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Fallibility

April 24, 2011

Writing a book about bands by talking to people who are really into psychedelic music is a lot like writing a book about the Vietnam war and talking to only people with PTSD. And there aren’t many people qualified to talk about the Elephant 6 who aren’t into psychedelic music.

So while big memories tend to be pretty reliable, more granular things like dates need to be taken with so many grains of salt that the people at Arby’s know me by name.*

There are exceptions of course, but there’s a lot of people who preface a lot of what they say with things like “If I remember correctly” and “I’m not sure, but I think” and “You might want to double-check this with someone else.” In an interview I transcribed yesterday, someone was telling me about the performance art pieces of Dixie Blood Mustache, perhaps the most avant-garde of the E6 outfits, but before talking about the most memorable of their shows, stipulated: “I think every Dixie Blood Mustache show, I was on acid the entire time.” So while his anecdotes are a great insight into what he saw at these shows, they’re not necessarily the most reliable in terms of what actually happened.

To combat this, I try to talk to as many people as I can about any given topic. With Dixie Blood Mustache, for example, I’ve talked to no fewer than 10 or 12 people about what went down at their shows. If there’s unanimity about a given facet of a story, then I feel confident in printing it as true. If six people say one thing and two say something else, then I’ll frame it along the lines of “This is what probably happened, though at least a couple people remember it a little differently.” If one person says something and no one else has any clue what he’s talking about, then it gets printed as “A says this, but B, C, and D have no recollection of this happening.” Really, though, each situation is different, and if I’m not 100% sure of the veracity of something, I have to figure out a way to communicate the probability of its truth along with the story itself (assuming it’s worth printing at all). It comes down to just trusting the readers, I guess.

The problem is, there aren’t many resources available beyond the people who lived this story themselves. Most of this stuff went down before music sites were tracking everyone’s every move. So the few things that do exist are valuable if only for their scarcity.

Lately, I’ve referred to this Neutral Milk Hotel “gigography” at least two or three times per interview I’ve been transcribing. It’s great for when someone can remember the city but not the venue or a general time period but not a specific date. In those cases, I can usually just go with what’s on that page. But it’s not always that seamless.

In the case of an interview I was transcribing this morning, someone referred to a Neutral Milk Hotel tour that he says was “pre-Aeroplane by like two years.” In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released in February of 1998, which based on this timeline puts the tour in question sometime early-to-mid 1996. But based on the gigography linked above, this show would have had to have been several months after Aeroplane came out, not years before. So it’s hard to tell which is true, and it’ll be a challenge to tell that story. The best thing to do, then, is to ask some other people about it, to flesh out these details. Sometimes it seems the more work I do, the more I have left.

 *I’ve never, ever been to an Arby’s. It doesn’t really matter, but I want to make that clear.

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