JOHNNY WINTERS: So my first question is, what are we doing here?
RUSTY SPELL: It's my house.
JW: All right. Fair enough. So tell me why you decided to do a cover not of a song, but of an album. Why did you do The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs?
RS: I've been covering Stephin Merritt songs for a while, and mimicing him was how my band The Mnemonic Devices came about in the first place. I'd already had the idea of doing all the "worthy" songs of his, and I'd done a handful of them, but now I thought why don't I just do not only an entire album, but the biggest one? Which is the most insane thing to do, of course, which made it better. What is that?
JW: That's my tape recorder. Ignore it.
RS: I knew I would just take my time with it, which I did. I told myself that it wouldn't be a stupid thing to do if I took my time with it.
JW: Now, even though you've done plenty of cover tunes before, doing an entire album's worth -- not to mention 69 songs' worth -- of someone else's material is unusual, even for you. Do you consider this a new kind of Rusty Spell album?
RS: Usually I do records with some theme, like my biography or a children's album or a tribute to myself or divorce.
RS: And on this one, since the theme was just the album itself, I could play around with different productions and styles for each song, since doing them all the same would get really painful really quickly over the course of 69 songs.
JW: In a lot of ways, this album seems to tie together all of your different quote unquote bands.
RS: Well, like I said, variety is the key when doing three hours of music.
JW: Right. So it's sort of a Mnemonic Devices album because other people sing.
RS: But Liza doesn't sing nearly as much as she would on a Mnemonic Devices album, and the sounds are radically different than they would be on a Mnemonic Devices album. We'd never use guitars or anything besides a keyboard.
JW: And it's sort of a 'nikcuS album because some of the productions are goofy.
RS: Some of the songs are rough and fun.
JW: So what is your vision as people listen to this record? Do you think people will just listen to it and compare it to the original? Do you think they'll listen to it as a Rusty Spell album at all?
RS: I know some people hate covers, since they always say it "ruins" the original song, which never made sense to me, since the original song still exists. I think of it as a Rusty Spell album, since none of it sounds too much like the original song. Of course, I've said that if I had written the songs, it would be my best album.
JW: Well, let's get right to the songs. I've heard everything but "Absolutely Cuckoo" which is the first song. I'll fly blind on that one.
RS: We're recording over it right now.
JW: That's too bad.
RS: I could--I could play it for you on this Walkman. No I couldn't. Nevermind.
JW: So this is the only one I haven't heard, and naturally I have no questions to ask you about that. What can you tell me about this song?
RS: I did it using a Yamaha keyboard arpeggio, which is the easiest way to make a song, since my original idea for the album was to either use those or to just strum the guitar. No production at all. That changed as I realized it would get old, and as I fell in love with the idea of doing a different style of production for each one. I sing with myself on this one.
JW: A duet between Rusty Spell and Rusty Spell?
RS: Yes. Merritt's was a quartet, but mine is just two voices, in two different places on the stereo field. Oh, and I did do more than just use an arpeggio. I added some extra keyboard stuff.
JW: That's a nice way of getting around that. So we go to "I Don't Believe In the Sun." What can you tell me about that song?
RS: I used the Yamaha again for this one, and added keyboard stuff, but I did an effect on the vocals. That was what made this one different in production from the previous.
JW: So "All My Little Words" makes the debut of another vocalist. Where'd you find Liza Marshall?
RS: She's my girlfriend, so she didn't have a choice but to sing for me. I figured I'd let her do all the female parts, Claudia's and Shirley's, and I'd do all the guys, Stephin's and LD's and Dudley's. She sings very pretty.
JW: There's a lot of nice reverb in this song.
RS: This is the reverb song. I reverbed the reverb. There are also lots of different guitar and vocal parts. This is supposed to be the song where you realize that I'm not just doing cheesy keyboard covers throughout. I also do the trademark Rusty Spell "lead" guitar business, where it ends up me just riding up and down on the top string.
JW: Okay. So we go now to "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off."
RS: I couldn't resist putting in a chicken cluck sound, even though it doesn't make sense since the chicken's head is supposed to be cut off. I think that's part of the joke. I use Liza's acoustic guitar on this one, which makes it nice and country.
JW: You want to talk a little about your flirtation and/or fascination with country music? 'nikcuS made a whole record, more or less, of country tunes.
RS: We did?
JW: Well, I consider Adlibbing to be sort of a country album.
RS: Oh yeah. Well, it's some country and some rock and some of everything else. Yeah, we like country a lot.
JW: Are there country artists you admire in particular?
RS: Well, when you sing like Bob Wills--
JW: --as you do--
RS: You kind of need to have some country outlet.
JW: That's true.
RS: I like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and even Kenny Rogers who is barely country, and Don Williams. Mostly, though, I just like country and the idea of country. I like country to sound country, not like Garth Brooks or Shanai Twain who are okay but they're not country, just pop with a little twang.
JW: So what's the deal with "Reno Dakota"?
RS: I know. Liza was supposed to sing it, because it's a female vocal, but when I did the "guide vocal" for her, I ended up sounding so stupid singing it that I fell in love with the recording. I always just sing crappier than usual on my guide vocals, and this one ended up sounding so crappy I liked it. I also liked how the guitar went nuts. This one is meant to sound just plain, plain production and plain crappy.
JW: "I Don't Want To Get Over You" isn't plain and crappy. It's got a cool effect.
RS: Yeah, it's got that windy sound for the entire thing. I sing it about half as well as I should have, but I like it anyway. It's one of the ones where you realize I'm not just joking up the songs the whole time. I take some of them seriously, or as seriously as I can.
JW: There's a line in here about Prozac. Do you take Prozac?
RS: You're not the first person that's asked me that. No, I'm just happier than most people seem to be. I look around and I've got a nice house and some material stuff and pretty cool friends and people are nice to me, so there's no reason to mope.
JW: So next we come back to "Come Back from San Fransciso" which you rightly let Liza sing.
RS: My guide vocal to this was horrible. Liza's vocals were very very pretty. This is one of my favorites from the collection just because it showcases Liza's voice.
JW: I imagine you can relate to the last line about staying up late, since you seem to stay up late a lot.
RS: I'm not sure if I'm an insomniac or if I just have different circadian rhythms. I don't like doing anything "worthy" in the morning. Not music or writing or anything much except screwing around. Until it's night, I can't do anything, so I just sleep really late and stay up really late. During school, I typically stay up until two in the morning, and when I don't have to wake up at all, I usually stay up until sometime between three and six.
JW: So we move on to "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side." This is a happy song.
RS: It is.
JW: The last note on this song is held just as long as Dudley held his. Did you really do that, or did you do some sort of special effects?
RS: I really did it. I used to practice along with the original in the car, and I could usually hold it out even longer, though sometimes I hurt myself doing it. I probably don't sound as good as Dudley, but at least I did it. I think I also peaked the recording level doing it, but I didn't care since the production of this song was really sloppy to begin with: me strumming the ukulele and banging on the snare drum and dinkling with the keyboard.
JW: So we're back in business with "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits."
RS: What was the previous song?
JW: "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side."
RS: Oh yeah.
JW: Now we're at "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits."
RS: This is one of my favorite ones. I'm singing higher than I know how, but this time it's an effect. It's my favorite effect, the chipmunk one, but I call it the bunny rabbit effect on this song. I'm using the funkiest arpeggio I could find, too, which is the other reason I like the song so much. I chipmunked the keyboard as well as myself.
JW: "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be" sounds lonely, bleak.
RS: So did the original song, and maybe that's what made me not like it as much. Obviously when there are 69 songs, you won't like some of them as much, and this was the first one in the collection that I didn't like as much as most of the others. So the idea was to make a version that I would like, rather than just tossing out some garbage that I wouldn't like the second time around either. So I used a kazoo. But I didn't want to use a kazoo to make fun of the song, so I tried to make a serious kazoo song, which is hard to do. I just sung as sad as possible and reverbed myself and the kazoo to death and it turned out to work. The original was Stephin Merritt's mother's favorite song.
JW: So here we are on "I Think I Need a New Heart."
RS: I went ahead and did two versions in one with this one. First was the distorted guitar intro where it seems like that's going to be the whole song, but then I jump into the closer-to-the-original bouncy version of the song. I simulated the rhumba box by banging random notes on the keyboard.
JW: This is a nice example of your music: carefully planned and yet also sloppy.
RS: I'm surprised I sung this song as well as I did. That vocal jump, I thought, would make me sound stupid. I always thought it was a stretch when Merritt did it, a stretch for him to be so jubilant.
JW: So then we move on to what's probably my favorite song on this side, if not the whole album: "The Book of Love."
JW: I think it stands with some of your better-sung songs. You sound good on this one. It doesn't sound like you normally sound.
RS: "Good" isn't how I normally sound.
RS: Liza sings on this one too, which helps make my voice sound better. I'm singing higher is the thing, like I'm a minstrel. And then I'm backing myself up with my lower sounds, which is probably how I sing best, though I like this high one as well too. I sound like a different person on each song I sing, which is why I like my voice even though most traditional listeners would say I sound crappy. I don't care all that much about "good voices," as you know.
JW: In the next song we return to the Casio goofiness of some of your earlier sounds. This is probably the most--
RS: Which song?
JW: Oh, I'm sorry. "Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long."
RS: For the record, this was a Casio MT-18, which was my first keyboard. My mother bought it for me on a day I'll never forget. I was a little kid, and I told her I felt I needed a keyboard. I told her I just wanted something little, like this little white model I saw that was probably under ten dollars. But Mom saw this one for like forty dollars and I said "Isn't it too much?" and she didn't seem to mind. I spent hours a day on the MT-18. It had a cartridge in it that played "Swanee River" and "Greensleeves" and taught you how to play them. I learned to fake how to play on that one.
JW: Don't get too sentimental on me.
RS: I won't. So, yeah, I decided this song was perfect for an old Casio. I had trouble with the almost-cursing of this song: not with the bitches and Shitzu because you can't mess that up, but because of Merritt's accent with foxhound. He pronounces "foxhound" like "fuhk sound" so it actually sounds like the word it's meant to remind you of, but I say "foxhound" like "fahk sound" which doesn't sound much like it. It's like he says "love" like "luv" and I say it like "luhv." So I borrowed a little bit of his accent so it would work, though I'm not sure if it does.
JW: We move to "How Effing Romantic," speaking of bad words. These were the only lyrics you changed through the entire album, saying "effing" instead of--you know.
RS: I have this rule I've created for myself that I won't say curse words on my music. I don't have this rule for my stories, but I do for my music. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's just because more people hear my music than read my stories and I don't want my nephews or dad or later my children or just random people saying anything about it. Or maybe I just don't want to pollute the albums, not that I think curse words are horrible things. I think they work in songs sometimes. In 'nikcuS we never say curse words either -- though I think Noby may have said "damn" and "ass" and some of the minor swear words -- even though half the songs are about having sex with prostitutes or animals and getting drunk and all that stuff.
JW: There's nothing wrong, then, I guess, with a little Bowdlerization.
RS: No. And this was the second song that I didn't like too much. In fact, this is my least favorite song from 69 Love Songs. And there's not much you can do with it unless I wanted to make a big, big production of it. I could have done that and made a really good song, but instead I just did my own personal flip-off to the song by dashing through it, not saying the money word, not even singing it but just talking, and snapping off beat. Ha ha ha.
JW: We move to "The One You Really Love" in which you and Liza are a sort of travelling yodelling cowpoke duo.
RS: We're the Carter family. This was one of Liza's favorites, and so I was looking forward to doing it with her. I just kept it simple with strumming and singing.
JW: "Punk Rock Love," I must say, isn't really that punky.
RS: That was the joke, I guess. I never thought the original was all that punky either, just sort of New Wavy maybe, so I thought I'd make it a folk song. This is one of the most changed songs on the album. It was fun and funny.
JW: "Parades Go By" returns to your Yamaha.
RS: This is the third song I didn't like as much, but I like my version. 'nikcuS ended up using the same arpeggio later on in "Understand Me, Understand You," but that's okay.
JW: We get to "Boa Constrictor"--
RS: Another song I didn't like as much. It makes it sound like I didn't like a lot of them, but that's not true. With the exception of "How F*cking Romantic," I liked all of them to some degree. This was one of the ones that didn't wet my noodle as much. I ended up just using a tinkle bell or music box or something, which Liza likes a lot, since she'd be singing it, and having her sing over it. She sounds cute. I kept it short. I knew I couldn't replicate the guitar in this song, so I just did the tinkle.
JW: So next we have "A Pretty Girl Is Like..."
RS: In which I totally go goofy. I love it. Stephin went pretty nuts with his singing on this one, so I went even more nuts. I did that whole production sound like I was a dude on a stage who was full of himself, all sniffing and stuff, and singing away like he was the best thing in the world. But there's clearly no one in the audience. I don't think it's just that it's quiet, I think there's really no one there. I think that's funny.
JW: We move to "My Sentimental Melody."
RS: I took special care with this one, since it's one of the prettiest. I think my version ended up sounding too full and noisy and not clean and pretty enough. By "special care" I basically just mean that this is one of the few where I wrote the song with Cakewalk, with MIDI, like I do all the Mnemonic Devices songs, which takes more time for me than just strumming a song out or whatever. Liza sings on this too. I wanted to use my real accordian on this one, but I didn't for some reason, maybe because I thought it would sound too sloppy here. I haven't properly learned to record the accordian yet. I didn't use the accordian on this whole thing. If this was the only volume, I would have, but I figured I'd save some tricks for volumes two and three. There are a few things I haven't used yet.
JW: "Nothing Matters When We're Dancing" sounds the closest to the original song.
RS: Yes, I figured I wouldn't mess with it too much. I used the exact same vocal arrangement since I thought Merritt's was so perfect. And I learned how to play the song on my ukulele, which I haven't really talked about: my ukulele. I can't remember if I bought it specifically to do this album or just because I wanted one, but at any rate Stephin's use of one on this album is what made me get it. That and seeing various people on TV and in movies play them, like Steve Martin or some guy from the Hawaiian episode of Saved By the Bell, and especially Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano. Yes, we sound pretty on this song, methinks. It's one of my favorites.
JW: Liza sounds particularly pretty when she sings the high "or in Lansing" part. And, speaking of Liza, "Sweet-Lovin' Man."
RS: A song I didn't like particularly well, just because it sounded like some typical radio song. Not as much distance from the source or something, I'm not sure. Liza liked it though, which is why she got angry when I screwed with it too much. Not only did I make it sound like "Open Your Heart" by Madonna, but I put this enormous reverb on the whole song, which was way too much, even for me, but it's just kind of funny even if it does mess up the song. I go nuts with the drum fills, too, which is also funny. One day I'll burn in quit-destroying-my-real-song hell for all the sins I've done, but I'm having fun till then.
JW: And then we have the last song on the album, "The Things We Did and Didn't Do," which is the worst production you've done so far... of any of your solo stuff.
RS: Thanks. Yes, I pulled out the "cheese recorder" which we used to record early DUSKBUSTERS! and 'nikcuS albums. It's a GE model that my dad bought back in the early 80s and it still works and I have it and will keep it forever. It's probably my favorite piece of recording equipment since it produces a sound that doesn't sound like anything else. It's distinctive, you always know "yes, that's the cheese recorder." It has a unique pause sound when you pause or hit the stop button and it has a wooly sort of hiss and it makes your Ss sound more S-like than they normally would. I figured for the last song -- another one I didn't dig as much, and one that I thought was anti-climactic for an ending song -- I would give a hint of things to come in terms of production by taking it way off to another place, all the way to terribly bad recording land. I also use a brand new instrument, the fingerboard, which I've never used on any album before. Again, I ended up liking my version better.
JW: "Roses" was a song that was stuck in Stephin Merritt's head for 20 years. What songs do you get stuck in your head?
RS: My own, right after I record them. Especially The Mnemonic Devices. There's not any individual songs from anyone, though, that gets stuck in my head for years. Just the flavor of the week or whatever.
JW: Not even "Dude Looks Like a Lady"?
RS: I don't really like that song, not that liking a song has anything to do with getting it stuck.
JW: There's something about this version "Roses" that sounds familiar.
RS: It's the General MIDI sounds, or what Rick Barthelme always called "that Service Merchandise sound" when he referred to some of my older albums. I decided to take it back to the old school with this one. The other idea I had for the song is that it was a commercial, so I wrote it as a commercial jingle, and even had the announcer come in during the middle section. I thought it was a nice start to Volume 2.
JW: I like your version of "Love Is Like Jazz" better than the original.
RS: Lots of people seem to. I wanted to make it an actual song, instead of crappy jazz. I hate crappy jazz, and making fun of it by doing it doesn't really work for me. It's more like beat poet background than jazz anyway, so I just ran with that.
JW: Any of David Lynch's On the Air inspiration here?
RS: No. The show was a little funny, but I didn't cry when it was cancelled.
JW: Is that an actual cigarette lighter you hear at the beginning of the song?
RS: Yes. I seem to remember having trouble with the children's safety thing. None of the people I'm around really smoke, including me, so I don't know much about lighters. I'm lighter-illiterate.
JW: You'll never be an on-stage smoker like many musicians. Would you like to talk about your recent on-stage performances? It's something you said you'd never do.
RS: I'm not sure if I said I'd never do it, just that I prefer making records to singing the same songs over and over on stage. I don't mind doing it every few months, which is what I do now.
JW: "When My Boy Walks Down the Street" sounds like the most "legitimate" song so far: kind of straightforward with guitar and drums.
RS: And only three songs in... Have you seen the scar on my shoulder? It looks like a dragon.
JW: It's Smaug. "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" is back to the good old Yamaha keyboard presets.
RS: Yes, originally lots of it was going to be preset music, because it's so easy, but then I started getting more exaggerated as I went, which was good. The basic idea of not taking too long on each song still stood, but I just took a short amount of time with more complicated arrangements. On this one, I paid a little more attention to the harmonies, for example.
JW: Do you still think keyboards are better instruments that guitar?
RS: Probably. In the early days, I just had something against guitars: too rock and roll maybe. And I didn't like how they weren't as based in "space" as a keyboard is, the notes, so that's it's harder to play by ear or by feel. But I enjoy the guitar now, and actually ended up playing it even more on this album. Because playing guitar is even easier than playing keyboard parts in terms of getting down something quickly that still sounds "real."
JW: How do you rate your own guitar playing?
RS: Rhythm. Liza says I've improved since Volume 1.
JW: You play well enough to have it as your primary instrument in live shows these days, not to bring up live shows again.
RS: People are pretty pleased at my live shows, and many have said they like it because I don't try to hide my disabilities when it comes to playing the guitar or any other instrument live. They appreciate it, and that I'm trying to do something else besides just play music well. I don't care about that. The people that do like me, and there are at least a few, like the jokes of the songs and the jokes surrounding the songs and the fact that they can understand lyrics. Even the folks I like, I can't say that about. Modest Mouse, for example, gave me scars and hearing damage the first time I heard them. It was awful. I thought I had lost my hearing forever, because the loss lasted two days. I've only once played to tape -- well, a CD -- and that was just for one song, but lots of "real" bands do it these days, and maybe I should too. But then again, I kind of like being really live, and I've thought about putting together an actual band, maybe using The Magnetic Fields themselves as a model, from the earlier days when Claudia still played drums and John played the guitar and Sam played Cello (a bass would do for me), and Stephin could just strum as much as he felt like, which is what I'd like to do.
JW: What's the deal with the sound effects on "Very Funny"?
RS: It's just an extreme flange, both on the guitar and lyrics. I think it's very funny indeed, but not disrespecting the song at all, somehow.
JW: Are you happy with your effects and things on this album? Do you feel limited by not being in a real studio?
RS: I think I'm in a real enough studio. I have a piano in my hallway that I use on a later song. I don't have a drum set yet, but that's not a fault of my studio. I just can't afford one yet. Maybe I'll have one by Volume 3.
JW: What do you have against things that are recorded in a regular studio?
RS: The results. I think I sound better than studio-produced albums, I really do. I think music is about personality, and the studio has a good way of getting rid of all that personality. Everyone can hear my personality from my little studio.
JW: "Grand Canyon" has the first harmonica on your version of 69 Love Songs, which is odd that it's just now appearing since you're such a fan of it.
RS: Yes. I used it because it's an Echo harmonica, and I used echoey reverb, because I'm singing about the Grand Canyon. Ya get it? That's why I said "typ" at the end, which is mine and Noby's shorthand for something that's typical, usually not in a good way.
JW: Are you saying this version was typical in a bad way?
RS: Maybe. But I like it anyway, maybe because I said "typ." It's odd. I don't think that was an apology for it, but a statement of what it was, and that made it all the better. It's bad harmonica playing too, which I like.
JW: "No One Will Ever Love You" sounds very close to The Magnetic Fields version.
RS: I think you might be able to even play them at the same time, which is something I've done before, with The Halo Benders' "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain." I can't actually remember if I did it this time or not, but -- yes -- I essentially tried to replicate it, adding just a few tiny things that were original. I think the drums were what made the first song, it and the "bounce," and so I put those in this version too. And Liza's good singing. This is the first song on the album that people have said sounds "real."
JW: What do you think of Fleetwood Mac, which this song is supposed to be a take on?
RS: I don't like them too much. I like "Hold Me," their most goofy song.
JW: What other long albums do you like?
RS: The White Album, of course. A handful of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, if you can count that. Jesus Christ Superstar.
JW: "If You Don't Cry" is quite a different arrangement.
RS: It's 50s style. I'm most proud of the drums. It was a little hard for Liza to sing at first because it's not like the original.
JW: Stephin Merritt says that when you're a songwriter, you're almost never physically working, and that as a novelist at least you're near a typewriter. Do you find this is true of yourself?
RS: I think it's the opposite for me. When I'm songwriting, I'm making it as I write it, more or less. I don't sit around and think of the songs too much beforehand. Sometimes, but not usually. I typically don't think of songs until I'm ready to make them. When I write fiction, though, I think lots of the work is done before I'm ever sitting in front of the computer. This difference is probably because I'm a fiction writer and not a songwriter primarily, and Stephin is a songwriter and not a fiction writer. Maybe.
JW: You mentioned the piano earlier which you use for the next song, "You're My Only Home."
RS: It's Liza's piano. One day I'll steal my parents', since they bought it for me to play. Liza's is in the hallway of the house, so I drug the microphone out there and had to keep running back and forth to my room to record it, which took a while and exhausted me, because I kept messing up. When I play on the keyboard, I can usually go back and fix the small mistakes just by taking out a note or moving it around, but the piano was recorded with just audio, so I couldn't fix anything and had to play it perfect. It's hard for me to play perfect anything most of the time, unless it's the drums. I can play perfect drums.
JW: How long have you lived in this house?
RS: About two years. I lived in my parents' house for 18 years, then in a college dorm for three, then in an apartment for probably a little over three. I believe I was still in the apartment when I began Volume 1. I've only been in four places in the last 27 years. I'm about to move again, though. I like staying in one place as long as I can, I think.
JW: How many musical instruments do you have in your house? You use most of them, don't you?
RS: I haven't used all of them yet. I still have some to use for Volume 3. In fact, I've already recorded some for Volume 3 that use instruments that aren't on 1 or 2. I have the Yamaha keyboard and four Casios, and now a Korg that Liza had at her mom's house, her acoustic guitar, my acoustic guitar, my elecrtric, a ukulele, my snare drum that I've had since I was in sixth grade which I'll never ever get rid of, about four harmonicas, a flutophone, a kazoo, egg shaker, world's smallest tambourine, jaw harp, a fingerboard, two toy pianos, one of which is in the shape of an elephant. That's all I can think of. Oh, and an accordian. I don't know how many that is.
JW: "(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy" uses one of the Casios.
RS: Yes, I found one at a thrift store for like a dollar that had the exact same sounds as the one we used for 'nikcuS in the really olden days, so I love it. Those progressions and drum parts always crack me up.
JW: And the sound effects crack me up on this song. The ukulele makes a rare appearance on this song, which is unusual that it appears so little, since it was the main instrument for the first 69 Love Songs.
RS: There's only so much I can personally do with a ukulele. One thing about the original version I like is that I barely notice it's there. It's just another sound. When I use it, though, I kind of want you to know it's there.
JW: Were there any songs you recorded for this album that didn't make it, where you did another version instead?
RS: Not so far. I used everything I recorded. If a recording isn't working, I usually discard it before I finish it. So I don't have a lot of things lying around.
JW: "My Only Friend"--how'd you get the piano to do that?
RS: I played the basic line, then used various MIDI echo effects. Liza thought Claudia did the original, which I thought for a while too until I remembered Stephin saying he programmed it, and so Liza made fun of me for "cheating," and I told her that I was more proud of the way I got it to sound like that by cheating than I would have been if I could have played it for real. And I actually could have played it like that live if I could have slowed down the tempo in the recording and then sped it up. It's do-able. Anyway, I was really impressed at how much it sounded like Stephin's version.
JW: We know you like Stephin's singing, and Liza's singing, and your own singing. Who else is there for you?
RS: Um, Martin Tielli...
JW: What about Ella Fitzgerald?
RS: Not really. Michael Stipe.
JW: Annie Lennox?
RS: Gosh no.
JW: Alison Moyet?
JW: Dusty Springfield?
RS: She sings good, but she's not a standout for me.
JW: Jimmy Scott?
RS: Not really.
JW: Maria Callas?
RS: Whoever she is...
JW: Tom Waits?
RS: I like him better as a person than as a singer or songwriter. By the way, I was making an R.E.M. joke about Maria Callas. I really know who she is. You know, the song "Ebow the Letter."
JW: I know. k.d. lang?
RS: Are you just going to list random people that I don't really care about instead of letting me answer?
RS: I like John Flansburg and Linnell. Julie Covington. Stuart Murdoch. Calvin Johnson. Johnny Cash. Roland Gift. Jon Spencer. Kurt Wagner. Ernest Paik. Sam Prekop.
JW: Are you done?
RS: I think so.
JW: Are there any vocalist that you'd like to have sing on your albums?
RS: Anyone famous, whether I like them or not. I also have a list of friends who I'd like to sing for me, who haven't yet. I've been pretty good, though, at getting a lot of my friends to sing for me, and they all have interesting voices I like.
JW: Well, I'm going to go on to "Promises of Eternity" where we hit you being maybe your most outrageous.
RS: Like "A Pretty Girl Is Like..." Stephin hammed it up on this one, too, and so I had to outdo him.
JW: What did you think of the number shows listed?
RS: Se7en was cool enough, though Fight Club is David Fincher's only truly good movie. 8 1/2 was great, of course. I don't know anything about Nine, and I haven't seen "10."
JW: I like the triplets, they're very nice. Were they fun to sing?
RS: They were, at it was.
JW: "World Love" is next up. You sampled The Talking Heads, right?
RS: Yes, my first sample in this collection. I used "Nothing But Flowers," which is maybe my favorite song by them. David Byrne made some world music, so I figured he'd be a good background to build my song on.
JW: Are you annoyed by people like David Byrne or Paul Simon, Western pop artists, who takes from nonwestern culture?
RS: Why would I be, or why would anyone be?
JW: So you're not being ironic?
RS: I'm always so ironic that it loops back around to being geniune, so no. I have nothing to be ironic about. I like being funny more than being ironic. It's not always the same thing. My dragon scar has finally stopped itching me.
JW: How long was it there?
RS: The scab was there for over two weeks.
JW: "Washington D.C." brings your beloved snare drum in again.
RS: Yes, I played a nice marchy thing with all kinds of rudiments and stuff. Since it was a cheerleader song. It's the kind of stuff I used to play when the drumline would play along with the cheerleaders at football games.
JW: Does Liza mind you being in the room when she's recording her vocals?
RS: She doesn't mind. When we do Mnemonic Devices albums, I stick everyone in the closet for sound quality, but for sloppy stuff like this I just let her sit next to me on a stool or something. She enjoys it.
JW: What do you think of Washington D.C. itself?
RS: I've been there once, and I liked it. I don't know if I would if I lived there. A friend of mine doesn't like this song because she hates the place so much.
JW: We're at "Long-Forgotten Fairy Tale" which has an interesting vocal.
RS: That's my hi-pass effect. And me singing semi-harmonies, or just singing along with myself.
JW: The backing track is very Rentalsish. If you're ever going to be played in dance clubs, this'll be the track that'll do it.
RS: Not "Understand Me, Understand You"?
JW: Well, that's 'nikcuS.
RS: Not "I Won't Techno for an Answer"?
JW: It hasn't been released yet.
RS: Oh yeah.
JW: "Kiss Me Like You Mean It"...
RS: ... Seems to be everyone's favorite. My friends and I were listening to it on one of our van drive to Krispi Kreme listening parties, and one of the comments was, "Um... the rest of the album... then this... now the rest of the album..." They were mostly talking about Liza's vocals, which I admit are really good.
JW: She's got a good voice for gospel or country. It's strong here.
RS: I want to do an entire album of gospel songs, but I haven't figured out the complete concept yet. I don't know whether to do traditionals or originals or both or "underground" gospel songs, those that don't make it in the hymn books, but that people like me can get a hold of.
JW: Are there gospel artists you admire?
RS: Teddy Huffman and the Gems was my favorite gospel group as a kid. They made me cry once. I don't care about any Contemporary Christian music, of course, since it's just watered-down rips of already-bad music. Stephin says he's a rabid militant atheist, but how can someone be militant about a nonbelief? That's like someone being rabid about not believing in Santa Claus. I guess there's something to it if people keep insisting that he's real, which they do, to kids, but people insisting that God is real doesn't seem to force someone into strongly insisting otherwise, because what's the point?
JW: You're just saying that atheism shouldn't be a religion, right?
RS: I think so. And I also want to say that I don't think "Kiss Me Like You Mean It" is sacriligious. The Bible is full of erotic imagery concerning the Savior and his people. I think it's just right.
JW: Then let's move on. "Papa Was a Rodeo" is your other fairly straightforward cover.
RS: That was for the fans. Magnetic Fields fans seem to like this song too much, like it's their favorite on the album. Maybe I should have screwed it up for that reason, but I didn't. I decided to be nice. The drums were key here, too.
JW: Next is "Epitaph For My Heart" which has another straightforward reproduction of the original exceptionally georgeous madrigal introduction.
RS: That was the only part of the song I cared about. The rest of it was crappy in comparison, or maybe even by itself, so that's why I rushed through it like I did. I had that idea for a long time, to zoom through the "real" song as quickly as I could, and in the end also recorded with a tape recorder and then fuzzed everything out. I liked my version better.
JW: Was it difficult to sing all three parts of the intro?
RS: No. I can do anything. Coke.
JW: Dr. Spell is back with more Coke.
RS: Where were we?
JW: "Epitaph For My Heart." Next up is "Asleep and Dreaming." It sounds like a Christmas song to me, maybe Jim Reeves.
RS: It sounds like that to me, too, or a little Belle and Sebastian. I didn't mean either of them. I always really cared about this song, since I heard it, and I wanted to do it well.
JW: Continuing with a nighttime theme is "The Sun Goes Down and the Moon Goes Dancing."
RS: Which might be my least favorite of my new versions, after only having heard my album for a few days. I like it, but I get bored with it more easily than the others.
JW: I like the "heavy metal ukulele" and the weird noise going throughout.
RS: That's a flanged harmonica. I guess I like the drums too, at first, but the repetion might be the song's undoing.
JW: How do you see yourself among Top 40 artists?
RS: I wish I were there.
JW: You wouldn't rather be an indiepop band that hopes to never write a song about dancing or the moon or love?
RS: No. I wish I could hang out with Destiny's Child.
JW: Well, speaking of changing the subject, "The Way You Say Good-Night" is a nice change from the loudness of the previous song with just you and a guitar, until a soft choir comes in at the end.
RS: Yes, that's what it does.
JW: OK. Next is "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan." You forewent the epileptic route.
RS: I loved this song, and just wanted a lovely version. I did some better harmonica playing and used my little tambourine and some interesting organ stuff and a guitar and it's probably one of the most loaded songs. Lots of tracks. I put in the crescendo that Stephin originally intended. I like World War II songs and over-the-top sentimentality, too, if it works. There's a lot of great World War II songs I've heard, and I'd like to hear more.
JW: Let's move on to "I Shatter."
RS: It always sounded like The Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song" to me, so I just sampled it, my second sample. And then of course Stephin's vocal sounded like the Stephen Hawkings voice thingee, so I used my trusty Dr. Sbaitso program to get that effect. But as much as I liked that, I thought it was a little to -- again -- "typ," so luckily I also had the idea that this would make a good Superchunk cover. Superchunk has covered I don't know how many Merritt songs, and I imagined what it would be like if they did "I Shatter" and recorded it, trying my best to sound like Mac. So it's me doing Superchunk doing The Magnetic Fields, but really just doing a Magnetic Fields song, and really just me anyway. I love confusing distance.
JW: "Underwear." This is a porno song.
RS: Yes. I had already done some of this song before I ever knew it would be "Underwear." I originally called it "The Porno Song," and then I called it "The Honopoly Theme" because it would have been used as the theme if Noby and I had turned our Honopoly board game into a computer game. The original "The Porno Song" had samples of women having orgasms. In this one, I provide all the sexiness with my French, the language of love.
JW: "It's a Crime" was originally a Swedish reggae-type song, but yours is a piano song.
RS: It's the second song I played a real piano on, and this time I did it all live, no overdubs. It took me a zillion takes because I kept hitting stray notes or singing the wrong lyrics or any number of mistakes. I recorded it with a tape recorder, cause I wanted it to just sound like someone singing and playing the piano, which is what it really was. There's still a mistake in the song: I say "so in love" instead of "soul in love" at one point. I like my arrangement of this song, even though I didn't give it any thought, just played what sounded right.
JW: Next is "Busby Berkeley Dreams." I was shocked to learn that Busby Berkeley is not in fact in Webster's Biographical Dictionary.
RS: Well, Stephin put him in "The Way You Say Good-Night," which is one time too many, so they didn't want to put him in the dictionary too. Busby Berkely is the second most referenced thing in media, next to Kubrick's 2001.
JW: Berkeley's theatricality and intense artistic precision seem somewhat at odds with the methods of creating music that you employ.
RS: You mean I don't use the London Symphony Orchestra?
JW: Well sure, but you're more attracted to a cheap Casio than even a good Casio. Presumably you'd rather play amateur guitar than look around for the best player you can find.
RS: Is this meant to be insulting, or are you calling me hip?
JW: And the piano on "Busby Berkeley Dreams"--
RS: Is called a Mixed Up Piano from Gort's Mini Piano Soundfont, which I love, so don't say anything bad about it. I love how this song sounds too. It might be my favorite song from Volume 3. I like it even better than the original version, and there's something really sad in the stereo placement of me and Liza singing at the same time. I picture us holding hands looking into a Panavision camera while we're singing, or the image of that projected back on a screen.
JW: "I'm Sorry That I Love You" is one of your more spontaneous-sounding songs. You hear a band chugging away behind Liza almost as if there were actually several people playing instruments at the same time in the same room while that was being done.
RS: That's the magic of room tone being added to the recording.
JW: It's a great version, and one of your most immediately catchy.
RS: I spent a long time on this one, banging pencils against glasses and things like that. I think that's what makes it danceable, and the kazoo solo.
JW: "Acoustic Guitar" is a sweet little version actually played on acoustic guitar, with no fiddling around with our expectations. Who are you and what have you done with Rusty Spell?
RS: I like straightforwardness sometimes.
JW: When I first heard "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," I thought you had accidentally stuck The Magnetic Fields' "Alien Being" on the CD.
RS: It's the same damn song, so I just sampled it and sung over it--adding claps. It's truly a song that could have been on The House of Tomorrow EP, if it didn't already sound like "Alien Being." I kind of like how I sound on this one, kind of deep like Stephin. I used to think his range was my natural range, but now I realize that there is nothing natural about my voice.
JW: Ferdinand de Saussure is in the Webster's Biographical Dictionary.
RS: Us English majors were forced to read about him, though I actually kind of found it interesting. I like theory in small doses.
JW: Do you consider yourself to be a great composer?
RS: I consider myself a genius. John Lennon once said that if there is such a thing as a genius, then that is what he is, and I feel the same way. I don't know what a genius is, really, but if they exist, them I'm one.
RS: Mostly musically. Often in writing. I'm a semi-idiot savant, too--not a true one, since I'm good at more than one thing, but I'm certainly stupid at most real world things. I'm also, of course, a renaissance man.
JW: The original "Love In the Shadows" was sort of ambient--
RS: Or Jean Michel Jarre goes jungle.
JW: But this version is certainly not.
RS: Certainly not.
JW: Is there any ambient music that you like?
RS: Not really, since I like to actively listen to music, and that kind of music requires you to almost ignore it to enjoy it. When I hear it, I always think "I can make this. Maybe I should make this," but then I think I would be bored making it and that I'd never listen to it, though I imagine others might.
JW: Is this why you didn't stay ambient for "Love in the Shadows"?
RS: If it was ambient, then yes. I don't know what it was, but it was certainly "slippery." I wanted to concretize it a bit.
JW: We come to "Bitter Tears."
RS: It's not in mono. Stephin wore his Phil Spector Back To Mono pin while mixing his version.
JW: Rock and roll.
RS: Exactly. My idea was stupid, really--having every line or two on a different part of the stereo mix just so I could say "Huh huh, not in mono." The original idea was even more stupid, to have the pans just going crazy so that it would really mess you up if you listened to it on headphones. This is probably the worst song on Volume 3. I also don't know why I decided on that Pete Townshendy guitar riff.
JW: Did you have any different versions of any of the songs for your 69 Love Songs?
RS: Just one, but we'll talk about it when we get to it.
JW: Do you plan on releasing this other version ever?
RS: I said I'd talk about it when we get to it!
JW: Would you then like to talk about re-releases other people's music on CD, outtakes and things?
RS: I like outtake albums, but I don't like when re-releases have bonus tracks plopped on the end. It forces me to program them. Like The Velvet Underground's Peel Slowly and See box set. It's a great box, but you kind of have to program the real albums in. The re-releases of Simon and Garfunkle all have stuff at the end, and so do some import versions of R.E.M. albums. I guess they're trying to give you more for your money, or make people who already have the albums buy them again, but I mostly don't dig it.
JW: Elvis's If Every Day Was Like Christmas not only has alternate versions, but it has them embedded in the album itself.
RS: Good God. Yes, I have that one.
JW: We move to Ireland with "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget."
RS: You can ask me about the alternate version now.
JW: Um, thank you. Tell me about it.
RS: It's horrible. Like really, really, really horrible: so horrible I love it and actually cringe at it. And, yes, I do plan on releasing it on an upcoming Love and Letters rarities compilation. It's got really bad flutophone playing and kazoo and things that don't sound good at all. Oh, and bad whistling. It was even too horrible for me, or to horrible for this album, though not horrible enough for people to hear it. Usually I just discard a song if it's not going well, so there's never alternate versions, but I kept this one because I liked how badly it was going. The album version is pretty straightforward, and I get the words right. I kept having trouble in the other one. And it's Scotland.
JW: What's Scotland?
RS: We don't move to Ireland. We move to Scotland. Here's Ireland, here's Scotland, here's the freakin' sea. All that.
JW: Ah yes, Scottish dialect after Robert Burns. I should have recognized it.
RS: Were you an English major too?
JW: No, I majored in Speech. "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" is you and Liza, as was the previous song. The original, of course, of "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget" wasn't a duet.
RS: But it should have been, and Stephin and Claudia do it as a duet in concert. Unfortunately, now there's two duets in a row.
JW: They're different enough. You went for the full-on Specter on this one, eh?
RS: I tried. I failed, but I tried.
JW: Well, onto "Experimental Music Love." Tell me exactly what you did here.
RS: Failed again. Every time I would think of doing this song, I had big big plans. Like big ones: all out-there experimental, not just looping stuff. But I ended up just dragging me saying "experimental music love," doing some backwards stuff to it, running some bits through a hi-pass, and that's about it. I recorded it toward the completion of the album, and I think I just got lazy. I should have done it early when I was having the big plans -- not that I had any specific plans, only that it would be big -- instead of going in order. I mostly recorded everything in order, with a few exceptions.
JW: So we go to "Meaningless," containing a different fadeout. Not all Stephin's lyrics.
RS: Right. Stephin wanted to make 26 lines and have them alphabetical and fade out well before getting to "zealously meaningless," but he found it hard to find adverbs for some letters of the alphabet, but I did because I'm a genius. Daniel Handler offered "xenophobically meaningless" and "rather karmically meaningless" (which Stephin thought was awful). I took those and wrote the rest myself, the ones that weren't already there.
JW: I like it. I wish you would have done two words for each letter.
RS: That may have been too much. I got to play my real snare drum for this one, my oldest instrument. Nice even quarter notes. It's what makes the song. And the ukulele, of course. Oh, and the echo.
JW: Let's go to "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin." Do you drink gin?
RS: No I don't.
JW: Speak to me about 21/8 time. What's the difference between 21/8 time and 7/8 time?
RS: Apparently triplets. I messed around with trying to actually record it in 21/8 time, or even 7/8 time, but I ended up with -- I think -- 3/4, 5/4. Which is fine, cause I always like those alternating time signatures. Someone will correct me on this later. I didn't plug any time signatures into the computer, just left it at 4/4 and had the guide beats clicking all incorrectly.
JW: Give me a few seconds while I conduct it. [Conducts for a few seconds.] Sure, you might be right. It might actually be 7/8, though. You might even change it up as you go. I don't think you stick with one.
RS: Probably not. I get all the lyrics, though, and that's what's important here, since I think that these are probably the best lyrics ever written, or at least in my top five. I think they are perfect lyrics. I've never heard anyone say that this song has perfect lyrics, but it does, and people should be saying it every day.
JW: Have you ever written any lyrics that you feel are perfect?
RS: "Rock-a-Bye Moon," which is my most overlooked song. I think they are absolutely perfect.
JW: What do you think of your arrangement of the music for "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin"? I think it's kind of spacey.
RS: Spacey, yes. I like it fine, though it's not really what I expected. I think I wanted it a little closer to the original, for once, and didn't get it.
JW: "Queen of the Savages" is next.
RS: Daniel ruined this song for me for a few months, because I couldn't hear it without thinking about his saying it reminded him of Josephine Baker.
JW: Oh yes, and then going on about the Josephine Baker box set for like three pages, right in the middle of an interview about 69 Love Songs. Why did they keep that in there?
RS: They like talking.
JW: Indeed they do. Good song, though. And good version from you as well.
RS: Thank you. The snaps make it, and the hi-hat.
JW: In "Blue You," Bill Clinton's saxophone appears to make an appearance.
RS: Yes. Well, it's not really his saxophone. I don't even remember if he could play that well, or what sort of saxophone he had. But it's meant to be his saxophone. This is my "literal" song, where every few lines I'll provide some literalized sound effect, a la Erasure's "Respect" music video.
JW: I've never seen it.
RS: It's one of my favorite videos ever. They literalize every line. For example, for "give a little respect to me," one of the members hands another a very tiny figurine of the word RESPECT. It's hilarious and wonderful.
JW: So the saxophone, and the aliens landing, and the harmonizing...
RS: Also the "singing low and slow" and "dead in their graves." My delivery was supposed to sound like those things. Mostly, though, I just like the guitar. Liza bought me an acoustic guitar for graduation, and that's it. I like the chords of the song. I play them lots when I'm fooling around. This is also one of my favorite songs from Volume 3.
JW: What's with your introduction to "I Can't Touch You Anymore"?
RS: When Liza and I saw The Magnetic Fields for the first time together, we were standing on the front row and holding hands, and I guess Stephin got a little tired of looking at us doing it because when he played that song he said, "This song is called 'I Can't Touch You Anymore,'" then waved his hands toward us and said, "Which is true."
RS: It made me feel embarrased, a little stupid, and eventually a little angry. I didn't enjoy the next several minutes because of it. I immediately thought of the line from "Take Ecstasy with Me": "We got beat up just holding hands." Which is all we were doing. We weren't groping or smooching or anything.
JW: Are you still angry about it?
RS: No. I got over it after a few songs. It's just kind of funny now. Liza didn't realize he had done it. I told her later. I stopped holding her hand anyway.
JW: Uh-huh. "Two Kinds of People."
RS: Or maybe we were also dancing a little bit. I'm sure we were probably dancing and smiling at each other when a song we especially liked began, and all the things that performers normally like to see: people enjoying themselves and the show. Stephin seems to hate dancing and enjoyment at a show.
JW: I've never seen him.
RS: One night after a show, Claudia said to me, "I appreciate you dancing in the front like that. We need to see that." Something like that anyway, and so I'll listen to Claudia over Stephin.
JW: "Two Kinds of People."
RS: At least, though, Stephin's not the opposite way, where he gets pissy if people aren't right up front dancing and paying attention. Lots of beginner non-famous bands expect that from people, which they shouldn't, and it's kind of silly.
JW: Just tell me when you're ready to talk about the next song.
RS: I'm ready. "Two Kinds of People," right?
RS: Like I said before, I was trying to think of every kind of production I could, so I figured I wanted something outside, with the crickets. So I sat on my back steps at two in the morning with a tape recorder and recorded this softly so I wouldn't wake my neighbors. We have a large yard buffer, though, so I wasn't worried.
JW: The crickets are nice.
RS: It almost sounds like a sound effect, but it's not. It's real live Mississippi crickets. By the way, I don't know if I was actually finished with "I Can't Touch You Anymore" since I got off on the Stephin concert.
JW: Would you like to backtrack?
RS: Um, yes. Liza laughs at herself when she listens to this, at her vocals, since she couldn't get that low. But if she would have started higher, it would have been too high. Also, I dig the music for this. It's plenty funky.
JW: Is that it?
JW: On to "How To Say Goodbye." Suddenly we're back in Volume 1 territory.
RS: Yes, exactly. The original idea for this album, like I'm sure I've said, was to make simple recordings, often just built-in Yamaha arpeggios, but then it got more complicated. So before the entire thing ended, I wanted to bring back one of those Yamahas. It reminds the listener that the album has been progressing, though so slowly that you don't notice, like watching someone grow.
JW: I don't know if I would put it that way. You might be giving yourself too much credit. Some might even say it stays about the same throughout.
RS: Some would be wrong. This album grows. Expands, too.
JW: You're the boss. "The Night You Can't Remember." What's up with the intro?
RS: You're all about the intro questioning.
JW: It's what I do.
RS: The intro is basically me showing off my extremely extremely tiny Casio (SA-5) which I found at a thrift store on the coast for a buck or so. It makes these really beautiful and interesting sounds, and it's also got one of the best sounding pianos, especially for how small it is.
JW: I also noticed that you jump in a beat or so early one one of the later verses, so that the rhythm of the progression is really thrown off in an interesting way. Was that on purpose?
RS: If you like it, then it was on purpose.
JW: We come now to "For We Are the King of the Boudoir."
RS: Which is essentially straightforward.
JW: You messed around with some of the lyrics. You repeated some, I think, where there wasn't anything there in the original.
RS: That wasn't on purpose. That was laziness, too--as was this song in general. It's fine, I like it, but I didn't give it much thought. I was almost done and was ready to be done.
JW: Next up is "Strange Eyes."
RS: I use Liza's Korg on this one. Her family had this Korg keyboard they apparently played with for hours as kids, and she brought it home from her mom's one day and I used it for this song. It's what drives the song, the Korg. Even more than the crazy drums. Liza didn't like the effect I did on her voice at first, but I think she grew to like it. It's only right for this song.
JW: This song is way too short. I wish it could go on another minute or two, which I suppose is a positive thing.
RS: Desire, longing, yes.
JW: Since you eventually, or essentially, abandoned the idea of having Liza sing all the female parts and you sing all the male parts, how do you decide who sings what song?
RS: Well, if I don't sing a song particularly well, then it's probably a good idea to have Liza sing it. After that, Liza had requested a handful to sing (most of which I didn't give her) or I just felt she would be better at it for some reason or another. Like "I Can't Touch You Anymore," which seemed like a good Liza song. With me, it would have been just another boring deep-voice Rusty song. Mostly, though, I did use the male/female vocals of the original as a guide, though I wasn't strict about it, as you said.
JW: You've recorded a handful of singers for The Mnemonic Devices. Would you say you're picky about singers?
RS: If they're female, I'm not picky. There's nothing sexy meant by that, it's just that I think women have naturally nice voices. Since I usually commit to recording someone for The Mnemonic Devices without ever hearing them sing, I guess that means I'm not picky. I've requested a few because I knew they could sing well, like when I heard Tarah Olewski singing one morning when she invited me to her church. I know I should have been thinking of Jesus or whatever, but I was just thinking that she had to sing for me because she sang so well.
JW: What about males?
RS: Of course, I'm the only male who can sing for The Mnemonic Devices, which is a sexy thing. It would ruin everything, the entire premise, not that I can fully explain what that premise is. Like some guy coming in and getting in on a harem? Something like that. I know it sounds awful if you took it seriously, but it's part of the act. The Mnemonic Devices is very concepty.
JW: Then again, we're not even doing an interview for The Mnemonic Devices.
RS: I'm fully aware, Mr. Johnny "Stick With the Point" Winters.
JW: You've had Tommy Burton sing on a Rusty Spell album. He's the only one, unless you count Lee Rozelle doing "Space Toys."
RS: There's just not much of a call for male vocalists on the things I've done so far. Even Tommy's thing was the weird pre-version of The Mnemonic Devices. I always wanted to do a song where Ernest Paik sings--from Love, Execution Style. He's got a great voice. I can't think of anyone else who's not famous. Guys are boring.
JW: Let's go on to "Xylophone Track," a live number.
RS: See how interesting the album gets as you go? Who'd expect a live track at this point? We're stretching out in fabulous new directions from the necessity of doing 69 different things. During one of my last weeks in Hattiesburg, I decided I'd do an open-mic night at a place called Mugshots, and low and behold they liked me. So I decided to record this there the next week so I could get people screaming at me, which they did. Loudly. I only got to play there twice before I moved, after finally finding my audience. Damn.
JW: Do you know the gentleman screaming at the fade-up?
RS: I do not. I didn't know any of those people, which was what was interesting to me: strangers who liked me.
JW: Was there a song they particularly liked that you played?
JW: I suppose you also chose this track to play live because of its bluesiness, to give the live blues feel.
RS: Yes, you are so smart.
JW: What do you think of that song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express, the musical on rollerskates about trains?
RS: I think that most of that musical is stupid. I used to be a huge fan of Webber, as you know. I still love Jesus Christ Superstar.
JW: Here we are at "Zebra."
RS: Thank God. It feels like we've been doing this interview for over a year.
JW: We have.
RS: Ah, yes.
JW: Nice sounds in "Zebra."
RS: Thank you. I went for crazy circusy sounds. It's such an anti-climax song, you know? Especially the stupid random accordian chord at the end for no reason. So I put that too. I like it being stupid and anti-climactic.
JW: As opposed to all sorts of fireworks.
JW: Stephin Merritt said that songwriting was a leisure activity done by spoiled rich kids. Is this true of you?
RS: Yes. My family wasn't rich, but they spoiled me anyway so that it felt like we were rich. I feel rich now, even though I'm not. Some might say the feeling of feeling rich is the opposite of spoiled, but I just feel spoiled. I feel like I'm getting away with murder or something, by having everything.
JW: That's the end of the song-by-song interview so I thought I would ask you some typical interview questions, and then you could ask what you wish had been asked.
RS: Liza does a cool vibrato on "Zebra."
JW: Noted. I guess typical interview questions ask you to compare yourself to something, so if Rusty Spell were a fruit, you'd be?
RS: A strawberry.
JW: If you were a continent?
RS: North America.
JW: A tree?
JW: A cookie?
JW: A cocktail?
RS: A Shirley Temple?
JW: A book?
RS: The Brothers Karamazov.
JW: A competitive sport?
RS: Timber games.
JW: A poet?
RS: Philip Larkin.
JW: A mode of transportation?
JW: A soup?
RS: Alphabet soup.
JW: A member of the cabinet?
RS: I'd have to say Kissinger.
JW: A hat?
RS: A Donald Duck hat.
JW: A punctuation mark?
RS: An ellipsis.
JW: One of the fifty states?
RS: West Virginia.
JW: A sexual perversion?
JW: A personal hygiene product?
RS: Underarm deodorant.
JW: A hobby?
RS: Penny collecting.
JW: A resort?
RS: Tahoe. Sorry, Walt Disney World.
JW: A skill demonstrated by a Miss America contestant?
JW: A barnyard animal?
JW: A crime?
RS: Copyright infringement.
JW: A ride at an amusement park?
RS: Circus wheel.
JW: A language?
JW: A type of government?
JW: A finger food?
RS: Pickle. Is that a finger food?
JW: A character in literature?
RS: Bartelby the Scrivener.
JW: A stationary supply?
RS: Square colored memo cards.
JW: A drug?
RS: Caffeine. I love the way that word looks written.
JW: A hair style?
RS: Conan O'Brien.
JW: A celebrity?
RS: Edward Norton.
JW: A pop group?
RS: Fine Young Cannibals.
JW: OK, your turn. What are the questions you'd wished you'd been asked?
RS: Here, let me write them down, and then you can ask them. [Writes them down.]
JW: What would you do if you were trying to be original?
RS: Make someone else's album, and that album would be 69 songs over three discs.
JW: If you had to play in one genre, what would it be?
JW: If you had someone else's voice, whose would you want to have?
RS: Martin Tielli's.
JW: Why, if you hate to travel, do you constantly write about travel?
RS: Because I constantly have to travel.
JW: What do you want to hear from popular music in the next century?
RS: Something different, please. I haven't heard anything new in so long. Not since the mid-90s probably, or early 90s. I'm so bored these days, and I'm not talking about the radio which is almost always boring, but the "underground" stuff which is so so boring. Mostly I like to listen to unsigned people, people making records at home, because at least it's a little different. Everyone should mail me their homemade stuff.
JW: What are you doing next?
RS: I'm putting out that Love and Letters rarities album, and I'm also doing the long-awaited Plagiarism album, which I hope to begin as soon as stuff gets a little more settled for me. I don't have anything else I want to do besides it, believe it or not, now that I've finished this thing. Finishing this thing, at this time, was important to me. I'll realize why some day.
JW: Final thoughts?
RS: I only hope that my version of this album will lead at least one or two people to the lesser-known original.
Copyright (c) Jul 2001, Jun 2002, and Aug 2002 by Rusty Spell and Love and Letters Music