is that I will win. I'll take
Superman head-on. We'll see who's stronger.
GROSS: That's Steven Seagle reading from his new autobiographical graphic
novel, "It's a Bird..."
So, Steven, you really did turn down Superman, huh?
Mr. SEAGLE: I did.
GROSS: Initially, initially.
Mr. SEAGLE: But the book is semi-autobiographical, so the facts are all
right; they're just all in the wrong order.
GROSS: And what made you decide to actually do it after all?
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, I wrote this book, which contains 20 short stories that
kind of dissect everything spectacular about Superman, but still find him
holding up to anything I can throw at him. And I thought, `That's a pretty
strong character, you know. If I can really deconstruct him and still find
him to be a powerful figure iconically, then maybe I should try to take him
on.' So when the offer actually did come through, I did a year on the actual
GROSS: Now let's get to your graphic novel. The great paradox in this story
is that you've been asked to write about the Man of Steel, the man who is
invulnerable to everything except kryptonite. But you're feeling quite
vulnerable and your family is quite vulnerable because a couple of people in
your family have died of Huntington's disease, a disease of the nervous
system, which is very, very bad and very disabling, and it's inherited.
Mr. SEAGLE: Correct, yeah. It's...
GROSS: So, you know, the question is: Who's going to get it next in the
family? So the paradox is as you're about to consider drawing a superhero,
you're thinking about how vulnerable your family is to this genetic disease.
Did you always see Superman in terms of that paradox?
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, when I got into writing comic books, I didn't start with
superheroes. I started more with crime comics and kind of noire mysteries.
And so the superhero paradox didn't occur to me initially because I wasn't
working on these superpowerful characters. But when I actually did start
thinking about them, it was right at the time that my Aunt Sarah was really
going through the final stages of Huntington's, and it did become an ironic
juxtaposition that, you know, I'm writing characters who can do anything, and
here's a woman who, you know, one week loses the power to swallow and, you
know, another week no longer can speak anymore. And it really just started to
weigh heavily on me that what I was supposed to write a fantasy that was so
detached from this reality that I was looking at.
GROSS: And, you know, some people would take comfort in the fact that there
is such a fantasy of invulnerability to fall back on at a time when you're
feeling most vulnerable, and for other people that fantasy would seem useless
and pointless and almost make you angry.
Mr. SEAGLE: (Laughs) I'm told on occasion that I'm too logical about things.
And I think that if I looked at it emotionally, initially I would have said,
`This is a great escape,' which is what comic books are in America, one of the
reasons why they deal so exclusively with power fantasies; that that's an
escape for people who feel powerless, you know. Kids in school reading comic
books are looking to be stronger than they are, are looking to be super, and
that's the emotional registration. But I think I was looking at them
logically because I was writing them as a vocation, and so I just started
tearing him apart. I thought, `Let's just tear down everything that makes
Superman super.' And as it turned out, he could stand up to anything I could
throw at him.
GROSS: You write about what a really terrible and tragic ending you come to
if you have Huntington's disease, and the character is saying this when he is
seeing his aunt dying of it. He says, `There's no good thing to hope for for
a Huntington's patient. If you hope they're fine except for the body, you're
condemning them to a life sentence lived out inside a useless shell. If you
hope they're vegetative and mentally gone, then you've condemned them to a
meaningless living death.' What did you think about your aunt when you
actually saw her dying? What were you hoping that she was experiencing or not
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, we went through, as a family, a lot of different stages
with her. She was in a rest home out here in California for just many, many
years. And there was a time where people didn't want to go visit her because
it was very difficult to look at her and think that could be any one of us
next. And when we finally, you know, mustered up the courage to get over
that, which we definitely should have, then I started thinking about, `Well,
what should I hope for her? You know, do I hope that she dies soon? Do I
hope that she hangs on so that she doesn't die?' And that was what I came
to--is that there was not really a good alternative for me to hope for
because, on the one hand, she was completely incapacitated. And I became
obsessed with whether she could understand anything I was saying to her
because the disease causes the neurons in your brain to misfire, and so one of
the symptoms of that is kind of uncontrolled movement. And so you would say
something, and she would move, and you wouldn't know if that was a response to
what you were saying or just her brain playing tricks on her. And it really
became a dichotomy of just, you know, `Do I hope that she dies soon, or do I
hope that she keeps living?' And neither one seemed like a good thing.
GROSS: There's a scene in your graphic novel in which you as a boy overhear
your father saying that if he really knew about Huntington's disease in the
family and if he knew that it could be passed on, he wouldn't have had
children. Did you ever overhear your father say something like that?
Mr. SEAGLE: The book is semi-autobiographical, and that part is more
autobiographical than not. Again, you know, the way that it's staged in the
book--the book takes place over a week, and the story of my life takes place
over my entire life. So the book, I think, makes it look a little more crass
and calculated than it was. But there were conversations like that, where my
parents would talk to other parents and wouldn't know that my brother and I
were still awake and, you know, eavesdropping, which we shouldn't have been,
and we would overhear things like this.
And, you know, the thing that the book really helped me with was that I
understand why they say that. And the book, if nothing else, is, you know, a
laurel to my parents that says, `Thank you anyway.' You know, I don't care if
I come down with this fatal disease. Anything might come to get me. I really
appreciate my life and the way it's turned out and the things that I've done.
But I know that it's just been a heavy weight on them, you know, all along,
this thought that they might have damned their own children, which is a
terrible thing to have to consider.
GROSS: And are you considering having children?
Mr. SEAGLE: It depends. I mean, we're in a different world now. There are
genetic tests that can determine whether you are carrying the gene or not. My
own father is over 70 now and didn't inherit Huntington's. So, you know, I
could certainly confirm if I decided to have children with my very significant
other, Lisa Rhinehart(ph), we could have that test and, you know, be able to
determine whether it was even a risk or not, which is kind of a great thing.
It's certainly not something that was available to my parents. But Nancy
Wexler, a doctor, you know, isolated the gene and came up with this test. And
even she was on NPR, I think, a week ago, on "All Things Considered," talking
about, you know, having come up with the test; didn't know if she should get
it or not. You know, who wants to know?
GROSS: My guest is Steven Seagle, whose new graphic novel is called "It's a
Bird..." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is comic book writer Steven Seagle. He spent a year writing
Superman comics. As he was writing about a superhero, he was thinking about
his family's vulnerability to the hereditary disease Huntington's disease. It
killed his aunt and his grandmother.
So your experiences have really taught you that your body can turn against
you; that you can inherit great strength, but you can also inherit a deadly
vulnerability. Have you tried to work ideas like that into your Superman
Mr. SEAGLE: Yeah. I mean, I think the best thing in the world Huntington's
did for me was serve as a wake-up call, which is just to say that you have no
idea what's going to get you. And, you know, it's a tired saying, but people
really don't embrace it to the degree that they need to. Anything might get
me. You know, I'm at risk for heart disease just because I'm a male. But you
don't know if you're going to develop something or not. You really have to
live in the moment. You have to live in a way that is consistent with your
happiness. You really have to grab the things that you want out of life while
you can because you don't know what your genes or fate or whatever has in
store for you the day after tomorrow. So that part of wish fulfillment really
does impact that work that I've done on superheroes, in that I think they
represent an ideal of living well. And I don't think there is any other
lesson in life except live well. Do well by yourself, do well by others and
you're not going to go too wrong. And I think that that is an easy thing to
pull out of the superhero mythologies.
GROSS: But then there's also that point for many people in which that period
of your life is over, and from this moment on you're living with a
vulnerability, you're living with the weakness., you're living with a problem
that isn't going to go away. Has that sense ever entered your superhero
comics? I mean, does that maybe not belong in there, or have you given it to
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, it's certainly something that plays out in the non-genre
stuff. You know, superheroes I'm of two minds about. I think that comics in
a global sense have matured a lot, and in the United States they've really
rested more in the superhero camp, which I think is unfortunate. There are
lots of great works out that are not superhero-centered. So I think it's
tough then for people to accept that there are headier themes, which is one of
the great things about doing this book in that it combines kind of mature,
adult themes and sensibilities with an iconic superhero character like
Superman and says, `Look, this story can still work.' I mean, I think it's a
comic book that most people wouldn't think to themselves as a comic book when
they're done, hopefully. And I don't say that to blow my own horn. I say it
to show the flexibility of this medium there. You can do a lot of things.
That said, I always think to myself that mostly superhero comics are for kids,
and I don't want to bum their high, you know?
Mr. SEAGLE: I want them to have great, fun stories, you know, of superheroes.
I do remember when I was growing up Captain Marvel, the Marvel Comics
character, died of cancer. And I was like, `What?' You know, it was
revelatory, but it was--and there was nothing super about it. He just
succumbed to cancer, and he wasted away and that was that. And that was kind
of a watershed comic book for back in the day.
GROSS: How'd you feel about that? Did you feel, like, cheated or angry?
Mr. SEAGLE: You know, I came from a Huntington's family, so I felt like,
`Hurray, Captain Marvel died of something noble.' No...
GROSS: That's the thing. There's always going to be at least one kid out
there who's going to identify with the vulnerability and not the wish
fulfillment of the strength.
Mr. SEAGLE: Mm-hmm. You know, I thought it was a great story at the time.
I knew he was heroic, and I understood what happened to him. And it's just
the way the story's told. So long as the facts are put out there, I think
kids can understand a lot more than we give them credit for. I know that the
"It's a Bird..." book has made it into some teen library collections, which I
think is great. I think a teen that's a reader would get this book and not
have any trouble with it.
GROSS: In the year that you were writing Superman, did you do anything to
address the kind of problems that you explained earlier that you had, like his
secret identity, the silly costume, all the things about Superman that
initially made you think that you couldn't really write for him?
Mr. SEAGLE: I'm sure things like that found their way through the year of
work that I did. But, to be honest, I had really purged myself by doing this
book right before that, and so most of that year I spent just trying to take
Superman for what he was--you know, a hero. Kind of like the editor says, he
has the costume, he has the secret identity. So I just tried to accept that.
Whether I succeeded or not, you know, is up to the fans, as it always is.
GROSS: When you agreed to do Superman, were you presented with a list of
rules or standards, a bible as they call it in TV sitcom-land, that tells you
what the character can do, what he can't, what--about other characters, you
know, the guidelines for the story?
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, one of the cool things about our industry is that most of
the people who work in it are comic book fans. So a lot of that, it's assumed
that you know; that you know his rogues' gallery and that you know his powers.
And more than that, it's assumed that you will try to find new ways to use
those powers and those characters. We did have a big meeting just to sit down
and talk about where he was at the time and where he was going in the future
and, you know, things we might do to make the character as interesting as
The coolest thing, I would say, though, is that when I came to DC with the
idea to do the "It's a Bird..." book with Teddy Kristiansen, who's the artist
on it, a fabulous painter who lives in Copenhagen, I said, `This is not going
to be at all what you know about this character. It's going to really do some
different things with him, and it's going to push him to some maybe
uncomfortable territory. And here's why I want to do it, and here's how I
want to do it.' And without batting an eye, they said, `Absolutely, do it.'
And I think that that's a testament to the character. You know, Superman is
strong enough and flexible enough that you can really do a lot of things to
him, with him, for him. And he just keeps standing. He's been around since
1938, and nothing I can do is going to stop that.
GROSS: What are some of the changes you wanted to make to Superman?
Mr. SEAGLE: In my book or on the regular comic?
GROSS: On the regular comic.
Mr. SEAGLE: I thought it would have been great if he became a parent somehow
and was actually kind of working toward that but never found the story; didn't
find the way to tell that story well. So I didn't do it. But I thought that
would be an interesting change to see how he and Lois Lane--they're married
these days. I don't know if you know that or not. And Lex Luthor is
president of the United States. My, how Metropolis has changed.
GROSS: (Laughs) Well, wait, wait, wait. Lois Lane is a reporter for Action
News. You want to talk about change.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, you know, for those of us who haven't been keeping up with
Superman, what are some of the other ways that the story has changed?
Mr. SEAGLE: Well, actually the story is taking a big turn right now. They've
just introduced a new creative team on the book that's doing something that,
to be honest, I don't even know where it's going. A lot of people on Earth
have suddenly vanished, and I don't know if it's the Second Coming or who
knows what. But, you know, the thing about Superman is that he'll have long
hair for a while, and then they'll make it short again. He'll get different
jobs; during my tenure he got put on the police beat, kind of a demotion
because he was finding corruption--Lex Luthor presidential campaign,
re-election stuff. And, you know, just the jobs will change.
But the thing that I find most enduring about Superman and most endearing
about him, also, is just that he is so consistent. You know, some people find
that to be a limitation; I find it to be, really, actually quite excellent.
There are so few things that you can look at and say, `I know exactly what
that is,' and Superman is that. He's an ideal. He's an iconic standard of
goodness and right, which something people is boring; it's very Boy Scout.
But, you know, in a world that's as morally gray as the world I find myself
living in, I think it's refreshing that something can represent an ideal that
consistently over time.
GROSS: You know, the creators of Superman were both Jewish, and I find that
interesting in the sense that, you know, the Clark Kent character--you know,
Superman's secret identity as Clark Kent--you know, he's brought up in this...
Mr. SEAGLE: Right.
GROSS: ...like, Midwestern family--it's so not Jewish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And it seems so...
Mr. SEAGLE: It's mythic America, you know.
GROSS: Oh, I suppose so, right. It's certainly not the kind of home that the
two creators of Superman were probably brought up in.
Mr. SEAGLE: No. But if you think about it, you know, Seagle and Shuster
were very smart in that what they created for Superman was a story of coming
from another world and trying to make good in the place where you find
yourself, which is the story of so many Jewish immigrants. And that's exactly
the story of Superman, who comes from the planet Krypton and goes to
Metropolis and tries to make good and do right, you know, and make a name for
himself by doing good, solid work and by helping people. So I think that it's
a metaphor for, you know, the Jewish immigration into America at the time that
they found themselves here.
GROSS: Did you ever watch "Superman" on TV?
Mr. SEAGLE: I watched some of the reruns now and then, but, you know, that
was kind of pre-cable when--my parents never would get cable. They were
anti-cable; they're still anti-cable. So it was not at my disposal so easily.
But I did like the kind of stoicness of it. You know, I remember it as being
very--What's the word?--static.
GROSS: How did the costume look to you on TV vs. how it looks in the comics?
Mr. SEAGLE: Very gray. You know, one of the things that I always find
interesting is that when you read about potential movies back when it was
Christopher Reeve and the current go-around, that people are always concerned
about the costume. You know, `How will I look in the costume?' But I think
it's a great-looking costume, you know, by and large. If you're going to
dress up in spandex colors, that's the way to go because it's a costume that
when you look at it, you know what it looks like. You could draw it right
after seeing it once, which that's tough to do. I wouldn't say that about,
really, any other superheroes.
GROSS: You said it looked very gray. I mean, Superman is very primary
colors. And on black-and-white TV...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEAGLE: Yeah, I seem to remember it as a black-and-white show, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Mr. SEAGLE: But the logo, that S, which is kind of what begins our book, is
just the idea of that stylistic S--you know, that really burned into my mind.
And I think that's why the book begins with that--is that when I think of
Superman, I just think of that logo, you know. And it's on T-shirts and
products and everything. It really has made a mark in the global
GROSS: Gee, I never thought of it quite that way, that he's, like, the guy
who wears his own logo all the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: He's branded himself (laughs).
Mr. SEAGLE: Absolutely.
GROSS: Steven Seagle's new graphic novel is called "It's a Bird..." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we meet Joey Burns of the band Calexico.
Also, Milo Miles remembers punk rock guitarist Robert Quine, who was found
dead, an apparent suicide last Saturday. He was 61.
And we continue our interview with comic book writer Steven Seagle.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic book writer
Steven Seagle. He wrote "Superman" comics for a year. His new
semiautobiographical graphic novel, "It's a Bird," is based on that year and
on his thoughts about the superhero and his own vulnerability.
Are there fantasies that you've had over the years that you manage to work
into comic stories, "Superman" or other ones?
Mr. SEAGLE: Fantasies--you know, again, I'm a literal kind of person, and so
really what I tend to work into my work is my life, but my family is really
weird. Like, we've had a lot of strange experiences. My dad looks like
Richard Nixon and was once mistaken by the Secret Service for him and carted
away, because they thought Nixon had gotten--my dad was where Nixon was at the
time. It was a graduation at the Air Force Academy, and my dad was working
it, and they thought that Nixon had wandered away from the security perimeter.
And you know, we checked into a motel once that had blood under throw
rugs--just fresh puddles of blood, you know, just weird things like that.
Those things tend to find their way into my work, which is why I felt like at
some point Huntington's and the mark that that made on us really had to, even
though it's kind of one of the last things I got to.
GROSS: How did the Nixon story end up in a comic? What was the story? How
did you use it?
Mr. SEAGLE: I didn't use that exact story that way, but just the idea of
mistaken identity. You know, I was thinking about some of my earlier comics;
that's all over the place in those where people think someone is someone else,
but my family has such rich, odd stories that that's really played out in my
work far more than my own fantasies because so many weird things had happened.
And in real life, it played out that as soon as my dad spoke, he doesn't sound
anything like Richard Nixon, they knew they had the wrong guy.
GROSS: That's so funny.
Mr. SEAGLE: Yeah, it's very strange. Family photos of my family, you know,
from when I was two or three years old is my mom, my dad and my brother and
GROSS: Did you ever find out whose blood was under the rugs?
Mr. SEAGLE: You know, that was very troubling, but we were traveling across
country. My dad won't fly, though he was in the Air Force, which is another
strangely ironic juxtaposition. So we would drive and he would just drive
until, you know, we'd leave North or South Carolina and drive straight through
to California. And we were just so tired that we checked into this hotel, and
it was the only room that was left. I think we were in San Antonio. And the
whole city, we had stopped at every hotel and they said, `Here's our last
And we went in and my mom at the time had medication overlap kind of before
that was diagnosed. So they didn't know, and she was kind of a little edgy
all the time, and she looked at the adjoining room door and said, `Well, I'm
not going to sleep 'cause somebody could break in here and kill us just by
coming through that door.' And my dad said, `Fine,' and he pushed the dresser
in front of it and then she said, `Well, why would there be a throw rug on the
floor? You know, you don't put a throw rug on carpet,' and she lifted it up
and there was the blood, and we were out of that room and in the car and
driving to California. Didn't stay.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, and how did you use that in a story?
Mr. SEAGLE: A lot of the comic books I work on are for the Vertigo imprint
of DC Comics. This book, the Superman book, "It's a Bird," is also for that
imprint, but those comics tend to be, you know, more like a PG- to an R-rated
movie as opposed to a G-rated movie, comics definitely for an adult audience.
And one of the books I worked on was called "Sandman Mystery Theatre," which
was a crime noire set in the 1930s. And so I had a similar discovery of blood
in one of those mysteries.
GROSS: What other comics are you drawing now?
Mr. SEAGLE: I am at the present working on "Encyclopedia Brown," who is the
boy detective, doing a graphic novel series of that, and then I'm with Teddy
Kristiansen, the artist on "It's a Bird," working on our follow-up project,
which--we have three things. We haven't settled on which one it will be. And
then I'm also doing a comic book that's another political thriller, which is
kind of the way that I started, called "Persona(ph)," which is about my
neighborhood in Altadena where I live and mysterious goings-on.
GROSS: How did you get matched up with Teddy Kristiansen, the artist who you
collaborate with on "It's a Bird" and who you've worked with on other things
as well? The artwork is really beautiful in the book.
Mr. SEAGLE: The artwork is beautiful, but that poor man--I've worked with
Teddy for a number of years, and one of the things he always says to me is,
`Challenge me.' So when I came up with this idea, I was actually at his house
and he said, `What are we going to do next?' and I said, `I don't know.' And
moments later, I had the complete book just fly into my head in its totality.
And I said, `Well, Teddy, I now do know what we're going to do. Here's the
bad news. It has to be drawn in 20 completely different art styles,' and he
did that and not just drew it but he painted it, you know?
One of the cool things about graphic novels is their ability to shift into
other art styles, and I don't even know that people looking at this would
think, as you were saying, that you didn't know they put names on the cover,
but a lot of people don't know that they paint comic books, and this comic
book is completely painted in a number of different media. And I had met
Teddy years before at a comic book convention, and it was a very loud,
bustling place, and he said that I was the only quiet, calm thing in the room,
so he was drawn toward me. We had a conversation and started working together
and have been working together ever since, but I really like that he's a
European artist, which gives him kind of a different sensibility. You know,
this book is very muted in its tones except for Superman, who is this kind of
red, yellow, blue bolt of lightning that hits the pages.
GROSS: How do you like the way the artist Teddy Kristiansen has drawn you for
your graphic novel, "It's a Bird"?
Mr. SEAGLE: I think I look devastatingly sexy, so I love it. And, of
course, it's not really me. So if he's got too much of a chin here and there
or hasn't shaved or looks a little tired, I can always claim it's not really
GROSS: OK. Steven Seagle, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SEAGLE: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Steven Seagle's new graphic novel is called "It's a Bird."
Coming up, Joey Burns of the band Calexico. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joey Burns of Calexico discusses his music and performs
TERRY GROSS, host:
The band Calexico takes its name from a California border town, although the
two founders now live in Tucson. Their music sounds like the Southwest. Even
some of their cover recordings sound like a mariachi band is sitting in.
Calexico was founded in 1996 by drummer John Convertino and my guest, singer,
guitarist and songwriter Joey Burns. They've both also played with Giant Sand
and Friends of Dean Martinez. Calexico's new EP "Convict Pool" opens with
their version of a song by the band Love called "Alone Again Or."
(Soundbite of "Alone Again Or")
Mr. JOEY BURNS: (Singing) Yeah, I heard a funny thing. Somebody said to me,
`You know that I could be in love with almost everyone.' I think that people
are the greatest fun. And I will be alone again tonight, my dear.
(Soundbite of instrumental portion of song)
Mr. BURNS: (Singing) And I will be alone again tonight, my dear.
GROSS: That's "Alone Again Or" from the new Calexico album.
Joey Burns, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you end up covering this song that
was first recorded by the Love group?
Mr. BURNS: Well, we're a fan of the group, and somebody had suggested that we
cover the song, a number of friends, and so we did. And...
GROSS: Did they see an affinity?
Mr. BURNS: Yeah, they did. I think that was the reason why. And I grew up
in Los Angeles, so I had heard a bunch of bands from the '60s and '70s and
'80s that had all experienced in playing psychedelic pop and rock music.
GROSS: Now that was an era when a lot of pop actually had horns in it,
Mr. BURNS: That's true.
GROSS: Yeah. And I'm wondering how you decided to include trumpets in your
music. I don't think you initially did.
Mr. BURNS: No, I didn't. Having played in so many rock bands growing up and
having so much guitar and distortion going on as kind of a solo instrument, we
kind of drifted to some of our roots, which was, for John, listening to a lot
of classical and jazz music and, for me, listening to the same and also kind
of getting into more world music as well as independent music and experimental
music. And the idea of going outside of the norm and tapping into textures
and sounds and instruments and arrangements, they kind of explore more color,
and expression seemed to kind of come naturally to us. We wanted to find out
what we could as far as, you know, going outside of the traditional rock 'n'
roll arrangements and, I don't know, try to bring something new, but also
kind of following in a tradition.
GROSS: Now something that a lot of people who write about you mention is the
apparent influence of the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, who, among other
things, did "Once Upon a Time in America," "Once Upon a Time in the West,"
Mr. BURNS: Sure.
GROSS: ..."The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "A Fistful of Dollars," "A Few
Dollars More." So is it a fact? Have you been influenced by him?
Mr. BURNS: Oh, sure. I mean, gosh, yeah. About eight years ago I bought a
Rhino Records compilation of all of his soundtrack works, and they're
beautiful pieces, and they're very surreal and innovative in the arrangements
and the use of doubling of instruments and voices. And I mean, there's a
direct link between Link Wray, Dick Dale, Ennio Morricone, that kind of minor
blues, Gypsy blues. And it was all recorded in the early '60s, and so it has
a beautiful openness in sound and production that really, to me, sounds like
a whole band or orchestra playing live, which is rare these days.
GROSS: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Mr. BURNS: I grew up in Southern California in a town called Palos Verdes,
which is a pretty affluent community. But my parents moved there in the late
'60s and were able to, you know, get a good house for a relatively good deal.
And the whole '70s I spent growing up just seeing the property value just
skyrocket, and I knew from then on that I would never be able to buy a home
where I grew up, just--it's impossible, especially being a musician. But it
was a beautiful place because it was right next to the sea, and so I spent a
lot of time just by the ocean and watching people surf and skateboard. And
that's what this "Convict Pool" song is inspired by. It's inspired by
skateboarding in abandoned pools.
GROSS: Oh. Well, why don't we hear it?
Mr. BURNS: Sure.
GROSS: That's the title track of the new CD. So this is Calexico, "Convict
(Soundbite of "Convict Pool")
Mr. BURNS: (Singing) Executions are merely ...(unintelligible) riding
forever. In the deep ...(unintelligible) shallow ...(unintelligible) You
skate the convict pool. Skate the convict pool. Yeah. ...(Unintelligible)
underwriter killers. For video surveillance got the convict pool in the
morning sun private collections. Skate convict pool. Skate
GROSS: That's from Calexico's new CD. It's the title track, "Convict Pool."
My guest, Joey Burns, is a songwriter, guitarist and singer with Calexico.
Did you watch Westerns at all when you were young? I think...
Mr. BURNS: Sure, I watched a couple, but, you know, it's not like I dwelled
on it. I dwelled more on, you know, skateboarding and listening to Led
GROSS: Right. Right. So you skateboarded a lot when you were young.
Mr. BURNS: Yeah. We had a ramp, and like I said earlier, there was a lot
Mr. BURNS: ...you know, emptied pools that we would go seek and take refuge
in the summer. And that song, "Convict Pool," was inspired by an article in a
skateboard magazine, because they had an edition on pools. And I was really
surprised at the magazine; I hadn't seen one in a while. So--not that I'm a
practicing skateboarder right now, but I appreciate, you know, the sport.
GROSS: Where do you record?
Mr. BURNS: Normally we record here in Tucson, Arizona, at Wavelab Studio,
which is run by Craig Schumacher and Nick Luca. It's an analog studio. It's
in an old AT&T telephone building. And there's no differentiating between the
control room and the cutting room; it's all one big space, and so everyone's
kind of there. And the vibe is mostly about just kind of being in the moment
and going with the flow and seeing what happens, which is very--you know, it's
perfect for improvising and playing live, I think.
GROSS: So you play live; you all play together. It's not one track layered
Mr. BURNS: Well, we do that, too, actually, because a lot of the members in
our group live in different parts of the US and in Europe. We're kind of
scattered, so we usually start things by playing as a duo. But we've also
done things live, too, which is a lot of fun.
GROSS: Are you able to make a living with music?
Mr. BURNS: Yeah. You know, I keep pretty busy with music. And I do
things--as far as the managerial aspects, I handle a lot of that work. But
the labels we work with are really run efficiently, both here and in Europe,
and so it makes my job a lot easier.
GROSS: Your job as a performer or your job trying to help promote the band?
Mr. BURNS: Kind of manage the band and be in the band.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. The way some indie bands get known now is that a song of
theirs gets picked up by a commercial advertiser, and the music is used on a
TV commercial. It used to be people hated to be on TV commercials, but now
it's another way to break a band. Would you want that to happen?
Mr. BURNS: Well, actually, it's happened to us. Just recently we licensed
one of our songs to Adidas for a campaign. And the thing for me that I felt
strongly about doing this was the material that was shown with Muhammad Ali
from probably the late '60s training for a fight. And I just really wanted to
see the music that we had made, the song "Pepita," together with, you know,
footage of Muhammad Ali. And in hindsight, though, I think it's tough because
you start digging deeper into the idea of supporting corporations, and then it
kind of starts spinning around on itself as far as this idea of trying to
maintain a sense of independence. And that's getting harder and harder to
uphold here in the United States because a lot of venues and a lot of radio
stations are bought out by companies like Clear Channel. And that's becoming
more and more a debate, especially around a lot of my friends in the
independent music industry.
GROSS: I want to close with an instrumental from the new Calexico CD, and
it's called "Praskovia." Would you talk about writing this?
Mr. BURNS: Sure. The song is inspired by that great time signature 3/4, the
waltz. And one day in the studio both John Convertino and myself were just
messing around with accordions, and so we started coming up with this theme.
And it kept on, you know, expanding and going. And then we made a take of it,
and the next thing you knew we had this beautiful waltz.
GROSS: Is it reminiscent at all of anything your grandfather or his father
played on accordion?
Mr. BURNS: Yeah, I would definitely say that it harkens back to maybe some
of, you know, our familial roots. Both John--his father was an
Italian-American, played piano and accordion in the household and
professionally. And my grandfather played accordion. You know, he has a
German-American background. And so, yeah, all that stuff comes flooding
through, you know, subliminally and consciously all at the same time.
GROSS: Joey Burns is the co-founder of Calexico. Their new CD is called
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: That's Calexico.
Coming up, Milo Miles remembers punk guitarist Robert Quine. He was found
dead Saturday, an apparent suicide. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Work of Robert Quine, who was found dead Saturday
TERRY GROSS, host:
Punk guitarist Robert Quine was found dead on Saturday, an apparent suicide.
He was 61. Friends say he was despondent over the sudden death of his wife
last year. Quine is remembered for shaping the sound of the '70s
groundbreaking punk bank Richard Hell and The Voidoids. A devoted fan of the
Velvet Underground, Quine played with Lou Reed in the '80s. He went on to
play with Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole in the '90s as well as John Zorn.
Music critic Milo Miles has an appreciation.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Tell me what you see. Ow! Yeah, baby. I
love--Whoa!--oh, yeah, yeah--yeah, I--I love you, baby. I love--Whoa!--you.
Oh, oh, oh, yeah. I--I--I--I love you. Whoa! Yeah. Baby,
I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I--I love--I love you,
MILO MILES reporting:
In 1977 songs like Richard Hell and The Voidoids' "Another World" revealed
that punk rock could be dense and sly in unexpected ways. And the secret was
brilliant, primitivist guitar work from Robert Quine. There's a standard
progression with great rock 'n' roll instrumentalists. They start out fiery
and expressive and, in the romantic tradition, burn out and become mere echoes
or self-parodies. Eventually you see their name on a record, and you know
it's supposed to make you buy it, but it doesn't. Robert Quine was one of the
rare exceptions. To this day, for those in the know, seeing that he plays on
an album makes it 10 times more interesting.
Quine's sharp ear rewarded your own. You could hear what he heard in '50s
masters, like Chuck Berry, James Burton and Jimmy Reed. You could hear what
he later heard in John Coltrane and the Velvet Underground. But what you most
liked to hear was how he put it all together and took it giant steps further.
Quine grew up in Akron, Ohio, and did time in San Francisco and New Jersey
writing tax law before he committed himself to music. By the time he recorded
with The Voidoids, Quine had mastered his own guitar language, and his
technique fit into a perfect middle ground. He described himself as a musical
illiterate, but by punk standards, he was a virtuoso. And when he moved on to
play with one of his old idols, Lou Reed, the result was the most challenging
and inventive sound of Reed's solo career.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. LOU REED: (Singing) Waves of fear, waves of fear, waves of fear, waves
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: A fine visual record of this period can be found on the DVD "A Night
With Lou Reed." Quine went on to make fascinating, slightly off-kilter pop
songs with Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole as well as noise/ear ambient
instruments, notably with saxophonist John Zorn.
Quine never gave up, and he never pandered to an audience. But he also never
located an ideal vehicle for all his guitar inventions at once. Quine's
finest recent work appeared in the album "Painted Desert," which came out
under percussionist Ikue Mori's name. But whether Quine was in tumult or
revery, he sometimes reached a mixture of sadness and bliss that resembled
that of another idol, Lester Young. At those times, Quine's guitar would just
sail, intimate, protective, lost in a perfect blue dream, headed toward a
place always worth the search.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. Guitarist Robert Quine died last week.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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