Let's get personal: interview with Greg Goldberg, pt. 1
If you wanted my attention between mid-November and mid-December, you were pretty much out of luck. I was too deep under the spell of The Ballet and their casually gorgeous debut Mattachine! Preparing to move cross-country, to reset my life and make some daunting decisions, I needed its refreshing, reviving bounce to lighten my step. I couldn't go for long without its sumptuous melodies and its graceful insights; I craved and delighted in all the ways the band could turn hard, ineffable subjects into indie-pop treasures.
For weeks, I'd start all over again as soon as I reached the album's end, taking in every sublime moment from scratch. Yet every time lead singer Greg Goldberg confided, "I was in that December funk, but it's going away," it felt startling all over again. It was as if he knew the exact tenor of my blues and the precise sequence of chords to lift them. Eventually, I had to admit that The Ballet just have a talent for tapping into the universal that far belies the five hundred copies of Mattachine! they've printed. But it's also undeniable that they're making music that's admirably honest, bravely individual and powerfully personal.
Here's part one of my conversation with Greg Goldberg:
Nerd Litter: What's your musical background?
Greg Goldberg: I don’t have one! No, I took piano lessons when I was a kid from about when I was ten years old, so that’s the instrument I’m trained on. And then I picked up some other stuff along the way like guitar obviously, since that’s what I play onstage. Those would be my two main instruments. But I was never in Band in high school—
NL: Really? Marching band?
GG: That would be the one to be in if you had to pick.
NL: Exercise, music—it’s the best of both worlds.
GG: But I was never in musicals or in anything like that.
NL: So when were you in your first band?
GG: I played with some people in high school, but probably I would consider my last band, The Mean Corner, to be the first—where we practiced and played shows and had a CD.
NL: Did you always plan on becoming a musician? (Greg smirks dubiously.) Or okay, do you plan on becoming a musician?
GG: (Laughs.) That’s a better question. That’s a good question.
NL: You could do music and teach. You could be a rapping professor like Cornel West.
GG: Well, I always think in the back of my mind, what my students are going to say twenty years down the line when they read some interview from back in the day—
NL: Like this one.
NL: Where you just reveal all of your deep, dark secrets.
GG: Posing nude and…
NL: Is that a real one or a hypothetical?
GG: Hypothetical. (Laughs.) No, I would say fantasy… (Pause.) What was the question?
NL: Do you plan on becoming a—
GG: Oh yeah. Well, you can do something seriously without doing something professionally. When I think of professionalism, I think in terms of the market, how much you want to sell. And I guess all of that stuff relates to how big are the shows you want to play and how big a part of your life you want to make it. I know it’s not the only thing I want to do and I think there’s a pretty strong precedent for people in bands to also have other jobs. Usually, they’re day jobs that they don’t want to do. (Laughs.) But hopefully, some of them are professors in tenure-track jobs at cushy universities.
NL: Iron and Wine taught cinematography.
GG: Oh yeah, that’s true. And we’ve been talking within the band recently about ways to step it up a notch in terms of, maybe, like, our next record will have wider distribution. Meaning that I won’t be mailing the CDs out from my apartment.
"I probably shouldn't say that, because now I won't get a job."
NL: What do you guys do during the day?
GG: Marina works at a café. And Ginger does freelance work but really she’s an artist.
NL: Like a painter? A sculptor?
GG: Let’s say, she has many irons in the fire. Most of the work of hers I’ve seen is silk-screened prints. She also does textile work and she curates. She co-edits this journal, LTTR and she also knows more people than I can imagine. And then me and Craig are both in grad school, that’s how we know each other. We’re in the same department. We both have jobs through school that are working at different CUNY campuses. And I also have an office job on top of that.
NL: Wow. And what is your thesis on? (Greg sighs dramatically.) I’m not Larry King. I’m not asking any easy questions!
GG: It’s on file sharing and… loosely it’s on social theory.
NL: Is it on the destructive effect of MP3 blogs by any chance?
GG: I wish! That would make it easier to explain. Today I was writing about… What was I writing about? I made a point to remember to tell you so you would understand why I’m crazy.
NL: Well, you’re Jewish, right?
GG: Half. Halfsies.
NL: That’s enough.
GG: Are you?
NL: Yeah, definitely. I understand the crazy.
GG: What I was talking about today was surplus value. I was writing about Marxism, you know the labor theory of value and machines?
NL: Yeah. Yeah... Not really. I studied literary theory. I can throw in some of that for good measure, but sociology isn’t particularly my strong suit.
GG: Oh, I hate sociology. Me and Craig, we both hate it. I’ll go on record. (Laughs.) I probably shouldn’t say that, because now I won’t get a job. Someone will Google my name and this is what will come up.
NL: The Internet never forgets.
GG: Have you ever done online dating?
NL: No. Well, that’s not true. I went out briefly with this girl on Friendster a while ago. She sent me a comment that she liked my picture and that’s all it took apparently.
GG: I don’t understand how people use Friendster for dating, because I tried!
NL: I wouldn’t be able to do it because I feel like I’d be spending the whole time convincing girls I’m not some creepy shut-in. But wait, you did write that song “Personal.” Wasn’t that based on your online experience?
GG: The whole thing was loosely based on it. But yeah, I did try it. That’s how I met my current boyfriend.
NL: How did that go down? You saw him on there and sent him a message?
GG: Actually, he wrote me and I didn’t respond and then he wrote me again and I did, which is so typical of me and it had nothing to do with him.
NL: I’m the same way. Bands email me all the time and it’s so overwhelming half the time I don’t even get around to it.
"I fantasize about going on tour a lot... I imagine being in the car, eating shitty food."
GG: So wait, now I have a question for you. When a band writes you, what gets your attention?
NL: The very best thing is to demonstrate that you’ve actually read my blog, considered the styles I’m into and the type of music I post, and that you have something that would plausibly strike a similar tone. I get music a lot of the time that has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever posted or a message that’s from someone who obviously has no idea who I am or what I’m about. If it’s something that’s clearly being carbon-copied to a thousand blogs, I’m going to ignore it too.
GG: That makes sense. I mean, I try to do that but I must have really bad solicitation skills because nobody ever writes me back. All the contact we’ve had has been with people who have approached us.
NL: That’s very rare.
GG: I think people also like discovering things on their own. Maybe there’s more appeal in finding something that nobody told you about than to have someone be like, “look at my band” or whatever. Which is why I’ll never be a publicist.
NL: It’s okay. The world has enough. What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
GG: The first musical love of my life was They Might Be Giants, which I pretty much listened exclusively to until ninth grade. I think I owned no other music. Except I did have a Paula Abdul cassette and the first CD I bought was Depeche Mode’s Violator. And then typical things that you would guess. I started listening to Magnetic Fields in high school, in ’95, ’96, and The Sundays, Lemonheads. Who else? I want to be careful here; that’s why I’m pausing. Stereolab was a big one for me. Oh and Luna. I’ve probably seen more Luna shows than anything else, because they’re also a local New York band that played a lot here and I went to high school in New Jersey.
NL: You did? Why?
GG: Unfortunately. I lived in the Bronx until I was ten and then my family moved to Jersey; then they actually moved back after I graduated college. Now they live two blocks from where I grew up. But I feel like, when people ask if I’m from New York, I always say no, just because I don’t want to be involved in that whole authenticity argument. I mean, no one is from New York. And the people who are the most from New York, who’ve lived here their whole lives are the least New York-y in the way that people think about it.
NL: Well, they have nothing to prove.
GG: Exactly. So whenever I have a doubt if someone is from New York, I ask them what high school they went to.
NL: So then I qualify. And you do not. Perfect segue: do you consider yourselves a New York band or a band that lives in New York?
GG: (Laughs.) That’s a funny question. I mean, I was under the impression that there was a more cohesive indie pop scene in New York. I thought that there was this core group of bands that everybody went and saw and being successful here would mean breaking into that. But I don’t think that’s true anymore, because who would those bands be?
NL: That’s true, especially in this city. Everything is so diffused here. Maybe it would work in a smaller town, but even then, things are getting so globalized and people have access to so many sounds now that scenes don’t seem nearly as important.
GG: And it also seems like some of those things are made by the music industry.
NL: And lazy quasi-journalists like me.
GG: We do it in social science too. You classify things because really what’s happening is too complicated to describe in a way that anyone wants to read in a blog post.
NL: (Laughs.) An image and a file are already pushing the limit of what people can handle in a blog post. Okay… what does your process for writing involve? And what comes first—the music or the lyrics?
GG: The most effective process for me is when the music and the lyrics come together at the same time, like there’s a synergy between them. I think a lot about the songs I find really catchy and why they’re successful, and usually it’s because the melody does something to the words and the spacing of the words. It brings them out somehow. That’s kind of the way I try to write.
"If you only had to work with three chords for the rest of your life, how many different compelling songs could you come up with?"
NL: For me, that’s similar to writing poetry, because the words and the spacing go hand in hand there too. The words are defined by the meter and the meter is defined by the words. I never sit there and decide how to space the lines. It’s like the words decide for me.
GG: Right. My experience is that I know what’s wrong when I’m writing. I can play a hundred bad things before I’m finally like, that’s exactly what I wanted. But it’s not like I consciously think beforehand, this is what I want to do. It’s just a process of recognizing the thing as it comes out and not holding onto all the other garbage that occurs to you when you’re writing a song. And trust me, there is plenty.
NL: Yeah, I understand that. That’s a lot like writing stories too.
GG: That’s something a lot of artists have said. When you read interviews, they say that it just comes out of you in this raw form and then from there, you hone it or filter it down to the final thing.
NL: And there’s that anecdote about Michelangelo saying he could see the sculpture in the marble and it was just a matter of cutting away all the marble that wasn’t the sculpture.
NL: But I think that’s bullshit. It’s not like that for me at all. More like toiling for hours just to get a sentence I can stomach.
GG: Well, he had sketches, didn’t he? Or not?
NL: Um, I don’t know. I’ll Wikipedia it to make myself sound smarter. Does your aesthetic lean more toward If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Life Pursuit?
GG: What are you asking? Are you making a comparison between us and Belle and Sebastian or are you asking which one I prefer?
NL: I’m asking, between those two sounds, which one are you more drawn to? I hate to impose these binary oppositions here, but…
GG: No, I’m all about totally arbitrary decisions and challenges. In part, that’s what appeals to me about writing such simple songs. If you only had to work with three chords for the rest of your life, how many different compelling songs could you come up with? So I like questions that only give me two choices.
NL: Oh, let me rewrite the rest of these guys then.
GG: I would probably say If You’re Feeling Sinister, although I think The Life Pursuit is a great album.
NL: Wow. Controversial. What artists would you most like to tour with?
GG: We’ve never gone on tour. We’ve played a couple of shows outside New York. I fantasize a lot about going on tour. Like every part of it. I imagine being in the car, eating shitty food. So when you go on tour with someone, you want to go with someone who’s fun and low-maintenance… and sexy.
NL: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.
GG: No, I’m in a monogamous, committed relationship.
NL: Hey, I’m the editor here. And no one cares about monogamy.
GG: The headline is going to be “Greg Goldberg: Polyamorous Pee Slut.” (Laughs.) But I didn’t answer your question. This is why the other Ballerinas should’ve been here because I’m sure they would all have really funny ideas. I bet Craig would want to go on tour with Justin Timberlake. I somehow don’t see that happening in the near future.
NL: And it might be a little incongruous.
GG: Yeah. I like playing with bands that are quieter than we are, because it makes us seem really raucous. I mean we’re wimpy, but compared with ukuleles and finger cymbals…
NL: So basically, you’re limited to Don Ho here.
GG: Well, now you’ve got me thinking, I was limiting myself to actual possibilities. But if we could go on tour with anyone, yeah, Don Ho.
* MP3: "In My Head" - The Ballet from Mattachine! [Buy it]
* Band Website: The Ballet
Tune in tomorrow for part two to hear Greg's thoughts on pornography, politics, queer theory, postmodernity and bubblegum pop...
Tags: Greg Goldberg, The Ballet, Mattachine!, indie pop, MP3