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flag US - Oregon - Full Moon 44 - 05/18/00

Elliott Smith
the Hamburger interview

"If it's too straight, I get bored"

Many people write love songs. Tons of them. But only very few people write good love songs. There's Jonathan Richman. And maybe Morrissey. And there's definitely Elliott Smith, who continues to be one of the most interesting and surprising songwriters around these days. He just followed up his excellent major debut XO (...of 1998, Dreamworks put out the CD, but Bongload gave us the LP - editor's note) with his equally amazing fifth solo record, entitled Figure 8. It's different, but it's most definitely still Elliott Smith! After seeing him perform the new songs live in the States a few weeks ago, it was my distinct pleasure to talk to Elliott again recently, this time at the Hyatt hotel in Hamburg, Germany.

Carsten: I know that a lot of my friends and colleagues, who have heard your new album already find it kinda hard to get into. Is that a reaction that you get from others, too?
Elliott: Hmmm, I don't know people usually don't tell me directly what they think of the record. But if it's hard to get into, se be it. A lot of my favorite records were hard to get into for me at first.

Carsten: I guess that most of the people who find Figure 8 hard to get into didn't have troubles to get into your previous records, though. Did you approach the new songs differently, so that they might be less direct in certain ways?
Elliott: Some of them are more impressionistic and the lyrics are more diffuse. There are a couple of songs that are pretty direct, but most of it is more sort of fragmented and dreamlike. Maybe that's it. I was just more interested in doing it that way. I can't do the same thing over and over again forever.

Carsten: Was that a concious decision, that you sat down and said: Okay, something's gotta change?
Elliott: No! It's not really a concious thing, it's some sort of imperative. I feel more interested in taking this turn than taking that other turn or taking no turn, I don't know why. Change is just incredibly important to me, trying to make it different. It's an instinctive thing.

Carsten: You did a lot of travelling after XO and did a proper world tour for the first time - id that have a big impact on your writing?
Elliott: I didn't feel like it was, but I'm sure that it had some impact. A lot of the songs on the last album were made up on tour, but I felt that it was a good thing. I don't like making things up sitting at home alone anyway. It's easier for me to feel creative if i I'm out in the world. I know for some people it's the opposite, they feel more focussed if they can extract themselves from the world, but for me being more focussed only seems to make my songs have less life. So the distraction and noise of making things up on tour or walking around or being in a bar is a good thing.

Carsten: As far as the inspiration goes touring seems to be very good for you, but I seem to recall from our last interview (before the almost yearlong XO tour) that you weren't so keen on the whole travelling and stuff.
Elliott: I do like it now, though! I get burned out in a way, but anything you're doing - once you're doing it, it seems that maybe something else would be better to do (laughs). So if I had nothing to do, all I could think of is: I wish I was on tour and had something to do, y'know? And then once I've been on tour for a couple of months I start noticing: Hey, it would be great to be alone for a minute (laughs).

Carsten: Do you have a say as far as the schedule for the upcoming tour - the States in May and June, Festivals in Europe straight after that and a full club tour of Europe in the Fall - is concerned? Are you gonna have bigger breaks than on the last one?
Elliott: I could have a say if I bothered and I probably should. I could be more involved in it. I usually don't involve myself too much in it. I usually don't care too much where it is, I just wanna go and play music. Usually days off on tour are not that great, because it feels like: Hey, we should be playing shows, we're on tour, eh?

Carsten: Right! There's this one German band, Tocotronic, that never has days off when they tour. They rather play two weeks straight and then have a whole week off to go home before they return for another two weeks or so of touring, just to make sure they don't have days off.
Elliott: Yeah, days off can be sometimes kinda boring, if it's in city where you don't know your way around and you don't know what to do and you can't find the places you wanna see and you wake up in a city that you don't understand and you don't speak the language - what are you gonna do with yourself all day?

Carsten: Do you have any expectations for the new album? Because everytime I read an interview with you, you seem to say: "No, I don't wanna be a star!".
Elliott: I couldn't even if I wanted to. The more things escalate the more you have to act like a celebrity...
Carsten: ... sitting in plush hotels in Hamburg, Germany talking to the press all day...
Elliott: Well, yeah (laughs). I love having conversations with people about music, but not necessarily similar ones over and over again or only about my own music. It's pretty artificial and I never know if the interviewer is going to ask me something about the music or if they ask me something like: Why don't you play music like I hear on the radio? Like: Why don't you sound more like this or that?

Carsten: Talking of music, I recently read that you tend to listen to your favorite record of the moment over and over again for weeks or even months and that currently it is The Marble Index by Nico?
Elliott: Yes!

Carsten: And am I right to believe that before that it was Loaded by The Velvet Underground?
Elliott: Yeah, that and the Quasi album. How do you know?

Carsten: Well, it was playing before and after all your recent shows in the States...
Elliott: Oh yeah...For some reason the Nico record is really captivating my attention right now, there's things I can learn from it. It's hard for me to learn things from Top 40 radio, there's nothing that seems to be very useful for my music, but I don't know why.

Carsten: So is it mostly old music you're listening to?
Elliott: Yeah, I guess a lot of it is. Although some of it has come out in the last year. It's just that if you look at all the records that are out there, most of them didn't come out last year, so there's bound to be more records from the past that I haven't heard.

Carsten: I guess especially Figure 8 and XO have a strong 60s feel to them, that's where the question came from... If you listen to the other albums that Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf produced, like Beck or Mary Lou Lord - they sound a lot more current.
Elliott: Yeah, I'm not trying to make it sound old, but I'm not trying to make it sound like anything either. My influences might show up... The only way I wouldn't want it to sound is as if it was recorded right now. The only kinds of music that I don't listen to is whatever is popular RIGHT NOW. Even though it might be great, I just don't feel like it. The fact that something is really everything just somehow puts me off. I don't know why that is. I guess being in the music....um, business.... or something is like being in high school where everybody is trying to be cool and you wish that you could just graduate from high school and not have to deal with all the little put-downs that people give each other and everybody trying to be the most popular guy in the school (laughs).

Carsten: How do your (co-)producers Rob and Tom fit in. You've recorded a number of albums with them now..
Elliott: This is an odd way to put it and it's not really true, but they are sort of my band except that they are not playing, but they are there and we are all on a similar wavelength musically mots of the time and ideas pass back and forth usually without really talking very much and it's good for me for them to be there and it makes things go quicker also.

Carsten: I guess there are two theories out there about using the same producer over and over again. I recently talked to Yo La Tengo (who have worked with producer Roger Moutenot on a number of records) and apparently a lot of people are telling them: Go use another producer and you will sound different, whereas they believe that it makes more sense to use the same guy, because he'll have a better understanding for their ideas and change will happen more easily.
Elliott: I can understand both angles. I'm not interested in looking for some hot producer who has hits on the radio. I like working with Rob and Tom, because they are very creative and they hear each song as different entity. They don't stamp every song with a trademark sound. I'm not trying to make hit singles, so I don't need to sign up whoever's the most famous producer right now.

Carsten: Janet Weiss from Sleater Kinney and Quasi, who drummed for you on your last tour, told me, that your songs always have tricky parts... do you try to make your music complicated?
Elliott (laughs): No, but if it's too straight, I get bored! It's not complication I'm after, just the element of surprise... it's nice to have. I like to keep moving, like a boxer, so he doesn't get punched out!

Carsten: My last question: Who would you invite to an imaginary party, so people you chose can be dead or alive?
Elliott: Wow... Maybe I'd like to invite Dostojevskij, although he might be in a bad mood and scare the other guests. Maybe he'd only come if gambling was involved. I'd also like to invite Chris Bell from Big Star. Not because I like him better than Alex Chilton, but it still would be possible to invite Alex to a party! And I'd also like to invite John Lennon, but he probably wouldn't come, cause he'd get invited to all kinds of parties!

Copyright © 2000 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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You may also want to check out our Elliott Smith articles/reviews: 1969-2003, La Zona Rosa, Austin TX, 06.05.2000, Seattle 28.02.00 + Portland 29.02.00, XO.

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