Interview: John S. Hall – Fuck Sandwich
I can’t remember how I first ran into John S. Hall. I mean, I think technically I still haven’t run into him yet. Which is surprising, because we have several friends in common. (I suppose that New York City is very very big though). Which is probably how I heard that he was releasing a record, Fuck Sandwich. I think because, like a lot of people, my first exposure to John S. Hall was King Missile’s song “Detachable Penis”, I expected Fuck Sandwich to be a sarcastic, cynical affair. After all, I had first heard “Detachable Penis” in the ’90s as a teenager, and so I was prone to interpret its fantastical elements as a form of sarcastic non-conformity (whether it actually was or not – John describes the song as more wistful than sarcastic). In Fuck Sandwich, there are elements of what-I-would-call fantasy, however instead of sarcasm, I hear hope and aspirational thinking. Qualities that had me looking very much forward to finally sitting down and shooting some questions his way.
Andy: Regarding the track, “The Quartet”, the first thought that ran through my head – I wish that people believed art was capable of things like that. I mean, I think that there’s a tendency to interpret hyperbole as sarcasm, so someone might listen to the track and think you’re being dark and sarcastic about the effect of music. But like I feel like maybe you mean to be aspirational. Am I being naive?
John: The Quartet came to me at Zankel Hall (one of my favorite places to hear music), during a performance by Kronus Quartet. I wrote a large chunk of it on the train ride home, and I think I finished it the next day. Yes, it’s aspirational. I was trying, in words, to convey the power and transcendence that a music listener can experience, and express the idea that music can give one a religious experience. Because while watching Kronos that night-and this often happens when I see them-I felt elevated and expansive and connected.
Then, as I was writing The Quartet, I had the idea of being able to pass the experience on. This idea came from a religious group (Siddha Yoga) that I meditated with very occasionally in the 90’s. The main figure, Gurumayi Chidvilasanda, was said to be able to transmit shaktipat – which I understood to be a kind of religious experience/energy – by touch, or even by looking at you. Although I thought the Gurumayi had something going on, I never sat with her in person (only with acolytes) and I feel like I have had more of a religious experience with Kronos than from watching videotaped talks of her. But that could be just me, or it could be that watching recordings is different from being in the same room. I don’t feel as transported when I listen to Kronos recordings as I do when I see them live, for example.
And the idea of connecting music to religious experience is nothing new. For years, I would hear Bach as I walked into church, as people have done for centuries. And Arvo Part is doing religious music today. And Patti Smith. And Leonard Cohen and George Harrison did a lot of it in popular music. I could go on and on. But the short answer is that The Quartet is not meant to be dark or sarcastic. It’s sincere.
Andy: Ah, you know, it’s funny, I was talking with Ray Brown maybe five years ago after a show of his, when he mentioned I think his belief that musical inspiration was akin to a religious experience. I cribbed some lyrics from one of the songs he performed that night for a song I wrote a number of years ago about the same. I mean I think I understand the idea, but I guess I don’t know how religious I am. Would you say that you’re a religious person, broadly speaking, and that the music helps you get to “that place” for lack of a better word? Or is it that maybe the music helps you to understand religion even though you might not necessarily be that religious, but you like where it’s taking you?
John: I have in the past described what I believe in this way: that there is something–today I will call it a thread–that connects all sentient living beings, perhaps all living beings, and perhaps all things. In Star Wars, it’s called the Force. In some religious systems, it’s known as chi. I believe that this exists, but I don’t think of it as God, because I think of God as meaning a supernatural creator, whereas I think of this as a natural phenomenon. It is something that connects us all, whether we are aware of it or not, but there are ways to be more aware of it and tap into it and live a happier and more harmonious life. Music is one of those ways. So is prayer, yoga, meditation, ritual, writing, playing an instrument, sex, tai chi, doing good works, and so on. Whether you call it religious depends, I would say, on how deeply committed you are to it–so you can meditate without being a Buddhist, but a Buddhist (or, at least, a Bodhisattva) would be someone more committed to the path–the path that leads to more truth.
I am an atheist, and somewhat lazy, so I don’t devote as much time, attention and effort to these matters as some others do. But I would say I get most tapped into when I’m writing (although not whenever I write; only sometimes) and sometimes when I listen to music, and sometimes when I meditate (which lately has been rarely), and sometimes at art museums, but really, you can feel it at any time, like when you’re washing the dishes. And it is also possible not to feel it when you’re looking at the Grand Canyon or Redwoods or some other magical place. To answer your question: I sometimes say I’m religious, but when I say that, I don’t think I’m being fair to truly religious people. I don’t like to say I’m spiritual, because that’s a trendy word that only seems to mean “religious without religious commitment.” With that said, I recognize that I am more committed to religious ideas and principles than most people in my immediate area–but that is a low bar.
What I wouldn’t say, though, is that “music helps me understand religion.” Studying a religion would help me understand the religion–it’s teachings and approach. But the point of religion, from my perspective, is to help find the truth, the direction, the key. How to go on, and why. And a religious discipline can lead one to deep and profound experiences that give one a glimpse of the larger reality (which again, I don’t call God, because I think this is all part of nature). And there are other ways to get these glimpses. Drugs, particularly hallucinogenics, can show one a glimpse, but drugs are also one of the easiest and fastest ways to get diverted, lost, or ruined. Perhaps because they are usually used recreationally, rather in a disciplined way. Regardless, I think some sort of discipline or plan is helpful, or something sustained, like long periods of exercise, or yoga, or meditation, or writing, or music, or chanting, or whatever.
Andy: How did you come up with the name “Unusual Squirrel”? I see that he has a theme song, and he’s got his picture on the album cover. Are you the Unusual Squirrel, or is the Unusual Squirrel a squirrel?
John: I will step back a bit and say that almost everything I’ve come up with creatively in the past few years has been partly or completely, directly or indirectly, because of Susan Hwang. She booked me to do a reading in 2015, and because I was scheduled to go on pretty late, I said I would want to find some musicians to work with. She suggested Preston Spurlock, and although I didn’t ask him to do that show, I started working with him and Ray and Susan shortly thereafter, and that became Unusual Squirrel. Susan also formed the Bushwick Book Club, and I’ve written several things for that, one of which (Monsters) is on Fuck Sandwich. And Susan came up with the title Fuck Sandwich (see below). And I was looking at her blog one day and she had an entry based on an email her mother sent her. Her mother had sent her a picture of a squirrel that she had taken, and the subject line of the email was “Unusual Squirrel,” and that immediately struck me as an excellent name for this new band. So that’s the somewhat convoluted story of Unusual Squirrel- Susan’s mother inadvertently named the band. The album cover was meant as a placeholder. Ray put it together on the spur of the moment. I’ve asked Preston if he’d like to do something, but that hasn’t happened yet. I like what Ray did, though.
Andy: Please kick me for being a smartass, but if “fuck” is in the titles of the first and last song, it wouldn’t be a “Fuck Sandwich”, it’d be a sandwich with fuck bread, wouldn’t it? The middle would have to be filled with fucks with less fucks on the outside? I guess that doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as good as “Fuck Sandwich” though.
John: Yes, you are right, and that has bothered me, which is why, for a few months now, I have been thinking of coming up with another song, to be places right in the middle of the album, called “Fuck Sandwich,” (although now, as I say that, I suppose it should just be called “Fuck”). If we were to do that, it would kind of be like that double down sandwich (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_Down_(sandwich)), where the “bread” is actually chicken. The double down sandwich can be pointed to as evidence that the meat can be the bread. I think it’s fair to call the double down a chicken sandwich with bacon and cheese. Having said that, though, I will concede that the title “Fuck Sandwich,” is problematic, for the reason you state. But not as problematic as the double down sandwich.
Andy: You talk a lot on the record, not surprisingly, about fucking. You have two tracks that reference it (“They Fucked”, and “Better Not Fuck”), as well as the album title (Fuck Sandwich) and I was thrown off for a second because usually people use the word as an expletive, but you are actually talking about sex, right? And even when people use the word “fuck” they use it as a way of being crude, but I get the impression that you think fucking is kind of an elevated thing?
John: I use the word fuck as an expletive in “Pants,” (“Fuck me”), and I probably use it as an adjective somewhere on Fuck Sandwich, but yes, I mean it literally in the first and last song on Fuck Sandwich. The band did a show last year where we opened with How They Fucked and closed with Better not Fuck, and I noted on stage that the first song and the last song have the word fuck in the title and Susan said “Fuck Sandwich” and a few days later, it occured to me to put those songs in that order on the record and call it Fuck Sandwich. So that’s that story. I like the word “fuck” a lot. It works when you’re angry or when you want to be emphatic, but is also a good word for sex. As to whether fucking is an elevated thing, I would say I certainly don’t think of sex as degraded, and I prefer when it’s elevated, but there’s also the fuck buddy phenomenon, and more and more, there’s hookup culture- so, many people are pursuing fucking solely for it’s own sake and if that works for people, fine. But sex can also be about union, communion, communication, love, friendship- so many things. For me, I want it to mean something. I want it to matter.
Andy: You make a few indirect references to classical music in the record (“The Quartet” / “The Guy who Coughs”). I take it you listen to classical music a fair bit then? My sense talking to a lot of songwriters in New York is that classical music is kind of like the next door neighbor that you acknowledge occasionally but you’d never actually go over for dinner. Do you have any thoughts on how to approach it as a writer?
John: I started listening to classical music seriously about 10 years ago. I started with Mozart, and he is fairly easy to apprehend. He’s composed about 40 piano concertos and I love about ten of them and all of the rest are well worth listening to. His string quartets give me a lot of joy as well. Then I moved to Bach, but I’ve never liked him as much. Schubert’s string quartets are great-one of them inspired me to write a book (a memoir, unpublished-that was a performance at Alice Tully Hall, by the Emerson String Quartet). The Guy Who Coughs was inspired by a guy who was coughing at the Zankel Hall performance alluded to in the text (and I would say the references in that text are direct-not indirect).
The Avery Fisher Hall coughing incident–where a guy coughed loudly just as ‘Bolero’ was beginning and the conductor turned back and kind of glared at him–happened in the early 2000s, I think, before I went to concerts regularly. I’m not sure I understand your question about how to approach classical music as a writer. As a listener, I look more toward newer music (20th and 21rst century) but there is so much stuff from before that period that I love. As a writer, inspiration can come from anywhere, but I have been surprised at how many times I have written something as a direct result of having seen a musical performance in a concert hall. If your question is about writing classical music – I’ve never done that. I have only seriously begun writing music this year, and that has only consisted of putting chord progressions together on the ukulele. I’ve written four songs this way, only one of which was for Unusual Squirrel (not yet recorded).
I didn’t mean the above to be an exhaustive list of composers I like. I could have also mentioned Schumann, Beethoven, Dvorak, Haydn, Ligeti, Crumb, Cage, Takemitsu, Glass, Reich, Riley, and many more. I love orchestral and chamber music (these being more blanket terms than classical music), and I often find it inspiring. Next month, I’m seeing my first opera at the Met, a 21rst century work based on and named after Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel. I don’t appreciate opera as much as I believe I will in the next few years. Just getting started with it, really.
Andy: So, I don’t think I’ve interviewed a fellow attorney before. You’re still an attorney now? How was your experience going through law school? Did you hate it as much as I did? (Which is a lot). I try to keep music and law in very separate boxes these days – I have law people and music people and never the two shall meet. But I feel like, eventually it’s nice to have money. I definitely don’t think I could make enough money just as a musician.
John: I went to law school because I thought I would find it interesting, and I did, especially after the first year. I focused on intellectual property and civil rights, and found almost of my classes stimulating and edifying. I also expected I would get a job at an entertainment law firm, but I didn’t. I didn’t get a job at all, so I started a firm with another attorney and I did that until it became clear that I wouldn’t make enough money to survive. I registered with a temp agency which led to a job as a corporate analyst, which I’m still in. So, I no longer practice law, but I am current with my bar admission in New York, so technically, I’m a lawyer, but only technically. I haven’t practiced in over a decade. I made more money this year at this job than I made in my entire career with King Missile, and I’m probably making less than half of what you make as a first year. Or maybe a little more than half. Still, it’s more money than I need, because I’ve been careful with money and lucky with apartments. I don’t know how most people in New York do it. I figured I would have to get an advanced degree in order to survive here, or that maybe I would have to move, even with a law degree. And many people I went to law school with have had a much worse time of it than I have. I feel lucky and grateful, although perhaps some others in my position would feel bitter or cheated. It’s a matter of perspective.
Andy: You’re working on a lot of projects with musicians in NYC, yes? Mind giving us a list of what you’re working now?
John: King Missile performs a few times a year. We are thinking about making some new recordings, possibly soon, although we don’t have any new material yet. King Missile is basically the group that was signed to Atlantic in the early 90’s: me, Dave Rick, and Roger Murdock. We have performed twice with Chris Xefos (who was also on the Atlantic recordings), but he lives in San Francisco so generally we work with keyboardist Brent Cordero when King Missile does shows.
Unusual Squirrel performs regularly – almost whenever we are asked. We have enough material to do another set of recordings, which I expect we will do pretty soon. Squirrel is Ray Brown, Preston Spurlock, and Susan Hwang.
Sensation Play is a concept band, centered around themes of sex and male submission. And it’s funny that I think I’m pushing boundaries and taking risks, but then the audiences seem to take it in stride, and understand the humor and enjoy the transgression. We’ve only done two shows so far, and our third is this Saturday (10/28/17, 9:00 PM, Little Skips). We also have enough material to make a recording, and I expect we will very soon. I have this hope that that project will be all female (except for me), so I’m hoping to find a female engineer/producer. Musicians are Leslie Graves, Mallory Feuer, and Susan.
A couple of years ago, I made a short set of recordings called This Fuckin;’ Guy with a group called This Fuckin’ Guy (https://powertoolrecords.bandcamp.com/album/king-missile-iv-this-fuckin-guy-2015). This group is me, Azalia Snail and Dan West. Just a couple of days ago, we talked about expanding this release by making some new recordings. I wrote about sixty poems as a character called This Fuckin’ Guy, and we’ve only recorded six of them, so there are plenty left to choose from.
I often participate in Susan Hwang’s Bushwick Book Club. She assigns us a book and the participants are tasked with creating something inspired by the book. I’ve done seven or eight of these in the past twelve months. Usually I write songs, with one or more musicians, or (more recently) on the ukulele by myself.
And I’ve written a bunch of children’s stories this year. I had written five stories about five years ago and I looked at them this year and I decided to write more. I finished a volume of fifteen stories in August and have written five more since. No publisher so far, so I may put the book out myself. I’ve also though it would be fun to set some of these to music with Unusual Squirrel, but that hasn’t happened yet.
That’s it for musical projects just now. I’ve did a special performance project earlier this month (I think) and may do some more in the coming month, but I don’t expect these will be musical projects.
Andy: Ah, the Bushwick Book Club sounds really fun. You know, Susan is like at the top of a list of people that I’ve never met (I don’t think?) but have been intending to meet for a number of years. Just you know New York City is really huge and has so many people in it, but at some point it’s no excuse. Can someone see the Bushwick Book Club without reading the book? Elon (my boyfriend) would say that I should just read the book.
John: Seeing the Bushwick Book Club without having read the book is, I believe, what most people do. While the participants read all or most (or in some cases, only a part) of the book, the audience members generally don’t seem to. The most recent exception to that was when we did Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but I am sure there are other exceptions as well, and I would say, the Book Club might be more enjoyable if you’ve read the book first. The only Bushwick Book Clubs I’ve been to have been ones where I’ve performed, so, I’m familiar with the book, and this helps me appreciate the songs the other people come up with. Sometimes the book is new, or as is the case for the next one, still unpublished, which means no one in the audience will be familiar with the book. I’m not participating, but I might go. (November 7 at Barbes, 7:30).
Susan should be at the top of your list of people you should meet if you haven’t yet. For one thing, she has written more songs about books than anyone I know. She has a whole musical project (Lusterlit) devoted to songs about books.
Andy: You’ve been involved in the New York City music scene for quite a while I take it. I read that you used to perform at open mics at Back Fence, and I was thinking about how i used to perform at open mics at the Back Fence but many years later (before it closed maybe 4 years ago?). Has it changed much over the years? Is it still basically the same?
John: The first time I was featured as a poet was at the Backfence-I believe it was 1985. Because I didn’t want to do 20 minutes of just me, I had my friend Dogbowl compose some music and play with me. After that performance, we added a couple more musicians (Alex DeLaszlo and RB Korbet) and that was the first incarnation of King Missile, which we called King Missile (Dog Fly Religion). After Dogbowl left, we became King Missile, and after Atlantic dropped us, I formed a King Missile III and King Missile IV. Currently, only King Missile is active, although King Missile IV may be resurrected (see above).
I think it’s true that I was at the open at Backfence a lot in 85 and 86, but I think that was it. I may have gone a few times after that to see friends perform, but not after 1989 or 1990, I think. So I can’t speak to how it’s changed.
I performed at the Sidewalk a lot last year-not so much this year. I’ve been to the Wednesday open readings at Three of Cups and the Sunday readings at the Parkside Lounge a few times each in the past year or two. I should go to more readings. The last time I went to a reading, I got ideas for four new poems which I can’t wait to read somewhere!