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SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #38: Dinner at Martha’s House

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If you did not come of age as a listener to the popular song between 1975 and 1979, you cannot entirely understand the revolution that took place among women. Before 1975, there was Linda Ronstadt, Janis Ian, Karla Bonoff, Laura Nyro, after 1975, there was Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Martha Davis. After 1975: no longer the mere affirmation of domesticity, nor the pensive, somewhat passive girl singer of the early seventies. The lead singer who happened to be a woman of the late seventies helped remake rock and roll and to create a genuine political difference in the music of the punk and post-punk period. There were, at last, roles for women. They were significant roles. And the music that these women made seemed more honest somehow, more true, more like the facts on the ground. That honesty was refreshing and new. Patti Smith didn’t seem to brush her hair, didn’t look after her clothes much, didn’t shave under her arms, etc., and yet she was everyone’s role model, men and women alike.

The revolution doesn’t happen all at once. There are incremental bits of progress along the way, markers of change, but you don’t always see them that way. You’re just listening to music, liking the things you like, not evaluating based on the political criteria. But then in retrospect “Gloria” by Patti Smith seems like a watershed, like nothing that has ever happened before. Or “Tattooed Love Boys,” by the Pretenders is shocking in its directness and completely bizarre in its time signature. There are these intermittencies along the journey, like “52 Girls,” with its crazy fake girl group sound and aesthetic, or “Hanging on the Telephone,” or “Rip Her to Shreds,” by Blondie, or “Tell That Girl To Shut Up,” by Holly and the Italians, or Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, or what have you. There was a woman who desired, and lived and was not a muse, and she made music that somehow told the truth, and the truth moved you, and then, in regarding her, you came to see how things changed.

One such song for me, an incremental strep, a song that seemed to come out of nowhere, fully realized and totally new, was a song called “Total Control,” which I first heard on the radio at the tail end of my high school years in 1979. The thing I liked about “Total Control” at first was the total simplicity of the chords, the slightly somnolent tempo, and the mixture of soulful Phil Spector-ish girl vocals with totally in-your-face lyrics. The chorus, which represents the big dynamic shift in the song (the verses are quiet, the chorus is big) is thus: “I’d sell my soul for total control over you.” This was a big change from “Help me, I think I’m falling in loooooove again.” (And no disrespect to Joni Mitchell!) It was, and remains, an incredibly moving thing to hear a woman sing that line: “I’d sell my soul for total control over you.” Women aren’t supposed to be the ones who make that particular deal. It’s the men who historically barter their souls. In fact, nearly every intersection in the South features a boy guitarist trying to find a taker.

And yet here is “Total Control,” by The Motels. Everything about “Total Control” is strange. The introduction seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the song (though it is essential to how it takes flight), a little string-dampened thing that goes through a couple of passing chords before it lands on its very traditional “Hang On Sloopy” progression, though here played with an understatement that is funny and tasteful, all this while the singer, the aforementioned Martha Davis goes, “Looking counter clockwise, knowing what could happen, any moment maybe you, maybe even you . . .” It’s the counterclockwise that gets your attention, initially, as if indicating that the thing is not going in the direction you imagine it’s going to go, which it’s not, while the second verse slips in “steadfast collapse,” where “looking counterclockwise” summoned you forth before, and then the third verse includes “stay in bed, in stained sheets, my head hurts, I repeat, maybe you, maybe even you . . .” the first appearance in the modern pop song of stained sheets, and all of this coincident with the faux-delicacy of “lover’s touch, it’s pure delight,” which you cannot be sure is not being offered ironically, and all of this, anyway, is balanced with the chorus, “I’d sell my soul, I’d sell my soul, for total control over you.” Myself, I would not sing that line without legal indemnification. It’s bound to fuck you up in the long run, a lyric like that. Only the courageous singer can attempt it.

When you consider what The Motels did later, some rather gigantic hits, e.g., like “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” each with its stylized and occasionally ironic moments, it’s pretty clear that the Martha Davis romantic narrative is astringent, dark, ambiguous, noteworthy for failure, funny, torchy, in a sort of Marlene Dietrich or Judy Garland way. She’s the kind of singer you can imagine putting a hand to her forehead to swoon, meaning both that she is swooning and that the gesture is bankrupt and that you can’t take all of this seriously; and yet to say this, that in this way she was a little bit like Judy Garland, misses how soulful her voice is, how very nearly gospel it is. She has some Irma Thomas about her too, or some Ronnie Spector, too. Still, “Total Control” for me is more obvious because its musical treatment is unironic, less show business, than when they got more famous. It’s not punk, because that would be to be too programmatic, but it has some shares ambition with punk, and that’s why I liked it in the first place, and why I like it still.

“Total Control” is a song I think about a lot, and have thought about a lot, over the years, on that list of songs that kind of got away, but which I think are incredibly great, and should be better known, and if I ever record that album of covers “Total Control” would be on it, along with “Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call,” by Miracle Legion, and “Spoiled” by Sebadoh, and “Winona,” by Matthew Sweet, and “The French Inhaler,” by Warren Zevon, “History, Part Two,” by the Minutemen, “Look For the Good in Others and They’ll See the Good in You,” by the Chills, “Hallelujah Europa,” by Jonah Lewie, “First Light,” by Richard and Linda Thompson, and and so on. And it was in this regard, thinking about “Total Control,” that I happened upon a video of Martha Davis with backing band (youngsters who are willing to live in a van and go out and play the hits) performing the song in front of an American flag, audience indifferent and wildly engaged in equal portions, both gabby and worshipful, while Martha is turning in a moving, intense, funny, indisputable performance of the song. It is true: Martha Davis is no longer an ingénue—it’s thirty years since this song was recorded–and that is part of why this is an incredible video. Her voice—despite, one surmises, innumerable cigarettes—is amazing, full of the wisdom of experience. And she is not above a performative gesture for the sake of rhetorical power. I found this video riveting, and so I figured I would have to meet Martha Davis somehow. You know, you say these things, like I would like to meet so and so, and most of the time it never happens, and that’s fine, because, by and large, meeting the people you once admired is a disappointing affair. But I found a way to get to Martha Davis, and it further transpired that I was going to be in the West this summer, so I asked if she wanted to do an interview about “Total Control.”

I did not expect to be invited to dinner. Davis lives north of Portland, and I was driving to the Oregon coast, and so instead of conducting the interview at a neutral location in the city Martha invited me (and Laurel Nakadate, who took the uncanny photographs included here) to dinner, which was pasta and salad, and also to see her farm, her llama, her cow, her donkey, her pigs, her goats, her turkeys, her ducks, and her many dogs and cats. She also played a bit of guitar in her living room, and introduced us to one of her daughters, Maria. Martha, the mom in this story, is strikingly beautiful still, but totally approachable, and she has lived through a lot more than just The Motels, viz., the late sixties in Berkeley, a couple of divorces, suicide, estrangements, the death of her pet monkey, the inconstant affections of the listening public, and so on. She is funny, philosophical, wise, and warm, in a way that makes you feel lucky to have met her. What follows is the transcript of the interview portion of the conversation, but there was a lot else we talked about, like: the seventies, books, drugs, the record business, marriages gone bad. I felt like I had known her a long time. She doesn’t seem like a revolutionary, like one of the revolutionaries who made music by women sound more like the lives of women, but in my life, anyway, she was just that, a revolutionary.

***

The Rumpus: So when did “Total Control” come about?

Martha Davis: There you go starting the interview.

Rumpus: The personal digital device is already recording.

Davis: A professional! Umm, I had actually written that song, in the before time, with the other, first Motels band. When I was going out with Dean Chamberlain. That song is dedicated to Dean because he broke my heart. I wrote it as a punk rock song (singing). So I just had the lyrics sitting around and one day in the rehearsal studio Jeff started playing that melody and I just sang those lyrics along with him. Which is why I think it has the power that it does. It came from a very angry place, and it came out very calm and weird.

Rumpus: The playing is so restrained, and the lyrics are so intense and angry.

Davis: Obviously it wasn’t premeditated. It was just something that happened in the rehearsal studio one day and Jeff started playing and I just started singing the lyrics over it. So God bless happy accidents.

Rumpus: Musically, it’s punk mostly in its simplicity–it’s a 1-4-5 chord progression, and it’s not really syncopated or anything–like an American version of what a punk song might sound like. But you’re saying that you actually really thought it was going to be more of a punk song at the first blush of composition.

Davis: At first it went [sings noise]. I don’t write a lot of punk songs but I wrote that one. It just goes to show you what can happen.

Rumpus: That’s back when you were rehearsing in the same studio with The Go Go’s.

Davis: It was our studio and they came along and they wanted to show the space. So we said, “Sure, come on.” They’d come in, and the microphones would be down here covered with, like, dayglo lipstick. Then we got signed first and they were like, “Oh man that’s so cool. We’re moving our gear to your side of the room and maybe we’ll get lucky too [laughing].” And they certainly did. In fact we’ll be playing with the little go-gets at the Hollywood Bowl, on September 29th.

Rumpus: Did you think about punk at that time at all? Or did you just think: I’m writing whatever song I’m writing?

Davis: It was hard for me to not do what I normally did. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music. I listen to David Bowie, I love Eno. All the guys in my band know everybody and what they’re doing, what they’ve done. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t listen to that much music. I listen to NPR, so when I listen to music on the radio I listen to classical music. I don’t think I’m doing it on purpose necessarily, but there is something about keeping it pure. I mean, we’re all influenced by stuff. I would say my biggest influence is David Bowie and I don’t sound anything like him, sadly.

Rumpus: So maybe it was just sort of historical pressure that caused you to get slotted into Punk/New Wave.

Davis: We went through some strange things. We moved down to LA in ’75. Dean was working at Warner Brothers, and he actually went to the finance department to get a loan. They asked, “What’s it for?” And he said, “For a demo.” They said, “You guys are ready to make a demo?” He goes, “Yeah, that’s why I want the loan.” So they paid for us to make a demo. I can’t remember all of the songs. Anyway, we got passed on by Warner Brothers because we were too weird. And that was, like, six months before the industry decided that punk was in. Because the thing is we were railing against the California sound—Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles. We wanted something different, something edgy and weird. Punk hadn’t even happened yet here, so, we did this demo and they said, “No, sorry you’re too weird.” Then punk hit and then we were too melodic.

Rumpus: Right.

Davis: Because we did have melodies. New wave just opened a lot of possibilities for everybody because you had so many different types of sounds. It was all over the place, and that was the only way we could kind of fit in. How do you guys feel about mayonnaise?

Rumpus: Mayonnaise?

Davis: Well, I came up with this new dressing the other day, and I really like it but it involves mayonnaise. I don’t know, some people are very sketchy about mayonnaise.

Rumpus: I’m fine with mayonnaise.

Davis: Let’s see if this works, it’s good.

Rumpus: Here’s another question about “Total Control” then. Is it an allegory about the music business?

Davis: No.

Rumpus: Not at all?

Davis: Not from where I’m coming from.

Rumpus: How about when you sing it now?

Davis: No. The song has gotten more emotional to me because of different things that have happened with that song, if you want to hear a good story. As soon as I get this avocado sliced. I was touring in Paris . . .

Rumpus: What if I was to say we should have a bowl to put the olive pits in?

Davis: Do you remember Policy, my solo adventure?

Rumpus: Yeah.

Davis: The sax player, Larry, he became my boyfriend. (I like to do that a lot.) We were together six years. Actually, engaged, but at one point he had this secret stealth project he wouldn’t tell me about. So that sort of sets up a flashback in the story: I was in Paris in the eighties before I ever met Larry, long ago, and I was on a press thing. It was just me not the band. And my EMI rep there was this guy Lauren, who was amazing . . . and very beautiful. It was Paris, he was beautiful, I was . . . me. So I had this amazing affair with this guy for three days. Incredible. Super cool. I always thought I would hear from this guy again, sooner or later. Never did, never ever. Turns out the secret project Larry’s been working on, years later, is with this Brazilian singer, a model person, and she wants to do “Total Control.” It was, she says, her boyfriend’s favorite song. Her boyfriend Lauren who died in an automobile accident. Yeah! And that was their song. She even told Larry that they had it on the answering machine back in the days when people did things like that.

Rumpus: Wow.

Davis: I used to think: why did I never hear from this guy? We had an awesome little thing! And it was so sad. So often times when I sing “Total Control” I think of that.

Rumpus: It’s such a dark lyric.

Davis: It was dark times, you know. You have no idea. Before I was signed, I had two small children, I had moved to fucking LA from Berkeley, which was crazy. I had no money, I was living in Echo Park, and it was not friendly. I was living in a hell house, there was a maniac living down stairs who ended up killing himself by walking into traffic on the 101. There were paint sniffers in the basement. It was HELL, it was hell, and you know, Dean, the guy I wrote the song about was the first guy—after my husband—I loved. (My husband I fell in love with when I was twelve.)

Rumpus: When are you going to finish the part about Dean?

Davis: Oh, I was so in love with Dean, and we were in the band together, and I met him because we were in the band together, and then we fell in love. Then it crumbled, and it was really hard because we were in the same band, and we were so poor we were all living together. I think Dean and I were actually sleeping in the same bed but we really weren’t together anymore.

Rumpus: That’s the kind of shit you only do in your twenties.

Davis: Yeah, and that’s why I sold my soul for total control. That’s where it came from. You’re so torn because the desire to do the music is so huge. I said: It can never come on stage. No matter what we’re going through it cannot come on stage.

Rumpus: Did that prove feasible?

Davis: I found it more difficult when Tim, my guitar player and boyfriend during the Careful/Apocalypso era, got rough with me a couple of times right before we went on stage. Dean and I worked out good. Do you know the story about how the band, the first band, broke up?

Rumpus: I read something about you serially inviting everyone to a bar and firing them.

Davis: No, no that was the actual band that was signed to Capitol. With the first lineup we were playing the Starwood, in LA, and we’d been doing pretty good, and one night this guy comes up and says, “Dude, there’s a guy from Capitol records that wants to talk to you guys. I think he might want to make a deal.” And I’m like, holy shit. So I meet with this guy, Carter, who sadly died last year. He was this amazing, amazing record business guy. I was so nervous I think I spilled a glass of wine in his lap or something, but he was really sweet. He said, “I think you guys have something great, I would really like to talk to you,” and blah blah blah blah blah. And I went back to the band, and said, “Hey, this guy wants to sign us.” Robert, our drummer, says, “Well, I’m quitting the band.” And everybody was, like, “Oh man!” Robert and I were connected. In those days, we were playing a lot, opening up for Van Halen and stuff. They weren’t signed yet so they were pulling these large crowds and all these girls, and the guys were, like, We should play more like those guys. I was just listening to David Bowie, and me and Robert the drummer thought: No, we need to be more like this. So there was a real musical divide, and that night the band broke up. It took a while to get the next version together.

Rumpus: So you met the Van Halen meatheads?

Davis: Eddie was so cute when he was little. All he would do was play his guitar. David was hilarious. I would drag my kids with me everywhere I went. One time I took my daughter and  she was standing by the stage and David Lee Roth comes over and does one of his rock poses, my daughter just rolls her eyes, pretty much shuts him down on the spot. She was nine.

Yeah, those were some crazy days.  Phil Spector came down to one of our shows, too, and pulled a gun on one of my children.

Rumpus: So one of your children is on the long list of people that Phil Spector pulled a gun on..

Davis: Yes.

Rumpus:  Along with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones.

Davis: Everybody. That guy. Maybe just a too much, too young. He was nineteen when he became a millionaire. What was that in the 1950’s? That’s not good for anybody.

Rumpus: If you were to describe an ordinary act of composition for you, how would you describe it?

Davis: First of all I never ever sit down to write a song—unless it’s an assignment. Generally, I’ll be going about my own business and then part of a song will come along. Something will inspire me, something will happen, and not one but two or three songs will come in a day.

Rumpus: Really?

Davis: The most I’ve written is ten songs in a day.

Rumpus: Chorus first?

Davis: It used to be only music.

Rumpus: Only music, then you write the lyrics later? Really?

Davis: I never think about lyrics, ever. It’s spew and edit, mostly I just try to get out of my own way.

Rumpus: Did you just say . . .

Davis: Spew and edit.

Rumpus: Spew and edit, okay. When you say music first, do you have a guitar in your hands or do you just sing a melody?

Davis: If I’m in the mood I’ll have the guitar in my hands but usually I’ll just sing the melody. Really, I come at my songs from all directions. I started from just playing my guitar in my room. I would just go there and that was my solace, and I’d go and make stuff up. I’d be sitting there playing, messing around, thinking I had found a new chord even if it was something basic. It’s quinoa pasta, by the way, I’ve been trying to do the gluten-free thing.

Rumpus: Have you noticed a dramatic difference?

Davis: I’ve noticed I’ve lost some weight. Bread is so wonderful and easy, and delicious. I think we’re going to have dinner now.

Rumpus: Alright.

Davis: Songwriting is weird because especially now at the ripe old age I am, and as long as I’ve been doing it, it’s just natural to me now. I seldom ever change a word.

Rumpus: It just tumbles out?

Davis: Fully made. I’ve written with a lot people. I’ve done a writing session with Diane Warren.

Rumpus: Wow. What was that like?

Davis: Painful. Like a job. Whereas I let the things fly out, she’s agonizing over stuff, and it was stuff that was not good. I’ve written with Carole King.

Rumpus: She’s a hero of mine. As a songwriter.

Davis: She’s pretty awesome.

Rumpus: We just got that demo collection of hers, The Legendary Demos. It’s unbelievable. There’s not a bum note in the whole thing and it’s not even the definitive recordings. She’s got some intense genius.

Davis: She’s amazing. That whole school . . . Something happened in pop where what’s good about it is gone. There isn’t the same kind of heart put into things. I think it’s the computer.

Rumpus: Sure.

Davis: A song is a thing. It’s an entity, it’s an art, it’s a story. It has a pay off. It has all these parts that should be there and the only way you can get there is to travel the road to its end. And people started going, oh that’s a cool bridge, let’s plug it in here. I don’t know . . . I’m not saying that the computer isn’t a great tool . . .

Rumpus: Did you do a lot of digital editing on the recent albums?

Davis: Not me.

Rumpus: Or did you record live in the studio?

Davis: The songs were all written as songs with no shenanigans. I mean, we recorded digitally like everyone else. But I’m still old-fashioned that way. I think a song is a song is a song, and it should be written as such.

Rumpus: So when you make three songs in a day do you have a specific agenda? How you want things to come out?

Davis: It depends. I mean, with the kids’ album—that’s the one where I did ten songs in one day—you know what you need to do. Songs come out of thin air, and I always love when that happens. When I was Capitol I was always under pressure to write something, that’s not a way to write a song.

Rumpus: Did you know when you were writing monster hits? Did you know “Only the Lonely” was a monster hit when you wrote it?

Davis: No.

Rumpus: No?

Davis: No, no idea.

Rumpus: On a song like that did you know where the lyrics were going in it and what role they would play?

Davis: All I do is get out of my own way. I was blessed with this because of my mom, probably. I would blame her for my lyrics. She was a very brilliant woman, who wanted more than anything to be Virginia Woolf. She wanted to write. She was a Phi Beta Kappa English major at Berkeley. She love, loved, loved her literature. For bedtimes stories my sister and I got Henry Miller.

Rumpus: That explains it!

Davis: She really loved the stream of consciousness. Words don’t have to mean anything but they can mean something. That whole thing of it’s not about the literal meaning of the word but the feel of the statement, you know, and she gave me all that. I was in the slow reading class, and I never read books until I was older, I was really lame that way. Now, I love books.

Rumpus: So when you wrote “Suddenly Last Summer” you didn’t think about the Tennessee Williams reference? You just liked the sound of “suddenly last summer?”

Davis: I knew two things. I liked alliteration and you can’t copyright a title. Incidentally, I met Roy Orbison and I apologized to him about the title [“Only the Lonely”] and he was like, No I like your song. With “Suddenly Last Summer” I didn’t see the movie until after I had written the song.

Rumpus: So you didn’t know there was a little cannibal subtext?

Davis: I had no idea. The really good stuff comes from your subconscious. That’s why it’s so important to get out of your own way and not to be smart about it. Just let it happen. That song started, I remember it distinctly, I was sitting in the backyard in Berkeley before I moved to Los Angeles. If I was in the house that meant both of my parents were dead, so probably ’73 maybe. I was sitting in the backyard and all of a sudden this chilly wind came up. It was the end of summer, and it had that bite to it, like winter was there, and at the same time I heard the ice cream truck. I said, this is probably the last time I’ll hear that this summer. At the same time I was thinking about myself, at twelve years old, losing my virginity over the summer, and your life will never. . . . You know, things change that you can never bring back. And so, years later—when did I write that song, ’80-something? Ten years later maybe? Three o’clock in the morning I am awakened by [sings melody], it woke me up, and the song came out. That a song can percolate so long, it’s so awesome.  Okay, so when did you first hear “Total Control?”

Rumpus: Well, I was in high school in New Hampshire in the ’70s. I went to private school, I actually went away to school when I was 13. So I was in Concord, New Hampshire, and as you can imagine Concord, New Hampshire, was slow to get the message of the revolution in rock and roll. There were a lot of deadheads in my school, the preeminent music at my school was Grateful Dead, Traffic, Allman Brothers Band, the music of the aristocracy, it turned out. I listened to a lot of stuff that a lot of people found totally unlistenable and I was kind of happy about it. You know, Roxy, Bowie, Pink Floyd. Proggy stuff. So senior year, a few odd things happened. The first thing was I worked at the radio station. I was asked to do this weekly show where we would play a new record in its entirety. And I had to play Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. And in the course of that I got to this song called “Green Shirt,” do you remember that song? [Sings melody.] It’s this totally weird chamber piece, not a representative song on that album, totally paranoid lyrics. I thought, “Oh my god, there’s something really different happening that I knew nothing about.” So I instantly became obsessed with that record, and got the other two that came before it. And for me that was the leading edge of the thing that happened about when the first Motels album came out. I started trying to find out about the other things that would be nominally grouped with this item, “Green Shirt,” that had come to mean so much.

Davis: And you didn’t have Pandora then did you?

Rumpus: We had nothing. We had fucking Rolling Stone magazine. And there were all these Boston bands that would occasionally play in Concord, and we had a dance at Saint Paul’s where two sets were played by an up and coming band called The Cars. So they played to three hundred prep school students, and they played “My Best Friend’s Girl” three or four times because they only had the one set, and that was it. I began to realize that there was a set of presumptions at work in this new music that were really different from, say, the Allman Brothers Band, or Jethro Tull. And: there was this really good Boston radio station with an overnight deejay called Oedipus. Did you ever meet that guy?

Davis: WBCN?

Rumpus: Right. That guy had a show at, like, eleven at night, where he would only play new music, and someone there had your album, liked your album. Sometime on that show I heard “Total Control” and it had all the aspects of what I thought was so good. Namely, like, any person could play the guitar part, the 1-4-5 chord progression for most of it, singable chorus, very dramatic chorus, and then the darkest, nastiest lyrics. Not a sentimental moment in the entire thing.

Davis: Do you know how many have not been able to play that song? I’ve lost musicians that seemed fine and they get to that song because it is so slow and, and the arrangement is a little strange. People get lost.

Rumpus: The weird part for me is the sax solo.

Davis: Does that freak you out?

Rumpus: Yeah, because I was very anti-sax, very against horns in those days.

Davis: Uh huh, I understand. We have our things, and it’s funny how you grow out of them. That was my concept, I really wanted horns. Like in a film noir. I’ve never lived in New York, but all I picture are these wet alleyways and the sound of a saxophone bouncing off the pavement. I mean that’s what I wanted, that one guy sitting out there blowing kind of thing.

Rumpus: Everything except the sax appealed to me righteously.

Davis: Did you really like get in a trance and then the sax came and you were like, Ahh! ?

Rumpus: A little bit. Like: how can I love this song if it has the sax? But I loved the song so much that I persevered. For me it’s the obtuse angle of the song that is of interest, not only because I think it’s an allegory for the music business.

Davis: It’s an allegory for life.

Rumpus: How people relate to other people, what it means to have ambition and so on. But the larger question is: how does the revolution take place music? What is the structure of musical revolution? There are little stepping stones on which massive change takes place, and here’s some song that you made up because the guitar player started playing slow in the studio one day and you start singing these words over it but because of the slow motion of the tempo and the way the guitars work to me it sounds of a piece by the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop something that was all about moving us in a direction where music didn’t have to do with the bromides of love.

Davis: Which is exactly what we were fighting against. That homogenized, rich, full, beautiful sound. And trust me the tempo and dynamics in “Total Control” are quite profound.

Rumpus: And I love about those old records there was never a click track. Those bands you can actually hear the tempos change a little bit. That sounds beautiful to me.

Davis: The jazz album [I Have My Standards, as yet unreleased] was so cool because I got Marty Jourard to come down, the original [Motels] sax player, and a bass player, and a drummer. I’d never even met the upright bass player. I’d met the drummer but never played with him. [Barking] Chico! Really? Is there an animal out there in danger? Is the barn on fire? Or are you just an asshole? So it was me, Marty, Alan, and Pauly. And we didn’t have one rehearsal and Marty made some charts and we cut it in two days. It was so awesome and we didn’t have a click track, and I was singing all day for ten hours a day. I should bring a copy so you can have it to take with you.

Rumpus: I remember hearing “Suddenly Last Summer” on the radio and it was one of those great events for me because you were a band that I thought was sort of my secret, and then suddenly everyone was getting it. And the idea that you would write a song that had a Tennessee Williams allusion in it–for a guy going to university in creative writing in the eighties that seemed exceedingly smart.

Davis: My mom probably read it to me when I was young.

Rumpus: I was always interested in popular artifacts that had great complexity lurking in them and that’s why I liked those songs.

MD: I feel downright sophisticated.

Rumpus: Maybe the sad part of the story of the Motels is that the record companies, you know, exerted influence over some of the later stuff.

Davis: Mmhm, yeah.

Rumpus: They got in the way of the writing—but the writing is what’s so great. So they didn’t know what they had.

Davis: I’m a firm believer in taking responsibility. And I let that shit happen. I think the first album is the most effective album, it kind of had what we wanted. Look, as long as I’m making music I’m happy, but later I started realizing I’m not as happy as I could be because this stuff sucks, and by the last album . . . Well, the Policy album was supposed to be a Motels album but it was so far removed from anything I wanted to do that I literally called my lawyer and got him to get me out of the deal. I said: I can’t do this. This is killing me. At first you start drifting from your purpose and then AH!, I’m drifting out here and there’s no life preserver in sight! It’d probably be better for me financially if I wanted fame or anything like that. I need to not be in debt anymore, and that’s the hard part now that I’m managing myself. I enjoy having the control, I enjoy knowing I’m representing me, as opposed to other people who have misrepresented me.

Rumpus: And who took money along the way.

Davis: Yeah, 20 percent. So it’s good. Logistics and me are becoming, if not friends, acquaintances. Hey, are you guys done?

Rumpus: I think we’re done.

(Postscriptus: The Motels website is here, including upcoming tour dates, and I commend to people who like excellent songwriting two of Martha Davis’s more recent efforts: This (2008), which sounds very much like The Motels, only contemporary, and her beautiful, plangent autobiographical suite of songs, Beautiful Life.)


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →