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If you’re on the internet, you know who Chuck Klosterman is; however, since I’m 100% sure my mom will read this, I better explain anyway. Klosterman is arguably the most popular culture critic in America. He’s been published in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, Spin, and most recently as a regular columnist at Grantland.com. He is the author of seven books: two critical memoirs about rock icons, Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live; three books of hypothetical questions and pop-philosophy, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, VI, and Eating the Dinosaur; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man. By commentating on the nature of celebrity and fame in America, he inadvertently made himself famous. He was nice enough to talk to buzz about rock and roll, music criticism, virtual realities, Ozzy Osbourne and TiVo.

 

AHG: Rock music is more about genres and categories than how anything actually sounds. What’s the consequence of that?

Chuck Klosterman: Some music just gets the concession that it’s great; other music gets the concession that it’s bad. But from a musical perspective, it’s not that different from a lot of other bands who exist right alongside at a record store. I think most of our discussion about music puts the actual sound of it as secondary. If you really care about music — any art really — then you know liking or disliking certain records has a meaning outside of itself. I made a real point about writing positively about the band Poison. I like Poison, but I realize everyone knows liking Poison has a meaning beyond enjoying the songs. When I mentioned Poison, you kind of guffawed (editor’s note: I did); anybody would. There’s a meaning to that band that has nothing to do with the records — that’s a lot of what I write about.

 

AHG: “All criticism is autobiographical.” Can you elaborate on that?

CK: I believe that. Especially in the hardcore world of criticism, writers don’t want to accept that. They argue it’s lazy thinking or useless or whatever. The fact of the matter is, when I look at a critic who has a large, meaningful body of work, and when I go through and read their reviews, I definitely get a better sense of the critic than the thing they’re ostensibly analyzing. Any experience you have with art is going to be filtered through the prism of yourself and your own experience; you’re going to inject every experience you have, unconsciously, into that piece of art, and it’s going to come back to you in a way that makes sense within the framework with which you understand the world. I think for a lot of critics, they would never want to write a memoir or in the first person — but they still have a desire to have their existence validated and for their experience to have meaning. So, they just write about themselves through different things. It’s pretty rare I read a piece of criticism where I understand the product better than the writer.

 

AHG: Perhaps what sets your writing apart from typical criticism is that you explicitly acknowledge this paradox. I’ve heard people describe other people’s writing as “Klosterman-esque.” How does it feel to become an adjective? What do you think that means?

CK: Well, that’s flattering. Of course I feel great about it, but it’s something I couldn’t have planned; it just kind of worked out that way, mostly due to timing. My books emerged in 2001-02, right at the moment the internet was becoming mainstream. A lot of the things I did in my first two books were adopted by the first meaningful bloggers and internet people. Really, timing is key. I don’t know what would have happened if my books came out five years early.

I think the biggest thing is the idea that you can write about whatever you personally decided was meaningful. You did not have to see what other people were saying in order to validate what you were perusing as an intellectual pursuit. You can use your own life as a way to understand the world. Now of course, if everyone does that, it becomes problematic. I wasn’t trying or certainly not hoping the way I wrote about culture and life would become normative. I don’t know if it has, but I certainly don’t want it to. When someone is consciously or unconsciously doing what I do, the unifying element is: criticism allows you to create your own reality.

 

AHG: What do you mean, “Create your own reality?”

CK: What I’m almost saying is I create a fiction to make myself happier, but that’s what people do. We’re living in the Matrix now. I really believe that. Not to the extent that we’re all batteries and this is all a computer program. But the world that we see is unreal. It’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate between hard reality and created reality — to the point where I worry if it’s a conversation worth having even though it seems like the most important thing happening in society right now. Most people stop asking the question of “What is reality?” or “What is real?” when they stop having this discussion when they quit smoking pot in college. They view it as an early adult thing. But I’ve never stopped thinking about that. To me, it’s the central question of being alive. I’ll probably never get over it. If there is a unifying aspect to all my books and all my writing, it is the question of what is reality.

As an example, I realized I have no control over my life, but once I came to that realization, I’ve decided to pretend that I do. The life I have now is a collection of things I did, but also chance, the way the world works, the fact I was born in America in the early ‘70s, the fact that I’m white. All of these things have dovetailed together to give me the life I have. It really isn’t me who got here. But now that I am here and I’m the only person inside this existence, I’m going to work under the perception that I control everything that I do. I’m fully responsible for the things that work and the things that fail.

 

AHG: What about how the internet fractures taste and sort of breaks down “monoculture”?

CK: The decline of the album as an important piece of culture has influenced that. When I was buying cassettes in the ’80s, I might have $10 to spend. So, I’d be looking for a $9.99 cassette. If I bought an Ozzy Osbourne record, that’s all I’d be listening to for a month. All the music I listened to was Ozzy, so if I wanted to care about that music, I need to care about Ozzy. Now, if I was in the same position, I’d probably buy ten songs off iTunes, and they would have no relationship to one another. One might be an Ozzy song, a Beatles song, a Lady Antebellum song — the only thing tying them together would be my personal taste. This leads people away from adopting the trappings of a subculture.

A lot of times, you get trapped in subculture without even trying. Let’s say instead of Ozzy, I buy The Cure. And the next record I get is a Streets of Mercy record. At first, I’m compiling these Goth records just because I like the way they sound. But after a while, I like them because I relate to them and see aspects of myself in them; and then I start relating to other people who like this music. And suddenly, I’m wearing eyeliner to school, and I’m in a subculture. I don’t think that happens as much anymore. When I see kids at colleges or high schools who are “in-your-face punk” or very metal or really hip-hop, it seems more like a conscious choice. Something the person wanted to pursue, without falling into it.

 

AHG: How does emerging entertainment technology reinforce that? Like TiVo?

CK: Because of things like YouTube, we can go back and see anything at any time. We basically have access to all television that’s ever existed at any time on our computer. It used to be books would go to print; but now even out of print books are on Amazon. A phrase people used to use was “What will be the song of the summer?” — the song you hear in other people’s car that defines 1997. There’s less of that now because people care less about the radio, and it’s easier to get a hold of everything. Elements of culture that mark time don’t exist anymore. So, when someone dies, it becomes one of the only ways people can really mark time by memory. It’s not like Whitney Houston is going to keep dying. When she dies, we remember she died Grammy weekend, so it was kind of Whitney’s Grammy’s. This allows people to remind themselves they are living a finite life. Time really is moving. Sometimes it feels like time isn’t moving, and we’re moving through time, not that time is moving. That’s not how it is.

Not to mention, people like to have shared experiences. When there were only three networks on television, even the unpopular shows were more popular than everything that’s on the air right now because there were fewer options. If you had the least popular show on ABC in the late ’70s on a Tuesday night, you’re probably still being watched by 25 million people. People liked the idea of shared experience — they didn’t think that they did because they always wanted more options. Now music is splintered; there’s a million options on cable and nobody watches the same thing. You can go to the movies and watch them at home — there’s less unifying aspects to culture.

But when someone dies, that’s still shared. Like, when Michael Jackson died, everyone dealt with whatever emotive feeling they had at the same time. People really got into it; it was like they wanted their life and memories to be important. That’s why they amplified their relationship to Michael Jackson, which is why you went on Facebook after he died finding all these people, who, to your knowledge, had never once mentioned Michael Jackson in their entire fucking lives suddenly claiming this is a horrendous tragedy they can’t get over. They want to remember that Jackson was important to them because they can tell from other reactions that he was “important.” So, if they have a relationship to Michael Jackson, it buoys their own existence. You want to be involved.

Chuck told me I “don’t have to plug anything,” but his second novel, The Visible Man, comes out in paperback June 5. You can read a bunch of his essays on www.Grantland.comright now, and he’s researching a new book he’s not allowed to talk about yet.

Last week, Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, gave a lecture about zombie preparedness to students on campus. I got the chance to talk to Brooks about zombies, and I wrote two stories about it for the DI. However, we talked for a really long time, and I still have 1,000 good words that deserve to see printship! So, here’s some extended conversation with Brooks about writing, zombie origins and resurgence, and how tween girls are the driving force of the free market.

I know you’re a big Studs Turkel fan since World War Z is inspired by Turkel’s oral history of WWII. I also love Turkel, however, my favorite book is Working. With that book in mind: “What do you call your job, what do you do all day, and how do you feel about it?”

“I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was 12; I’ll be a writer until I die. And that’s it. That’s all it is. There’s nothing cool or exciting or pretentious about it. I’m just a guy who writes down what he thinks about. I don’t feel one way or another about it. It’s not a choice, it’s what I am. I didn’t have a momment where I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a writer'” I didn’t choose writing; writing chose me: this is what I am. Since I sat down and wrote my first short story, the world stopped. I literally looked up, and it was three days later, and I had a three page short story. I remember thinking, ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to be.’

Do you remember that first three page story?

Yeah, I still have it. It was about me and my friends in Europe, in the 80s (obviously, because it was written in the eighties), getting in an A-Team-esque kind of battle with Neo-Nazis in the catacombs outside Rome.

What role would writing and texts play in the apocalypse?

I think they’d be hugely important. It’s an art form that doesn’t require batteries. When the power goes out, you’re going to need people scratching on tablets to keep words alive. I always think it’s funny to see how many people have downloaded the Zombie Survival Guide as an e-book. At least the paperback version doesn’t break.

How old are zombies? They date back to African myths correct?

Well, I always say zombies are the new jazz. Jazz is the only unique American music–all the other music we have is basterdized in Europe. The same thing is true of monsters as well, they came from somewhere else, mainly Europe. Vampires, werewolves, mummies (well, that’s Egyptian, via Europe). But then George Romero created the uniquely American monster phenomina. So it came from Africa, but in a very different art form–like jazz. Jazz started as African music and rythyms, then morphed through the American south into what we call jazz. Same thing with zombies. Zombies used to be African voodoo, witchdoctor raises someone from the dead as a slave zombie. The original zombies weren’t flesh eating hordes, they were somebody hit with zombie powder, then they died, then you dug them up and made them do chores. George Romero turned it into an apocalyptic thread, a fresh eating threat, a viral threat, an uncontrolable thread. George Romero rewrote the book just like the jazz greats did with American music.

Why do you think zombie narratives resurged so strongly in the last decade?

I think Zombie 2.0 started because people were like, “Wow, the fucking system is breaking down.” That’s what I was trying to do with World War Z. People had disaster on the brain because we kept getting hammered, one after another. People are really using zombies in interesting ways to examine societal collapse.

Now, I think we’re in Zombie 2.5. Zombie 2.0 came about in 2002-3: 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead comic, and The Zombie Survival Guide started a zombie Renaissance that started to snowball. Zombie 2.5 are the people picking up on Zombie 2.0–the people picking up on that…The first wave was the sixties and seventies. Romero, and the Italians and some Japanese guys–stuff like that. In 2.5, people are taking the genre even farther and doing even cooler things with it. Daniel Dresner (ed. note: U. of Chicago Political Science prof.) wrote a book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies examining foreign relations through zombie crisis…Dr. Steve Schlozman is a neurologist at Harvard trying to go really deep into the science of zombies with The Zombie Autopsies.

I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie movies ever made…and it’s a lot deeper than it seems. it’s funny, but the dude shoots his own mother–that’s intense. It’s about British society, their version of the slacker generation: people doing something with their lives. The British version of doing something with your life is a lot different than the American version–we say doing something is making a lot of money. The British think you need to go out and live your life, and do whatever you want to do. Whether that’s find the girl you love, quit the job you hate, whatever. You’re going to be dead soon.

What was your first contact with zombies?

I’m 12 or 13 and my parents went out to dinner. I snuck into their room to try out HBO and look for tits…you never knew when there’d be a sudden flash of breast, so I would stay up all night waiting for it. Suddenly there’s a naked woman, and I’m thinking glory hallejulah! But turns out, it’s a zombie canabal movie.Very gory, very explicit. When you’re 13, that will mess you up.

It’s weird that your first zombie experience was also a sexual one.

Well, that was the goal, but let’s say, things deflated very quickly.

The vampire boom that seems to be happening in tandem to the zombie boom is a lot more explicitly sexual. Can you add eroticism to zombies?

I’m greatful this hasn’t happened yet, but I bet someone will. With the vampires, and Twilight, that’s just the nature of the beast. The beast not being horror, but capitalism. Anytime there’s a hint of money, somebody gets the idea to market it to tween girls. Tween girls are the engine of the global economic system. If you can market something to little girls who spend their parents money, get obcessed, and buy anything related to the product, that’s where the money is.

Do you have any ideas for teen supernatural romance?

I got nothing. So I’m screwed.

What do you think the difference is in how Americans treat zombies compared to the rest of the world?

Americans usually have a happier ending. Italians get pretty hardcore. The Italians use zombies for exploitative blood and guts. The Japanese sort of the same thing, but

I haven’t seen your live readings, but I read you call them “self-defense lectures,” Can you tell my readers more about the performance and why they should go see it?

It’s a self-defense lecture based on the zombie survival guide. If you don’t know how to survive a zombie attack, chances are you will when I get done talking. And of course, answering questions.

Thought provoking?

Everybody has a theory to bounce off me, settle an argument with a friend. One guy had the idea of putting up razor wire, so when zombies come at him (because zombies wouldn’t notice the wire) they would cut their heads off. I said, ‘That’s a great idea, but what height would it be? Zombies don’t have a unified height.” So, then he went back to the drawing board, and I bet whatever plan B he’s thought of now is foolproof.

Do you prepare for zombie attacks? Do you have anxiety about the apocalypse?

I do. I have a zombie proof kit, which is also called my earthquake proof kit. The thing about surviving a zombie apocalypse is that it’s no different from surviving any other natural disaster. You need basic survival gear: a way to purify water, a medical kit, emergency rations, a hand crank radio, and a weapon for self-defense. Essentially though, zombies, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods: it’s all the same stuff. There’s nothing zombie specific in a zombie survival kit.

Lots of earthquakes?

All my life growing up, we trained. We had earthquake drills all the time. Every house I knew had earthquake kits that had to be updated every year. We all had an earthquake plan, like where do you go, who do you meet with, where’s a safe place. Now that I have a family of my own, we do the same thing.

Any really bad earthquakes?

College story. Not interesting enough.

The Center of Disease Control has a Zombie Preparedness website Michael told me. Did you have any role in it? What do you think?

They know exactly what I’ve been talking about for years. If you’re ready for a zombie disaster, you’re ready for a natural disaster. What’s great about what the CDC is doing is they’re getting kids to start thinking about disaster preparedness in a fun way. They’re almost tricking them to be ready for any type of crisis.

Since they’ve put this out, the CDC and I are trying to corporate to work together. They have a zombie preparedness graphic novel and I can help promote that. If I can get a CDC rep to come to my lectures. If you have a kid who reads my book, or the CDC’s pamphlet/graphic novel, and goes home and tells his mom they need a zombie survival kit, they’re essentially building a tornado preparedness kit–they just don’t know it. There’s nothing zombie specific, there’s no silver bullet, no cloves of garlic, nothing in the kit would be useless in a real disaster.

Something that’s always stuck with me was needing a crowbar for the disaster.

I do! That came from my earthquake preparedness kit. In an earthquake, houses can shift on their foundations, and doors can jam in the frame. I know a lot of people who have crowbars to pry stuff open.

You can also slam it through the skull of a zombie to crush it’s brain.

Exactly, and it doesn’t need reloading.

I know you’re not that involved, but what should I print about the movie? Do you keep up with the news? The internet seems generally “piss-off” whenever any new information is released regardless of the information. Does entertainment news transform people into masses of mindless monsters?

From what I’ve heard, is that they’ve wrapped shooting, but I could be wrong because I’m just an observer (and not even a close observer). I’m not a writer, producer, consultant–I don’t even have a cameo. Mark Forester said it best in an interview with MTV, ‘We’re making our own movie; we’re telling our own story.”

I grew up around movie sets and I know enough to know that it’s a work in progress. I’m not going to pass any judgement or even bother to keep up until I see the finished product–because that’s what it’s all about. Movies go through so many changes from start to finish, that’s why I haven’t even read the script. What I would have read in the script wouldn’t have even been what ends up on the screen. They didn’t even want me involved, which is fine because I’m also a zombie fan. I’d like to go see a cool zombie movie.

It seems like the internet gets really mad when any information is released. Is that flattering in a way, like as a respect for your work?

It’s definitely flattering. But if I could talk to the people who get angry whenever they hear internet rumors, let’s just wait until we watch the movie and see what they do. That’s my attitude: I’m not going to get upset until I actually see the movie. What if it’s cool? Then I would have gotten upset for nothing and have egg on my face.

Does Entertainment news have the power to turn people into mindless monsters?

Not as much as Fox news. Zombies are a good metaphor for a great many things. Mindlessness always terrifies me. People who act without thinking–especially people who commit violent acts without thinking–are pretty terrifying. I lost six million of my relatives because of that mindlessness. It’s pretty close to the heart there.

Distinction between Romero’s zombies.

The inhumanity makes zombies scary. George (Romero, but I can call him George because I’ve met him a few times) is a master story teller; a lot of his movies are to make the zombies more human than the humans. I remember when Day of the Dead came out and those two dilweeds Siskel and Ebert were talking about it. One of them said…I think it’s a better…when I go to sleep at night, it’s the static, inhuman, walking ebolia kind of zombie that keeps me awake.

Everybody has their own zombies that they like. For example, I’m a slow zombie fan, but I’m clearly in the minority and I know that now. Most people just like faster zombies–fine, good for them. But that doesn’t do it for me. It’s the difference between fear and aniexty. With fast zombies, you don’t have time to think, you don’t even have time to be afraid. It’s just adderaline pumping, kill or die. But when it’s a horde of slow zombies that will reach you in a few minutes, or a few hours, or even a few days–that’s a lot of time to think about how you’re going to go. That’s anxiety. That’s something even scarier. It’s the difference between getting shot and getting cancer.

There’s a chance no one may ever get to see the movie since they may be busy dying in a fiery apocalypse sonic flare. What would you say if that happened? Would you be relieved, disappointed, or dead?

My reaction would be, “Thank God they paid me in advance.” That’s another reason I’m holding off judgement. I suppose this is the first time I said this in any interview: I don’t have any financial stake in this movie doing well. I don’t get a piece of it. If this thing turns out to be a megablockbuster, I won’t see a dime. So if I see the movie and I go out and say to a microphone in my face, ‘Hey, that’s a really good movie!’

“The only reason I would say it’s a good movie is if I really like it. From a marketing standpoint, the book sales of a novel adaptation peak before the movie comes out…people buy the book before the movie comes out, not after.”

The Walking Dead, Marvel Zombies, your comic, and a proliferation of indies show that zombies are do well as sequential picture narratives. Why do you think that is? Is it just people love zombies, or is there something about the medium that allows writers to tell zombie stories from a new angle?

There were certain stories in the back of zombie survival guide that I wanted to see. I think they would have been good visually, and I didn’t want to wait for some movie to come out eventually. There was no movie deal on the horrizon, and there still isn’t. Paramount has optioned the rights for Zombie Survival Guide, but who knows if they actually want to adapt it, or if they did it because they didn’t want someone else to get it. I thought comics would be a great way to see it.

Since it was a visual medium, I knew that the artist would be the rock star of the project, so I didn’t even worry about people liking my stuff. And the truth is, X is the rockstar of the project; yeah, I wrote directions on what he should draw, but I can’t draw. If anything in there is cool, it’s cool because he drew it.

Did you pick him for a specific reason?

I picked him because I wanted it to be the most realistic artwork I could find. I didn’t want it to be stylized because I felt the historical settings needed to have information conveyed that couldn’t be done with stylized art…How many people really know what the French foreign legion look like in North Africa? Or an 18thc. Caribean slave plantation?

“Before I’m anything I’m a history nerd. I’ve always loved history, it’s always been my passion. It’s the only thing that saved my education because I was so passionate about it.”

How did you write zombie stories for non-American settings?

Lots of homework. lots of book learning. lots of reading. not just dry factual texts, but also books by authors from the countries in question…Plus interviews for people from other countries. I have a friend who works for Uncle Sam–I can’t say what he does, but he goes to China a lot. He was insturmental in Chinese slang, and little things about Chinese culture–the names of their cellphones, the types of cars they drive. The things that make it human, real…For every fake interview I did, I did a real interview.

What role would writing and text play in the apocalypse?

I think they’d be hugely important. It’s an art form that doesn’t require batteries. When the power goes out, you’re going to need people scratching on tablets to keep words alive. I always think it’s funny to see how many people have downloaded the Zombie Survival Guide as an e-book. At least the paperback version doesn’t break.

Do you read ebooks?

I don’t. I like having my books in my hands, and I like when it’s done up here on my shelf. I don’t like having it in the either.

Zombie stuff: What childhood contact did you have with zombies, or even horror in general? Do you remember any early childhood fears or anxieties? What was your first zombie in counter?

Do you have any theories why zombies have been so popular in the last ten years? I have one, inspired by WWZ: zombies are a useful metaphor for dissecting public crisis and government response. I think the scary thing about WWZ isn’t the undead, but the fact that no matter what the crisis–zombie, hurricane, or terrorism–the govt. will do a bad job handling it.

You wrote for SNL during what many (ok, me and my friends in particular) consider Saturday Night Live’s last golden age: Tina Fey, Amy Poler, Tracy Morgan, Will Ferrel (stop me if I’m wrong). Was that your first comedy writing job? As a big SNL nerd, I have to ask, what sketches did you champion or come up with. Do any stick with you? Will you share a story? Do you think the show could exist without Lorne?

You were also there during 9/11 right? Were there conversations about how to handle it? Do you wish you handled it differently at all?

Let’s take a zombie break before we REALLY get into it because I have a few questions about your other entertainment endeavors. How did you get involved in voice acting?h

I ask, because my research led me to The Watch List. Cool movie. What was the impetus in making that?

Zombie epidemics are serious business; the Center of Disease Control says so. On October 14th, the CDC released a “graphic novel” explaining zombie outbreak preparation. The CDC says the comic is to prepare “You…any kind of disaster, even zombies.” Could this be proof the government has invented a contagious zombie virus?! Probably not, but…

“I don’t think there’s anything remotely funny about being eaten alive by zombies,” said Max Brooks, zombie expert and New York Times best selling author of The “Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z.” Brooks gave a lecture on zombie preparedness to about 250 listeners, Tuesday night at the Illini Union.

“Zombies don’t obey the laws of conventional monsters,” Brooks said. “Since humans have rose to evolutionary dominance, we need to go out and find creatures that will eat us…[If you get eaten,] it’s your own fault. You just a crocodile hunter.”  Zombies break the “laws” because they come directly to you–and they come in droves.

“That’s why I’ve spent so much time and energy figuring out zombie survival,” Brooks said. “A real zombie apocalypse isn’t going to be like a video game…there’s no random weapons or ammo…[or] magic red boxes that heal you when you touch it…Real disaster preparedness is made up of little details.” In Left 4 Dead, your worst threats are Boomers and Smokers; in real life, your worst threats are dehydration and dysentery.

“You have to go into nature!” Brooks said. The most important thing to do during a zombie outbreak is leaving populated areas; places that had people will become places that have zombies. The second most important thing is finding a weapon.

“This is America, we have to talk about guns. It’s in the Constitution,” Brooks said. He went on to explain that if you want to kill zombies, guns aren’t your best option. Instead, choose a close range melee weapon, like a crowbar, sledgehammer, or machete: they’re silent, multifunctional, and don’t use bullets. Next, you’ll need a way to get around. Perhaps a Hummer?

“No one has ever invented a car that runs on fear,” Brooks said. Cars have the disadvantage of needing gasoline–which, as Mad Max shows, will be a coveted rarity in an apocalyptic landscape.

“How about a bike?” Brooks suggests. “It’s light, easy to repair, and something you can pick up if you run into barracades. Plus, a bycycle does run on fear!”

Reception was mostly positive to Brooks lecture.

Drew Podlewski (DGS as of Spring 2010), ” I didn’t know how much personality he had! He’s really funny. I thought most zombie or horror novelists would be dry and boring. I’ve never seen a presentation like this before, it was really cool.”

Mitchell Paglia, director of enriching programs for the Illini Union Board, agrees.

“I’ve read the Zombie Survival Guide twice, and it was fun to hear the tone behind the words, so to speak,” Paglia said.

Brooks said his humorous approach to zombies lures people to preparing for the zombie outbreaks early. When will zombie infestation occur?

“We don’t know where viruses come from…we just know that they happen….my concern is how we react to them,” Brooks said.

 

Film nerds rejoice! New York Times theater critic, Jason Zinoman’s new book Shock Value is this year’s best book about movies. It’s strange, but horror flicks that used to be considered exploitative trash (e.g. Night of the Living Dead,  Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween etc.) are now cannonal works of American Cinema! Heck, Texas Chainsaw is in the Museum of Modern Art! With Shock Value, Zinoman dissects what made these films so successful and so scary; by talking to hundreds of people involved in making these films, considering the inspirations and influences of the directors, and breaking away from traditional critical interpretation of these movies, Zinoman comes close to cracking the core of sheer, senseless cinema terror. Zinoman talked to me about writing his book, new ideas about Brian DePalma and Dan O’Bannon (Alien screenwriter), horror’s meta tendencies, torture porn, and VHS tapes. Enjoy!

AHG: Can you tell my readers Shock Value’s overarching argument?

Jason Zinoman: During the fifties and early sixties, horror movies were lumped into the fantasy genre. At the end of the sixties, horror saw a jarring shift. I don’t want to read too much into it, but there’s common traits these films share. They became more graphic and saw a shift toward realism, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Instead of focusing on the supernatural, these movies are about the prom queen, going to the beach, babysitting–things that were very familiar and mundane in people’s lives. The films are ambiguous in moral and unresolved in ending.  As the auteur theory took hold in the cinema world, directors saw themselves as auteurs. Focus shifted away from stars like Borris Karloff and Vincent Price onto the directors of themselves. Perhaps an implicit argument in my book is that the auteur theory alone doesn’t explain what makes these movies good, though. One of the things that made The Exorcist great were the arguments between William Friedkin (director) and William Peter Blatty (the novel’s author). In Alien, Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter) is a tremendous creative force in these movies. Even Halloween, which is traditionally thought of entirely driven by John Carpenter, was the articulation of ideas were evolving over many years, and Carpenter was great at paying homage to other people. The clash of points of view lead to compromises that ended up making the movies better than if there was only one aeuterist vision.

AHG: I’ve read that a lot of critics/scholars think that these movies are a response to Vietnam, but I got the feeling you disagree. Can you elaborate?

JZ: Well, Vietnam was an influence on these directors lives. Part of the impetus for Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left was that Craven’s thought America wasn’t being show the real violence in Vietnam; he thought journalism was covering it up, and he wanted to be explicit about it. People who have defended horror over the last couple decades–the ones who made the case that these movies aren’t trash, that they’re worth paying attention to, and that they’re works of art–frequently invoke Vietnam to understand these films. A documentary called The American Nightmare looked at these movies through only that prism–their argument says that these movies are rooted in political and social anxieties of the day. Now, I think there’s a lot of truth to that argument; however, I think the success of these movies is rooted in something more univeral or timeless than the politics of the day. If you talk to these guys, you’ll realize they’re not very politically active people. George Romero is the perfect example. That movie was widely interpreted as a statement about civil rights, that it came from the wake of political assassinations. The truth is though, Romero cast his black protagonist randomly; it was a pure accident.

AHG: Wasn’t Night of the Living Dead already finished before MLK was assinated?

JZ: Exactly. Albeit, the fact that Living Dead was interpreted that way at its release is part of the reason the film became so influential. By focusing on primary sources from the period, and talk to people who knew these guys before they got famous. I wanted to find out what their original motivation was. In some ways, these people who said these movies are about Vietnam, or Watergate, or whatever are doing these movies a disservice. They’re better than that! If we’re still watching Night of the Living Dead four decades later, it can’t only be about Vietnam. People today aren’t obsessed with Vietnam as they once were, yet a TV show like The Walking Dead is a huge hit. Time has proven that these movies are more potent than merely a political statement.

AHG: How did you get access to all the people in the book?

That was probably the hardest part of the book–some of these people took years to just get into the room with me. I worked on the book for four years in tandem with my day job. I guess there were two types of challenges. First, the horror directors: most of the horror people are nice, accessible guys who’ve done a lot of interviews. The book started as a Vanity Fair piece about The Masters of Horror dinner. That was my intro to the whole world: it was great to have a chance to get these directors in the room, talk to them and get a lay of that land for context. Then there were the big Hollywood guys. That was much harder. Getting in touch with William Friedkin is my biggest accomplishment of the book; it took four years.

Some people I never talked to though. For example, Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) was in jail for part of the time I was writing. I actually got in contact with him before he got put in jail. I told him I was writing a book on horror films and he responded that he’s not a horror director, so I’m not talking to you. That taught me that these guys from this period aren’t necessarily proud to be known as great horror directors.

The other thing is that a lot of these guys have done tons of interviews, telling the same stories over and over again and now the stories have a life of their own. The challenge was getting past the stories and finding out what really happened. Generally, with a guy like Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface), I tried to talk to the people around him–his ex-wife, friends before he was famous, people he went to college with–and only after having this picture did I go talk to DePalma directly. What’s different about my book compared to most other books about horror, is that while there’s certainly theories and interpretations, it’s firmly rooted in reporting. That’s what I wanted. My proudest accomplishments are reporting accomplishments. Like getting DePalma to say things about his life and work that haven’t already been in a million interviews.

AHG: It seems like pregnancy and the female body is a big source of terror in the movies you mention (Rosemary’s Baby; The Exorcist; Carrie; Alien). You wrote, “Overwhelming terror may be the closest feeling we get to being born.” Can you elaborate?

I think the most important sentence ever written about horror was by H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest emotion of mankind is fear and the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” If that’s true–that the unknown is scarier than heights, or rats, etc.–then what exactly is “the unknown”? I think something that makes Alien so scary is the stomach explosion scene. No man can ever fathom the horror of childbirth. We can imagine it, but we’ll never experience it. It’s an unknown exclusive to men–once a woman has a baby, the whole process is a lot less mysterious. My wife had a kid a few years ago, which in a weird way, helped me write the book. If you look at a one year old, the first game they play is peek-a-boo–we love to be scared! It must be hardwired into our brains. When you’re born, you enter a world you know nothing about. Things we take for granted–how gravity works, what faces look like, knowing that touching something won’t make it fall apart–all those things are new. If you believe Lovecraft, then for an infant, everything is unknown. There’s an analogy to be made between that infantile unknowing and what horror directors are trying to do: they want to disorient you so much that everything you understand is wrong; what you see is not real. There’s a whole other world to which we can never have access.

AHG: People think that Scream was the first self-aware horror flick, but you bring up plenty of others like Romero’s Martin. Why do you think the genre has always been so aware of its cliches and conventions?

Good question. The traditional history of horror is that Scream ushered in a self-aware, meta style. I think that’s not true. Take a look at Halloween: it’s no accident that Jamie Lee Curtis is watching a scary movie while she’s babysitting (editor’s note: it’s The Thing From Another World).

I have a few theories. One, there’s an element of ritual in horror movies. Some people go to horror movies to see something new, but a lot of people see horror movies to watch the same thing again with slight tweaks. The conventions of horror are integral in scaring the audience. If there’s a scene where a woman goes into the shower, anybody who’s interested in horror movies immediately thinks, Psycho. A smart director could use that to trick you: maybe the killer appears when the woman gets out of the bathroom, for one example. Essentially, horror movies are tools to manipulate the audience and one of the tools of manipulation is your own knowledge of horror movies. These movies are all derivative in some way. The director is making explicit what most genres leave implicit: your previous schema of other horror movies becomes a part of the movie itself.

Two, horror movies are a particularly visual genre. The storytelling has more to do with point-of-view and where the camera moves than it does with the script. The narrative of a movie like Halloween isn’t just a guy breaks out of a mental asylum and kills babysitters–that’s pretty crude and uninteresting. The real narrative is seeing how Carptender manipulates the point of view of the movie from the victim, to the killer, to an observation of the dance back and forth. Those shifts become more important than plot shifts–you could even argue that they are the plot shifts. I think the audience becomes more aware that they’re watching a movie.

There’s also element of immorality, or disreputably inherent to horror. One of the scary things about horror films of this period was simply the fact that you were watching a horror film. It was sort of an embarrassing thing to do. Finding out you liked horror films at this time was almost disturbing. The directors were self-conscious about that. Perhaps that’s on the low-brow end of the spectrum.

Where it gets more high-brow… DePalma, for example, (perhaps the most self-aware of all these directors), was really into Brecht ideas about drama. Brecht advocated for an alienating affect in art; a means of calling attention to the fact that the audience was watching, in Brecht’s case, a play. It allows the audience to dissect these ideas with a little more critical distance. Now, I’m not saying Dressed to Kill is a Brechtian drama, but I do think that DePalma absorbed those ideas and tried to incorporate them into his film. I guess it’s not just one answer, but I think it’s a combination of all these things.

AHG: What’s your take on the “torture-porn debate?” Do you think movies like Hostel and Saw are an extension of ideas introduced by Craven and Hooper, or is it something different?

I think there’s some similarities. Certainly if you talk to Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) he’ll say that Hostel is an anti-war movie about Iraq, and torture, etc. I tend to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. But I do think that the term torture porn obscures more than it illuminates. What does the term even mean now? When Hostel and Saw came out, everyone understood it; now, I find it’s used mostly as an insult. Movies like A Serbian Film, Human Centipede, or The Hills Have Eyes remake are called torture porn because they have extreme violence, but is that accurate? In my mind, the important distinguishing factor isn’t how graphic the violence is, but instead the point-of-view the director is trying to portray about the violence. I like Hostel. I don’t think it’s about exposing you to horrible things or trying to desensitize the audience to violence. I think Roth is using immoral acts to get to his ends. Maybe the Saw sequels are just violence for the sake of violence. But, I think it certainly depends on the movie.

AHG: You mentioned earlier that Polanski didn’t want to be called a horror director. In the book, you bring up the high-brow pleasure of low-brow art. I guess, has that stigma evaporated away from horror films? What do you say to change the minds of people who dismiss the genre?

I think that it’s already changed a lot. There’s still some stigma, but not to the extent of what was seen in the seventies. Wes Craven really was ashamed of making Last House on the Left; people stopped him at parties to remind him how he was a horrible person. But Eli Roth and Rob Zombie aren’t ashamed of what they do; they see themselves as part of a grand tradition. And, the presidents of movie studios think that too! You don’t need to convince a studio big wig that horror is a bankable genre. Critics too! In Roger Ebert’s review of Night of the Living Dead, he says he hadn’t seen a horror film in 10 years. There’s no way you could find a professional film critic who hasn’t seen a horror film in one year–maybe not even as long as one month!

I think that perhaps the bigger fear is that horror could go too mainstream. If horror loses it’s stigma, then you loose the low-brow pleasure of the genre. It’s fun to do something a little disreputable. People see their first horror movies as kids fully aware that their parents don’t want to see. The fact that they’re morally ambiguous, kind of trashy, maybe even bad for you–that’s part of the fun! People like guilty pleasures; we like what teachers and parents say we shouldn’t like. I think the best horror films tap into that, while simultaneously giving other pleasures. But I know I wouldn’t want to live in a world where horror movies are completely reputable. Horror movies have always tried to push the envelope and find out what is taboo, or shocking at the time of creation. Locating the taboo isn’t obvious–it’s not more violence or gore, that’s been done. It takes a lot of creative to push the line just far enough before it becomes unenjoyable. A movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre dances on that line between trash and art, moral and immoral, and I think that’s a fun place to be.

I get what you mean! While I was reading your book, my roommate was watching Antichrist. That seems like a film that takes away all the “low-brow pleasure” of the genre. Once you make an art house horror movie, it’s not fun anymore.

I agree. We don’t want to give the horror genre to Lars Von Trier. Sure, he’s interested in things typical to horror movies: scares, violence, shocks. But he’s missing something essential about what makes horror movies fun. There’s a certain self-seriousness about his movies that lose the fun.

AHG: On a much lighter note completely devoid of castration and female circumcision, in the book Eli Roth  says, “The way that kids first learned about horror movies in the seventies and eighties was usually from unreliable sources..hearing about these movies secondhand gave them the power of legend before they became popular.” Did you have any experiences where you heard about horror movies before you saw them?

JZ: In third or fourth grade, my friends would have long conversation about the Friday the 13th movies even though none of us had ever seen them. We told stories trickled down from older brothers about various graphic details and murder scenes. The movie we were describing probably barely resembled the Friday’s actual plot (and really, there wasn’t much plot to begin with). But there was something great about recounting the plots of horror movies. It was like telling ghost stories around a campfire. I like contemporary horror movies, but today’s horror market makes it so hard to make a  movie scary. The script will get leaked on the internet, the trailer gives too much away, the press and PR talk it up too much. Not to mention, kids are technosavy: they can read reliable summaries, or even download the whole movie! In the eighties, there was no internet or cable. You heard stories and let your imagination fill in all the details.

AHG: I remember talking about Friday the 13th when I was a kid, too, but I’d try to figure out plots from the VHS covers at the rental store. I can’t remember which Friday the 13th it was, but the one where a worm is coming out of Jason’s mask really creeped me out. I still remember it.

JZ: Exactly! Going to the video store and knowing a movie only for its cover. I remember a movie called April Fool’s Day. There was a girl at a party, holding a knife behind her back, and her hair was braided into a ponytail noose. I’ve never seen it, and I’m probably never going to see it. There’s no way the movie could be better than that poster.

A clever fox once said, “Chaos reigns” Things fall apart; entropy rides everything. Death is close and getting closer all the time. Who’s to say it won’t be soon? Who can promise that the world won’t end? Not Dan Martin. Martin is a former engineer for Boeing Aerospace, and currently an expatriate of society itself. Dan lives with his wife in a Mexican desert. He’s written thirteen books about building your own free home, or installing DIY solar panels, and other elements of off-the-grid living. His most recent book, Apocalypse: How to Survive a Global Crisis, is a synthesis of Dan’s rugged survivalist skills, and information supporting civilization’s impending doom. I talked to Martin over a satellite Skype phone while he took a break from traveling, giving seminars and going to Haiti to rebuild schools in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. Hopefully, after you read this, you’ll be prepared for the world’s eruption into hellfire flame.

AHG: You’re a pretty prolific writer; how did you start writing books about self-sufficiency and doomsday preparation?

DM: I was in the military for about four and a half years. Then I worked for Boeing Aerospace; I was an aerospace technician for about five years. One day, I woke up–or “opened my eyes” I like to say–and realized living in society wasn’t for me. So, I bought some raw land in west Texas and I built a ranch. My wife and I sold all our property and cashed in our accounts and investments. We sold the car; we got rid of everything. We built our own house and our own farm road. The cabin we lived in for eight years had no utilities–electricity, water, phone, garbage, etc. We caught rain water for drinking and bathing; we made our own composting toilets. We made furniture, and grew our own food. Eventually we installed windmills, solar heating and cooling, hydroponics…

AHG: This seems to explain your massive Amazon page. After you learned how to do all this stuff, did you just think, “Well, might as well turn this stuff into books.”

DM: When I started, you couldn’t just buy a book or download something that explained how to be completely self-sufficient. So I just had to learn hands on. I decided I had to get this information out to people so they don’t have to fight as hard as I did if they’re inclined to try these kind of things. So did your experience as an engineer help you figure out how to do this stuff? When I was at Boeing, I worked with NASA and helped with the space station. We learned how to synthesize nitrogen from air, oxygen from air, separate the gases and what not. Not to mention, I grew up in the mountains and camped in the woods. Worked on cars and stuff. I’ve always been a do it yourself kind of person. Anything I didn’t know I just figured out as I went.

AHG: Alright, well I just finished up Apocalypse. Let me make sure I’m getting your main argument: essentially, while we can’t say for sure where and when a government meltdown will happen, we can be pretty certain one will happen eventually and the least we can do is prepare. Does that sound right?

DM: Correct. Not only will it happen, but I think it’s already begun. Look at economic collapse, major earthquakes around the world, tornadoes, record setting floods, wildfires, in March alone, 24 countries tried to rise up against their governments…I’m not religious, I’m not spiritual, I’m not prophesying any magical forecasts. It’s just when these religious or cult like entities prophecies these things, and then when scientific entities like NASA are backing them up, it’s something we should pay attention to. There’s so many prospective ways the apocalypse could happen–astroids, nuclear warheads, I personally subscribe to the idea of super-solar flares. In September of 2010–I’m not sure–NASA released a report that states in 2012, solar flare bursts are predicted to go through Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not uncommon for the sun to become super-active. The last time was in 1959-1960. Back then, the only electronic grids were telegraph machines and wires. They didn’t have electrical wires, phone lines, computers, whatnot. All the wires and cables of the telegraph grid spontaneously ignited and burnt up the whole system. They had to replace the whole system., causing a massive replacement. Today, we’re dangerously dependent on our electrical grid and it’s extremely susceptible to this type of power failures. It’s essentially a big sponge for these times of solar flares…

(Editor’s Note: I looked for this report, but could not find it. Ron Paul’s website published a story citing the report, but didn’t include a link. Universe Today has a great article breaking down the science of solar flares that does say solar flares would be disastrous for electronics; however, they’re skeptical that the flares predicted for 2012 would be able to do that. Guess we’ll have to wait and see! )

AHG: What are you doing December 21st 2012? Should we be doing the same thing? Should we find bunkers?

DM: The whole solar flare thing isn’t going to kill everybody on earth. It’s not going to burn anything down; you don’t have to go underground. It doesn’t have the potential to be that severe; it would just effect electronics. Essentially, it will be a normal day until all of a sudden our iPods and laptops and ATM machines stop working. American society depends so much on that stuff and society is so fragile that it could set into motion a collapse that society couldn’t recover from. Me, I’m going to be sitting on the beach drinking a beer on Dec. 21st because I’m so far away from civilization that I don’t have to worry about that stuff.

AHG: If the apocalypse hits in 2012, we don’t have much time. What should we do to prepare?

DM: The most important thing to do is educate yourself. America is dependent on a service driven economy. If something happens with the plumbing, call a plumber; if you’re injured, call a doctor, etc. The most important thing is to learn about as many feilds as possible. Learn the fundamentals of electricity, mechanics, plumbing, medicine, welding, hunting, cooking! It’s really dangerous to be dependent on just one thing because if it gets taken away, what do you do? If you’re used to having a roof without leaks, and after a societal collapse you find out there’s leaks in your roof, what do you do?

AHG: What are the most essential supplies to surviving an apocalypse?

DM: According to my solar flare prediction, you should stock up on non-perishable foods and ammunition. Money, credit cards, and currency will be worthless. You’ll need something else to barder with. I foresee things like cigarettes, coffee, toliet paper, and things you don’t think have much worth will be extremely valuable because people are addicted to these things. Even if you don’t smoke or drink coffee (which I don’t), I’ve stocked up on cartons and cartons of cigarettes and crates of coffee because I know they will be worth something if the factories close.

Besides learning all these trades, take a step to convert your body and yourself away from luxuries. We’re so used to climate controled areas, so turn your air conditioning and heaters off. Live with that so your body accumulate to these  temperatures. I hear about the heatwaves in New York where people are dealing with 110 degree tempatures; that’s an average day in Mexico. We’re used to that down here. But most people leave their air conditioned house for their air conditioned car until they get to their air conditioned office and go to an air conditioned resturant for dinner.

Hike. Run. Build your muscles up and walk places instead of driving to them. Lay off the cell phone and laptop and stop being dependent on them. If only to get a taste of what things might be like if you’re cut off from modern society.

AHG: Those sound like reasonable things to do regardless of impending doom. Who’s going to take control after society collapses?

DM: The United States government is a capitalist run government: it runs on money. If the economy collapses and everyone loses their jobs, no one will pay their taxes. If that’s the case, there will be no one around to uphold the lifestyle we’re used to–the police, armed forces, and security will have no reason to protect and serve. The prisons will empty because there won’t be money to keep them open. Gangs will rise up. Even out of work law enforcers might abuse their authority and take control. The strong will survive. There will be confusion, suffering, death, ignorance, looting, rape, murder. That’s the way it always is. Whenever a government collapses, that’s what happens. Look at the USSR in the 90s, and Africa right now.

AHG: So, my readers should probably go out and buy a gun?

DM: If you’re living in society, your only option is to batten down the hatches, arm yourself, stock up on some food, and ride it out. The better option though, is to get away from it. Go out where there’s no people. If you can go out where there’s no people, there will be a lot less danger.

Eventually things will calm down. People will adapt; humans are very resliant. We will build new societies and new forms as government just as faulty as the last one. That society will fall in 500 years, or 100 years, just like the ones before it. That’s the way we are. Every government fails; none has ever survived. Especially superpowers! It sucks, but that’s the way it is.

AHG: You write that motorcycles and trucks will be the preferred mode of transportation, but what about horses?

Well, I say motorcycles and trucks because my book is for people living in the city, living in society. In the city, it will be a lot easier to get a hold of a motorcycle than a horse. But if you’re in an environment with horses or donkeys, and you have experience riding and taking care of big animals, that would be the way to go.

Between horses and donkeys though, donkeys–or what we call, burros–are a better option. Horses are breed to move heavy weight and run real fast. That can be a bonus in an emergency situation, but in the long run, you’d want an animal that could move over any terraine. A dedicated, security animal. That’s why you’d want a donkey. A horse has “flight” demeanor, while a donkey has a “fight” demeanor. A donkey will stay and protect you, while a horse would probably run away.

AHG: What are you going to miss most about civilized society?

DM: I’ve been out of society for almost ten years now. When I lived on the ranch, I didn’t see any other people for eight years. I haven’t had a phone, or a calendar, or an alarm clock in almost ten years. I haven’t owned a wallet in almost ten years! We’ve eliminated anything we were dependent on.

When I left the ranch, everyone had cellphones. Big, black cellphones they’d hold up to their face. But when I came back, nobody had cellphones anymore! They were just talking into little speakers. Just talking to themselves and shouting out into the air. Now I see people with cellphones, but all they do is tap on them!

AHG: I think you mean Bluetooth headsets and smart phones.

Yeah probably.

Most stand-up comedy is loud, angry, about penises, or a combination of the three. The best stand-up, however, is none of those things. Tig Notaro is a purveyor of the best kind of stand-up comedy. Notaro’s comedy has been a hit with critics and comedy colleges for years, but with the upcoming release of her new record, Good One, is sure to introduce her to a wider audience. You may recognize Tig from The Sarah Silverman Program (she was the cop), Last Comic Standing, a guest-spot in last season’s Community, or her podcast Professor Blastoff about topics both broad and philosophical (it’s really weird, check it out!) Notaro also just finished a summer of playing some of comedy’s hippest gigs–both SXSW and Bonnaroo–and we had an email chat while she was on her way to Ireland. Good One! is online today! Go download it!

AHG: Why’d you tape the record on your birthday? Do you not really care about birthdays? Was it a way to throw a combination birthday/record celebration party? Any standout gifts from that particular birthday?
Tig Notaro: I was on tour with Sarah Silverman on my birthday week and we happened to be driving thru Bloomington, IN (where my label is based.) I still hadn’t recorded my CD that was way overdue, so my label suggested they put together a show for me after I opened for Sarah, to get me recorded and the CD production going. I obviously agreed, Sarah opened for me this time and I ended up turning in my CD recording (which in a way ended up feeling like a birthday present.) Oh, AND birthdays barely matter to me.

AHG: So you’re on Secretly Canadian, David Cross and Eugene Mirman are on Sub Pop and Neil Hamburger is on Drag City. Why are comedians releasing albums on indie record labels!? How does a music label treat stand-up? Does that  “independent spirit” of Indie music cross over into how Secretly Canadian makes a comedy record?
TN: Absolutely! SC feels as Indie as you get, but without having a hobo in charge. That particular set up would be a little too indie for my taste. My CD was recorded in an old house that bands usually use, but my session was slam packed with a live audience. Pretty amazing concept, if you ask me. Secretly Canadian is the only label I’ve ever been on, so as far as I can tell they are totally treating me and stand up as equally as important as their music releases. It feels like my good friends are putting out my CD, and being on an Indie rock label, I think will help me stick out a tad more. We shall see.

AHG: Before I forget, how’s Tig Has Friends going?! What made you want a talk show? Was it a cool dumb-luck opportunity, or have you always wanted to try the format?
TN: I never wanted a talk show. It was just a regular live show I did in LA and sarah silverman had the idea to try to sell it for TV, so she’s executive producing it with me. So yeah, dumb luck.

AHG: Is it out of the pilot stage? Besides having both Tig and friends, what makes Tig Has Friends different from other talk shows?
TN: We finished the pilot and are now just waiting to find out if its picked up or not. If the show goes to series, each week I’d have either a TV cast, a movie cast, band, comedians, etc., (it’s a themed show, in that all guests have to be the same somehow) and I interview everyone in a ridiculous way — nothing about their latest project or who they’re dating. Then my guests also provide the variety by doing a hidden talent of some sort (sing, do a back flip, balance spoons on their faces, etc.) then I go into the audience and do a Q & A where the audience gets to ask the questions that I didn’t care about. For the pilot we had cast members from Mad Men.  They were great!

AHG: Have you been working on Good One’s material for a while? How’d you pick what was going to be on the CD?
TN: Its pretty similar to any given live show. I always mix in new stuff, some standards and there’s always a little bit of improvisational elements added in. That way I’m happy, the guy that came to hear his favorite joke is happy, and I don’t get bored because no two shows are alike.

AHG: I read someone describe your comedy style as “one that attacks a joke from every angle” Do you agree with that? Are you trying to squeeze funny blood from a proverbial comedy rock?
TN: I’ve heard that from different people here and there. Basically, my mind goes a little cartoon-y and I love details like crazy, so that makes it hard to stop sometimes.

AHG: If I was describing your comedy, I might say “Wry Steven Wright observations mixed with a sardonic, Todd Barry deadpan” Were you ever consciously going for that subdued–or “quiet” maybe?–style, or is that more just a reflection of your personality?
TN: Just a reflection, I suppose. I mean, I can certainly be loud or obnoxious here and there in life, but it doesn’t seem to follow me on stage very often. I will say that my shows always build. By the end of the night, I’m rarely still talking as low as a preschool teacher. I just realized after that last sentence that anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with me, probably lost all interest.

AHG: Who are you comedy influences outside of stand-up?
TN: My mother certainly influenced me and my comedic sensibility. She’s a wilder version of me. She would tell me as a little kid to tell everyone that had a problem with me, to go to hell. I’m thankful for that. I also love the singer Chrissie Hynde and her whole attitude in general. My mother and Chrissie make zero apologies, so that influences elements of my thoughts in and out of comedy. I mean, I’m certainly not one of those annoying, insincere Bill Hicks wanna be’s, taking myself too seriously, but I try to just do what I want, how I want and when people don’t like it, tell them to go to hell in my own friendly way.

AHG: On WTF you mentioned that the American south has its own type of wit. Can you elaborate on that?
TN: No. To be honest, I’m typing this interview on my blackberry while traveling in Dublin and to answer that would be way too involved. Just know that its a place worth visiting with people worth meeting. So essentially, that question can go to hell.
Good question, but to hell with it.

AHG: So, in that joke about trying to get a milkshake at 3AM: you’re making the “throat-slit-you’re-dead” motion right? Do you have to think about how you’re conveying stuff when you only have audio?
TN: Correct. I am making the slit throat motion. I think if I put out a mime album, that might be tricky, but the physical things I do on the CD wont lose listeners. The rest of the story or joke makes the whole visual fall in place.

AHG: Well, I heard a rumor that you have a 12 minute bit where you push a stool with your pelvis–is that true? I spent WAY too much time googling combinations of “Tig + stool + pushing + pelvis” with terrible/ellicit/scatological results. Does this bit exist?!
TN: Partly true. I use my hands, not my pelvis. Someone was clearly trying to make the bit way sexier than it is. As for the length of the bit, it ranges from a couple minutes to maybe six. I’m more than happy to go longer, but its all contingent upon the reaction of the audience. Before I push the stool, I explain why I’m doing it, so I’d rather the readers see it live and hear why I’m doing it, rather than read why I’m doing it. I will say its a very divisive bit.

AHG: I read you worked for Sam Raimi for a while. Did it involve more zombies, less zombies, or the typical amount of zombies found in other jobs?
TN: I was just an assistant at his production company. I really had a great time and he, along with my other co-workers were tremendously supportive of my career, which at the time was just open mics. I reached a point of going crazy and just wanting to do comedy non-stop, so I was probably the main zombie most of the time around the office. I was terrible at my job. Anyone can tell you.

AHG: On Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast you talked about doing open mics at laundry mats and pizza parlors. What’s the weirdest open mic you’ve ever participated in?
TN: Probably the open mic I set up at the top of Runyon Canyon, which is a popular hiking trail in Hollywood. I hiked there regularly and noticed several other comedians went there to hike, so I jokingly said I was going to start an open mic at the top of the canyon. Then I did. Hikers would stop and listen and then keep moving after a while. It was pretty ridiculous. We used an orange traffic cone like a megaphone as the mic. I called it an open-meg.

AHG: Have you seen any open-mic sets that just really erked you? Recently, I saw a guy sing a parody country song about his girlfriend breaking up with him called, “You Put the Cunt in Country” Not only was the song awful, but the guy didn’t have enough material planned for a full five minutes, so he just played THE SAME SHITTY SONG TWICE IN A ROW! Did you ever see that guy?
TN: Never saw the guy, but if Secretly Canadian reads this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they signed him too. Seems right up their alley. As far as being erked, I’d have to say I don’t feel that way with open mics (or megs) because its pretty much always bad or new comedians with the occasional mentally ill person that just needs to talk in public. I’m getting all nostalgic as I type… I get more erked by stupid dumbed down comedy by professionals. But even then, I really don’t care what anyone else is doing.

How to Dress Well is the pseudonym of Tom Krell–an electronic musician who combines the emotiveness of R&B  with the textured sonic layering of ambient, Brian Eno inspired sound experimentation. Krell played in Champaign last March for the Adult Swim Block Party. Unfortunately, I thought it was lost in virtual oblivion, until we found it behind a potted plant. And heck, since How To Dress Well will be playing Pitchfork this weekend, there’s no better time to share it! Enjoy!

AHG: How to you recreate your music for an outdoor, festival environment?

TK: This is the question I’ve been asking myself… First off, I’m a pop musician and I preform like a pop star; I have backing tracks and I preform a live vocal. I like to think of the show more of a performance along those lines, rather than a performance like a “rock ‘n roll” band. It’s really interesting I’m going to be playing outside, it’s hard to know what to do with that. Usually, I like playing special venues where I have control of the ambiance: fog, lights, video (I do all the design for my show with help from a friend for the videos). I try an use an eye to create a certain affective ambiance.

There’s a big difference between How to Dress Well on record, and How to Dress Well live. For me, the record is really quiet and intimate; I listen to it on headphones, when I’m lonely, or when public spaces make me wanting something more. I make music from this possession too, so live, when the music’s loud, it’s really different. I think people find it challenging to have a public experience with my music because it’s really intimate for them.

My music is really affective, emotional, and spacey and weird. How to accommodate that in a live space is something I struggle with and think about a lot. When I make my music I try to let myself feel really murky and foggy. I often find my mind will be flooded with abstract emotions and images, so I try and create my music from there. I think the people who are into my music listen to it and are moved affectively and I try to recreate that ambiance. I try to create the live space to accommodate the fragility of my voice and the songs I make.  My thinking right now is I would encourage people to respond to the music live, just as they would on the record. I’m always honored by people who are into my songs. If you get it that means you really listened, and let your heart open up. That’s really humbling and… Dope?

AHG: You said you think of yourself as a “Pop Star” Could you elaborate?

TK: Basically, I think of the live show as designing a show for a pop performer get to do. That sounds like such a fun job to me. Obviously I don’t do costume changes, or crazy entrances, or exits, or whatever. That’s all just an extension of what I’m trying to do. I think it’s cool that pop music is becoming more democratically available. You don’t have to be a rich guy with a full studio in your house to make pop music anymore. Likewise, you don’t need to have a $300,000 touring budget to do pop performances live. I think a lot of people still don’t know how to respond to this new trend, like what to do with pop music live. People are so used to seeing bands and listening to new guitar solos to make it a live experience; or going to heavy shows and watching people freak out. A quietly, emotional pop performance is challenging for people, but I really love doing it. I’m very new at doing the live stuff, so I’m still feeling my way out. It’s interesting to think what a live performance is supposed to mean and do.

AHG: How do you define pop music, because I’m pretty sure you don’t mean “What’s popular.”?

TK: For me, what makes pop music special is that it’s an immediate access to the emotion, or affect, or pathos of the song. When you listen to free jazz, you have to have an esoteric knowledge to get into it–you have to know a special sequence of signifiers. With pop music, those signifiers are the most superficial emotions. But I think pop music is simple out of profundity. It understands that the surface of things is really important. My music is right on the surface; what I discovered, in order to convey complex emotions, I didn’t need to go deep or profound. I could do it right at the surface, with pop music. The way I think of my music is that it’s really superficial, but really complex emotions.

AHG: Do you describe your sound as low-fi?

TK: Not really. To me, when someone says the term low-fi, I think of a three piece garage band–really heavy, fuzzy, etc. I like to think that my sound on Love Remains as “soft focus” or “low resolution,” rather than low fidelity. Love Remains sounds the way it does for a reason. I had an opportunity to rerecord everything as a “high fidelity” album, but that just didn’t like the right form for the content of that record. That’s not to say I will never make a hi-fi record; it’s a specific record for me and it demands a specific sound.

AHG: How would you describe the emotions your music invokes? I’d say sad, but maybe that’s an oversimplification.

TK: Yeah, very sad. It’s very sad. I hope the sadness is more complex than whatever emo bands are popular now. I think it’s a more complex, confusing, and ambiguous sadness. The problem with emo–and the reason that teenagers like it, and most people grow out of it–is that it’s not sad enough. The tragedy is so excessive that it just falls flat. Once you’re still depressed, but no longer a teenager, that depression stops feeling exciting and it’s just fucking up your life.