article by jennifer kelly. photos by nate keck.|
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Bobby Conn has a reputation for being an entertaining, if not always completely truthful, interview subject. In the past, he's told journalists that (a) he's the antichrist, (b) he cut off his own finger to remove a wedding ring, (c) he's impotent and proud of it... All most likely untrue but vastly amusing. In the same way that his records blend arch, self-contradictory political commentary, stuffed-to-the-gills production and revitalized scraps of forgotten musical genres (glam, disco, prog and funk), Conn interviews have, in the past, been a patische of poses, insight and utter self-parody. It promised to be interesting. I braced myself with half a bottle of wine.
The thing is, Bobby's matured. He's become surprisingly serious and reflective. He's given to paranoid fantasies, but worried that they appear to be coming true. He's hoping he's wrong about Bush and the breakdown in American civil society. He truly seems to like the flimsy genres he grew up with -- disco, '70s singer/songwriter, glam, prog -- and finds a perverse satisfaction in using them as the basis for protest songs. In a wide-ranging and (at least as far as I could tell) completely above-board conversation, we talked about politics and satire, the mainstreaming of punk, Conn's favorite president (Nixon), and his endlessly fascinating new album Homeland.
Splendid: Satire is difficult, isn't it? You have to have a certain amount of anger to want to do it, and yet if you let the anger get in the way, it's not going to be very musically interesting or funny or entertaining. How angry are you and how do you keep that in check to the point where you can make the work as complicated as it is?
Bobby Conn: Well, the complication comes from the fact that I have a very short attention span. I tend to get bored of any direction within 45 seconds. That happens, pretty obviously, musically. But also, when I write words, I always want to undermine my own perspective a little bit, because to me the issue isn't so much keeping my anger in check but keeping the perspective over where my anger fits into the real world. In the context of... so what that this marginal indie rock character is really pissed off about George Bush. How is this guy oppressed? I'm sort of seeing my own literal role in the matter. And the conclusion that I come to, over and over, is that as a non-suffering American, I'm fairly complicit in all the crap that happens. I'm not necessarily... I don't feel bad about it. I'm kind of glad that America is the most powerful country in the world, because it offers tremendous advantages to all of us Americans. But at the same time, I can't deny...I'm just more presenting that this is what's going on. This is who we are. And I guess that my anger is tempered by the fact that I feel pretty complicit, and also by how incredibly absurd a lot of the behavior of our leaders is.
Another thing about getting older, too, is -- and maybe this is just arrogance on my own part -- but I'm less inclined to believe that there are people who are such amazing humans that they are somehow made out of different stuff than the people I know. I imagine that the ability of people to deal with big problems is limited. And that's why when you get an arrogant, self-righteous prig like George Bush and the people that surround him going on about being leaders of the free world, it's just kind of ridiculous.
Splendid: But if you put the other side in power, maybe you'd have the same thing?
Bobby Conn: That's the depressing thing about it. I don't know that... I mean, John Kerry is another Yalie. He's another Skull and Bones guy. By all accounts, he may also be a self-righteous, arrogant prig, but I don't think he's... he doesn't declare himself to be ordained by god to lead America in a war against evil. He doesn't believe in the rapture or the end times. He doesn't have a lot of the fundamentalist Christian baggage that George Bush has. He's not surrounded by a cabal of sort of crypto-fascists, sort of Lear Jet CEO guys...
Splendid: Yeah, but those CEO guys, no matter who you vote for, they're always in power.
Bobby Conn: Well, I think there's a huge difference between even the most compromised Democrat and the Republican Party. There's a huge difference. I think it's really sad that Bill Clinton, who is regarded as the sort of evil liberal by all the Republican pundits, you know, when you really look at what he did and when you look at, say, what Richard Nixon did, that Richard Nixon is far more of a liberal than Bill Clinton ever was, in terms of his domestic programs.
Splendid: Yeah, but against his will. He had a Democratic congress and senate.
Bobby Conn: No, I think it was part of the times. I think it was a progressive time in America, the '60s and '70s, and everyone had to progress or not stay in power. These are regressive times. And they've been that way since the Reagan years. Maybe the pendulum swings back now and we'll get rid of this guy. But in general I think that... Bush is something special. He's something special even compared to his dad, you know? He's operating on that weird righteous motivation of, like, the successful 12-step program person. And he's really completely unburdened by any curiosity about the way that other people might think. A very dangerous kind of personality to have when you're that powerful.
Splendid: I talk to a lot of musicians who feel, more or less, like you, and a lot of them are not singing about it or writing about it. What made you make the leap?
Bobby Conn: All the records that I've done are a critique of what's going on in contemporary America, and some of them are more literal-minded than others. I wrote a song on the Rise Up record about this fundamentalist nightmare scenario coming to pass and how it would be... one of the warnings would be... as a follower of history, I just kind of feel that the more overt the levers of power are exercised, that's a sign that the institutions of power are vulnerable. The closer we come to martial law, the weaker this whole American enterprise is. I kind of see America as a Rome waiting to happen. In Bush, we may have our first Caesar. If he declares the election null and void and just continues on, sort of like a president for life, or emergency president or emergency commander in chief... who knows how he would react if he lost the next election? I don't think he'll go down easy. And then we could cease being a republic and become more of an imperium. But that's, you know, paranoid visions. I've been writing about this stuff for years now, and now it's sort of unfolding before my eyes. This idea that America is going to be ruled by this elite aristocracy, especially an elite aristocracy that's cloaked in this fundamentalist populism, it's a very clever strategy, you know.
AUDIO: We Come in Peace
Splendid: Yeah, I find it very scary, too. Now, since you've written The Homeland a lot of stuff has happened, that couldn't be reflected in the lyrics. Do you feel that writing so specifically about stuff that's going on, does that date your material?
Bobby Conn: Well, I actually was pretty conscious about not... you know, I don't mention Iraq...
Splendid: But it's in there.
Bobby Conn: Yeah, it's implied. To me it's more like... I think the best socially conscious music of the '60s and '70s is still a good listen today. It can be good because the music is just so good that it doesn't matter if the lyrics are hackneyed, or because the sentiments still resonate with problems that are current.
Splendid: So you won't be writing extra verses about the prison torture or Nicholas Berg or any of that stuff?
Bobby Conn: No. In a certain way, there was a point six months ago or so, it felt like maybe the plan, the Rumsfeld plan, was going better. Where I felt like, well, maybe things will work out the way they wanted in Iraq and then I'll feel, you know, kind of like "We Come in Peace" wasn't really accurate. I wrote that song, it was pretty much based before the war, based on the line of Paul Wolfowitz. he said the most arrogant thing, that because our intent is so positive, that will justify anything that happens, and any complaints about things that we do is just sour grapes. Because they need to come over onto our side and do what we say and everything will be fine.
Splendid: But both those regimes, Afghanistan and Iraq, they were both really horrible. You could make a humanitarian case for getting rid of the Taliban or Hussein, but no one was ever very interested in that.
Bobby Conn: To be fair, there's no way that you could have convinced America to go and invade Iraq just to remove Saddam Hussein and protect the Iraqis from his regime. That's not a good enough reason. It's sad. That's also something that Bill Clinton did with some limited success in the Balkans and wasn't able to do in Rwanda and tried to do in Somalia and was unsuccessful there. That kind of doing things for the right reasons, that's not really how the American war machine gets fired up. But certainly, what we found out with Saddam Hussein -- this really has nothing to do with the record -- but the sanctions worked. There really were no weapons of mass destruction and his regime was incredibly weak and you could argue that even tighter sanctions and more aggressive weapons inspections schemes would have toppled his government anyway. Or made the people around Saddam force a coup. Definitely, war could have been avoided. But that's not what happened. I don't think it's really... To me, what's scary about Bush is not so much the war. It's more the way that he makes decisions which is based on a combination of mood of the day and his intuition and Bible study. That, to me, frankly, that's how Adolf Hitler made military decisions. And he was not a very successful military leader, as it turned out.
Splendid: I think it's interesting, because you've obviously thought about this pretty seriously, and it matters to you, and yet your record is kind of funny.
Bobby Conn: Oh yeah, it's got to be funny.
Splendid: How can you -- if you're this worked up about it -- how can you step back and...
Bobby Conn: Because you can't make a serious... the only alternative would be... If there was a serious, really gripping protest record, like musically gripping, emotionally gripping, I haven't heard it yet. Even the stuff that comes close to it, for me, it's like a lot of R&B stuff, and a lot of that stuff is basically a gospel hymn reworked as a secular hymn. And really it's very non-specific. And then anything that's really specific is like Bruce Cockburn, and that's fuckin' awful. Sorry, I apologize to Bruce Cockburn fans, but it's awful, and I don't want to make that record. The only people that really did it well and were pop at it were the Clash. There's a lot of humor in the Clash. They really understood the absurdity of things, and they focused on really specific absurdities. And I think also, there were a lot of internal contradictions with their own behavior, which I think kind of makes it actually more acceptable to listen to rather than less. They were not very pure.
Splendid: You sort of undercut the seriousness, not just with the lyrics, but with the music, which is sort of '70s-oriented. It's genres that people think of as kind of flimsy, disco and glam. Do you feel like you need to lighten it up?
Bobby Conn: Well, it's two things. First, I think it's kind of funny that, like, I'm trying to make music from the perspective of... it's kind of a veiled concept in a way, but if you listen to the mainstream music, America is an exporter of popular culture, and what is the popular culture that we export? It's...
Bobby Conn: Well, we're past Britney, but it's Chingy and Sean Paul, it's the music of the day. It's incredibly thin. I'm just trying to take the music of the day from when I was a kid, which was incredibly flimsy -- the disco and glam rock and all that stuff -- trying to take it back, in a way. Politicize it, and also scramble it up so that it's unsettling. I'm not really into the warm, fuzzy nostalgia that Jamiroquai or Lenny Kravitz is into. But I'm just trying to make it more unsettling. And I think it's maybe harder for kids in their twenties to really understand that, because they didn't grow up listening to Kansas.
Splendid: I was wondering if part of that was you were trying to make a connection to that period in the '70s. I mean making a connection between what's going on now and what was going on then.
Bobby Conn: Not really. The other thing is that I grew up with hardcore, listening to Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Germs and stuff like that. American first wave hardcore. That's what I loved when I was a teenager and in high school. But now, to me, that stuff's all been co-opted, and that's pop. So I'm trying to take the music that punk rock was fighting against, the prog and the disco. To me, that's, in a weird way, it's more punk than punk is these days. And also, not so much on this record, but on the last one, there was more loungey stuff. Sort of easy listening stuff. To me it's more shocking than the sort of tattooed and piercing soundtrack. Which is basically, right now, the sound of the establishment status quo. Anything you hear in advertising, it kind of means by definition that I don't want to be too successful.
AUDIO: Cashing Objections
Splendid: Yeah, I noticed that "Cashing Objections" is like a whole history of '70s rock. You've got the disco thing, and then the Elton John reference and then there's sort of a hair metal solo at the end. It's all this stuff that you wouldn't think of going together, but it seems to work.
Bobby Conn: Yeah, that's a really old, old jam.
Splendid: How long has that been around?
Bobby Conn: That's actually from my old band, Conducent.
Splendid: And why hasn't it seen the light of day?
Bobby Conn: Well, that band, which was much more of an acid rock band, we released two singles ourselves and then we had three albums worth of material. If anyone's interested that would be great, but no one was at the time. We were too fucked up to do it ourselves.
Splendid: It's sort of a concept album, The Homeland. Was it a lot of trouble to sequence it and make it work as a whole?
Bobby Conn: Not really. When you listen to the back, the concept kind of falls apart a little bit on side two because I run out of material.
Splendid: Yeah, there's more personal experience songs at the end.
Bobby Conn: But I think all concept records are like that, you know? Musicians aren't really rocket scientists. So it's hard for us to hold it together for, say, Tommy. But it wasn't hard to do that. The thing that was, for me, the hardest was to find ... I actually committed to the lyrics really, really late in the recording process. At the very last couple of days, and I always had the melody ideas of the songs and a lot of the phrases but I didn't get that sort of edge and humor together and that to me is the most delicate part. It's just not, I'm not interested, I don't think it's appropriate for me to make a strident album, because I feel personally really fairly compromised...
Splendid: Do you drive an SUV?
Bobby Conn: No, I don't drive an SUV. It's not so much my personal lifestyle. It's just like, basically, I'm making records from a paranoid perspective that I hope is completely wrong. Like I hope I'm completely wrong about Bush. I hope I'm completely wrong about the threat of real social upheaval in America, because I don't personally want to live through it. I have a 2 1/2 year old kid. I don't want him to live through it. I don't want to have to move up to the mountains with an AK-47 and set up a homestead and protect myself against the outlaw government of the United States. It's not really appealing to me. I want to continue my sort of marginal middle class existence here. Send my kid to college. That's kind of my ambition and that's a lot about being in my thirties. I can't quite help but be honest about it or at least put some of that ambivalence into the lyrics, because it's ironic, being Bobby Conn and all, that I'm worried about issues of sincerity and integrity. But there you are.
You know, we change. The Bobby Conn of 2004 is much different from the one of 1998.
AUDIO: Home Sweet Home
Splendid: Yeah, I think everybody changes when they have a kid. I have a little boy, too, so I think you just referred tangentially to my favorite song on the album, which is "Home Sweet Home". I think, and your lyrics are kind of oblique, but it seems to be commenting on the way that the media manipulates people into being more fearful than they need to be.
Bobby Conn: Yeah, it's a total...it's playing on the fact that paranoia is in force at every level in our culture.
Splendid: So how do you feel about that, given that you're part of the media at this point?
Bobby Conn: Well, that's why the song, musically, is so celebratory. Because paranoia sells. It's exciting. These conspiracy theories, they're appealing because they're so much more fun and easier and more pleasant to contemplate than really sorting out all the complicated shades of grey. Right now, what I'm doing in my real life...my partner and I are trying to figure out preschool for our kid. And that's involving a lot of going to parent/teacher conferences and going to school board meetings, and that's how real political change and improving the world, that's how it actually works, but to write a record about that...please. I'd much rather write about the aliens that invented golf. It is entertainment. But also how people lose the distinction between entertainment and their own lives. It's got a lot to do with the fact that...you know, there's a reason why America produces more serial killers than any other industrialized nation. It's a quick way to be on TV and be famous. It's a way to make a name for yourself. If you're an American and you don't make a name for yourself by the time you die, you've failed. It's the meaning of success. We don't just live. We aspire to be successful.
Splendid: And famous.
Bobby Conn: It can be fame. It can be money. But it's definitely (that) Americans are people on a mission. I've spent a lot of time in Europe, and Europeans just don't have that perspective at all.
Splendid: Why do you think that is?
Bobby Conn: Well, I think they've been on a lot of missions, and they've sort of reached the bitter fruit of a lot of them. They've fought a lot of bloody wars on their soil in their lifetime, and that's a big difference. And also, I think they're a little bit farther ahead in terms of realizing what's really valuable about nationalism and group identity. They're much more socialized in that way.
But America is going that way, too. For every depressing thing about George Bush, you can also look to the fact that Massachusetts, Belgium and the Netherlands are the three places where it's legal to be married and be gay. And that's a big deal. The fact that George Bush has come out against it, directly, is a huge help, because it's going to force people to realize that this is a civil rights issue. Unless you believe that homosexuals are, by definition, inferior and don't deserve the rights that other Americans have, you have to accept gay marriage. If you don't, it's the same thing as when we made marriage between black people and white people legal.
Splendid: That's one of those things you can't talk to people about. If they're against it, they can't hear you.
Bobby Conn: I think there are very few people who think that homosexuals are evil. Very few. There are a lot of people who don't have much experience with people who are gay, and a lot of people who haven't given the matter a lot of thought because they don't have to. But really, when you come right down to it, it's just the time... there's a reason why that happened. People are fairly comfortable with the fact that, okay, there's this group of people who aren't heterosexual. It's not that big of a deal. People are at that point, pretty much. I think that represents a natural evolution of civilization. And I don't think that Bush or Osama Bin Laden... they're sort of spitting in the wind, both those guys.
Splendid: I hope so.
Bobby Conn: But the fact is that Bush, even more than Bin Laden, has the power to continue to be an obstacle.
Splendid: Yeah, I suppose. Who's the speaker on "We're Taking Over the World".
Bobby Conn: Well, it's sort of oscillates. Whenever I'm speaking, it oscillates between two different perspectives. The speaker always undermines himself in a Bobby Conn song. I'll write something that really amuses me and then undercut it a couple of lines later. But in terms of the speaker, it's sort of like, it's a cheerleading song for the Bill O'Reillys of the world. But, of course, it's way more self-aware than a Bill O'Reilly would ever be. Even though his worldview is based on neurotically patriotic news feeds, he's never going to say that. My ideal, in that sort of thing, is the cynic who is proud and at peace with his role in the world. Like sort of a Karl Rove character doing a song and dance.
Splendid: Oh, and "Relax", which I also like -- are you referring to that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song there?
Bobby Conn: No. I'm referring actually to this post 9/11 Bush line of, like, don't worry. Go ahead and do everything as you would have before. There's no need for sacrifice or change. But everything's totally fucked at the same time. I think he's one of the least empathic human beings as a political leader I have ever encountered, which is weird, because in all of the reports on him, people say that he's very charming in person. I find that hard to believe.
Splendid: Are you old enough to remember Nixon?
Bobby Conn: Not personally, no.
Splendid: I'm not really either, but my parents talk about him with the same kind of venom that I hear in people talking about Bush now.
Bobby Conn: Yeah, my parents used to talk about Nixon and wear "Impeach Nixon" buttons. I'm a big student of Nixon. He's my favorite president. He's so tragic. He's totally unlike Bush in that, he's a bad guy. He's deceitful, but totally aware of all this deceit. He's a guilty person, very guilty. And that's what's so scary to me about Bush, that he's completely free of guilt. Reagan was scary. He was free of guilt just because he was sort of so intellectually distant.
Splendid: But again, with Reagan, there was an opposition party, and now there really isn't.
Bobby Conn: There is, it's just...
Bobby Conn: Very weak.
Splendid: So I wanted to ask you about the recording process, because I read somewhere that you finished recording in about two weeks, which seems really quick considering how complicated it was. How'd you get it done so fast?
Bobby Conn: The band is a big, big part of it. It's a very high caliber band.
Splendid: Let's talk about the people you were working with.
Bobby Conn: The kernel of the band is me and Monica Bou Bou. She's my partner in crime and life.
Splendid: She's your son's mom, too.
Bobby Conn: Yeah. We live together and do all this stuff together. But she's been doing a lot of the string arrangements and sort of opened my mind harmonically for many years. She's the chief collaborator. And Colby Starck, the drummer, was part of the touring band for The Golden Age and played on a couple of the tunes on The Golden Age and he's really solidified all the rhythmic stuff in a way that I never had. And then Sled, the guitar player, is an old friend and was also a member of the touring band for The Golden Age. He's kind of a combination of Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Stockhausen and Eddie Van Halen. He has the vocabulary of all those guitar gods, but he has the taste and intellect of Bartok and Stockhausen and Shostakovich, so he's always looking for the most atonal and cryptic way of interpreting the kind actually rather cheesy rock tunes that I come up with. It's a good match. And then Nick Macri is just a really good, solid bassist. He plays in the Blue Man Band here in Chicago, so he's a theater hack in some ways, but he's also more of a jazz player, too, and has really brought a lot of Motown flavor to a lot of his bass lines. And then Abraham Levitan, who is actually going to be in New York this week, with his band Babyteeth. They're playing Mercury Lounge and a couple of other places. He's a real Tin Pan Alley piano player song writer, who, if you imagined that Billy Joel wasn't a force for evil...he's got...he really is Elton John, Billy Joel, and excellent singer songwriter in his own right, and he added a lot of Jim Steinman -- you know, he's the guy who did Bat Out of Hell. He added a lot of that kind of epic balladry. And then John McEntire recording it.
Basically, we rehearsed quite a bit before we went into the studio and then we went in and tried to kind of outdo each other with stupid ideas. When John and I mixed it, we added even more stupid ideas. Because what I wanted to make, and I want to make a record that is sort of confounding you every 15 to 20 seconds.
Splendid: I think you've succeeded.
Bobby Conn: It's not a recipe for commercial success. It means that I can listen to this record. When you make a record, you have to listen to it thousands of times, and I don't want to get bored with my own record, so that's where it comes from. But I made demos for all the tunes and a lot of the major chords and melodic ideas are there, but a lot of the fancy stuff was all added in the studio.
Splendid: Now, when you play live, do you have to strip a lot of that stuff out?
Bobby Conn: I wish we could strip it down, but we don't. We try to bring everything that's on the record there. Not so much sonically. We don't have tons of extra instruments and stuff to duplicate all the sounds, but all the arrangements are pretty accurate to the record. The difference and the improvement to the live show -- what you lose in sonic depth and beauty, you gain in middle-finger energy. It's way more punk rock live. But you'll definitely hear all those guitar runs, all the background vocal harmonies; for better or worse, it's all there.
Splendid: So you're going out on tour?
Bobby Conn: Yeah, we're going to be in New York -- are you from New York or Boston?
Splendid: I'm closest to Boston.
Bobby Conn: We're going to be in Boston next Friday at the Middle East, opening for Trans Am. We're supporting them on their tour. Their record is similarly relevant -- their Liberated album. So that's going to be a really good tour. Tomorrow's the first date we're going to do with them. In Minneapolis.
Splendid: What's after the tour?
Bobby Conn: We're going to work on a record. Not a Bobby Conn record, but a Glass Gypsies record. I don't know exactly what will happen there, but we're going to try to make a genuine group composition. See how that goes. We'll work on that this summer and tour again in October. We're going to go to the south, New Orleans and Texas.
Splendid: So how will the group project be different from what you're doing now?
Bobby Conn: I don't think I'll be doing as much singing. I'm not going to write songs. It's going to be more ...I don't know. It could be really bad, so you may never hear anything more about it other than this conversation.
Splendid: Just because I don't hear it doesn't mean it'll be bad. There's lots of stuff that I don't hear that's perfectly...
Bobby Conn: Right, I know, but we may decide that we're going to shelve it. That it's not an idea worth pursuing. I don't know, one of the things that's fun about this band is that everyone's such a good musician that a lot of times I wish I could just sort of play guitar or keyboard and not have to be the frontman. That I could just be another band member.
Splendid: Doesn't somebody have to be in charge?
Bobby Conn: That's always been my theory, but this is an experiment in not being in charge. We'll see if it works or not. It could be that no one's in charge, or it could be that... we have an idea where each one of us will be in charge for one tune, make it democratic.
Splendid: I've seen bands like that. It's interesting. It doesn't always work.
Bobby Conn: Yeah, it depends on the people in the band. There's nothing inherently superior about one way of approaching collaboration over another. It's just more what works for a specific group of people. But I think everyone in this band is fully capable of writing really amazing craft. We're going to see if we can really do it. And then after that, I'm already working on tunes for a new Bobby Conn record. Or a Robert Conn record, maybe.
Splendid: Oh, you're going to change your name?
Bobby Conn: I think I may change my name.
Splendid: I used to do that. I used to change my name between Jennifer and Jenny every few years just to mix things up.
Bobby Conn: I'm thinking about -- I don't have receding hairline, but I'm thinking about creating one artificially and dying some of my hair grey and changing my name to Robert Conn.
Splendid: It's a concept.
Bobby Conn: I may smoke a pipe on stage. And I've been writing songs on the piano. I'm not a good piano player at all, but it's made me approach things in a much different way.
Splendid: Isn't it easier to write songs on the piano?
Bobby Conn: Uh...for me right now it is, because I'm kind of bored with the guitar. At least with writing songs on the guitar. I like playing the guitar.
Splendid: It just seems like with the piano, you hit the key and it sounds like you expect it to, whereas with the guitar, there's all this skill involved.
Bobby Conn: Well...are you a musician?
Splendid: Not really. I play the piano a little bit, but not very well.
Bobby Conn: Well, there's skill everywhere... or the lack of it.
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Jennifer Kelly invented transparent aluminum.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - nate keck :: credits graphics ]