RL276 - The Authenticity Wars

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • Crisping up food in the microwave (Food and Drink)
  • Taking a steak cooking class (Food and Drink)
  • John talking a music engineering class and not getting it (Music)
  • The bass line of Portugal. The Man! (Music)
  • Different sounds of John’s voice (Music)
  • Seattle being too small for musicians or artists (Music)
  • John being the furthest out person in college (Early Days)
  • Talented bands with the hustle are in advantage over other bands (Music)
  • The huge diversity of the Long Winters was not helpful (The Long Winters)
  • Krist Novoselic becoming a politician in the rural area of West Washington (Stories)
  • John getting a Grammy certificate for writing a song on Aimee Mann’s album (Awards)

The problem: Everybody’s got a different kind of generosity, referring to John’s opinion that everybody sees generosity in a different way and he for example likes to give people a shout out if they have helped him.

The show title refers to Ted Leo staying authentic during the Authenticity Wars.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Crisping up food in the microwave (RL276)

John warmed up two slices of pizza in the microwave, which is not the best way to warm up pizza and often he would eat cold pizza just fine. Merlin recently acquired a product from the Whirlpool corporation that proports to be a pan to crisp up the thing you are heating in the microwave. It looks like a 12” pizza pan, but it is treated with some kind of aluminium (sic) that can be used in the microwave oven, which flies in the face of everything we have learned. Sometimes Merlin gets hot wings form a delivery place just for later, kind of for his table. He likes those crisped up, but the problem is that you got a chicken piece on the inside, you got hot sauce on the outside and in between there is this crisped up flowery coating thing. Heating that in the microwave is not that fun.

Merlin is a master of the microwave, in particular regarding the percentages. He is a percentage man! For John it is a time game and he puts in everything at 100%. Merlin has a really high wattage microwave, like 1200 W or more, and he always has to go a little bit south when they tell you for how long you are supposed to cook your food. It is great if you want to make hot water, because you want pure energy coursing through your water, but if you put a pizza in for a minute, it will be a very hot, possibly burny pizza. For defrosting, Merlin goes for like 10%, because what a microwave does is that it cooks from the inside out. Consider the lasagne: Often one part is scolding and giving you mouth meat, while another part is actually still frozen. Merlin recommends to consider the 40% setting!

John has two ways to use the microwave: He uses it for the thing that he shouldn’t have frozen, but he froze and wants to bring back to life. He is a master of the freezing process, and if he is not sure if meat has gone bad, he will put it in the freezer for later, because then he can cook it a year from now. Everything you pull out of the freezer is brand spanking new! If you got something that is a 2-minute heat-up, try cooking it for almost twice the amount of time at 40%. It lets those little waves really get deep inside. Let the food accommodate the waves! John thinks of microwaves as jiggling the molecules, but Merlin is saying that it is going to tickle its way through. You don’t train a dog by yelling at it and Merlin encourages John to experiment. You can’t undo microwave, but you can always do more microwave. Pizza is such a throw-away food, but John notices this about himself: He screws up food and then he sits and shame-eats it. What he deserves is to sit alone at the end of his table with a napkin tucked into his shirt and a knife in one hand and a fork in the other, just eating this shit-food, miserating in every bite. He doesn’t even learn from it! John's tragedy is that he is unable to cook a steak.

Taking a steak cooking class (RL276)

John got contacted by somebody who was teaching a steak cooking class in Seattle and he liked John to attend. John was so into it, but now he was offered a gig at the same time as the steak cooking class. John partly makes his living doing gigs and it is an out-of-town gig, so now he just feels like he doesn't know what to do. The teacher doesn’t do the steak cooking class all the time, but it only comes up once in a while.

John taking a music engineering class and not getting it (RL276)

One time John took a music engineering studio production class. He had been in recording studios over 100 times, looking over people’s shoulders asking them questions while they tell him they are changing the shelf on the bus. Although John knows what those terms mean, he wanted to expand on him knowledge further. He normally runs his vocals through an 1176 (Peak Limiter), because he loves the way that machine sounds. He knows them intimately from staring at them, but he has no idea what people are doing when they change any settings on them. It is a wonderful machine and you can do tricks on it, like you can push all the buttons in at once. They are not cheap and if John owned one, he would push all the buttons in at once and would leave it there.

John would find a setting and never touch it again. When a compressor or a limiter is doing its job, John understands in his mind’s eye kind of what is happening to the sound, but he cannot quite put together the mental picture or the map. He scopes it out as a geography over the course of a year. Maps sometimes require that you understand the physical property of the thing that you are doing. If you don’t understand what sound is, how can you make a map of it? How much can you understand what sound is unless you really study sound? Sound is some waves, but sound going through a box is electricity. So John sits and talks to engineers and they tell him you put a shelf on the bus, but what is he trying for by doing that? Then they tell him that they will just do it until it sounds good, but it sort of sounds differently good in every direction.

The class was taught by a noted engineer producer and the attendees were John and four other people. He stayed in a hotel down in Portland and the class was 3 days worth in the studio, learning all this stuff. John came out of there exactly as ignorant as he went in and to no fault of the class, but he lacks a fundamental comprehension that wasn’t in the purview of the class. John was sitting there with the duns cap on, asking ”What is sound?” or ”What are we manipulating?” or how does his voice gets turned into electricity? He gets it, he has heard it 1000 times, but he just doesn’t get it!

What is wonderful about recording is that if some tiny adjustment is made by a knob, John can perceive it and has an opinion about it. He knows enough about the words to be able to say that he wants a little bit more shelf on that bus, the engineer does it and it turns out that John was right. He has no idea though, and he is just casting spells that he learned from some wizards. Somebody liked to put 3/4-used-up 9-volts in their effects boxes, because they gave a warmer sound. They do this all the time in mixing records. It sounds amazing in the studio through your NS-10s which sound terrible, but everybody uses them. Then they tell you to listen to it on headphones and it sounds terrible. You cannot just mix something hearing it through one source, which is the real destabilizing thing. Mixing is such a delicate art that is influenced by the room and the other people’s sweat.

The bass line of Portugal. The Man! (RL276)

John keeps referring to the new Portugal. The Man song Feel It Still because everyone in the country has it stuck in their head (they are the third most popular band at Merlin’s daughter’s school, but she wouldn’t say who the other two bands were). They have made quite a bit of psychedelic music in the past and that new hit song doesn’t sound like them. They are from Wasilla, Alaska or BF Motherfucking E as they say in the North. Wasilla now is not the Wasilla of their childhoods and certainly not the Wasilla of John’s childhood. In John’s life, you could carry a gun into a 7-Eleven there. It is very small, like a wide spot on the road and the road isn’t very wide. Those guys are fun and they are taking the piss.

The bass sound on that track is already a very cool sound out of the gate. It has its own tone which is pretty unusual for a contemporary pop song. The first time John heard this tune start with this bass line, he felt that there was no way they would be able to sustain that bass sound through the track. It is a very individual bass sound, but it is not going to punch through and it is not going to be sufficient, because it is such a nuanced tone. It is plunky with a bit of a slap-back and some reverb, pretty 1960s sounding, almost like flat-wound strings and you wouldn’t think that it would manage on contemporary radio. During the production of the song, which was done by Mike D and Dangermouse, somehow they were able to keep this bass sound going and it really propels the song. It is one thing to get a tone like that in the studio and by like ”Ah, that is a cool bass sound”, but to commit to it, stick to it and make it work, that is real artistry! It is what distinguishes this song from everything else on the radio right now.

Different sounds of John’s voice (RL276)

John has started a new war movie podcast called Friendly Fire. During the first episode he apparently took a bite out of a sandwich or something. He doesn’t remember doing it and it is very unusual for him to have a sandwich during the recording of a podcast. He has no recollection of it, none! The podcast is on the Maximum Fun network with very particular fans who noticed that. He checked with some other people that he is doing podcasts with and even Dan Benjamin said that in the first recording with him, John took a bite out of a sandwich.

John does a lot of mouth sounds, but he also has a voice that comes from a husky place from deep inside a vessel. That is also why he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice when he hears it. There are a lot of other tones in it and it is a little bit phlegmatic with a little bit of rattle. It is a natural kind of amount of something and he brings his whole body into the sound. If they would record at a different time of day, John would probably be making a lot fewer noises, because a lot of them are morning noises. He thought about trying to record a song in the early morning, because his voice has a very distinctive tone that he is trying to capture in a song and he can get much lower in the morning. John hears people saying that he and Merlin start sentences higher and then getting low. Merlin is famous for starting really high. He does a Mariah and adds an octave. It is all for effect and that is what they do! Everything that is in the voice is in the voice.

John is conscious of voice-over work that is being done. Although there is something deeply wrong with the sound of his voice, when he hears other people doing voice-over work, he thinks that he could definitely do that better than them, although he would need his tooth back. John Corbett from Northern Exposure does a lot of beer ads and stuff. He got this rye Tom Bodett folksy sort of voice. In the 1990s when they were making that show, they were filming it right outside good old Seattle town up in the mountains. He bought a bar called The Merchant’s Café, which was cool, but there was a lot of scuttlebutt around town about him sowing his wild oats. It was the 1990s and he was a TV-star born in 1961, meaning he was 30 in 1991 at the peak of his fame and he was probably causing real trouble around here. John wasn’t traveling in those circles. Now he is married to Boe Derrick and she is 5 years older than he is. During the peak of her fame in 1979 she would have been 22 years. If you are in a movie running on a beach in a bikini, 22 years is a good window for that. Somehow John Corbett and Boe Derrick met one another.

Seattle being too small for musicians or artists (RL276)

The thing about voice-over work is like all work: There are a lot of people who want to do it. John had quite a few friends from Seattle who at the age of 28 started to feel that Seattle was too small for them and they moved to other places. Reggie Watts for example was a Seattle star and had a band called Maktube, but then he moved to New York and it turned out that he was correct. He was John’s Nemesis and John had heard that he was moving to New York and they bumped into each other at a party. It was a situation where they went around the corner and literally bumped into each other. They were standing there with that whole business still between them, looking at each other. John told Reggie that he had heard Reggie was moving to New York and he agreed with him that Seattle was too small for him. Reggie was surprised and that let them part on good terms because he appreciated it and he was probably on the cusp of that move and was anxious about it. Now when they see each other, that’s a long time ago. John and he have mutual friends who moved to LA at the same time because they felt that Seattle was too small for them and they were going down to LA to become actors.

John had said that to Reggie in a way that he thought was very generous. Now he thinks that everybody has a different kind of generosity. One of the generosities that John has is that he likes to give shout-outs to people. He knows people who don’t give shout-outs and doesn’t know why, because it doesn’t cost you anything to say that this person helped you, or telling you that he admires your thing, even though he doesn’t like you.

Some Rock musicians from San Francisco recently told John that you can’t be a Rock musician in San Francisco, but you have to move to Los Angeles. LA has no clubs while San Francisco still has Rock clubs, but it doesn’t have any Rock scene anymore and Merlin can’t name a single band from San Francisco right now. There was a time in the early 2000s where there were a dozen very active bands, like for example Vanderslice, Orange, Beulah and Actionslacks. Merlin went to school with their drummer. There are still all those Rock clubs in San Francisco, but their music scene is the LA music scene. It is easy for them to go up there and play shows. Because you don't always play a full venue, you want a place that has capacity for 200 and that still feels like a good room if there are only 100 people there.

John has a pretty good handful of friends who moved down to Los Angeles to become actors. At the time there was a feeling that sketch comedy was going to be a thing that came out of LA instead of New York and there were some edgy-sketch people who went down there. They transitioned very quickly into ”I hope I can get a role in this commercial for Kodak”, then pretty soon they were just auditioning for anything, and even though they were only 32 they were trying to get the role of the dad in the Palmolive ad. Pretty soon they were waiters or not even that. They would say that for every role they audition for, there were dozens of more handsome, better educated, younger, and hungrier people looking for the same job. In Seattle it was kind of a big deal, because they had a theater company and they had their own space.

The first time The Long Winters arrived in New York City, they had a big article in The Village Voice, their fist ever show was full and the audience knew all their songs. It was because they were from Seattle and they were exotic. If they had been a New York band, they would have just been just another New York band to them.

John being the furthest out person in college (RL276)

Going to Gonzaga for a couple of years was a big advantage for John. It was during a period in his life when his only goal was to be the one person who was the furthest on the fringe. In Spokane and particularly in Gonzaga, a Jesuit school with an undergraduate population of 2500 kids, it was not much effort to be out the furthest. There were always going to be people who are further out in one direction or another, and there were always people who took more drugs than John or who were more strictly edgy, but it was easy for John to be the one person who was the furthest out from the center whilst still being in the orbit. At the University of Washington with 4000 students at the time, he would have needed to be a lot more at risk of injury, first of all.

He would walk into a party at Gonzaga and do stupid shit like break a wine bottle over his head, which is much harder to do than it seems. It hurts a lot more than you think because in the movies they use wine bottles that are made to break. On University Avenue he would have been even worse off than he is and would be missing more teeth than he is. To be the weird fish in a small pond helped John a lot and protected him. It is like being the edgy goth kid at your High School: It keeps you safe. If he had gone to LA, San Francisco, or certainly New York, it would have been a very different thing for him.

Talented bands with the hustle are in advantage over other bands (RL276)

No matter if you are genuinely talented, being used to the hustle or having that extra fire or grit is utterly critical to even getting your first role as an actor. When you are young and starting out, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that people with hustle will get past you, even if you have more talent, but when you get old, at least in show business, you realize that the people who get past you are the ones that have hustle and more talent. Somebody asked John the other day if it bothers him that all these other people got famous while there was something about the Long Winters that didn’t catch fire. John asked back if they meant that the New Pornographers, Spoon, Band of Horses and The Decemberists all got famous and not him? Those bands are all great!

John doesn’t think that Band of Horses got famous instead of the Long Winters because they hustled, but it was because they had an incredible sound! They were killer! A great example for Merlin is always The Mountain Goats: They just keep on touring and putting out records. One way to get lucky is to work really fucking hard! They are an interesting example because people love them and John never liked them. It is not his thing. This band is an example where John in a weak moment would say that if you put out 40 records, people will stick with you, but when John hears people talk about them so worshipfully, he also has to realize that he is just not hearing it, but it is there. Another example might be Ted Leo: He works really hard and during the Authenticity Wars he was able to maintain authenticity in a way that is very hard. He also worked hard to maintain unimpeachability in the Fugazi Model. Those guys never charged $40 for a T-shirt.

The huge diversity of the Long Winters was not helpful (RL276)

see The Long Winters

Krist Novoselic becoming a politician in the rural area of West Washington (RL276)

John loves to watch Portlandia sketches online, partly because he has very good feelings about Fred Armisen. Merlin is currently bingeing this stuff! Fred sent John a very nice email at one time, based on his own generousness, just because he became aware of John and thought he would send him an email to tell John he liked his thing. For Merlin, Will Ferrell and Fred Armisen have just very funny eyes and he will start laughing just by looking at them. John has never gotten into Will Ferrell. There is a running character on the show named Spyke who is this crusty punk rocker in his 50s. He decides it is time to speak truth to power and get his old punk rock band Riot Spray back together (Season 8 Episode 1). Riot Spray is Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic and Brendan Canty from Fugazi. Krist Novoselic looks like a guy you would just see at Whole Foods, a pated man with glasses down on his nose.

Krist moved to the most rural place in Western Washington. There are rural places on the High Plains in Eastern Washington that are very rural. You can get out there and when you come over the rise you see an abandoned house sitting there in 2nd amendment country. In the West of Washington there are a lot of places where it just rains all the time and the main cash crop is Cranberries. There are a lot of fishermen of the kind that might not come back every time they go out. They are the real crazy ones with permanently squinty eyes. The wind blows all the time. There are shellfish people that are very shellfish. Krist moved down there and bought some land. John knows that territory pretty well and he can only imagine that even at the hill side the ground is always soggy and you are never standing on hard ground. It is kind of where he grew up, out in Aberdeen, it is the same country. There is no economy anymore because the logging that used to be there is mostly gone. Krist got his private pilot’s license and he has a little Cesna 172 and when he comes to Seattle he flies himself up there. He got himself elected to the Grange Foundation, the local agriculture board. It is effectively the government for the region, but they all just get together in a hall and argue about Cranberries. He is active in super-local politics of this crazy little way-west super-Louis-and-Clark outpost out there.

When John was running for City Council, he and Krist talked every week, because Krist was very interested in Seattle politics and wanted to help John. He wanted to make sure that John had his platform straight and 90% of the advice he gave John was dead on. There was a brief moment where he was put up to run for national office, either Senator or Governor, but he was proposed as a politician himself. He got into the race and at the first press conference somebody asked him if he was affected by Kurt Cobains death from heroin and Krist was like ”Get me out of here!” That world was not where he wanted to be. If you don’t love this grind, it doesn’t matter if you are good at the job.

To be a good City Council person and to be good at running for City Council are two totally different jobs and you have to be good at both. To get elected, all you have to be good at is the running part. Once you get in, people will discover if you are good at the other part. A couple of people on the City Council who were running together with John, one in particular, is now on there and the consensus is that he is not as good as he might have been. 10% of the advice Krist gave John was about Cranberry farming which was not useful in running for office in Seattle. He had some stuff he wanted to make sure were on John’s agenda. He is a very unusual and wonderful man. Once Duff McKagan asked to interview him for the release of Duff’s book.

John getting a Grammy certificate for writing a song on Aimee Mann’s album (RL276)

see Awards

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