As a novelist and essayist, Michael Chabon has produced a body of work that tackles the ruptured borders between high culture and genre fiction from all ends of the spectrum. His books The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys were adapted for the big screen, whereas his own screen-writing endeavours brought intellectual acclaim to cash-cow franchises (Marvel’s Spider-Man 2) and box office poison (Disney’s John Carter). Chabon is a bonafide expert on pulp culture and pop music: his most recent novel Telegraph Avenue covers a wide array of topics from jazz-funk, Blaxploitation and the radical heritage of the Bay Area’s Black Panther Party, to parental responsibilities and Obama’s presidential campaign, all against the backdrop of a struggling Oakland record store.
Chabon’s own musical achievements might be less talked about but nonetheless noteworthy. The one and only recording of him as lead singer, a 1984 demo EP of Pittsburgh post-punks The Bats, was re-released on Mind Cure Records in 2014. Fast forward a good thirty years, and Michael Chabon has another record coming out: He’s penned lyrics for a number of songs on Mark Ronson’s album Uptown Special.
Mr. Chabon, it’s 11 AM in Berkeley, which means you’re 12 hours away from starting your usual work routine...
Yes, I just woke up actually. But talking about music is definitely a nice change of pace from talking about books, which I’ve been interviewed about now for 25 years...
In preparation for this interview I tried a little self-experiment with one of your methods, writing a full working day to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians...
[laughs] How did it work?
Not too well, to be honest, it made me a bit nervous after a while… Why do you think Steve Reich makes practical music for writers?
Well, there’s no accounting for taste, I guess. But I can’t work to any piece by Steve Reich by any means, there’s only a few that work for me. To me, the easiest music to work to is dynamically very consistent, doesn’t have loud parts and soft parts, doesn’t have vocals and overly intricate instrumentation. That negatively describes this piece, Music for 18 Musicians. It’s just so steady, so pulsing. The tempo is consistent. Ideally, music that I’m working to will fade into the background but not completely. It has to occupy this position in my consciousness that is somewhat ahead of completely inaudible, completely absent. It sort of gives my work a focussing quality, where I’m aware of the music, and I am absorbing the information of the music, but on a level that is so unobtrusive that it doesn’t interfere with my actual getting words out onto the page.
Probably similar to how some people can’t go running to music because changing rhythms will mess up their pace… Do you sometimes feel like rhythmic variations interfere with your cadence?
Yes, absolutely. And music with lyrics, utterly. There’s very rare exceptions, I can sometimes listen to foreign language music, for example some classical music like Schumann. But even then I know just enough German so that some words will pierce my consciousness and then it’s all over.
Did you actually learn an instrument?
[laughs] I played the clarinet in fourth grade but I didn’t like the way it kept filling up with saliva… The most effort I put into learning an instrument was when I was in graduate school. I had a roommate and a good friend who both played the guitar and they both showed me how to play electric guitar. I did that for a little while for fun. I enjoyed it but it never really went anywhere, nor did I actually have enough ability to get much beyond that.
The biography on your homepage names Queen as the first band you fell in love with. Did you grow up in a classic rock household?
My household was musically very eclectic. My father is a major classical music fan. I listened to a lot of classical music, I still do. My mother listens to Top 40 radio but was also always into country and western, Broadway show tunes and stuff. She also liked folk pop and singer songwriters, so we listened to a lot of that. In terms of rock & roll, we had some Beatles and Doors records but it was definitely more on the pop side of the continuum. Once I started buying my own LPs I moved out of the Top 40 radio stuff into more album-oriented rock, probably about the age of 14 or so.
From then on I pursued various forms of rock music, one kind or another. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B and soul, the black radio station in Baltimore and D.C… the town I grew up in had a large African-American population, all of my friends were black, so Parliament & Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, George Duke, The Commodores, Kool & The Gang, that kind of stuff was around. Of course that was also what you’ve heard on Top 40 radio, which was surprisingly diverse in that era.
Where did you first discover that there is a subcultural dimension to music and pop culture?
It was a lot harder back then to find anything like that. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, there was a certain amount of isolation, before I eventually learned how to drive and my friends and I would go to D.C. to see movies and shows. You know, you couldn’t go on the internet or gain access to various subcultures in any obvious or easy way, but I subscribed to Rolling Stone at some point in high school, from which I gained a certain awareness of the various subcultures. I remember reading about the Downtown New York scene around 1978, which was exploding at the time with Blondie and the like. I had some consciousness about it but it wasn’t really until I got to college in Pittsburgh, which is a small city but had all kinds of musical subcultures going on.
Even more important for me, I was living in a dormitory for my freshmen year at Carnegie Mellon University, which is among other things a very top-level engineering school, so I had a lot of engineers on my hall. And like a lot of engineers, some of these guys were very obsessive about acquiring, amassing, cataloging and organizing information. They were obsessive music fans, with in many cases incredible audio systems in their dorm rooms. There was a guy who was really into British prog, and he told me all about the real depth of Genesis and Yes, music that I knew but I hadn’t really plumbed that deeply, to more obscure things like Gentle Giant or Henry Cow. Then came glam rock or punk or jazz fusion... these people really started to broaden my appreciation for music.
Pretty early on in your debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Art, the protagonist, feels an epiphany-like sensation which is described as recognizing the city for the first time for what it is – a network of scenes and sub scenes offering countless opportunities. Did you have anything like that while studying in Pittsburgh?
I think, in a paradoxical way, it has less to do with you or the city itself than it does with other people. I think it can frequently arise that you meet someone new and you’re getting close with that person, or maybe with a group of people. And their version of the place that you’ve been living in is different than the version that you’ve been accustomed to. It might be the different neighborhoods that they inhabit or places that they frequent. And these people become your guides to a whole new version of the place that you live in. Ultimately it’s a matter of personal connections and perceptions – in a way almost like the phenomenon I described with music and me and my freshman year in college. You make a personal connection and along with that comes another person’s entire experience of what you happen to be sharing. If that is the city that you’re living in, then your understanding can develop a deepening like that.
Lee Skirboll was my entree to a lot of things.
Was Lee Skirboll such a person to you?
[laughs] Yes, Skirboll! He is still my friend today, after all those years. He’s back in Pittsburgh now, he lived out on the West Coast for many, many years. Just coincidentally we both ended up in the Bay Area, and we would see each other continually. Now he’s back in Pittsburgh, so unfortunately I see less of him than I used to but we’re still very much in touch. He is a well-known figure in the world that we came out of, and now that he is back in Pittsburgh he has reinforced a lot of those old ties and his renown in the city has never faded.
I just remember when we were in college and afterwards, too, when you would walk through Pittsburgh with Lee you basically couldn’t go ten feet without stopping because he was always running into people he knew. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, so he had much deeper roots there than I did. He’s a very sociable guy. He really was my entree to a lot of things. His name has come up recently because of this whole Bats thing, the band that I was in briefly, and he was a founding member of. Through hanging around with him a lot I ended up worming my way into The Bats and became their singer.
I believe you were in the same writing class together?
Yes, but we didn’t know each other at all. He was a somewhat intimidating figure in a black leather jacket which was painted very garishly on the back, custom painted with an image of, I believe, the first Birthday Party album: a giant red kind of squid, octopus creature, which filled the entire back of his jacket. He had longish hair and a beard, a big guy. He would sit in the corner of the classroom, and he was clearly very engaged with writing and being in the class, he was not one of these people who were just looking bored in the corner.
The pieces he wrote were not very widely appreciated by his classmates, who didn’t have the slightest idea about what he was up to. He was reading very interesting things to tie in with his stuff, ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Peter Handke, just churning out quirky pieces that I always enjoyed. It was a class full of lousy, mediocre writers, so... if only just for the novelty of his pieces I appreciated having him in the class, but he actually wrote well and funny. His pieces cracked me up.
I remember I was having a conference once with the teacher. We had just discussed one of Lee’s stories in class and Lee had been asked to write an evaluation of how he felt the discussion went, and that evaluation was sitting on the desk while I was talking to the teacher. Even though it was upside down, facing the teacher, I could read it and I saw that it began something like “…thanks to Michael Chabon, he is the only one who appreciated what I do, as usual,” or something like that. That was my first indication that he even knew who I was. But it was actually almost two years after that that we became best friends.
This specific formation of The Bats was rather short-lived – you recorded a demo EP which was recently re-released on Mindcure Records and played one show together at a club called The Electric Banana...
That’s right. That was a wonderful night, one of the best nights of my life up to that point. I turned 21 on stage at the strike of midnight, while we were still performing. By the time I got involved with them I had already made all these plans to live in Europe. I had a ticket and the passport and all that stuff. So from the beginning there was sort of an end date on my time with them. And when it came and I left, they went on without me.
Is that what inspired “Jet Away,” the first track of your demo?
[laughs] Yes, that is very perceptive of you. They stayed together for a couple of years after I left and opened for all these great bands like Hüsker Dü and Meat Puppets. The Bats were a pretty popular Pittsburgh band for a couple of years.
So it never occurred to you that becoming a full-time performer of music could be a thing?
I never thought that would ever happen, no. I mean, I did it so briefly, and there was no element of choice in not doing it anymore – it was a choice I already had made before I started. It was just for fun and it was one of the most fun things I had ever done up to that point. Being in a band, and especially in the early stages... looking forward to playing out for the first time, all that is so thrilling, just to be in this little gang and you go everywhere together and hang out together, eat together, do stuff together. To get that sense of security and you’re actually engaged in this creative enterprise collectively, that was a wonderful moment. Afterwards, looking back at it, it just receded into my general past in Pittsburgh, at the tail-end of my college years. I loved it an awful lot, I had a great time.
As a writer who has incorporated a great deal of pop cultural elements, and a music fan with a great admiration for everything from classical to prog and power pop – is the concept of guilty pleasures something that you’re concerned with?
I completely reject the concept of a guilty pleasure. I hate that term. I don’t think there is such a thing – if a work of art gives you pleasure, why feel guilty about it? If you experience something as a guilty pleasure, like a TV show or a piece of music, then you might have internalized someone else’s ethos of anti-pleasure, of hostility to pleasure. For example, I love the band Rush. In fact, right now I’m wearing a Rush t-shirt. There is no question in my mind that they have incredibly creative dynamics and are an enjoyable musical entity. But I have had these moments in my life, when their name comes up, of people reacting with a sort of derision, they’re kind of mocking about that. My response to that is, You’re just cheating yourself. You’re missing out. I feel a sense of pity for people who don’t appreciate it, rather than feel as if it’s something to conceal or feel guilty about it.
I completely reject the concept of a guilty pleasure.
In most circles, Rush is not exactly the epitome of cool, yes…
I hate cool. I mean cool is just the worst burden, it just kills so much pleasure, this anxiety about being cool, and what’s cool, what’s not cool. It’s inimical to pleasure.
It seems that the dynamics of cool vs. uncool work similar to the high-brow and low-brow dichotomy of the art world, especially regarding literature.
Yes, there seems some kind of fundamental exclusionary dialectic at work, where someone or a group of people are searching to draw a circle around themselves. And everybody inside this very small circle are seeking approval and consent but leave almost everyone else on the other side of that circle. And we’re gonna stand here and make fun of them and look down on them. There is a certain amount of self-definition through exclusion, through denying the taste or the standards or the behavior of other people.
As a writer you never seemed to shy away from any topics that you enjoy.
I came of age having this assumption that if I’m interested in something, it’s worthy of interest.
No, I think I got that in part from my father. He was pretty much an intellectual, a subscriber to the New York Review of Books and had a classic 20th century set of tastes and interests. And yet he also loved Star Trek II and Japanese monster movies and comic books and used to watch pro wrestling way back when pro wrestling was not the phenomenon it became. He never seemed to show the slightest guilt about those pleasures, he didn’t try to conceal them, in fact he advocated them proudly. There might be a mild sense of irony that would be creeping into his tone when he would move from Arnold Schönberg to Godzilla vs The Smog Monster II, but it’d be very mild, hard to detect and it didn’t indicate any kind of diminution in his interest in the subject at all. I just observed that very early on. I was born in 1963, so I grew up through the ’60s into the ’70s, a time when a lot of those barriers between high-brow and low-brow came down, or were torn down by people like Andy Warhol and others. It was the right time to be the way my father was. I came of age having this assumption that if I’m interested in something, it’s worthy of interest.
How does that tie-in with the concept of genre in writing and music?
Well I think that’s very much part of that whole discussion. It’s stupid to exclude entire categories of material simply by virtue of the fact that other people have determined it inferior. As with people, it only makes sense to encounter works of art on a one-to-one basis, and evaluate them on their own merits for what they are, not for what you’ve been told or how the packaging looks.
Still, when you are working within the realms of a certain genre or a different form, say crime fiction or comics, you are still aware of the rules and regulations of that specific genre, right?
It’s in the breaking of the conventions that makes a great work of art.
Yes, I mean you have to be. There’s no rules so much as conventions, and conventions are what define a genre, but one mistake that comes in is thinking there might exist a category of art that does not have conventions, that is outside of the genre discussion, which is just ridiculous. One mistake lies in thinking mainstream literature is not itself a genre; that somehow those conventions which are just perhaps a little more explicit in, say, a murder mystery than in a contemporary novel about a family dealing with cancer and divorce, are not there... they’re ubiquitous. And the other mistake is to believe that you must obey those conventions, and that they would limit expression, which is not the case at all. It’s in the breaking of the conventions, it’s in the flouting of the conventions – and the ways that artists circumvent them or find ways to follow them without repeating what has been done previously – that makes a great work of art.
Your most current novel Telegraph Avenue is partly concerned with the heritage of one particular era of black American entertainment, namely Blaxploitation. Was that something you always enjoyed or did you have to dive into that world all new?
Both. I grew up in that period where it was a viable commercial factor. I was very much aware of Blaxploitation cinema as a kid of 9,10,11 years old. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland with a lot of black culture in my life, I was a regular reader of Ebony magazine at the time. Ebony frequently featured the stars and directors of Blaxploitation films on their cover. I never saw any of those movies as I was still a little kid, and they were typically pretty adult in their content. Nowadays they would definitely be R-rated films. The direct encounters I had with some of those films were exclusively through their soundtracks, which were – generally speaking – amazing. So much incredible music came out of that Blaxploitation moment. It was definitely a part of the media landscape of the time that I was sharply aware of, but then it went away and receded to the past. When I decided to work with that material I definitely had to do research and educate myself. It was very pleasurable research.
While the music of Blaxploitation definitely stood the test of time and provided some enduring recordings, the films were quickly taken over by predominantly white production companies trying to reach an inner city demographic...
One might say that it was that way from the beginning. All it really was was cheap movies cranked out steadily for a brief period of time in order to cash in on what had been discovered to be a surprisingly large and loyal movie-going public. I think at some point some studio executives discovered that a huge portion of the initial commercial success of The Godfather was due to black costumers, all across the country. And somebody looked at that, saw the research and said, “Oh my God, black people love going to the movies. Maybe we should be exploiting that market.” Hence the term. At times there was a cultural aspect to it, where people like Melvin van Peebles and Gordon Parks emerged. And you know there was always that big talent pool of good black performers, actors and actresses. It briefly coalesced into something that managed to produce a relatively small handful of decent movies and a whole bunch of really lousy, crappy, cheap, poorly made, derivative movies. But: great music and really cool iconography!
More than 30 years after your involvement with The Bats, there seemingly closes a cycle for you, as there again is a record coming out with your lyrics on it. Is Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special actually the first time since then that you wrote song lyrics?
Did that scare you?
Uhm, no, not really, it was just all exciting. The whole thing was such an amazing adventure. The only scary moments were when I was presenting a new set of lyrics to Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker, and in one case to Kevin Parker [of Tame Impala] for the song “Daffodils.” You know, having to wait for their reaction and see what they thought. They were not at all shy about giving me criticism and notes and such. That moment always was a little bit scary, but other than that, everything about it was fantastic.