The Glorious Noise Interview with Camden Joy


When I was young, we approached rock and roll like that, that it had been broken open and sucked dry by greedy adults and nothing remained of it but a few shards. The Rolling Stones, for example, could be reduced to the mumbles and guitar jabs at the start of “Stray Cat Blues,” the submerged clatter of “I Just Wanna See His Face,” and the line in “Respectable” about smoking heroin with the president. Three fragments. And I’d have to say that even that was pretty generous of us. The Clash and the Who were each reduced to just two fragments. My friends and I called these “moments,” and we constantly bickered over the merits of this or that “moment.” I’m the one who said the moments occur when a performer strays from the script, when you sense they haven’t practiced this part but aren’t worried what to play. It was Roy who said these moments were “steered entirely by the majesty of impulse.” I always loved that, “the majesty of impulse.” Made passion sound like some kinda key to royalty.

ā€” From The Last Rock Star Book Or: Liz Phair, a Rant by Camden Joy

We are pleased to present to you the Glorious Noise interview with one of my favorite contemporary authors, Camden Joy. He was called “one of the smartest, funniest, and most thoroughly twisted people writing about rock today” by Jim DeRogatis, the author of the Lester Bangs biography, Let It Blurt, and authority on smart, funny, twisted writers. In the interview Camden Joy discusses his role in reviving interest in alternative country legends, his love of genetically-modified fruit, and his waning interest in current popular music. He also mentions his three brand new novellas that were just published by Highwater Books.

Read all about it here.

Interview with Camden Joy

Camden Joy is one of the greatest writers of our generation. He is probably best known for his poster campaigns around the streets of New York City where he published his manifestoes and pop culture critiques. His “50 Posters About Souled American” single-handedly resurrected those long forgotten alt-country pioneers from the pre-Uncle Tupelo late eighties. He’s been lauded by hipsters from Ira Glass to Thurston Moore.

He’s got three brand new novellas for sale and a fresh new website. His first novel, The Last Rock Star Book or: Liz Phair, A Rant, is one of my favorite books of all time (excerpt), and his follow up, Boy Island caused a surprising amount of controversy when David Lowery of the band Cracker threatened the publisher with a lawsuit if they did not clarify the “this is a work of fiction” statement on the inside of the book.

The following is taken from an email conversation we had…

Jake:

I’m a big fan of the Last Rock Star Book. I recommend it to everybody who will listen to me. I really loved the way you eased the reader into the madness.

Camden:

Thank you very much.

Jake:

I also enjoyed Boy Island, although I found myself distracted by trying to guess what was “real” and what wasn’t. Especially since I had read that you actually did follow the band around for a while.

Camden:

You didn’t have this problem with the Liz Phair book? I thought it did the same thing.

Jake:

I didn’t. That book wasn’t about Liz Phair. Liz Phair had a very tiny role in that book, unlike Cracker in Boy Island who are the central characters.

I think the reason I love the Liz Phair book so much (despite the occasional awkward sentence) is that I really connected with it. Especially the whole “majesty of impulse” thing. The reason I read is the same reason I listen to music: to find some kind of connection. Like hey, this band is singing about stuff that I went through. Or I have no idea what those lyrics mean, but I feel something when he sings them. Or hey, this guy is writing about stuff that I care about and dropping references to things that come up with me and my friends over beers: Brian Jones, the Clash, Liz Phair, what makes a rock and roll song great, etc.

And that photo on the cover. It’s so perfect. I can imagine seeing that picture and thinking, wow that looks sort of like Liz Phair. What would Liz Phair be doing breaking into that store?

I don’t know. That book really affected me. It ended up creeping me out, but that’s a good thing. Faulkner creeps you out, right? The important thing is that it makes you FEEL. Like good music…

The writing in Boy Island was tighter, and I liked the story, but what it comes down to is that I don’t care about Cracker.

Camden:

Cracker is no Camper Van Beethoven, though they have their moments.

Jake:

Maybe that’s a simplistic and shallow way to approach a work of fiction, but I think that’s what got in my way of really connecting with that book. I love the song “Eurotrash Girl” and that one about the “Hole in My Head” but I was never a Camper Van Beethoven fan and I don’t really care about David Lowery. I don’t know. Probably just me…

Camden:

All your points are very well-made and I guess I agree with everything you said.

Jake:

Are you happy with how Boy Island turned out? Were you surprised by David Lowery’s response to it?

Camden:

I’m far happier with Boy Island than with the Liz Phair book. Took me about four months to write a basic version of the Liz Phair book; took me five+ years to get Boy Island phrased in a way that satisfied me (I went through many eternal drafts). There’s some hideous sentences in the Liz Phair book that make me cringe, but not nearly as many in Boy Island. And yeah, at the time, I was astounded by Lowery’s vehement determination to miss the point, although in retrospect it should have been no surprise. No character is able to appreciate what a novelist puts them through in a book, I suppose.

Jake:

And “the point” was…? Ha ha, it’s probably not fair to ask an author that, is it?

Camden:

The point is the accumulation of the dialogue, characters, observations, and associations in Boy Island. That’s why I wrote it the way I did. I’m a big fan of succinct-ness; I intentionally cut the novel to render it as tiny as possible, so as not to waste anybody’s time. It took me only 230 pages to make my point, but I presume it’s there, and I don’t think I could answer your question any more briefly than that.

Jake:

I like that kind of writing. And personally, after I realized that was what I liked, I stopped trying to write fiction. It’s too hard. When I was in college, I had no problem just rambling all over the pages about nothing on top of nothing. But when tightness is the goal, it’s much more difficult to get started. “What am I trying to say?” The answer to that question can’t be any shorter than the text of the work itself.

So what can you tell me about Pan, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, and Palm Tree 13 that isn’t said on the Highwater Books website? Three new books all coming out on the same day (November 15)? What’s up with that?

Camden:

I don’t know what to add about the new books. They’re three separate novellas, all available in a boxed set. The original idea was to stagger the publication of each, but now they’re all coming out together. I co-wrote Pan with Colin B. Morton without ever speaking to or meeting him. We did the whole thing through e-mail. (He wrote the predicates, I wrote the subjects; a clear and equal distribution of labor.) Palm Tree 13 is the first writing I’ve set in Los Angeles, the place where I’ve lived the longest. I’m proudest of Hubcap Diamondstar Halo; the sentences seem both sturdy and opaque. No doubt, in time, all three novellas will embarrass me, but for now I’m happy.

Jake:

Have you seen Souled American on any of their recent little tours?

Camden:

I saw them in mid-1997 in Massachusetts, stuck on a bill between Pedro the Lion and Black Heart Procession. They seemed impossibly frail and genuine. There were about twenty others in the audience. The band was just Joey and Chris, and they danced where they sat in metal folding chairs, slow motion head-banging, almost like graduated spasms. They were listening to instruments we couldn’t hear. Nobody knew what to make of them, the presentation was so lacking in the traditional self-conscious theater. Everybody was whispering, chuckling. There was an elderly deranged man who stood barking at the band between songs; when he crumpled up his plastic cup, it was louder than their music, and it sounded like he was auditioning to play percussion. The crazy guy said something to Chris, who responded: “You’re not coming through, man.”

Jake:

Does it make you feel good that you’re pretty much responsible for stirring up interest in a band that most of the rest of the world forgot or never knew about? After I heard about your poster campaign, I dug out this old Rough Trade comp I bought in high school (called Music for the 90’s, or something ridiculous like that) that had “Six Feet of Snow” on it. I had put that song on tons of mix tapes for all my friends but I never bought any of their albums until I read about your flyers. I’m sure I’m not alone either.

Camden:

They would’ve been re-discovered one day whether or not I did anything. I wish I could’ve done more; it’s not like they became household names or got rich.

Jake:

What other musical obsessions do you have?

Camden:

I really like this NYC folkie named Mark Donato. In the area of food, I’ve been known to drive hundreds of miles for a good honeycrisp apple. I am also a big fan of BBQ.

Jake:

What’s a honeycrisp apple?

Camden:

A honeycrisp apple is a recent invention, a hybrid they make in 1991 at University of Minneapolis. I could go on and on about it. It’s very sweet and very crisp and the skin is very yielding and thin, but it doesn’t bruise easily. It’s also very large, which makes it a nice meal when combined with some peanut butter.

Jake:

One thing that I loved about the Liz Phair book was that the narrator wasn’t a fan and hadn’t heard the other album and didn’t really give a shit. But then he gets into it and re-orders the songs to tell his story and all that obsessiveness, etc. I loved that. It was nice to see that I’m not the only one who turns albums into Concept Albums in my head. (By the way, Weezer’s Pinkerton is the best concept album of all time, don’t you think?)

Camden:

I have never heard Weezer, but I will buy this if you say so.

Jake:

I’ve begun to question my judgment of Pinkerton because their most recent album is so lame and their first album is so cute. But Pinkerton is a really amazing album chock full of the kind of emotional implosion that makes music worthwhile. If you were to download one song, I would recommend “Across the Sea,” because even though it’s in the category of It’s-So-Hard-To-Be-A-Rock-Star (a la Seger’s dreadful “Turn the Page”), but it just blows me away. And it’s kind of the cornerstone in the album’s theme of psycho-sexual frustration.

Camden:

Sounds cool, I will definitely check it out.

Jake:

How did you hook up with This American Life? Got any funny stories about hanging out with Ira Glass and/or Sarah Vowell? Is your story from the “Sinatra” episode published anywhere? That was back in 1997. Any plans to do anything else with them?

Camden:

Not much of a story. Sarah came to New York to interview me. I never met Ira Glass, just spoke to him once over the phone. They both seem like nice people. The “Sinatra” story never got published anywhere. I did it at Sarah’s encouragement. I wrote it without thinking. It didn’t take very long and I can’t say I like it much. The audio is posted on the website which goes live tomorrow (camdenjoy.com), along with tons of other stuff.

Jake:

Cool. I look forward to checking that out.

Camden:

I’d love to do something for This American Life again, but I’m probably too disorganized to accomplish it on my own.

Jake:

How do you get turned on to new bands? Just buying stuff at random? Recommendations from friends? Listening online? I find that the older I get, the less interested I am in new stuff. I try hard to fight it, because I think it’s just laziness and cheapness. When I was a kid, I used to read an interview in NME and like their haircuts and then go out and buy the import. Now I’d never do that. But that’s how I discovered the Stone Roses (who ended up totally letting me down, but that’s another story). Have you heard Wilco’s new unreleased album that’s floating around the internet? I think it’s great, and that someone at Reprise should be shot in the knees for refusing to release it.

Camden:

I get turned on to new stuff almost entirely by musician friends, but sometimes by hearing something (like Outkast or Alexander Glazunov) on the radio. I don’t use the internet much so I never listen online and I don’t read magazines. I haven’t heard the new Wilco. I too feel like I’m falling out of touch, though I suspect we’re both just falling toward something new that we haven’t yet identified, and we shouldn’t fret about it too much.

Jake:

So listen to this. I went out and picked up some “New Music” magazine because it came with a CD full of stuff I don’t know. How desperate is that? I haven’t had a chance to listen to it closely yet, so I don’t know how disappointed I’ll be, but I was needing to hear new things.

Camden:

At first, this didn’t seem so bad, since it’s something I would do… but it occurs to me that it is rather desperate, seeing as you run GLORIOUS NOISE and all. Don’t you have oodles of cool friends recommending shit to you all the time, and mailing lists bombarding you with things? I spend half my time just working to shake free of mailing lists, which I despise.

Jake:

Ha! Unfortunately, all my friends are in the same boat as me. We all love the same bands and everything. We make mixes for each other, and that’s cool, but we’re all feeling sort of “stunted” right now. And I can’t listen to anyone’s advice that I read. Especially on the internet. Don’t tell this to anybody since I do run an online music zine, but 99.9% of the internet music writers are just dopey hipster indie kids who’ve never even listened to Exile on Main Street all the way through. I love Buddyhead.com, for example, but I can’t even be bothered to download the songs they release on their own label. Maybe it’s an old school notion, but I feel like the music should come to me. But the fact is people don’t have record parties anymore, and I don’t have 12 spare hours a day to sit around and smoke pot with people who have crazy, eclectic record collections.

So what this boils down to is that yes, I am fucking desperate for something exciting to listen to. What I should do is just ignore these feelings and dig into my existing record and cd collection which I bothered to pack up and move to Chicago, so I’d better fucking dig into it from time to time. Johnny Cash will heal my tired soul…

Camden:

This last e-mail of yours needs a bigger response than I can give it at the time, cause I’ve gotten suddenly quite busy. But all of what you say registers with me; I can’t say why I’m not as concerned as you about losing touch with relevant modern music, though I am in much the same boat.

I reckon it’s cause I really don’t respect the present all that much. I am a big fan of history. lately I spend much of my listening time trying to learn about beethoven and brahms and chopin, since these are smart musicians of whom I am ignorant.

Must work,
Camden

I’m staring at the most tangerine sunset through my window. It’s breathtaking.

What do you think of this interview? Have you read anything by Camden Joy? Have you ever tasted a honeycrisp apple? Tell us all about it!

6 thoughts on “The Glorious Noise Interview with Camden Joy”

  1. Also, I like the quote above from “The Last Rock Star Book”. It only reinforces that the roots of rock n roll go deep into Jazz and the Blues. It is the improvisational in both of those types of music that make them so alive and interesting. It is that same tendency for the unexpected, combined with Elvis’s rebel image, that made rock n roll such a force in our culture.

  2. BTW Jake, I will preempt any criticism over the fact that your interview with Joy actually contains more of you and less of him (to drop a line from my boy Jim Rome). This is a GOOD thing. His responses to your somewhat long-winded “questions” are what make this interview so priceless and so much better than what we might expect to read in some “New Books” section of a mainstream rag. Your e-mail interviews are beginning to strike me as a totally brilliant new form or something. (No doubt, gsv will tell me that this type of thing was pioneered back in the 1940s by some sort of Lithuanian art collective, but still.)

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