Daniel Robinson (foreground) and guitarist Pat Manley at The Continental in NYC.
In this wacky post-postmodern world, who's to say what's ethical? Or so I tell myself when I consider the ethics of what I'm about to do. Look, I wrote this, sort of, but I'm going to link to it anyway, because it's cool, and a decent interview with a terrific songwriter. So there.
Okay, so a while ago (a couple of months now, I think) I interviewed Daniel Robinson of Milton and the Devils Party. I know Robinson personally, and I like him, maybe one reason I felt okay about this foray into traditional rock writing, which I generally eschew. We're both overeducated pop nuts, but our interests lie in such radically different directions that we've always got something to discuss or about which to argue (usually) good-naturedly. It's always fun to talk about music with your friends, and if it happens to fit into some other form, so much the better.
The interview appeared in Buzzsaw Haircut, a student publication at one of my campuses, presented here in an online version (thus the B for Buzzaw, which is really me). Anyway, here it is. Enjoy!
DR: I think respecting the genre is important. The songwriters who measure up in this regard are Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Nick Cave. Also Lloyd Cole, and sometimes Leonard Cohen. The ones who fail are people like Sting or Elvis Costello.
B: Why do they fail?
DR: Well, Sting’s problem as a songwriter is that he’s just a little bit smarter than the average person, and he tries to get as much mileage out of that as he can. But he can’t really go that far. I do believe he is smart—but almost in a mathematical, musical way. Not really in a literary sense.
B: Do you mean the early, poppy, reggae stuff? Or are we talking “Dream of the Blue Turtles” here?
DR: Well, I do think Sting has learned from his mistakes (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Tea In The Sahara,” etc.). So, now that he’s grown out of his pretentiousness, he has nothing really to say.
B: His mispronunciation of Nabokov has had serious effects.
DR: Well, he’s not that smart.
B: But Elvis Costello has a similar split, no? Between something like This Year’s Model and say, “God Give Me Strength”?
DR: Well, Elvis Costello is too smart for his own good. Sting’s not really smart enough to pull off what he wants to do. Elvis Costello will throw everything away just to dazzle you with a phrase. If I ever taught a songwriting class (and I might one day), I would do a week on EC and have students read Samuel Johnson’s comments on the metaphysical poets—a lot of it applies to Elvis Costello!
B: Remind my readers what Johnson said about the metaphysical poets.
DR: Well, basically, that the metaphysicals love to dazzle you with surprising conceits—false wit—and incongruities, wordplay. But the poems don’t really add up to anything meaningful. Johnson saw that the parts were greater than the whole and that that was a serious deficiency. Elvis will throw a phrase like “I’m in a grip-like vice” and you are so dazzled by the brilliance of that that you forget that the rest of the song doesn’t make any sense.
If you're curious to see what kind of stuff someone with these opinions comes up with, you can hear a few mp3s here. Also MDP is available at Amazon.com and through itunes: if you have to pick one song to buy, and you're a power pop fan, allow me to humbly recommend "Perfect Breasts," which is poppy, energetic, and a hoot (so to speak). (I tried to podcast a sample, but as it transpires, #$%&ing Blogger doesn't accept podcasts yet. But I have a tech request in!)
Oh, and the pic is by the divine watertiger!