The Rumpus Conversation Between Jon DeRosa and Karolina Waclawiak
Jon DeRosa is best known for leading the drone-pop collective Aarktica. Late last year DeRosa kicked off a new solo pop project with the release of the Anchored EP. His new full length record, A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, is a cocktail of atmospheric chamber pop with influences that vary from 1950’s teenage jukebox anthems to post-punk artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, Lou Reed and The Chameleons. He recently sat down with his fiancé Karolina Waclawiak, author of the forthcoming novel How To Get Into The Twin Palms and deputy editor of The Believer, to discuss the ways people find their artistic voice, how awkward teenage years make you a better, more driven person, and how creative couples can influence each others’ work.
Karolina Waclawiak: When did you realize you wanted to pursue music seriously?
Jon DeRosa: I was about 10 years old when I saw the video for Poison’s “Fallen Angel” on MTV. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to be a professional guitarist. I wish I was kidding, but I’m being serious. I remember the “electricity” of the situation like it was yesterday. That video was followed by Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which only sealed the deal.
I was allowed to give up trumpet in the school band for guitar lessons, under the condition that they were classical guitar lessons. I put up a little bit of a fuss, but I was honestly just happy to learn guitar.
I think it wasn’t until I was 13, when I recorded my first “album,” that I got really serious in a practical sense about being a musician. Because I was doing it all by myself, I saw that I could write the song, play the song, record it, send it to the plant, make the art, and put out a record. And it felt so f’n cool to come into school with a box of those cassettes. Of course no one understood what “goth folk” was at Manasquan High School. But it was still cool.
Was it similar for you with writing? I feel like you chose that path very early on in your life. Your parents seem incredibly well-read and intelligent. Did they encourage you in that direction, or was it more a case of just living in a household where the literary arts were held in high regard?
Waclawiak: I started writing young. I begged my mom for this acid-washed denim journal I saw at the grocery store and she got it for me. At first, I just filled it with “I love Brett Michaels” and my dreams of meeting Vince Neil. Then, around age 12 I got serious and decided I wanted to be a writer. Writing was a coping mechanism for me because I was painfully shy and really awkward looking, or let’s face it, ugly. So it was the only place I could find a voice. My parents were both electrical engineers and so they weren’t too excited about the artistic bent all their kids were taking. They were from the “old country” and would prefer that we follow practical pursuits that included math and science. Neither subject I ever cared for. I think the tide turned when I got published in the 8th grade and my English teacher sat my father down and said, “This one will surprise you with writing.” My dad didn’t get why I was always writing dark stuff because I was a girl, but my mom was always very supportive. She sent me to every summer writing camp she could find and made it happen financially by working extra jobs. For which I am forever grateful. My father just didn’t ever want me to struggle and trying to make it as an artist is the most painful road there is, all the rejection, he takes personally. But it comes from a place of protection, not that he thinks I can’t do it.
I think we both come from places of serious work ethic and the feeling that pursuing something creative means having a day job to pay for it. How did you find time to follow your creative pursuits?
DeRosa: I’ve always been a laborer first and an artist second. Inspiration comes from blue-collar experience, from manual labor, and the toil of workaday life. I think making art without a struggle to survive, or at least a struggle to become something more than you are, really results in disconnection from the very people that you hope will consume your art.
When something is worth it, you find the time. My problem is I really need to create a certain headspace in order to make real progress on my work, which I notice doesn’t seem the same for you.
You’re able to pump out stories whether you’re sitting in an office job, on the subway, etc. How do you manage to do that?
Waclawiak: Because I’m a space cadet and all I think about is writing. (Laughing) One of my teachers, Ron Friedman, said, “You’re all willing to bust your asses flipping cheeseburgers for someone else, and completely unwilling to put that much effort into yourself and your writing. That doesn’t make any sense.” It’s something that always stuck with me and goes back to what you said about if it’s worth it you’ll make time. I’m also a master multi-tasker so I make it happen, but mostly because my mind is always going back to whatever I’m working on. I should really keep a journal. I lose so much.
You keep a journal though, I see you walking around the house jotting down notes in your little black book. I saw it opened it once and there were lyrics and doodles of notes and keys too. Do you hear notes in your head or do you have to have a guitar around to pick at?
DeRosa: Normally, I come up with chords and progressions while I’m fiddling around playing, and I have my own notation system that makes sense mostly just to me. I used to be quite good at writing melodies by ear, with no instrument, back in my Music Theory days at NYU. But, not so much anymore.
Waclawiak: How do you get inspiration? Do you have to sit down and really work at it? Or do you things come to you randomly?
DeRosa: The best lyrical ideas stem from passing thoughts, and that’s the seed for the song or whatever. Once I accumulate a few of those random lines, thoughts, ideas…That’s when I can really sit down and expand on them.
If I sit down with nothing, I usually leave with nothing. Some of those “seeds” grow rather quickly, while some have been with me for years. Those are the ones that take a little more nurturing.
I also tend to write a lot about historical figures or events, whether it’s biographical or kind of my fantasy of that person or event. I think lately, I’ve been more attracted to those topics, since I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with sharing too much in the first person.
Music itself is much easier for me to write, because it’s more of a puzzle and I love that. Lyrics are a whole agonizing process for me. How do I translate my thoughts and feelings, when I feel that true men should NOT be expressive or self-indulgent about their thoughts and feelings? While I feel like I’m finally finding my voice in that, it has taken many years.
Waclawiak: I’ve made you more sensitive. Morrissey and I together. (laughing)
DeRosa: That’s debatable.
Waclawiak: I’ve never been keen on emulating other writers and for a while I would stubbornly say, I don’t like to read because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else (except for the dark period when I strived to be the female Bukowski). Anyway, I wanted my work to be “authentically mine” not realizing that I could pick up tricks from more seasoned writers and it was ok. Lyrically, do you find inspiration from other musicians? Or not just musicians, anyone?
DeRosa: I think Stephin Merritt taught me, and an entire generation of musicians, how to write a pop song with the release of [The Magnetic Fields;] 69 Love Songs. That doesn’t necessarily mean I would consider myself an emulator of him, but it was through his music and being close to him at that time that I learned and absorbed the conventions of pop music.
I can name lyricists that have been inspiring to me, Johnny Cash and Robert Pollard come to mind off the bat. Marty Robbins and a lot of the old country singer-troubadours. But I think I’m more directly influenced now by the original American pop songwriters. Rogers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin. Even though times have changed, a good love song is still a good love song.
And then, a lot of what I write about is New York, New York history (or at least odd history), film noir, occult and paranormal themes. What inspires me most is the time and place we live in, and what it means to be true men in this age.
I know we talk about gender issues a lot and that your writing is often regarded being in a “masculine” voice. While I think you have more sensitivity and an acute awareness of certain minute details that most male writers I know might overlook, I would tend to agree. Do you see your “voice” in that way?
Waclawiak: I think I stay away from sentimentality, and maybe that makes my voice masculine. My female characters and my writing in general isn’t flowery at all. I think chick-lit has destroyed the female voice so I run the other way, maybe too far the other way.
In my twenties I spent all my time reading male writers like Bukowski and John Fante, Chandler, and a lot of Edward Bunker’s work, a lot of crime. So I didn’t have a very strong sense of a female voice to look to, especially for darkness. In fact, originally, I exclusively wrote outside my sex, which does a strange thing to your voice. You’re right, I tend to, obviously, see details men don’t so it was also interesting to try and suppress those things when I was writing. Then I discovered A.M. Homes who is a strong model for me. And reading Kathy Acker made me feel like it was ok to write raunch and not have to have it be from a male perspective. I think that my eye tends to fall on the grotesque, something I got a lot of comments on from people who read my book. And it’s disconcerting to some people, I guess. But maybe that has little to do with being masculine and more to do with being drawn to the human condition and trying to unravel why it’s so awful.
It seems that you spent a long time honing your talents in ambient music and yet this record seems vastly different from your earlier projects. But still holds a lot of the same cavernous feeling. And yet has the clearest sense of your voice, to me.
DeRosa: I had been making records under various guises for years, Aarktica particularly. I think when you have a project for over a decade, it comes with certain expectations that really limit what you feel like you’re able to do within that framework. I looked at myself one day and realized that I was really a very different person than I was when I started music over 15 years ago. I wanted to create a work that was representative to me TODAY, not an expectation based on what my previous albums sound like.
My influences have changed, my perspective on life has changed. My singing voice has certainly changed. I wanted to showcase these things. LD Beghtol, my old Flare bandmate, was really very encouraging in this pursuit and was instrumental in helping me in the early songwriting stages of the new album.
I think it’s been easier in the sense that I feel more comfortable in my skin, because of it. I think on a practical level, it was a very difficult album to make. There were many different (and wonderful) performers involved, and a lot of planning and logistics went into the recording of it. And because it was a much more lushly produced and arranged album, there was a lot of scrutiny in the post-production stages.
Waclawiak: I did love how layered it was, technically. I think it’s sweeter than some Aarktica songs that I love, but give me an unsettling physical reaction. Kind of like Swans who make my old back injury hurt when I listen to them or our visits to La Monte’s Dream House. It feels good but it hurts, is the best way I can describe it. The most exciting part of this album, to me, is that you still find ways to interject darkness, this time in the lyrics. Especially “Ladies in Love,” which I personally love, and is based from the poetry of a serial killer from Arizona. It’s so melodic and pretty… so you’re essentially tricking us into following you into the darkness now.
DeRosa: LD was the one that introduced me to Charles Schmid, “The Pied Piper of Tuscon.” A very interesting fellow. It’s always a fine line to write about serial killers or criminals, because I don’t want to celebrate their actions, but I do find their charisma so intriguing that it makes for an interesting character study. Do you know the song “Murderers, The Hope Of Women” by Momus? I think subconsciously I was channeling that mood when I wrote “Ladies In Love.”
Waclawiak: Oh yeah, I think you played that for me when we were first dating. I think that’s the trick in both of our work, which is so interesting to me. We’re both drawn to sadness or I guess, things that make people uncomfortable, but we strive to show the sincerity in it. To try and give it value. It’s worth pointing out that I listened to No Solace for Sleep and In Sea while writing my book so maybe the book was really a joint effort. It really helped me get into the correct headspace for the searching feeling I was trying to achieve. I really never listened to music when writing before, I thought it was too distracting, but your work tapped into a necessary moodiness for me to write. I guess it’s safe to say that if you don’t keep creating music I’ll have to stop writing.
DeRosa: Well, that’s not true at all, you write with a ferocity that cannot be stopped. But, I guess I will have to remember that sentiment, especially in my moments of feeling like too many people are “making art” and not enough people are simply “living life.” I think we kind of do both in our home. I do like the idea of making music that inspires art in other people, especially in the case of you and I. When you consider art as perpetual motion, and an intimate part of two peoples’ relationship, it puts things in perspective. At least for me it does. I’m only concerned with what is “real,” thus my obsession with the birds on our patio (there is a family of cardinals out there right now). In a world where we are bombarded by ads and art (the lines are blurred for me, now), it’s good to have some deeper reason for creating what we create. When it touches loved ones and enriches the relationships people have together, it doesn’t get much better than that.