By now, you’ve probably already heard about the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion. The band has announced shows in Athens, Asheville, Taipei and Tokyo, with plenty more to come.
If you’ll recall, I gave myself a soft deadline a few months ago, and I coyly picked the end of next summer as the point by which I’d like to have a finished first draft. I couldn’t disclose it at the time, but the reason I picked that deadline was precisely because of this announcement. When writing about musicians who are mostly still active, it’s hard to find an endpoint, but I’ve been looking for a conclusion since I started researching this project, and a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion seemed as good as any.
Of course, now that that news is public, I have to also mention that I’m way off schedule to hit that deadline. I had been writing at a pretty good pace, but a few months ago, I began looking for a new job, and a big chunk of my free time was diverted toward finding open positions, sending off cover letters and resumes, and interviewing. That I was in DC and looking for jobs in Philadelphia made it a little more arduous. But eventually, I got an offer, and I’ve since spent the last few weeks finishing up at my old job and preparing for the new one (not to mention handling little details like finding a car and somewhere to live, both of which are still works in progress). What little time I’ve had for writing these past few months, I’ve spent it working on a 4,000-word feature about the Music Tapes’ Traveling Imaginary tour, which should be running in Shindig! magazine soon (It’s print-only, but I’ll try to find a way to post it here).
But I’m back in Philadelphia, I start the new job in about a week, and I should be settled here soon after that. I have a few other magazine pieces I’d like to write, but I haven’t even sent out pitches for those yet, and at any rate, this book needs to be a priority. I don’t know if I’ll hit that late fall deadline—I probably won’t—but I can still try.
I’ll dispense with my standard apologia about not posting more often or having more to post about and get right to the point: I’ve given myself a deadline. I can’t yet say why I’ve chosen it, and I don’t have an exact date in mind, but by the end of next summer (i.e. early September 2013), I expect to have finished the first draft of a manuscript.
You’re maybe asking yourself, “Are you kidding me?” right now. I’ve been working on this for a long ass time by now, and that’s still a long time from now. Fair. The reason it’s not done yet is a combination of my own deficiency in making this more of a priority and the fact that the outstanding loose ends have been more difficult to tie than whatever the inverse of a Gordian knot is. The latter is still out of my hands—I’m relying on other people, as always, and some of those people are, as always, musicians—but the former is all on me.
There are a lot of good things about not having a deadline, and I’ve gone out of my way to avoid having one until today. I didn’t want an external one because I didn’t want to cut myself off from any events that took place after the fact (one of the many challenges of trying to write the comprehensive gestalt of a still-active group of artists), and I didn’t want to impose one on myself because it would have to be arbitrary, which means it would be too malleable to be worth anything at all.
But now I’ve got one. It’s sort of self-imposed, but not without reason, and it’s certainly enough time to finish writing this thing. My only worry is the aforementioned loose ends, but I have to give up on them at some point, and if I haven’t figured them out by then, I might just not be able to. At a certain point, I need to just accept that I can’t fit absolutely everything into this book (especially if I want to convince someone to publish it, or even to read it), and the easiest place to start cutting is the people I can’t even find.
It’s been a week. My Facebook feed has been littered with old pictures of Bill and brief, beautiful memories his friends have of him. Last Saturday, many of those friends gathered at the 40 Watt to celebrate his life, with a few of them playing various songs in honor of him: Bryan Poole, Jason NeSmith and Derek Almstead played “NYC-25” and Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Julian Koster and Eric Harris played “Love Athena,” to name just two. I’m disappointed I couldn’t make it down, but I’m glad to hear it was so positive.
I’m not sure I have much to say about Bill that I didn’t say last week. I’ve been thinking about him a lot, of course, but I’ve avoided talking to any of the Elephant 6 folks about it, mostly out of fear of being perceived as some kind of heartless journalistic vulture. I’ve communicated exactly one Elephant 6-affiliated person at all since I got the news, and it was just an email to postpone an interview we had scheduled for this week. I’m still mourning and grieving anyway, and I want to make sure everyone else has enough time and space to get through it without my interference.
Flagpole has done a great job of compiling some thoughts from folks in the Athens music community. It’s safe to say that anyone who has ever played or even listened to music in Athens in the last decade or two was touched by Bill in some way, even if indirectly, but these are some of the people who were closest to him. Their tributes are here:
Remembering Bill Doss (Part I)
Remembering Bill Doss: Much, much more (Part II)
Warning: unless you’ve got a waterproof keyboard, you might want to lay down some plastic or something before clicking the links above. Real tearjerkers, the both of them.
I’m still mostly at a loss for words, but I’d like to share what few I can muster about Bill Doss, who died today at the age of 43.
Bill was one of my favorite people to interview, and not just for this project—I mean ever. I’ll save the biographical details for the book, and in the short-term, I’ll leave them to be shared by those who lived through them firsthand with Bill. For now, I only want to talk about my direct interactions with him.
I never heard Bill answer a question off the cuff. He had done tons of interviews in his life, and as maybe the most publicly gregarious member of the Olivia Tremor Control, he probably logged more time with reporters than any of his bandmates. But he never treated our conversations as quotidian. I’m sure I asked him many questions he’s been asked before, but he never responded with a platitude or anything banal. He never sounded like he was repeating himself. Bill reacted to every question as if it were the first time he had heard it, and he considered it deeply before answering.
And always with a smile on his face.
Our conversations were always fruitful as a result. I interviewed Bill a few different times, for a few hours each time, and in every instance, he invited me into his home to talk to him. When we weren’t sitting in his living room, we were on his front porch, swatting away mosquitoes, or in his upstairs studio listening to very early mixes of songs that’ll likely be on the next Olivia record. From his bright red sideburns and even brighter grin to the bowls of cherries and freshly sliced watermelon he put out whenever I came over, Bill’s warmth was always at the fore. Just a sweet, kind, generous, endlessly loving person. I felt at ease talking to him in a way I rarely do around anybody.
I should also mention that he seemed to hate talking about himself. He could and would talk about anything, and if you brought up any of his friends, he’d go on for days about how great they were, as musicians and as people. Ask him to talk about ol’ Billy Don Doss, though, and he’d get all shy. Add “super humble” to the list of adjectives.
He’ll be missed by an awful lot of people, none of whom would have any trouble talking about how great he was.
I’ve embedded “Hideaway” below, one of my favorite Olivia songs and one Bill agonized over, mixing it “three or four times a day—whole, finished mixes of it—for six months,” by his estimation.
I’m getting there, y’all. I don’t want to put any actual dates on things, but I don’t have far to go. The list of people I still want to talk to grows at a faster rate than the list of people I’ve already interviewed, but that latter list is almost as long as it needs to be.
What I mean is: there’s a lot of people I’d still really like to talk to, but there’s only a handful that I have to, and in all of those cases, I’ve already talked to all of them, at least off the record.
So what’s standing between me and the first draft of a full manuscript? Not a whole lot:
- A few more interviews
- Some outlining of whatever other interviews I do and a few other secondary resources
- Lots of actual writing (which, despite what this blog’s catatonic state would indicate, is something that comes easily to me and should happen at a much faster pace than any other stage of this project)
After digging at varying intensity for four full years now, it feels pretty good to have almost come out the other side. And for all the friends and total strangers who have been waiting around on me this whole time, the wait is almost over.
The toughest interviews to transcribe are the ones where people talk really quickly. I usually try to type as the interview playing in real time, but when the subject is speaking faster than I can type, I have to pause the playback and catch up. The more often I have to pause, the longer it takes me to transcribe.
I’m proud to say I can usually type at a speed in the 90-100 wpm range, but that can keep up with only the most sluggish of speakers. An energetic speaker like Robert Schneider (who had also just pounded a cup of coffee before I turned the recorder on) can ramble at easily twice that clip. When he gets really excited, I have to pause a few times each sentence.
Or I would, if there wasn’t an easy way to work around this. I record my interviews on an Olympus digital recorder, about the size of a candy bar. It connects to my computer via USB and exports each file as a .WMA, which makes playback pretty simple. I use a basic QuickTime to play the files, though lots of applications support this file type, and most of those offer the same important piece of functionality: variable playback speed. Of course, this sort of technology existed with cassettes, too:
For most interviews, a playback speed of around 75-80% gets the job done. Most people sound drunk as hell when heard much slower, though for someone like Robert, I set it at 50% and it’s fine.
It seems counterintuitive that slowing down the interview would speed up the transcription, especially when clicking “pause” or “play” is so quick, but the time spent jumping between windows every few seconds adds up quickly. More importantly, the more time I spend doing stuff like that, the harder it is to get into a groove, and the easier it is to get distracted. It takes as many clicks to pause and restart an interview as it does to check my email, and the procrastinatory part of my brain knows that well. When so much of my work now is done on my computer, staying focused is probably my biggest challenge. This helps.
Nothing new to report (I’ve spent most of my time lately just digging through old interviews), but I felt compelled to give this place a refresher. By which I mean I needed something to procrastinate today, so why not some fucking around in Photoshop?