When I lived in DC, one of the very few things that kept me sane was the city’s sporadic record fairs. There was no set schedule for them, but they usually popped up two or three times a year, cramming a bunch of vendors and their wares into some mixed use structure (which I’ll note here were located in Maryland or Virginia more often than they were in the city itself, and then I promise not to bitch about how awful living in DC is again in this post).
I usually spent more money than I wanted to, but I also came home with an armful of obscurities I was eager to take home and spin. The fun of collecting records (for me, at least) comes from buying music without knowing what it sounds like, and the real thrill exists in the time between the purchase and when you finally drop the needle. It’s like when you’re a kid and your mom buys you a toy and won’t let you open it until your actual birthday, but you’re allowed to look at the box, imagining for yourself all the possibilities the toy might provide. Or when you buy a lottery ticket and spend the time until someone else’s numbers are called fantasizing about what you’ll do with the winnings. It’s a catalyst for imagination. It’s fun.
Most of the vendors at the fairs were there on behalf of actual record stores (mostly from the DC/Maryland/Virginia area) who simply shlepped whatever inventory they could fit in a van from their brick-and-mortar locations to the fair, but my favorite booth was usually a private seller. I don’t know whether this was his main vocation or just a side hustle, but he ran a business buying records and flipping them on eBay, and he showed up at events like these as well. The draw for me was the weirder corners of his inventory. While other sellers usually just had crates broken down into generic categories like “rock” and “jazz” (mostly containing records as bland as those categories would imply), this guy had an entire section just for avant-garde and experimental pieces, another for psychedelia, and so on, hitting all of my sweet spots. I probably spent more money at his booth than at all of the others combined over the years.
But while the stuff he was selling brought me in, his personality usually kept my visit brief. If you spend a lot of time in record stores, you’ve without a doubt encountered a person like this before, but similar sorts of folks exist in every subculture I can think of. If you name a band for this person, he can tell you every record in their catalog, the year each of them came out and on what label, who produced and performed on every one, and so on. It’s impressive until you realize that his encyclopedic knowledge is as sterile as a spreadsheet. It’s unclear to what extent he’s even listened to any of it. To him, music is simply a list of names and dates and facts and figures to be memorized. Ask him the blue book value of mint condition original pressing of Odessey and Oracle, and he’ll tell you without hesitation (or in my case, he told me without my asking), but try asking him what makes that album any good. He’ll stare at you blankly. He sucks.
This would sound like a straw man to me if I hadn’t met a number of folks just like this over the years. A disproportionate number of Elephant 6 fans even fall into this category, but they are not my target audience. There are certainly a whole lot of facts in there (plus no small amount of factoids), but that’s only a part of it, and they’re there to serve a larger goal. My goal is to allow readers to feel like they really know the people I’m writing about. I can pull up a Wikipedia entry on, say, Magic Johnson, and I can learn where and when he was born, his career average for assists per game, and that he played five games for a Swedish team in 1999. But regardless of whence I had gathered that information, even from Johnson himself, I would be an idiot to characterize knowing those facts as knowing him. Knowing someone requires a greater depth of understanding, and that’s what I’m hoping to convey with my book.
I don’t have a whole lot to report on the book stuff (the proposal is mostly written, but I’m waiting for a couple more eggs to hatch before shopping it around, since the hatching of those eggs will dramatically affect the book’s commercial viability and thus its appeal to a potential agent or publisher), so I thought I’d write a little about how I’m approaching this subject. As usual, I’m not going to give away any of the book’s actual content, but I think it might still be useful to broadly explain part of my philosophy.
One of the things I’d like to convey with this book is what makes the Elephant 6 important, which is a little different from what makes it interesting, unique or influential (and I hope to convey all of those things, too). I’d like to write about that importance, but I’d also like for the ideas that make Elephant 6 important to also be implicit in the work. That is, I want to both show and tell this significance.
Of all the things that make Elephant 6 important to me and thousands of other people, their approach toward art stands out. It’s one of the most consistent unifying elements from band to band and person to person, and in my opinion, it’s the key to understanding their entire worldview. Typically, most people view art as a type of thing. It can include paintings and music and film and whatever else, and no two people are likely to have the exact same definition, to the extent that nobody can really define it. It’s a “know it when you see it” sort of thing for most people, and even within a given form, sound minds can disagree. Art doesn’t have to be a painting, not all paintings qualify as art, and every single viewer will draw the Is and Isn’t lines a little differently. It gets tricky.
The key to understanding art, especially art created in the last hundred years, is context. The circumstances from which a work arises are as crucial to its meaning as the work itself. One of the most illustrative examples of this is Marcel Duchamp’s iconic 1917 work Fountain.
The origin of the piece is the subject of debate, but the basic idea is: there’s a urinal sitting in a museum. The fact that it’s in a gallery as opposed to a men’s room subjects it to a different approach from the viewer. In a different context, the viewer will inevitably regard it differently and draw from it a different meaning, in the same way that someone might stop and consider a painting in a gallery when he wouldn’t stop for a second look if the same painting were hanging in a hotel room. Since the very submission of Fountain, people have argued over whether or not the piece itself or even the gesture of putting it in a gallery is “art.” My suggestion is that the very premise of the question “Is it art?”—here and whenever it’s asked—misses the point entirely.
The piece itself undergoes no transformation whether it’s in a bathroom or an art gallery or anywhere else. Physically, neither does the viewer. What changes is the viewer’s framework for consuming the piece. The lesson I get from Fountain is that context is important, but the logical extension of this lesson is that you can view absolutely anything as art. A given thing—regardless of what it is, where it is, or who made it (if anybody!)—cannot rigidly be “art” (likewise for the inverse). It is a choice the viewer makes. On a case-by-case basis, the viewer decides to regard a thing as art or not, and she usually does so subconsciously based on cues she’s not even really thinking about.
But what if you lived your whole life like this? What if, instead of just viewing explicitly “artistic” works as art, you viewed everything through that lens? What if you looked for beauty and wisdom in not just paintings and music but also kitchen appliances, household chores, and conflicts with a neighbor?
This is, broadly, how the sharpest minds of the Elephant 6 seem to go about their days. In a time of great cynicism and negativity, it’s a radical decision to look at the world aesthetically and optimistically. To make music from non-musical objects, or to prefer the sounds and character of someone’s bedroom to a studio, or to conceptualize an entire album around the genocidal murder of a teenage girl. It’s obvious from their work that this is how the Elephant 6 operates, and it becomes even more apparent when you spend time with these people. This is how they see the world.
And this is how I am trying to tell their story, to find beauty not just in the things they made but in the lives they live. My book is a narrative work, not a critical one, so it’s not a matter of judging any of it. Nor is it a matter of burying anything negative and mentioning only the fun stuff. It just means that I’m viewing their community (and all of the things that emerged from it, including music but also pot lucks and Orange Twin and everything else) the same way I’d view something hanging in a gallery.
My quest to find an agent began in earnest this week. We can put this in the “indefinite timeline” section of my tasks.
The process is relatively simple. I write a one-page query letter that I send to agents, along with a book proposal that’ll probably be in the range of 20 to 30 pages. The query letter is basically a pitch for the prospective agent to read the proposal, and the proposal is a description of the project, background on me, a business case of some kind, and so on.
So my immediate tasks are to draft the letter and the proposal, compile a list of potential agents, and then start soliciting. The writing components are straightforward enough: I’ve applied to enough jobs to know my way around a cover letter, and there’s no part of the proposal that I haven’t been mulling for years (you could probably cobble together an effective one using only posts on this blog). There are also some great resources that provide listings of agents (and, mercifully, how to reach them), but that’s the part that’s going to take some work.
I need to be discreet about who I’m pitching to, and the pitches themselves need to be individualized to the extent that the recipients don’t think they’re just receiving a form letter. An agent wants to know that I’ve done some research and am reaching out to them specifically because of their interests and specialties, so each query letter needs to demonstrate that. So I can use the big databases to compile a short list of my own, and then winnow it down from there by investigating each agent. It’s nothing outside of my abilities, but it’s going to take some work.
This search is my main priority with regard to the book right now, but I’ve also got to keep working on the book itself, not to mention keep up the freelance hustle so I can sustain myself.
I’m all caught up on transcribing, but I’ve fallen a little behind on working that transcribed material into my draft. I’ve got 17 interviews to process, with a handful more on the horizon.
But that’ll all work itself out. It’s a very linear exercise. Ditto (mostly) for the new bits I need to write (a lot of which is just pulling from those aforementioned to-be-transcribed interviews). And even though I still have some additional interviews to do, I’m beginning my search for an agent this week.
I have no idea how that works, exactly, and I’m not really sure where to even start. But once I find the representation that suits me, I expect some sort of deadline won’t be far behind. I’ve put this off for a very long time, knowing how dependent my timeline is on other people’s availability and ability to follow through. But I feel like I’m far enough along now that I can conform to an external deadline. At this point, I probably can’t even schedule a large portion of the remaining interviews without such a deadline. Some folks are evasive when you tell them you can do the interview any time but a little more urgent about it when there’s a defined window of time.
When I moved down to Athens last fall, I had a plan in only the loosest sense of that word. Particularly in terms of how to fund this project, I had a two-pronged approach:
- Eh, Athens is cheap. I’ll live off my savings for a little while.
- Surely I can find some kind of part-time freelance work to keep me afloat.
The weird thing is: it looks like I was right on both counts. My relative frugality the past few years gave me a nice little nest egg I could live off while I had little to no income, and the income situation has changed for the better. I’ve been grading standardized tests the past few weeks, which ended yesterday (it was a temporary gig) but pays extremely well, and there should be another round available in a few weeks, which I plan to pursue. Beyond that, some freelance writing is bringing in a few bucks, I have a gig tutoring high school students in reading and writing, and I’m about to start a new job rewriting news articles for lower reading levels (namely elementary school students). I’ve got a few other irons in the fire as well.
Juggling all these jobs—most of which aren’t on a particularly set schedule—takes some nimbleness, but I would be grateful for the flexibility it affords me even if I weren’t counting on that flexibility for book stuff. I feel a sense of agency that I always anxiously lacked working desk jobs, and April will be the first month since I moved here that my income exceeds my expenses. At least in Athens, this is now a sustainable plan.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in Athens. It should be at least a couple months, but I’m probably not moving anywhere else until I can afford to. That will mean either a) finding full-time employment somewhere, b) my book becoming an instant bestseller and vaulting me to literary fame (lol), or c) building up a stable collection of freelance projects that would allow me to make ends meet in a pricier locale.
In the shorter term, though, it means my savings account will no longer be inversely proportional to the time I spend in Athens. It takes some pressure off. Perhaps you’re wondering, if you’re nearly seven years into this project while feeling pressured, how much longer is this going to take now? Good question! In absolute terms, I don’t know. I’m still relying on a few other folks to come through, and that’ll be on their terms. I do think that’s close. But I do know that the timeline is “whenever my manuscript is in a place I feel comfortable with,” as opposed to “whenever my savings evaporate completely.”
I’ve been a little busier lately. That means I’ve done a whole bunch of interviews, but it also means I haven’t had much time to transcribe.
I’ve got about fifteen hours of interviews to transcribe, and I’ll likely add to that total before I zero out. The good news is these interviews don’t take nearly as long to transcribe as older ones. The main reason for that is, simply, I’m not getting as much out of these interviews anymore. The people I’m talking to are a bit more peripheral to the story anyway, and I’ve done so much research to this point that it’s becoming redundant. I only need to actually transcribe a) what’s relevant to the story and b) what I don’t already have (unless of course they’re adding some details or other flourishes to a story I’ve already heard). I still have to listen to the whole thing, but I can speed up most of it until I get to the pieces I’ll be using. So whereas a 60-minute interview conducted a few years ago might have taken me two hours to transcribe (I probably slowed it down to play at 80% speed and then transcribed every single word), an interview of similar length that I conducted this past week might take me only 45 minutes or so to transcribe.
It’s boring to write about transcribing, but it’s even more boring to actually do it (which is why I’m procrastinating by writing about it). I still have a few interviews to conduct, but they’re mostly with the flakiest people I have left, so I don’t know exactly when those will happen. I’m just about at a point where I’m going to start pursuing a publisher, though, so that’ll be fun.
I took a quick research trip out to Portland this week to interview Lance Bangs and check out some of his Elephant 6 footage and photos. He lived in Athens throughout the ’90s and traveled on a few tours with Elephant 6 bands. Few people were even paying attention to that scene as it was happening, and Lance is one of even fewer who thought to document any of it. I had reached out to Lance just to get his thoughts and memories (which also proved quite helpful on their own), so getting the chance to pore through his archives was a pretty nice bonus.
I’m a cynical person by nature, but this visit to Portland was very uplifting in terms of my general outlook on humanity. From my over-the-top gracious AirBnB host to the cute, attentive waitress who called me “darling,” everyone was so god damned nice, and in a way that differs from the Southern niceness I’m finally starting to acclimate to in Georgia. Whereas Southern niceness seems to come mostly from manners and norms (and can by extension sometimes run a little passive-aggressive or outright duplicitous), the Portlandian variety seems to have a little bit more empathy and compassion baked into it.
There’s an awful lot I liked about the city. I walked about four miles through the commercial corridor in Southeast Portland, and of the literally hundreds of stores and restaurants I passed, I don’t think I saw more than a handful of chains of any kind (a Jiffy Lube, a couple banks, an American Apparel and a 7-11 were all I noticed). It gave the city a much richer texture. That plus the cleanliness, an abundance of trees and green spaces, and the aforementioned neighborliness made me feel a little like I was on Sesame Street. The area I stayed in felt particularly neighborly, replete with barbecues and folks stopping to chat as they walked their dogs. Stuff like city-wide composting programs compounded that sense of community
Most generous of all was Lance. He was a great interview, open and thoughtful, and he was incredibly kind to share his archives with me, but he also crammed about a month’s worth of hospitality into the 48 hours I spent there, from showing me around downtown to taking me on a hike up Mt. Tabor with his family. I really can’t say enough good things about the guy. In addition to what it all means for the book, it’s been valuable to me on a very personal level. I haven’t been at my emotional best lately, but I return to Athens feeling a little rejuvenated. Part of that is Portland itself, but regardless of where I had spent that time, I’d come away from it feeling better because of the staggering generosity Lance provided.