The Rumpus Interview with Chris Stroffolino
In the counterculture—or this several-generations-removed bastard child of a counterculture—we tend to revere those we see as outsiders—artists who, in our facile narrative, have refused the niceties of life and success for their art. It should be no surprise that this foundationless framework crumbles at the slightest nudge. Stroffolino is well aware of this trope and its fraudulence. He describes his time in the van as miserable.
Stroffolino spoke to me from inside the piano van, currently parked in Oakland. He splits time between the van and a “shitty office space” where he occasionally sleeps. Stroffolino has a warm, gruff voice. He’s quick with a joke and quicker with an anecdote. He asks for neither pity nor starry-eyed romanticizing, but like his work, he demands respect.
The Rumpus: It’s finally starting to feel like summer does on the East Coast, which is a positive and a negative thing, I guess.
Chris Stroffolino: Yes, I used to live in New York and before that in Philly, and I miss New York a lot. Are you originally from out here?
Rumpus: No, I’m just from the East Coast, in the upper Hudson Valley area.
Stroffolino: I used to live out there. I got my Ph.D. at SUNY-Albany, and I used to live in the Catskill-Hudson area, kind of near there.
Rumpus: I saw on your Wikipedia that you went to Bard College, right?
Stroffolino: I went to Bard—if that’s on the Wikipedia, my old publisher did that. I don’t even know what the hell is on there. It might be embarrassing, a lot of it might not be incredibly accurate or whatever, but if you need to fact-check anything please let me know. I went to Bard for three months.
Rumpus: I only ask because normally it’s hard to describe where I’m from.
Stroffolino: Is there still a restaurant there called Santa Fe?
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s in Tivoli.
Stroffolino: Right, Tivoli, not Red Hook. I love Santa Fe.
Rumpus: Did you write the songs on Griffith Park while you were living in the van or did some of them date to before that time?
Stroffolino: No, they’re older. I couldn’t write in this kind of environment. I made a couple up, but it’s not really a songwriting environment. A lot of them I wrote for bands, some of them have been recorded, none of them have been released. A couple of them I recorded with a shitty band, but a bunch of them I recorded with this other guy in Oakland before I became homeless, and we had plans to do stuff with them, and that didn’t happen, but I recorded many of them as band songs, ultimately. Kind of demos—kind of a novelty in some ways as an album. It was kind of Jeff Feuerzig’s idea. He said, “Let’s do this,” and at the time I was like, “I don’t think I have anything else going on right now, sure, I’ll just dig up some songs from the Chris Stroffolino Songbook,” songs I could actually play solo on piano, because some of my other songs are musical sonic structures I just wouldn’t even try to play solo on a piano. That isn’t the only way I write, though, usually it comes from the voice or from the rhythm a lot of times first. You’ll be playing with other musicians and you hear the drums and the bass and you build a song around that, but I remember when I lived in New York, for instance, a lot of times I’d walk around with a Walkman and I’d just sing a cappella into it, and then later on I’d run back and figure out chords that work with the melody, and then deal with words third. That’s the way I’d write songs, the words would usually come last.
When I say walking around, I remember very clearly writing a couple songs, or the genesis of a couple songs coming on swing sets, as I am swinging for exercise. Before I became more of a cripple it was a great form of exercise and anger management for me to sneak on the swings at McCarren Park if the kids weren’t there, to sneak on the swings at Prospect Park when I lived in Brooklyn, and ride the swings and have the Walkman with me. Occasionally these melodies would come because my body was feeling freer and physical, moving up and down on a swing set like a pendulum. It liberated the music and then I’d go back later on and sit there and try to shape them into a song. I remember when I first started out I’d wonder, “Why can’t a song come all at once? Why can I come up with a great melody but I can’t come up with great words, why can I come up with great words but not a great melody to put them to?” If I do, it always seems forced, but finding that art where you can combine the two is really cool. But I’m into a wide range of things, I like somebody like The Fall, somebody coming out of the poetry scene, whose song structures aren’t conventional song structures, but his voice is incredibly expressive, and it’s combined with drums and bass, and the bass—you can tell he’s following the bass. I never want to be dogmatic about how to write songs; I think there’s lots of ways to write them.
Rumpus: Would you say your voice is your primary instrument, then?
Stroffolino: Hmmm—as I light up a cigarette, which makes the voice worse. I’ve thought that at different times in my life, at a time in my life where I quit smoking, for example. The Piano Van recordings, because I’m sitting at a piano while I’m recording, rather than standing, it doesn’t show what could potentially be my vocal range, not that I’m Pavarotti by a long shot. But these particular recordings I can’t say if the vocals come off good. Can I say it’s my primary instrument? Well, I can say it’s a huge compositional instrument for me. I read this quote from Burt Bacharach years ago that was pretty profound to me, thinking about songwriting and aesthetics. Burt Bacharach couldn’t sing very well, if you’ve ever listened to him doing his own songs. I’d personally rather hear Aretha Franklin do his songs. But Burt Bacharach is an amazing songwriter, and is also known as a piano player and arranger, all the kind of behind-the-scenes things, except maybe lyrics, but this Burt Bacharach quote, it took me awhile to figure out just what he means. This isn’t an exact quote, but he said when you’re writing a song, it’s important to step away and get a vertical view rather than a horizontal view. And it took me a while to figure out what he meant by that, but what I think he meant, he’s a master of very, very interesting chords. He uses more progressive chords than the Beatles, he’s more like McCartney than Lennon, but what he’s saying is, I can write songs at the piano all the time, but when I’m writing at the piano I’m sitting horizontally, and this is how I apply it to my own life, but when I play the trumpet, which is also a melodic instrument, or I’m singing, and I’m standing vertically, and opening up my lungs and feeling the primordial basis of music, because everybody’s first instrument is voice and hands, your body.
I heard a great interview with Lou Reed before he died, where he said our first instrument is really the drums in the mother’s heartbeat, the thumpity thumpity drums, and for me, all the other stuff—piano I didn’t learn ’til later, trumpet I was definitely taught a much younger age than piano. Piano I taught myself at 18 because I wanted to play more than one note, and I wanted to be able to sing at the same time, but whatever freedom of expression it allows, when you’re not in a van that’s four feet tall, you can actually stand while playing piano. In terms of songwriting then, you can struggle. You can come up with this amazing, amazing chord progression that’s really beautiful while improvising on the piano and then you can record and want to make it into a song, but then the vocal-melodic aspect comes second and so sometimes you write a song from a piano and then up to melody, but for me the best songs come when I’m writing a song and the vocals come first. Then adding out the piano and arrangement, and working with another musician might change my simple three chord progression, they might throw in a B-minor-7 with a 9 on top of it and some other things, and as you arrange it you start realizing, this song could go a lot of different ways. I wouldn’t say voice is my primary instrument. Sometimes I feel piano, and when I say piano I also mean keyboard, because I’ve done session stuff where I’m only playing like one or two notes, and the difference between an acoustic piano and a Fender Rhodes is huge, and they both have advantages. I never bothered to learn guitar. With my musical vocabulary I try to have a balance. This day I’m going to focus on the voice, or on this or on that.
Rumpus: When you compose from the voice, would you say it allows the song to go all over the place, as opposed to when you have a set chord progression and then come up with a vocal? By doing it on piano first, does that make it tougher to come up with a bigger, more interesting song?
Stroffolino: I feel the melody falls flatter. I feel that the melody feels more alive, the expressiveness of it, because it’s not just the melody, it’s the way I sang it, and then translating that into a band context is more difficult sometimes on a technical level. But in terms of the voice coming through loud and clear it’s really there. Other times it can fall into musical mumblecore, which I feel a lot of people do today.
After the Silver Jews in the late ’90s, working with Stephen Malkmus and Steve Berman, it really goaded me. Malkmus is a great musician and Berman is a great songwriter, and working with the two of those guys together allowed me to the put the two different sides of my aesthetic together, which is that on one hand I just like being a musician and not worrying about songwriting and being a session guy or a sideman in someone else’s project. On the other hand, I had published some books of poetry and Berman had done that and was damn good at that stuff, and it was like, “What ways can I bring those two poles together?” Because obviously the Silver Jews couldn’t or wouldn’t because those guys broke up. But it goaded me to poeticize the lyrics a little more, because a lot of times when you’re making a song up first you used dummy lyrics.
For instance, the first song on the album is called “It’s Not a Matter Just of Me.” I was living in the East at the time, maybe I was still in Philly before New York. And I was in that phase where my poetry career was rising, and most of my energy was going into that, after I’d gotten my master’s at Temple, but before I got my Ph.D. in Shakespeare. I was pretty well known in the Philadelphia poetry scene, locally, and I was starting to get some poems published in national magazines. Music was something I wanted to do more of, but I kept it more private. The way I looked at it was I was commodifying my poetry and keeping my music more free. I was very much into dancing at punk shows, in New York at the Mod scene, expressing myself musically in other ways, but I didn’t have any ambitions of being a rock star or anything like that, though I had friends who were rock stars and I love the rock star thing. Anyway, I was invited to go to California to do a poetry reading. It was the first time I’d been to California, and I found I was staying at this house in Santa Cruz. It was actually a house that Camper Van Beethoven had lived in, but they didn’t live there anymore—it was younger guys who were poets and musicians and very interested in both poetry and music. A lot of my favorite people are very interested in both of those things or literature in general and music, and they had a piano in their place, and had drums and they played music, and then one day I had my little cassette player, my Walkman, with me, and we were jamming, and it was something I’d never really done before.
I’d wanted to play music but I never had enough money. I couldn’t afford a rehearsal space even though I knew some good drummers. I couldn’t get it together to do that because I was putting it all into poetry. I kind of chose poetry over music at first as a tentative adult specialized goal or ambition, because it was cheaper to make. But here I am now with these people who are poets, we can talk poetry, we get poetry, we can do all the poetry stuff, and they’re also playing drums, and it was really cool, so I started recording. One guy was playing flute and one guy was playing drums, and I sit down at the piano and I start playing basically two chords, and I’m singing, and I started doing it, and I started making up some words on the spot, what I’d call dummy lyrics, and feeling like the drums build, and the flute has a little solo. We’re just jamming, having fun and I’m recording this, thinking, “This is kind of a song, dammit!” When I went back and was able to look over all these tapes that stuck out to me.
I went back to it, might have changed it a little, but it’s still basically those two chords. It wasn’t trying to be musically complex but it was trying to lock into a simple feeling. Now, some of the words from that original—what I would call “session” or whatever—ended up being used, like the title. The title is pretty weird: “It’s Not a Matter Just of Me.” Nobody says that, but it came out of my mouth without thinking about it. And there’s something cool about that, like as a poet I’m always revising, and as a prose writer, a lot of prose about music, actually. But there were a couple other phrases there, there’s a line: “some day in the morning I will even think I used to see / but I’m not looking in one eye I’m really looking in all three.” Those lines just came, and then later on I can look at it, and I can go: “Wow, my subconscious is telling my conscious something.” And later on I can try to shape the song into something, because there are these really interesting lines that baffle me and puzzle me, and when you come up with a line that baffles you and puzzles you, you go: “Well I could play this a couple more times and it’ll keep me interested.” So it stayed with me, and when Jeff Feuerzig wanted to record me, 10 years after I wrote it, maybe even 15 years, it was like: “Yeah, I’ll dig this one out again.” But it’s very adolescent, the lyrics to it. I like to think it’s not just adolescent. That’s one of the big problems with a lot of music lyrics. I was one of those guys who had a lot of albums when I was 15, 16—songs I loved, if people want them I’ll still play them, fine, but at this point I hate the lyrics, because you thought you were so profound when you were an 18-year-old, but you’re still 18 and haven’t figured out anything about the world yet. Even Dylan doesn’t do it for me anymore. When we did the Silver Jews album American Water, Berman wrote a song as a character song sung by an 18-year-old. Everyone was asking him about the lyrics, and he said, “It’s not necessarily about me.” If you sing a song that has the word “I” in it a lot, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily you, though it can just be a way for a musician to—you remember that old Radiohead song “Creep”?
Stroffolino: That song, almost immediately after it became a hit, [Thom Yorke] was like, “It’s not really about me, you know,” and you wonder if that’s just him saying, “I don’t want people to think of me this way.” A lot of people related to it because it was a simple guitar and a beautiful sound to it. It was an early ’90s slacker thing. So an author’s intention about what a lyric is, I take that shit with a grain of salt. I’m much more interested in what you, the listener, think about it.