James Greer: Making the World His Bitch (and Elephants)
1. I wish I were a successful writer.
2. I wish I were a successful screenwriter.
3. I wish I were in Guided by Voices.
4. I wish Kim Deal were my girlfriend.
It’s probably safe to say that at some point in your life, most of you have thought at least one of those things. James Greer is, or has had, or has been, all of them. With his new band, Détective, and a new book, Everything Flows, coming out from Curbside Splendor in November, I asked James some questions about how he has so effortlessly made this cruel and difficult world his whimpering bitch. Also, there have been some pretty weird rumors going around about him being involved in a Broadway show with Steven Soderbergh and Catherine Zeta-Jones, so we talked about that too. Read on.
VICE: I've been hitting replay an unusual amount of times on your band Détective's new video for "Rhodesian Man," and it just keeps getting better. Besides having a lovely woman's voice going "Oooooh..." what's the secret to making a hook?
James Greer: Wish I knew. That song was written by the other songwriter in the band, Guylaine Vivarat. She is, as you say, lovely as well as ridiculously talented. And French. Which helps explain why our band name uses the French spelling: it's after the Godard film of that title, which is not pretentious at all. Right?
In general, though, hooks just come, much like any other kind of inspiration. Unless you're me, in which case you steal them.
How did Détective get together?
As with most things in my life, I blame alcohol. Specifically, the many cocktails that Curbside Splendor publisher Victor David Giron bought me in Chicago one night last year before asking me to play a show for the 2012 AWP, which I believe stands for Alcoholics, Writers, and Pornographers. Some convention. In Chicago. At the ass end of February 2012. After puking in the sidewalk, I said yes. He didn't know I didn't have a band at the time. Coincidentally, I had been talking to Guylaine (we both live in Los Angeles) about starting one, because she had a bunch of songs stockpiled. And as it turned out I did too, almost unconsciously, since I left Guided by Voices. And we wrote some together. Well, one. But the Chicago gig was the impetus for actually doing it. Once we did it and it turned out to be really fun, I wanted to keep doing it.
I heard you're touring with Guided by Voices this September. Sounds like a lot of dreamy nights. Will you be sitting in at all?
They can try to stop me, but probably won't succeed. I'll have an all-access pass.
There is always some dick out there who says they "hate" an awesome band. Maybe I don't get around enough, but I can't recall ever hearing anyone say, "I hate Guided by Voices." They are a band you can put on the stereo at basically any party and for any crowd, and the people will be pleased. Why do you think that is?
Obviously I'm biased, but I do think Robert Pollard is one of the best songwriters going, so that helps. He works within a wide range of styles—what he likes to call the four ps: pop, punk, prog, and psych—and he has a really strong sense of melody. He's definitely written noisy and dissonant stuff, and we never really bothered too much about being in tune whether recording or live, but the songs tend to be very short so they don't hang around long enough to annoy anyone. Also helps that he has a great singing voice. There's something about the tone of his voice that seems to put everyone in a good mood. His lyrics are fractured and difficult to parse at best, but that can be an advantage. They mean something, certainly, but usually different somethings to different people. Those are a bunch of little answers to a big question. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of a typical GBV record.
Your new story collection, Everything Flows, is being released this fall. Care to talk about it?
Again: Victor David Giron. After I didn't ruin his AWP party, he suggested that I publish something with him, and since I may never finish my next novel at the rate I've been going, I thought now would be a good time to collect all the short fiction I've been writing over the past few years. A lot of which represents an attempt to figure out the novel. I don't mean to suggest these are false starts or rejects or anything, but if there's any kind of connective tissue, it's that. My fiction tends to lean towards the non-narrative or—I hate this word, but—experimental end of the spectrum, and my short fiction makes even less sense. I'm hoping for a six-figure movie rights deal.
Old and played out question here, but I always like to hear the different answers to it: What do you find the most challenging difference between producing a novel Vs. producing a short story collection?
Both are terrifying. In general, I think the short story, as a form, is more difficult to master. I've only just begun to understand it. It's easier to play around with structure in a novel. That's a facile answer but I am nothing if not facile.
You wrote a biography of Guided by Voices and you left yourself completely out of it. Noble shit. I love it. Two questions: 1.) Why? 2.) How?
1.) Because I honestly didn't think my part in the band's 20-year history was worthy of mention. Also, because I'm an idiot, and didn't realize that by leaving myself out I was leaving out a lot of personal anecdotes that would have been entertaining/enlightening to fans of the band.
2.) Liberal abuse of the editorial "we." I can't read it now. The writing is so bad in parts it makes me almost physically ill. I was under a pretty intense deadline.
You were writing and editing at SPIN in the early 90s. Is music journalism (or bloggilism) a total different animal now?
In some ways, yes. It's better because there are more outlets and there are a lot of very smart writers working today, and worse because there are more outlets and a lot of terrible writers working today. Also, no one gets paid anymore, which really sucks. But that's not specific to music writing.
Speaking of more outlets, it seems your position at that time wielded a lot of power and influence because there just weren't a lot of places to read about music. Was there a bigger sense of responsibility to get the really good music out there?
Should have been, but there wasn’t. What's mostly different is that when I wrote for SPIN, I didn't know anyone actually read the magazine. What I mean by that (mostly) is there were no comments. No feedback. There were occasional letters, but they were very few, and those few were so uninteresting that we often made up a lot of the letters to the editor ourselves. They did the same thing at Rolling Stone; I have it on good authority. We mostly wrote to amuse ourselves, and we did a pretty good job of that. SPIN, when I was there, was a very unprofessional place, with both good and bad results.
In retrospect I should have taken the job a lot more seriously and been more aware of the responsibility involved, but in retrospect, you know, I wouldn't have dropped out of college and moved to NYC to try to become a writer in the first place. Luckily for the magazine the people who took over after I left took the job much more seriously, and for a while SPIN got really smart and there was a lot of great writing in there. Circulation consequently suffered, of course.
A Broadway show starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, featuring your music, and directed by Steven Soderbergh: weird dream some dumb friend who always yaps to me about his dreams told me, or true story? If the latter, what's the deal?
Yeah, it's semi-true. It's not my music, it's Robert Pollard's music, both songs he wrote for GBV (he's the principal songwriter) and some of his solo stuff. Steven and I re-wrote the lyrics with Bob (a process Bob did not enjoy). It was meant to be a 3D rock musical movie, and was set to go into production in early 2009 but Hugh Jackman dropped out. I wrote the script, which is about Cleopatra (the movie/musical was/will be called Cleo). Steven told me he wanted a cross between Viva Las Vegas and Tommy and I tried to deliver, even though I still don't know what that means. It's hard to know what he's going to do next, and he really doesn't like me talking about it. He's protective of his future projects—so many things, whether in Hollywood or Broadway (I guess), never happen for one reason or another, and he'd rather not answer questions about potential happenings when he's neck deep in actual things. But Catherine started talking about it so it's her fault. I'm not taking the heat for this one.
I could sit here all day and tell you what a great writer Greer is, or I could just put it in your face. I'm putting it in your face. Here, from his collection Everything Flows, is “Elephants” (first published in SmokeLong).
By James Greer
The elephants were buried in sand up to their necks. From a certain distance, all you could see were dozens of trunks, waving like sea grass in the desert air, and enormous floppy ears. The elephants repeatedly slapped their ears on the ground, sending vibrations through the sand that would return, with news, upon encountering solid objects. A rock, for instance. Or a truck carrying boxes of protesting chickens. Or a Bradley Light Armor vehicle. In this way the elephants could gauge proximity of danger.
You dream of a thing like this. You don’t ask for it but you dream. Also you eat, you sleep, you walk in a seeming trance through the maze of daily tasks that make up a life. Then you notice there are elephants buried up to their necks in the sand half a mile off the interstate. Maybe the elephants have always been there. Maybe they didn't exist until you noticed them. Maybe they don't exist. Maybe you don't. The elephants make you wonder where before you didn't wonder.
These are not stupid elephants. They are smart, well-trained, and have constructed, mostly with their trunks—which are more flexible than any human arm, and which can cradle a baby or rip a tree from the ground by its roots—a series of deep trenches in the shifty earth to protect them from our wrath.
Elephants won a war for Hannibal. He crossed the Alps at winter, when the best military thinking declared the Alps impassable due to drifting snow and mistral wind. The elephants, though at times buried to their necks in snowdrift, were able to lumber unstoppably both up and down the treacherous alpine passes, carrying troops armed with spears. Not a few elephants, you’d imagine, tumbled into icy chasms and died.
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