Thursday, January 31, 2008

Interview: Thax Douglas

Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Thax Douglas (R) discuss the merits of giving senior citizens a free ride on the CTA.

I caught up with local rock poet Thax Douglas earlier this week over some coffee at Schubas' Harmony Grill. He was there to read for local band Ultra Sonic Edukators (I couldn't stay long enough to give a good review of the show but I think this Chicagoist article does a pretty good job). When we first sat down he asked me if I wanted to go check out the opening band. Trying to make a somewhat short night of it because of work issues, I explained to him that I didn't have a ticket and I wasn't on the list. He gave me a quick smile and left only to return a short time later and inform me I was good to go. After reading poetry for bands all over Chicago for the past ten years, he's capable of these types of things. We went and watched opening band the Loyal Divide (fantastic, by the way) and returned to our seats in the restaurant. Proud and polite, Thax opened up about the local music scene here in Chicago, his own career, and what music site he enjoys reading (hint: it's not Pitchfork).

nql: How do you go about making contacts with a band?

Thax Douglas: Yeah, usually I’ll approach a band right after a show, or before a show, it depends. It’s very rare that a band asks me to do it.

nql: They don’t seek you out very often?

TD: No, because, it’s sort of like, well, I read for Girl Talk on Saturday which was wonderful and great. It was a good example of what I do when it’s most fun because I was expecting not to enjoy it because I just thought he was a shallow party dj. But I watched some of his performances on Youtube and I really got excited about it. So I just went to the show, and it helps that I’ve been doing this for ten years. It helps that I can get into the Metro. And at this point, the artists know who I am so it makes things a lot easier.

nql: You got me on the list here, is that something you can do anywhere in town?

TD: Everywhere except the Empty Bottle.

nql: Why is that?

TD: The Empty Bottle is kind of shallow itself. It has a real 90s idea of being exclusive. I think they think by doing that it will make them cooler or something like that.

nql: Did you see Dan Deacon at all?

TD: Yeah, I did. He was really good. And I didn’t read for him but I will next time. He gave me the greatest compliment that made me feel really good. He said in the DIY world around the country there are four or five names that always come up and mine is one of them.

nql: Rewind ten years to when you first started doing this, is that something you ever expected to hear?

TD: That’s why it felt really good. Here’s the story, I’ve been doing poetry seriously since ’87 and in ’91 I started doing poetry portraits of people. And it was partly inspired by the kind of poetry that I’m into which is Russian poetry from the last 100 years. About 100 years ago a Russian poetry movement Acmeism sprung up. And I’ll let you google it and look it up to see what it’s all about but it basically is a kind of poetry form that is very concerned with meter and rhyme which brings it closer to hip-hop than what I do. Acmeism is very metaphorical and very image driven but it treats the metaphors essentially in a way as if it takes place in the real world. So that’s why my poems are kind of like that. They are very strange but also very physical.

nql: So when you do a poem for say a band like the Walkmen, what do you think about, what is the process?

TD: I’ll be vague about it because I don’t like explaining exactly how I do it but I have it here. (pulls it out and reads a poem entitled “The Walkmen”). It’s a little goofy at the end because I used the word “force” twice which is usually kind of breaking a rule but I decided to stick with it. But yeah, I guess I get an image in my head, an abstract image and it just gets translated into poetry. And I sort of let that talent take its own force, you know. `

nql: Have you ever read for a band you’re not that wild about?

TD: The only time I did that, and even then they weren’t the worst band in the world, but it was for a band called the Mercury Program. And that was only because I thought they were another band.

nql: (laughs)

TD: And by the time I realized it, it was too late so I just went with what I had. And they’re by no means the worst band in the world but I just sort of thought they were a Tortoise knock-off.

nql: You seem to turn your back on the music snobbery that exists in this town, is that fair to say?

TD: Totally. I hate that. Although luckily in the past half-year it’s starting to fade. I’m not as angry about it as I used to be because I can see those people starting to lose power which makes me feel good. One of the unfortunate side effects of Nirvana’s success was that it brought a lot of people into music that normally would not have been into music.

nql: But is that necessarily a bad thing?

TD: Well, it sort of is because, you know, look at the 90s and take a place like the Lounge Ax. Sue (Miller) and Julia (Adams, co-owners of Lounge Ax) were into it because they loved the music and that’s how most venues were at that time. And after Nirvana, unfortunately, it not only became cool in a shallow sort of way it also became lucrative.

nql: You mentioned certain people were losing power, who are you referring to?

TD: My enemies in town are basically the major indie labels like Drag City and Thrill Jockey and stuff like that. Those people really hate me and at this point it’s kind of mutual. There have just been many times over the years where they have really damaged me by hurting my feelings personally or ruined an opportunity for me. There were a lot of people of the years who came to town and were very friendly to me but once they realized who the cool people were they didn’t like me anymore. Stuff like that happened for many, many years but like I said, that sort of feeling seems to have dropped off suddenly.

nql: I love the music scene here in Chicago, but I do agree when you go to shows there is often a sort of exclusive thing going on with the crowd.

TD: Totally. And the trouble with that is it starts attracting that sort of person and more of those types start coming to town. I also have a pop music sensibility and I kind of think Chicago music, going back to the 60s, bands like the Buckinghams, and New Colony Six, those were bands you would hear on the oldies stations and I thought that sort of thing was revised in the 90s with bands like Urge Overkill and stuff like that. And I sort of think this other Chicago stuff like Big Black or Ministry or even Tortoise were kind of interlopers. There was a lot of nasty stuff that happened in the 90s. I respect Steve (Albini) as an artist, and I even made record with him which was quite good—mostly because of him—but I’ve never been able to forgive just the sheer nastiness that existed against all these pop acts from town like the Smashing Pumpkins.

nql: Albini’s always seemed to have a bitterness that I’ve never quite understood the root of.

TD: What he did was he created an atmosphere of fear. And an atmosphere that made it cool to be extremely negative and divisive. And that’s still with us, although like I said, it’s starting to fade finally. Because the 90s are starting to fade, finally. But take Urge Overkill, there was someone who started a newsletter called the Stalker that was anti-Urge Overkill and just stuff like that. So I’ve always tried to keep my distant from those types of people.

nql: Well, you said the scene in town is improving. Is there anyone in town you can point to that you think deserves some of that credit?

TD: Well, I’ll tell you something it’s interesting. The band that is playing tonight, Ultra Sonic Edukators is kind of a part of it. There are all these pop bands that aren’t interested in being part of the ugly part of the scene. Even someone earlier in the decade like OK Go, they always wanted to be a part of that. They thought if you lived in Chicago you sucked up to those labels and all the publicists and journalists that worked with them. But I think things started to change with Fall Out Boy who I barely paid attention to at first.

nql: But you’re a fan now?

TD: I’m a huge fan. And nobody takes them seriously.

nql: Do you have any idea if that bothers them?

TD: No, because I only saw them once before they got famous and I really liked them but kind of forgot about them because they were a part of the so-called “emo” scene which I don’t like. Musically, the emo scene is pretty bad. So I never went to shows where Fall Out Boy would play and it just so happened that I heard them on the radio and I got excited. So I really became a fan of theirs after they became famous. And I got to read for them on Valentine’s Day in ‘07 at the Metro so I met them briefly. It was right when Infinity On High came out.

nql: Are they good guys?

TD: Well, they’re all really short.

nql: (laughs)

TD: No, they were really friendly backstage. Pete Wentz didn’t have to let me read for them and he’s the one that gave me the okay so I was fine with them. I just really take them very seriously as far as the music is concerned. You know, back in the 70s I took the Beach Boys seriously and at the time that was almost considered a very eccentric viewpoint.

nql: Well, you know, now all those indie kids really love that Pet Sounds album.

TD: Exactly. Exactly. But back in the 70s people thought you were putting on a pose if you said that about the Beach Boys. Just like I’m sure some people probably think I’m doing a pose for Fall Out Boy but I think they’re great. But the point is, through them I discovered a band called The Hush Sound who are on Pete Wentz’ label and they are doing a Beatle-esque sort of pop thing. And then all these other bands like Company of Thieves, Dr. Manhattan, Inspector Owl…they just seem to be coming one after another. Butterfly Assassins is another one. They’re all just like this new thing so I’m very happy about it. I feel like I can be more positive instead of just complaining all the time.

nql: You’ve been doing this for ten years, any particular reading or show stick out?

TD: Whenever people ask me that my stock answer is always Graham Coxon at the Double Door, I’m not sure why. But that’s the one I always think of. Basically every show is great. I’m usually pretty careful about what show I want to go to so each night is special for a different reason.

nql: How many shows do you go to a week?

TD: A lot. Actually, it’s been almost two weeks now since I’ve taken a night off. The 16th was the last night I took off, and I read at most of those shows as well. I’m back in the swing of things I guess.

nql: Do you ever get tired of it?

TD: No, that’s the thing. Before I moved to New York I stopped doing it for five weeks and that’s the longest stoppage I’ve had.

nql: Any reason for that?

TD: I was more sick of Chicago than anything else.

nql: How was New York?

TD: Oh, it was wonderful, I loved it. I didn’t stay because of the money. I don’t have an income.

nql: LCD Soundsystem has a lyric that says “New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent.”

TD: That’s basically it. In a lot of ways it’s not different from Chicago. My urban romance will always be Chicago. Where did you grow up?

nql: I grew up in a small town in downstate Illinois and moved here after law school. I always wanted to live here.

TD: Okay, so you’re probably living your urban romance right now. That means where you get used to the idea of living in a big city, living alone, and all the sophistications of being an adult. So Chicago is that city for me and in that way it’s not different from New York. I enjoyed walking all over New York. I hated Manhattan during the day because of all the human traffic jams, it felt like Tokyo. But I loved going to Times Square at 3 in the morning.

nql: Did it feel like you were starting all over again? I assume you couldn’t just go to New York and get into all the clubs for free.

TD: Well, that’s sort of the funny thing because that’s what did happen. One thing I really liked is that I got more respect there than I do here. I’m finally getting a little respect because I’ve been doing this for ten years. In New York, reading a poem before a band just seemed to be par for the course.

nql: Speaking of which, how well do you handle criticism? I’m sure you’ve been reading and heard someone hiss or say something unflattering.

TD: I’ve learned how to deal with that really well because I’ve been to enough shows. When I saw Smoking Popes at the Double Door who are this wonderful, legendary band somebody yelled “You suck” while they were playing. And if you respond back you’re just giving them what they want. I realized it doesn’t mean anything. When one guy yells “You suck” it doesn’t reflect how the rest of the audience feels and if you interrupt the show to respond to the harassing you’re just making the show worse for all of the fans.

nql: That’s a pretty obnoxious thing to do.

TD: It is. But people do it for all different reasons. You heard what the guy at the Walkmen show did? He yelled “Play something good!” between songs. He told me he was a fan of the band, but he was an outraged Packer fan. (The Packers had just lost the NFC title game minutes before the Walkmen took the stage).

nql: Was he the guy in the Favre jersey?

TD: Yeah.

nql: Okay, I saw that guy running through the crowd giving elbows and I almost made a snide comment to him about the game since I’m a big Bears fan.

TD: Well, he had bruises and he said he had been kicked out of a bar. But you just put up with that stuff. He claimed he was a fan, but he was yelling to play something good. I guess he wanted them to play his favorite song which they didn’t’.

nql: I assume he wanted to hear “The Rat”.

TD: He did. Is that their big hit or something?

nql: Yeah, that’s their big one. Do you have a favorite venue in town?

TD: Yeah, it’s the Metro.

nql: Why is that?

TD: It’s just the absolute right size for reading. It’s big enough and exciting enough that there is real glamour in reading there but it’s still small enough not to be exhausting.

nql: Do you like to reach out to the smaller bands and ask to read for them to maybe give them some publicity?

TD: It’s no idealism on my part it’s just that you notice that anybody like me who is a figure on the music scene who’s not necessarily a musician themselves, someone like Beatle Bob or John Peel, we have something in common in that we’re excited about the music we like and it doesn’t matter how big or how small the band is. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person who likes them or if millions of people like them. And all those bands are equal. So it’s just as exciting to read for someone you like in front of 5 people as it is for someone in front of 15,000.

nql: What’s the biggest crowd you’ve read in front of?

TD: 40,000.

nql: Where was that?

TD: Lollapalooza for the Flaming Lips.

nql: Wow. How did you make contact with them?

TD: It just comes from doing this a lot. First of all, I wasn’t a fan of Flaming Lips for a long time. Umm, I was friendly with a band called The Sun and they opened for the Flaming Lips. But, going back before that, I saw this band do a bunch of covers of the Flaming Lips which made me really grow to like the actual band. So I read for the Sun at that show and then I approached Wayne (Coyne, lead singer for Flaming Lips).

nql: Do you still have any sort of relationship with Wilco?

TD: No. I broke up with them shortly after the Wilco book was released. I got a little tired of it. There’s a movie about me and you can watch it if you want and that touches on it a little bit. I just read so much and got so identified with them that I just got tired of it.

nql: You felt like you were becoming the Wilco poet?

TD: Exactly. And their fans are crazy too. I call them Tweedy birds.

nql: (laughs)

TD: They’re just obsessed with Jeff and they think by talking to me that that’s the next best thing to talking with him. So I actually wrote a long post to the fan site called Via Chicago that basically said why I was finished with Wilco. That was three years ago. I don’t want to go into great detail about it. But it was always very tense backstage for a Wilco show. And after reading for a lot of big bands, like reading for Bright Eyes, it was just so pleasant being backstage at their show, that it just radiated a sense of calm so I realized it doesn’t have to feel the way it felt before a Wilco show.

nql: Where do you see yourself five years from now? Is there any sort of goal or finish line or have you already met all that you set out to meet?

TD: I just want to be able to make a small living doing this. I always want to make enough so I can find my own place and not have to worry about it.

nql: If someone were to look into your stereo what music would they currently find in there?

TD: It’s funny, I don’t have a lot of records. Go to Youtube, I have a site called thaxdouglas and I have a playlist on there live from the video. I don’t expect you to watch all of it because it’s about 30 hours but if you watch a lot of the videos you’ll see a very intimate portrait of my soul. But the reason I’m telling you to look at it is because there are a lot of music videos involved and if you look at it that will give you a very good idea.

nql: Can you give me an example?

TD: I just want you to look at it. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, Frank Zappa has been very important to me and there is no Frank Zappa on the playlist.

nql: Are there any music websites you like to frequent?

TD: I really like Brooklyn Vegan which is just a blog done by a guy out of Brooklyn.

nql: Sure, I know that site.

TD: In fact, whenever, I accidentally stumble upon a Pitchfork article I always immediately go to that site to cleanse my pallet.



Mark said...

Great interview - seriously. Thax Douglas is one of my favorite parts of the Chicago music scene and I think that's why a lot of posts/interviews about him flop. People are just fans, but you put forth some good questions and he kindly obliged to answer.

Alex said...

Thanks. I wasn't sure what to expect but thought it turned out well. He was interesting to talk to. And one quick correction....Thax gave me a ring and notified me that I had originally mislabeled the band The Hush Sound when I called them the Hush "Sounds". Stupid on my part. Thanks for the correction Thax, and my apologies to the Hush Sound.

ewf said...

Thanks for Thax! He is quite unique.

avant/chicago said...

Nice article! Long live Thax!

Thax Douglas said...

I'm embarrassed now at my raving about fall out boy-I liked Infinity on High but the latest album sucks so badly I've much less of a fan.

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