“Literature is Better if You Think With Your Ears”: Rick Moody on the Wingdale Community Singers’ Latest, the End of Maxwell’s, and More

Wingdales Rick Moody’s fiction has touched on everything from industrial New Jersey wastelands to surreal Southwestern landscapes of the near future. He has been an advocate for iconoclastic artists ranging from Amy Hempel to The Feelies; a book of his writings on music, On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening, was released last year. This year brings with it the release of Night, Sleep, Death, the third album from the Wingdale Community Singers, Moody’s band with David Grubbs and Hannah Marcus. Via email, we discussed the evolution of his band, storytelling in song and prose, and the end of Maxwell’s.
The Wingdale Community Singers have now made three albums; how has your process of working together evolved over those three albums?

We have gotten so much better at working together! That was really one of the great lessons of Night, Sleep, Death. We have been playing together almost ten years now, and at first there were issues integrating some highly disparate work habits. But I’d say by now we sort of know who we are and what we are dealing with and there’s a lot of love incorporated into the work. No one gets everything he or she wants, and there is something recognizably Wingdale-ish that results from the fusion of interests. It’s sort of moving, frankly, how it can be rather delightful at this point, after so long. We have outlasted the Clash, the Beatles, the Young Marble Giants, the original Gang of Four, and there is still love and respect there, and new things to learn.

Do you find that there’s anything you’ve learned as a songwriter that ends up also affecting your prose?

It’s most accurate to say that being a musician (as opposed to a songwriter) has affected my prose, and it is most dramatically evident in one way: I think with my ears a lot more. It turns out that literature is better if you think with your ears.

One assumes that not all of the “I”s in Wingdale Community Singers songs are necessarily you; did you find any parallels from writing from a certain voice and, for The Four Fingers of Death, writing an entire novel in the voice of another character?

Definitely. It is very infrequent, for me at least, that I write a confessional singer-songwriter style lyric. I believe there is exactly one by me on Night, Sleep, Death (“Use As Directed”) and it’s my oldest song on there. I am much more comfortable in the kind of third person that you see in old country songs (my idea of a great lyric, “Drunkard’s Lone Child,” by Dock Boggs), or the kind of untrustworthy first-person narrator you see in Randy Newman. Several of the first-person narrators on Night, Sleep, Death are other people: Andy Warhol, Walt Whitman, St. Augustine of Hippo. They say nothing at all about my life. These songs are more about the idea of a first-person than they are about confession. My life, in fact, is not terribly interesting, or, at least, is not good song fodder. That said, there’s one really beautiful first-person on the album by Hannah Marcus, “Sweeter Way to Say Goodbye.” But I think the facts in that song are invented too. So that sort of California-style, early seventies confessional love song is just not a perfect fit for The Wingdale Community Singers of this vintage.

Do you ever find yourself working on music that wouldn’t fit comfortably on a Wingdale Community Singers album?

Yep, lots. I did make a solo album a couple of years ago (called The Darkness Is Good), and I have enough songs for a second one, which I might work on at some point in the next couple of years, if time permits. But the more pressing concern is in the experimental music category. I was involved with a sort of “community choir” project for a few years called We Are Your Friends, which mainly was devoted to singing covers of electronic music. They did, for example, an album length cover of Computer World by Kraftwerk. The other director of We are Your Friends, Laura Vitale, decamped for San Diego, so we are moribund for now. But I would like to do more along these lines. I’ve also been in discussion with Kid Millions of Oneida on a spoken word album. He’s a very busy guy, playing drums for Spiritualized now too, I believe. But it’s possible that will get off the ground someday. You never know. There are sounds in my head that are hard for me to get out, because I am not a terribly gifted player. But I am working on getting them out, and perhaps I shall.

You recently wrote about Mark Mulcahy’s new album for Salon. What other music — new or old — has been in heavy rotation for you lately?

Well, let’s see. I have been playing, believe it or not, Tap by Pat Metheny, which is a series of adaptations of John Zorn’s Book of Angels project. It’s actually a really beautiful recording. I have also, belatedly, become really obsessed with the Orchestre National de Jazz in Paris, not only their sublime Robert Wyatt project, Around Robert Wyatt, but also an album of compositions by John Hollenbeck. I belatedly got a grip on The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch, which I had resisted for a while, but which I now lover. I am a big fan of Mouse on Mars, and one member thereof, Jan St. Werner, just released an album called Blaze Colour Burn on Thrill Jockey that is pretty great. I like the recent No Neck Blues Band reissues.

In a recent interview for Caught in the Carousel, you talked about the influence of Walt Whitman’s poetry on this album. Of the three albums in your discography, was this the first time you had drawn this much influence from any one source?

Yeah. The Wingdales have pretty disparate influences, when you get down to it. Dave has the serious music and experimental wing down, and Hannah listens to a lot of Old Time and Irish music these days. I suppose I am more pop than anyone else (I’m probably the only member of the band that listened to the recent Fleetwood Mac EP). But we are all pretty big readers. I suppose that’s an understatement. If there was a band that was more literary out there, I would be surprised, excepting maybe Paul Muldoon’s band in NJ. So Walt Whitman was something we all agreed upon. I think there are probably not too many songs in the vernacular (as opposed to the classical idiom) that set Whitman lyrics. But as I think I said in that other interview: why not us? It’s not that we are more gifted–or I am not more gifted, anyway–but we certainly are unapologetic about loving serious literature. so why shouldn’t we set Whitman? Maybe Dickinson is next.

Given that you’ve written a lot about the bands and city that surround it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for your thoughts on the closing of Maxwell’s…

Devastating, really. Although the dream has sort of been over for a while. I never felt the same about that place after Steve Fallon sold out. The real Maxwell’s for me was the old Maxwell’s, which I went to a lot when I lived there. But it’s still plenty sad. I went out there last year for lunch with my friend Mark Leyner, and I didn’t really recognize the Hoboken of my youth. It was always a bar town, but the kinds of bars there now are the resolutely stupid kinds of bars. So I’m not surprised there was a lot of pressure on Maxwell’s. It’s the end of a scene, to be sure, but the high period of Hoboken, which featured The Cucumbers, The Individuals, The dBs, Antietam, Gut Bank, Syd Straw–well, not many of those people have been regulars at Maxwell’s for a while.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.