Eddie Berrigan: Subtlety May Be Ruthless, but Distance is Free

Eddie BerriganEddie Berrigan is a New York poet and musician who performs under the name of I Feel Tractor, and sometimes with a group called So L’il. His songs are playful retakes of traditional folk and country genres – their subtle, funny lyrics and far-flung imagery create unusual landscapes of both physical and emotional territory. The author of the poetry collection Disarming Matter (1999, Owl Press) and several chapbooks, Eddie-as poet is also featured in a recently released anthology of love poems, Isn’t It Romantic? 100 Love Poems by Younger Poets, which includes work by David Berman and Jeff Tweedy. (The book comes with a CD with songs by Richard Buckner, Vic Chestnutt, Jason Molina and the Silver Jews – sadly, nothing by Eddie or Tweedy.) Musically, I Feel Tractor released a self-titled 7-inch last year (Loudmouth Collective) and is currently working on a full-length recording. Glorious Noise caught up with Eddie for a conversation about songwriting, poetry, day jobs and the current music scene.

GLONO: You work as a copy editor. Do you find it hard to make a living and be an artist at the same time?

EB: I definitely prefer not to work fulltime if I can help it. In general I think 40 hours a week is way too much for anybody to have to work. And it’s definitely hard to have a good creative life outside of that. So most of the time I actually don’t work.

GLONO: How do you pull that off?

EB: Well, I was the assistant copy editor for Chemical Week and then I got laid off and just kind of messed around for a while and eventually got rehired as a fulltime copy editor, and then I got laid off again… and now I’m freelancing, so I’m hoping to find some way to sustain that. But I tend not to stick with jobs too long. I mean, it’s just a way to get money. If you can get a few skills, money has a way of – it shows up when you need it.

GLONO: I guess. Do you write songs a lot or just occasionally?

EB: Not as often as I write poetry. Before I was writing songs, I would keep a notebook and write every day – I was just sort of concentrating on writing poetry. But songs – I mean, songs take a lot longer to sort of gestate. I mean, you make it, and then you have to play it over and over to really get all the inflections right. Because songs have to last a lot longer, in some way, than poems. Songs, you have to be able to return to them over and over.

GLONO: Your poetry writing really infuses the songs – your lyrics are so subtle, they’re really wonderful. The fact that you’re a poet gives you a leg-up over regular lyricists, I think.

EB: Well, I’m definitely pretty conscious about trying to keep the level of stuff that interests me in writing poetry, in my songwriting. I mean, I’ve taken poems and set them to music or sung them, and sometimes it works, but it’s sort of more fun to try and nail down a songwriting kind of structure.

GLONO: Right, they’re very different, aren’t they?

EB: Yeah. I mean I think a lot of it is that songs have music to sort of fill out all the stuff and poetry doesn’t have any kind of external music, it has to internalize it all. But [with poems] you don’t have to worry about following a particular rhythm, you can just break it wherever you want.

GLONO: I love your 7-inch record. I’ve worn out the grooves on “Distance is Free.” The finger-picking on “North Dakota” seems really fancy to me. Are you self-taught?

EB: Someone once told me that everybody is self-taught. I took lessons for a while. I started taking [guitar] lessons when I was nine…that was just sort of in fun. When I got to college I couldn’t really do more than strum a lot of songs, and I felt like I was pretty terrible, but I figured if I just stuck with it, in ten years I’d probably be pretty good. And it worked. I think the only thing I did consciously during that time was make a lot of mistakes. (laughs) I’m not patient enough to sit down and learn finger-picking patterns, so I was just kind of – just keep doing something till something works.

GLONO: Does North Dakota really “rise up like some forgotten tomb?” And have you traveled a lot?

EB: Um – well, I’ve traveled a lot. I haven’t really lived for long times in other places, except for San Francisco for three years. But I’ve mostly lived in New York.

GLONO: Were you born here?

EB: I was born in England, actually. My dad was teaching there. And then we lived in Chicago for a couple of years. We moved here in 1976, just down the street [St. Marks in the East Village].

GLONO: Must have been great to grow up here.

EB: Yeah, it was a real neighborhood, which I’m not sure it is, now.

GLONO: Was your dad a professor as well as a poet? [Eddie’s father is the late well-known and much beloved New York beat poet Ted Berrigan.]

EB: He was a poet and my mom is a poet. They never wanted to take any work that wasn’t related to poetry. So they would get a year or a semester teaching jobs here or there, just kind of used that to sustain us. But they were never full professors anywhere.

GLONO: That’s pretty inspiring, that both parents made that commitment to art.

EB: Yeah! I mean, I guess I take it for granted. But it was just sort of natural for me to do it [too]. Whereas working is very unnatural, in light of that. That probably explains why I take a lot of time out to just write and not worry about it.

GLONO: It’s harder to do that now – things cost more, it’s more of a struggle.

EB: Yeah. Well, maybe you just have to be more creative in figuring it out.

GLONO: Is “Distance is Free” about George Bush?

EB: Yeah. I guess maybe that’s kind of a problem. Because, I mean, it’s kind of dangerous to date a song or a poem like that. I feel like it should be relevant throughout the ages.

GLONO: I think this song would be. You never name Bush – it could be about anybody with a very closed-minded mentality. [The song begins “He’s not afraid of genocide, he’ll just achieve social distinction.”]

EB: Yeah. I mean, I like playing that song.

GLONO: It’s fucking awesome! It’s so good! How did you come up with that line, “Subtlety may be ruthless, but distance is free?”

EB: I have no idea. (laughs) I was working on that song for a long time, it was a completely different shape when it started out. I think it was a love song at first. But I don’t really like love songs, so (laughs) look at it now.

GLONO: Do you sometimes feel when you’re writing songs that you’re trying to reinvent the wheel, because it’s so hard to come up with anything original?

EB: Well, since I don’t have much extensive musical knowledge, I’m sort of forced to go back and play [older forms]. I mean, sometimes I try to change things, but sometimes I’m not very ambitious about it… I mean, [“Distance is Free”] is just like a talking blues or something, with a minor chord in it.

GLONO: Do you not listen to a lot of music?

EB: No, I do listen to a lot of music. I mean I just don’t know how to write songs that would be as weird as the way I write lyrics. I’ve never really worked in that vein. So I just don’t worry about it too much. I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones a lot and the greatest thing about Keith Richards is that it’s very simple. You know, it’s always just getting it back to the simplest way to play something and not really worrying about it too much.

GLONO: And Lou Reed has that too.

EB: Yeah. But he took it a little too literally I think. I don’t know, he doesn’t try hard enough. (laughs)

GLONO: You mean current stuff?

EB: In general –

GLONO: You mean all? [shock and horror in voice of interviewer]

EB: Well, I loved Magic and Loss. I think that’s a great album. But sometimes I feel like that was the first thing that happened to him since like 1974. It’s got a relevance and a craft to it that Rock & Roll Animal doesn’t.

GLONO: That’s definitely arguable. But early Velvet Underground stuff – ?

EB: That’s different. That’s when stuff was happening to him.

GLONO: Your song “Childhood” is beautiful and haunting. It reminds me of some of the spookier Will Oldham songs and I’m wondering if Will Oldham was an inspiration for you?

EB: Yeah. I’ve definitely listened to a lot of his stuff. Like I love Arise Therefore and that’s got that dark, sparse sound…. There was a lot of good stuff and there’d be really great ones, but he puts out so much. Now I just concentrate on the great ones and try not to buy everything. (laughs)

GLONO: Yeah, I hear you.

EB: Yeah, so I started listening to him, and then I got into the rest of the Drag City stuff. But actually I really like Neil Hagerty a lot more, in some ways. There’s a sort of clunkiness in a lot of Royal Trux stuff – [it’s] a lot more like the sounds that come out of my writing and poetry writing – it’s sort of broken up and weird. And I mean, sometimes I think he’s just making up lyrics on the spot….But in that way he doesn’t end up writing songs that really get you more personally, the way Will Oldham does. But I think he’s sort of more interesting.

GLONO: What about Smog, do you like him?

EB: Yeah, I love Smog. We listen to a lot of Smog at my house. It’s kind of funny with him too – his last album, Supper, was really good, and was sort of a lot more lively, but he kind of gets a little stiff sometimes. His production isn’t quite as extensive as it was. What I like about songwriting is trying to make weird structures – like with “Distance is Free,” to take those old-folks structures and try to make them different and Smog sort of does that… but the recent songs are more like 1,4,5, like Rolling Stones or Lou Reed songs. But he’s better. (laughs)

GLONO: Do you enjoy performing?

EB: Yeah! Especially in terms of reading poetry. [With performing music] you just get so much more adreneline and it’s really fun. When it works it’s just sort of like you’re floating along. It’s actually more like writing poetry than reading poetry, like – when you’re writing a poem there’s this intense concentration, and you’re just sort of focusing on whatever’s going to come next, because it’s important. Because you can lose it. And for me music performance is exactly the same way. But reading poetry – you just kind of go up there and read it. It’s kind of fun but it’s not as exciting.

GLONO: You mentioned in the show at Tonic that you used to get nervous and then you started practicing being nervous. I don’t know if you were kidding or not. Do you deal a lot with stagefright?

EB: Yeah. For fingerpicking, actually. My hands get so shaky that I can’t really do the things I want to do. I can make my thumb work but I can’t get my fingers to work. Yeah, so at some point I just would try when I was practicing to make myself as nervous as possible and then play through it. It helped a couple of times, but then I sort of forgot about it and [the nervousness] came back.

GLONO: Do you play every day?

EB: Yeah. I try to. I mean, that’s the only way to make it work – to sit down and play for hours and hours.

GLONO: Well, you are a really good guitar player, so that must be how you keep it up.

EB: Yeah. Well, it never sort of translates on stage – I mean I usually get so nervous that I can’t do half the things I know how to do.

GLONO: Is that frustrating?

EB: Yeah, it’s a challenge. I’m trying to figure out different ways to sort of make it work. You know, maybe just fingerpicking things later on in the set when I’ve calmed down a little bit. But sometimes then I get so caught up in it that I don’t want to do anything that makes me feel like I’m fucking it up. (laughs) I don’t know, it’s sort of horrifying really. But it’s really fun at the same time.

GLONO: Do you smoke? [Interviewer craving a cigarette to go with our beers at this point.]

EB: I don’t like cigarettes.

GLONO: I was reading this Lester Bangs quote: “The central myth of the 60s was the burnout: live fast, be bad, get messy, die young.” And I mean, that’s not really true anymore.

EB: There are still plenty of candidates, I think.

GLONO: Here’s a pompous, rock-critical question: what do you see as the myth of the musician-as-hero in the 00s?

EB: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone is idealized, the way Dylan and the Beatles and all [those people] were… or the Dead. I mean, nobody really follows Will Oldham around from show to show.

GLONO: Well, I met a Will Oldham obsessive who almost did follow him from show to show. But it’s not the mass scene that it once was.

EB: Well, popular music today is like – I mean, it just doesn’t – no one’s going to follow Outkast around from show to show. I mean, I guess that’s good – it’s probably better not to really do that. Wasn’t that the end result of the 60s, that everyone figured out that people shouldn’t be idealized because… didn’t the 70s show up?

GLONO: And they sucked so bad? Yeah, I guess. Idealized or idolized?

EB: Idolized. Well, either. Like, there’s no point in idolizing, say, the White Stripes, because they’re doing something that’s already been done by everybody – but I mean, they’re doing a pretty good job, I think. I mean, who else [is there?] Radiohead? I mean, people can be really into it, but – (cackles) forget it.

GLONO: White Stripes are very cool, but they’re definitely playing with a genre.

EB: Yeah. And maybe the thing about the 60s and those bands is that even though they were kind of recreating old blues, that wasn’t quite as widely available at that point, so it could seem really new. And I mean if you go back as far as Elvis, I guess that was a completely different thing that was happening –

GLONO: Yeah, I think he was the first, or one of the first –

EB: Whereas I think a lot of the New York bands that get written up are definitely all recreations of previous styles. I mean some people are doing really good stuff – when I hear something like Mighty Flashlight, Mike Fellows – he played on a bunch of Palace albums, and Rites of Spring, and he toured with Neil Hagerty a lot. It’s this weird collagey album that was all done on a laptop, but it’s completely great and it plays with stuff nicely. But yeah, it’s the same kind of thing – it’s like walking into a junkyard. You don’t really idolize anything in a junkyard, you just admire the way the twisted metal looks.

GLONO: You’re new to being a recording artist – are you going to be aiming any kind of a niche success or will you be happy with a small, insider…

EB: Well, the way I’m trying to think about it is just that I like songwriting. I definitely want to keep doing that. And I love performing, that’s fun. So the best way to get those things done is to put out some records so that people buy them so that you have more time to do that, so… I mean, my only goal is to really keep going. And the best way to do that is just try and play more. But I’m not the kind of person that would get anything other than cult status.

GLONO: That’s as good as it gets for a lot of people.

EB: Yeah. It’s a particular audience. I mean to be a working musician, to be able to play on other people’s projects, and just kind of continue would be a good sign, and just a pure sense of getting work done and being taken seriously. I mean I would be happy with that.

Distance is Free by Eddie Berrigan

He’s not afraid of genocide, he’ll just achieve social distinction

Every time he moves his mind he feels close to the non-fiction

Words’ meanings count on what they weigh, I hope you treat me kind

But there’s no life like the life of the mind

There’s no life like the life of the mind.

I caught a stranger in my house, and I busted his head with a club

Some say it’s just a matter of time, but I think it’s a matter of love.

His forehead is a ceiling all wrapped up in blankets

Every time a new door closes he’ll make sure to thank it

But these are not the struggles we were meant to see

Subtlety may be ruthless, but distance is free

Subtlety may be ruthless, but distance is free.

Photo via 3am Magazine.

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