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Author Thu Apr 17 2014
Photo by Ryan Bourque
Sad Brad Smith: I'm going to get another coffee.
Gaper's Block: That's going to be in the interview.
What? "I'm going to get another coffee"?
There it is again. It'll be in there twice.
I'm going to get another coffee.
(Brad gets coffee and comes back, reads an email, his brow furrows)
What is it?
Are you recording?
Yeah. Is it big?
I'll tell you later.
Do you want me to pause it? I can pause it.
(Brad goes on to explain a hypothetical situation that ends up being true. He stays off the record.)
Now, we've talked about your painting habits.
Are you writing habits similar?
Um...no. I don't know that I've formed any habits. I'd like to figure out what good writing habits are.
There are a lot of Buzzfeed articles that can help you with that.
Thomas Mann. I went to a bookstore once, looking for a book by Thomas Mann, and the woman behind the counter goes: "Thomas MAHN?" I didn't buy it, just out of principle. Probably the best decision I ever made.
What were you going to buy by Thomas Mann?
I was looking for Joseph and His Brothers. Which I eventually bought, anyway. But he said, "a writer is someone for whom writing is very difficult." And that has helped me a lot.
In defining yourself.
Well it's like what we were saying earlier, that good writers are protective of their work and someone who wants immediate gratification, who's like "look how easily I wrote this!" is probably not a real writer. Versus someone who really labors over the craft of it. But.
I agree with you.
I read a great piece in the New Yorker on Darren Aronofsky and his process directing Noah, and how thankless and exhausting it was, and I thought the same thing, just how kind of against all odds you do the things you were meant to do. Against the anxiety of paying rent, or feeding yourself, or being happy -- you end up doing it. Like Vivian Maier, have you heard of this woman?
Yeah, I really want to see that movie.
God. She's fascinating. I read a review that described her as one of the truly unknown artists.
Well who knows how many...
Right...like Philip Glass. At one point he was not well-known, but he certainly was never an unknown. He had a sort of scene. A peer group.
I wish he'd go back.
No, I'm kidding. I don't really listen to Philip Glass.
Oh, you should.
I heard him speak once. He was boring. At an Occupy event in New York, somebody put it on YouTube.
If you were to listen to one I'd say Glassbreaks.
Well, isn't that a clever play on his name...does he do that for every album?
Well there's Einstein on the Beach...which is, I think, a terrible title...
It's based on the Murakami book by the same name. I haven't read any Murakami.
I've heard they're real good. I hear the translations are really bad, though.
I get him mixed up with Kazuo Ishiguro. He wrote...Never Let Me Go...
Did, ah, Mark Romanek direct the film?
Yes, he did.
You know, his Johnny Cash video is one of the greatest things ever made. For Johnny's cover of "Hurt." The video is soul-crushing. Soul-crushing. Apparently Johnny called -- I think his daughter -- and he said, like, "Have you seen the video yet?" and she was like, "No"; and he said, "Don't watch it." It cut to the bone of how truly old he is. And June Carter. And like, him sitting at a table of rotting food with his shaking hand spilling wine over it and June standing on the stairs with tears streaming down her face.
How long has it been?
He passed away the same day as John Ritter. Suddenly everyone was so sad about John Ritter passing away. This guy who couldn't land a fucking job for 25 years because nobody gave a fuck who John Ritter was and suddenly everyone was so sad. And it's like "Johnny Cash died today, people." Johnny Cash also died today.
(Brad orders another coffee)
Amanda Bynes...what's she up to?
You know? I don't know.
I think she's off Twitter.
I hope so.
What's weird about her is that she was never a big celebrity, and the dull star that was hers already burned out and she was "normal" during that period and the insanity became a new phase of her career. As opposed to sabotaging her career and going from being a successful actress to tabloid fodder.
Well, I remember she retired from acting.
Right, and then she went crazy. And here we are talking about her.
I wish her the best. I wish everybody the best. I wish us all the best.
We're all in it together, I mean. Waves beget waves beget waves or whatever. There's this great part of the Tao of Pooh -- the only Taoist book I've read.
And it said something like: "We're like a river, in that we're all a part of one large thing and yet we're all so different." As in, this part of the river and this part -- always those parts, but constantly changing.
Right. I was just reading about that in Siddhartha.
My roommate is reading Steppenwolf.
Oh, Steppenwolf's great. It's a tough read, if you're suicidal.
So how do you write?
Short stories, or poems or songs?
Let's say songs.
(Brad nods) And that'll be helpful for me, since I'm putting out an album, and not a book of short stories. I'll wait until I'm famous.
(He takes a long sip of coffee)
The only thing that needs to be present is inspiration. And my kingdom for the knowledge of how to guarantee inspiration, or what the components are for inspiration. If there was a locale, I mean. For a long time, when I was young, I just waited around for inspiration.
Did you sit around any particular place?
My home, usually.
On a couch?
I would sometimes pace around. Sometimes sit around, on a couch, maybe. Do a lot of cigarette-smoking...
How old were you?
All through my twenties, basically. And I set my life up in such a way that enabled me to have a lot of free time to wait for inspiration to hit, which was usually around two or three in the morning. As they say, I think a lot of people write very early in the morning; and I think it's the same, late at night. When you're still sleepy, connected to the subconscious. But you don't have the energy to force stuff. Songwriting, though...maybe I would benefit from a routine in the way that writer-writers do. You know: "I wake up, I get breakfast, I write awhile, then I take a break at two, and I come back at four..."
There are so many different ways to attack a song. Lyrically, you can write the words anywhere. Which I do sometimes. When there's something I want to say I'll write the words and put music to them. A lot of times the music comes first, though, and there's no words. Which is probably the hardest -- trying to write words to fit a melody.
Does it feel forced?
A lot of times, yeah. I mean, the best songs happen all at once. They get written in ten minutes. "Help Yourself" I wrote like (snaps) that. It just came out. Start singing, and those first couple of lines...the rest followed. Neil Young says that when a song starts coming to you, you have to stop what you're doing and finish it, you have to write it straight through. You can't write a verse and think, "I really like this!" and put it away and save it. Of course, his songs often sound like first drafts and you wish he would have gone back and fixed some of those lines.
Like "Ohio," what was that about?
(Laughs) There was only one verse!
What's so interesting? Why that state?
That song was interesting because that song was on the radio like a week after the shooting. They wrote it that day, went into the studio, recorded it.
Wow. You think about Facebook and that kind of reaction-machine and then think about the impact of one song like that -- it's pretty cool.
Yeah. Pretty neat. But, a lot of times random words will come up that point in the direction of what the song was about. It often wasn't up to me. I've got a song that I haven't recorded -- actually, well, this will illustrate some of the issues with that. I wrote a song and it came out all at once. But I always intended to change the words. I still don't know what it means. The refrain of the song is "rest your head on my gun." It says that a few times; and I guess it's alluding to suicide, but even I don't know what it means. And to bring up guns, the imagery, and stuff like that...if I'm going to be talking about guns and suicide, it should be about that. Which happens to be a subject I have interest in. There have been a number of suicides in my family, and it's always been an idea that has fascinated me. But I'm not saying anything about it in that song. Now, it's sort of like: "Has too much time passed to go back and make the song about something else?" If I don't, I probably won't do anything with the song, which is too bad because I really like the melody.
(At this point we're interrupted by a friend of Brad's whose sister is moving to Chicago to study at DePaul. "An actor, like you?" Brad asks. "No, she wants to be a creative writing major," his friend says. "Well," Brad says, "then at least she'll experience real loneliness, instead of loneliness with a big group of lonely people." They leave and we return to our conversation.)
So you were saying suicide.
I think I will put in the -- you know, "suddenly, we were interrupted by a friend of Brad's...creative writing...loneliness..."
Yeah, you'll have to revisit the recording.
So, if -- you understand that the article must have an ending.
Some sort of coda.
If you were constructing an interview about how you write, how would you end it?
(Brad pauses for a beat and taps his foot on a leg of his chair)
With a gunshot.
Brad Smith lives alone in Logan Square. An accomplished actor as well as writer and songwriter, Brad is in the process of authoring his first feature film. As Sad Brad Smith, his new album Magic is out May 20. Find out more here.