Let's get personal: interview with Greg Goldberg, pt. 2
Photo by Bao Nguyen
Part two of my conversation with Greg Goldberg:
(Part one is here.)
NL: For my own edification, what are the intro and outro from “Tell Me How” from?
GG: Oh, that’s from a work of pornography. Sean Cody.
NL: Sean Cody? He’s the star?
GG: No, he’s not the star, he’s the director.
NL: The auteur.
GG: Exactly. That’s the word I would use. I have a lot of things to say about him, probably more than you care to know but I’ll cut it short and say in my opinion, he started a wave of pornography that’s really taken off, which is fake-amateur pornography. There’s this set-up in all his porns that everybody is straight and that you’re just capturing this straight person in this really uncomfortable gay situation… which is strange when you think about it, like why would that be hot? And sometimes it’s hot and sometimes it’s just embarrassing. Anyway, a lot of his porns have this dialogue at the beginning to establish the straight authenticity of the person being filmed, so that’s where it comes from.
NL: You seem very well-versed in this.
GG: Trust me, I’ve done my research.
NL: Something else I wanted to know: on “Personal,” when you say, “You looked to be eight-and-a-half,” for the longest time, I thought you meant he looked like an eight-year-old. And then one day, I realized you probably meant inches and it completely changed the way I heard the song. Was that ambiguity there or was I just being hopelessly naïve?
GG: That’s amazing. You probably saw something that was there. I believe you can write something unintentionally, but just because you didn’t intend it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
NL: So then you meant inches.
GG: That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote the song, yeah. That’s really funny though. That’s one of my favorite things, to hear people’s interpretations.
NL: Definitely. I noticed you also have a lot of elements of modernity and postmodernity in the songs, like the plastic surgery in “The Face of Everything” and online dating in “Personal.” Do trends like that make you uncomfortable or are they just a sign of the times?
GG: Well, I like Internet dating. It’s a good thing. You won’t find me condemning much as far as those things go. If you want me to say something bad about the world, it would probably be related to capitalism, something along those lines. That’s obviously a part of the moment we live in.
NL: A pretty dominant part of it.
GG: You might say.
"You're looking for something else, something in the body of the people playing."
NL: What are some of the moments that stand out for you most on the album?
GG: I’ve listened to the album a lot and it changes for me over time. I go through moments where I like some things and don’t like some things and right now, I’m enjoying the end of “The Start Song.” It’s a nice moment for me. It actually had a different ending originally and Ginger came over and we were recording the violin part. We were working really hard on it and it was not going well. Ginger basically said, “I think it might be the part.” I’d spent hours and hours writing and arranging it, and it’s hard to throw out something that you’ve been working on for a long time. But she was right and I said I would just write something else. It was actually the last piece of the album that was written and maybe it was even the last song that was written. So for me, I guess it was a transition, because I’m just continually writing songs. It’s not like the albums are unified by anything other than what I happen to be writing at the time.
NL: That’s surprising, because I hear a real coherence in Mattachine! I can’t just listen to an individual song. I have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish, probably more than any other album last year for me.
GG: That’s good to hear. We’ve got five-and-a-half songs now that aren’t on Mattachine! and I wonder if they’ll do the same thing for you. Because I had a similar experience with Mattachine!, where I found, despite me not writing them to fit together, they did fit together somehow. Because when I write music, I’m working through ideas and they end up overlapping. Even when you’re not trying, it just happens naturally.
NL: Right, because they’re all coming out of a certain period in your life. How long did writing the entire album take?
GG: A year? When my last band ended, we were in the process of learning “Clay,” and I think that was the only song that I really brought over to the new band. So then it probably took a year-and-a-half for all the songs to be written.
NL: Do you have a favorite?
GG: I don’t have a current favorite, but all of us in the band definitely all go through phases in terms of what songs we enjoy performing. Something just happens where for a month you’re not into playing a song, and then for no reason you can come back to it. I like playing the easy songs. (Laughs.) And God knows what that means given that all the songs are the same three chords.
NL: Do you prefer writing and recording more or performing the songs live? And what is the transition between the recorded sound and the live sound?
GG: I’ve been writing and recording for a long time, so in some ways, it’s easier for me to do. And up until now, the songs have all been written with the live arrangements in mind. I tried not to put anything extra in the recordings, because that was my way of verifying the “completeness” of the songs… and that was the easiest way to do it, to write it that way and just bring it to the band. I’m thinking of adding in some extras though with this next batch of songs, freeing the recorded versions from the live versions. People at a show don’t want to hear the album exactly as it is anyway. You’re watching musicians make music. You’re looking for something else, something in the body of the people playing.
"I do think it's different for straight white guys to get onstage and rock out with their guitars..."
NL: This would be a much better interview if I had seen you live. I was actually supposed to come to the February 2nd show at Tonic, but then something came up.
GG: It would be interesting to hear what you would’ve thought. I imagine that people want us to be really natural-looking. Like when you’re so into it that you lose yourself almost. My feeling is that it’s difficult to do that because you’re standing on a stage in front of a lot of people. There’s also something to be said about whose bodies are onstage and what it means for different bodies to be looked at.
NL: This is getting very Foucault.
GG: Yeah, that’s an author you’d definitely find on my bookshelf. I do think it’s different for straight white guys to get onstage and rock out with their guitars than it is for other people. I mean, I really do hate to oversimplify, but maybe I’d be willing to go with this: queer people in general are attuned to being looked at. So that brings a whole different dynamic when you’re onstage. It means something different to be onstage when you’ve lived in a way where you’re continually conscious of the way you move your body. The reason I don’t like to say things like that is because it’s different for people who have different gender expressions, it’s different for people who are not white, which I am…
NL: It reminds me of that line in “When You Go Dancing,” when you say, “When you die, you leave your prints on everybody you’ve ever touched, so don’t be shy.” Just that joy of letting go and reaching out.
GG: That’s a recurring theme, I’d say—the desire to let yourself go in that way. It’s something I probably do very rarely.
NL: So you’re not a natural performer is what you’re saying.
GG: Yeah. Well, I’m not a natural performer in the way of getting onstage and performing, but I feel like as part of my queerness, there’s a constant level of performance in the way that I’m monitoring myself. I’m sure somebody more eloquent than me wrote a book about this.
NL: From your titles and your topics, there’s obviously a political interest and awareness in the music. I’m wondering how you draw the line between making your point and overwhelming the art. Like, how do you separate the message and the medium exactly?
GG: It’s hard when you’re doing a topical issue like the war. I feel like my way around it in “I Hate The War,” was… I don’t want to say emotional, but something like that. It’s about frustration. The melody and the lyrics in that song are a little less natural than in, say, “In My Head.” In “In My Head,” they go together in this really tight way, but in “I Hate The War,” there’s this tension. Because if you’re saying something like “I hate the war,” the melody that pops into your head probably isn’t one that’s so glucose saccharine.
NL: That’s the brilliance of it, I think. How many more somber, humorless, pedantic protest songs do we need right now?
GG: I don’t know that I would say that, but it is hard to do. I definitely respect people who can do that and there are a lot of ways to go about it. I wish that I could do that more, but all the things that come into my head are about gay porn. (Laughs.)
"I can say this because I feel implicated in this as well."
NL: I noticed in my research that the word Mattachine, before it was the gay rights organization, was an Italian jester figure who would speak truth to the king. It’s also an Arabic sword-dancer who wears colorful costumes and a mask. So I’m wondering if pop music is kind of your way to sweeten the delivery of your message and your politics…
GG: The thing is, it’s not really that deliberate.
NL: It just happens that you like pop music and you like Marxism. (Laughs.)
GG: (Laughs.) But It’s not coincidental either. With “I Hate The War” for example, you have to be careful about saying the thing you’re going to say. That’s when I get a little more deliberate. And Craig is a good censor for me, because he’s politically savvy and Ginger and Marina too. I can bring them something and when there are politically ambiguous connotations, they might send me back to make revisions.
NL: To make it stronger?
GG: To remove it. Or not to remove the politics, but to be careful. Because you want to be responsible when you’re writing these kinds of songs.
NL: I got pretty politically involved at the tail end of college around the 2004 election and the lead-up to the war, and I invested so much of myself in it that I got burned out by the end.
GG: I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that people do go through those types of cycles, and it’s not necessarily one or the other.
NL: I am starting to work my way back.
GG: It’s also important not to relegate politics to the government. A lot of the topics that everybody in the band cares about involve things that people don’t necessarily have a choice about whether or not they’re going to deal with it. Transphobia and issues like that, the politics of everyday life. And the feeling that politics is something you can turn on or turn off, and not to target you…
NL: Go ahead. I can take it.
GG: I can say this because I feel implicated in this as well. When you’re a white guy, politics and privilege can be invisible. I’m twisting what you were saying, because you were talking specifically about the war… I’m using you to make a point. Probably not very good interviewee etiquette.
NL: No, absolutely, I get what you’re saying. And now my last question of the evening, which is: what happens next? Like, are the new songs going to be a lot like Mattachine!? Are they branching out? Are you looking for a record deal?
GG: We’re talking about it amongst ourselves, what’s our next step now, so it’d be premature to say anything definitively. I’d imagine, like I said before, we’d want to take it up a notch. I don’t know that it means finding a record label and obviously, that’s not the only way to go about things these days. In terms of the sound, I’m always pushing myself in different directions. I’m constantly taken by the little nuances of pop songs, so you can expect some new tricks on the next CD.
NL: Like what?
GG: There’s this Spanish musician that I am obsessed with. I’m trying to bully him right now into producing one of the songs. He records songs that are really intensely undeniably bubblegum pop. They’re so amazing. I want him to do this one specific song.
NL: What’s his name?
GG: Guille Milkyway, and his band is called La Casa Azul. I can’t think of any musician that’s working now that I like as much as him. So hopefully, there’ll be some over-the-top, euphoric bubblegum club pop as well as some stuff in other directions. But really, is anything else as good? (Pause.) Wouldn’t it be amazing if the tape ran out right there?