In which Tobin talks about mechanical art and what makes for a great toy, and shares ruminations from a Muppet colloquium.
Welcome to the second part of this interview with toy inventor/Director of Exhibit Development Adam Tobin. If you haven’t already, be sure to also check out Part One.
On the Web: The Exploratorium; Wordle preview
Cecil Vortex: I read that you also create mechanical art. What’s that work like?
Adam Tobin: After I sold the first toy company, I had a few larger-scale projects I’d always wanted to pursue. The first thing I wanted to make was a clock that told time with rolling marbles. I’d wanted to make it since I was a kid. And I started making it and ended up making a few other contraption-type pieces. It was just such a joy for me, after years of designing things to be mass produced to say, “I’m just going to make one, and I’m not as concerned about how you can make 10,000 of these.” In essence, they were very large one-of-a-kind toys.
CV: Do you still work on those projects?
In which Tobin talks about growing up as a child-inventor, the Exploratorium workflow, and the challenges of summoning an “ah-ha!” moment on a deadline.
Bio: Adam Tobin is the Director of Exhibit Development at San Francisco’s famed Exploratorium. Before that he was an entrepreneur and an award-winning toy inventor whose creations included Frigits, Getups, Tub Tunes Water Flutes and Drums, and SuperFort. His creations are sold around the world and have been featured in New York Magazine, Discover Magazine, CBS Morning News, Fox News, CNN, Regis and Kelly Ripa, and the New York Times.
This is the first half of a two-part interview. Jump here for the second half.
On the Web: The Exploratorium; Wordle preview
Cecil Vortex: Do you remember your first invention?
Adam Tobin: I started as an electronics tinkerer. I made a burglar alarm to keep my sister out of my room. I took an old car radio that had been abandoned from one of the old family cars and got inside it and wired up quadraphonic sound in my bedroom. I began making wooden toys when I was young as well, like whirligig and rolling marble toys.
CV: Were you raised in a family of inventors, or was it something you got into on your own?
AT: I don’t know where it came from. My father can’t pick up a hammer…. For some reason, with me, I was just a tinkerer from the get-go.
CV: How did your parents respond?
Photo credit: Chelsea Hadley.
In which Reinhardt talks about why she rarely uses her notebook, how her first book may have been the easiest to write, and getting a sixteen-year-old to translate into IM.
Dana Reinhardt is the author of three novels for young adults. Her most recent book, How to Build a House (Random/Lamb, 2008), tells the story of a resilient teen who leaves her split family and life on the coast for a summer in Tennessee. Reinhardt’s pre-novel-writing experience includes working in the foster care system, fact-checking for a movie magazine, working for PBS’ Frontline, and time spent as a reader for a young adult line at a mass-market paperback house.
We chatted by phone eons ago (she’s very patient). I read through the conversation last month while simultaneously attempting to tackle a novel during NaNoWriMo, and her words rang so true — there’s great advice here for artists of all stripes, and especially for writers.
Dana Reinhardt on the web: danareinhardt.net
Cecil Vortex: Do you have a writing routine you hold to?
Dana Reinhardt: I do. I try my best to stick to writing every workday. It’s a bonus if I do any writing on a weekend. I try to write Monday through Friday as if I had a real job. My goal for each day can change but in general, my rule is that my workday’s not done until I have three pages, which is roughly 1,000 words, maybe a little less. So it’s somewhere in there. I generally don’t let myself off the hook until I’ve done that. And sometimes I can do that in 40 minutes, and sometimes it takes me ten hours. But I try to have that done every single day.
CV: Is there an outline you work off?
DR: I don’t work with outlines. I know a lot of people do, but I don’t. I mean, I know where I’m headed, usually. Before each book so far that I’ve written, I know generally the arc of the story and how I want it to end. And sometimes I’ll have certain things I have an idea that I want to have happen halfway through. But in general, for me, the fun about writing is finding out what happens between the beginning and the end of the story.
CV: Do you try to get a first draft out and then go back and revise? Or do you tend to polish as you go?
I posted an interview this evening over on the O’Reilly digital media site with Jesse Thorn, the host of “The Sound of Young America” (an excellent radio show that’s distributed by Public Radio International.)
Thorn’s launching an intimate convention/vacation/education/entertainment extravaganza this summer called MaxFunCon. Most of the conversation was about that event — where the idea came from, what the focus is, why it won’t feature half-naked pictures of Dane Cook.
At the end, he shared a bit about how he gets stuff done that I thought would make a nice addition to the About Creativity interviews on this site:
MaxFunCon bills itself as, among other things, “a convocation of awesome people who seek to become more awesome.” In your own life, is there anything you’ve found that helps you achieve more awesomeness?
Jesse Thorn: When I was just out of college, I couldn’t get a job. I was really depressed about it, and I had been trying to get a radio job. But I couldn’t even get any job. It was really horrible. I was applying for retail jobs and not getting them.
I was really down, and I was thinking, “Why am I driving back and forth to Santa Cruz, an hour-and-a-half from San Francisco?” At the time, I didn’t have a car, so I was driving back and forth in my mom’s car. I thought to myself, “I should just quit doing this. There’s no reason I’m doing this.”
And I talked to my now wife/then girlfriend, Theresa. And she said, “Well, you don’t do anything else,” and I thought, “Yeah, that’s true, I don’t do anything else. Maybe I should keep doing this.” [laughter] And it has been the regular demands of making sure that I’m doing something that has backed me into a corner in order to be creative and think of new things. The fact that I have to make a radio show every week. For many years I did it when I had a real, regular day-to-day job, and now it is my job. The fact that I have to think of new stuff to connect me with people. It’s sort of boring, but it’s that backed-into-a-wall state where I’m able to be creative.
I’m a very harshly self-critical person. To be honest, I’m a very harshly critical person in general. [laughter] Which I think is one of the reasons why I find improv so beneficial. I’m only able to really create when I have to. So I’ve set up my life so that I do have to.
And the things that I have to do are things that I love to do, so it works out.
So-called Bill and I have recently started posting about digital creativity over at digitalmedia under The Creative Beat. This subsite is an extension (an outgrowth? a spur?) of the interviews you’ve found over over here, with a little more focus on things-tech.
Last week, SCB had a fun post on Eno’s Oblique Strategies and where they can be found online. And mere moments ago, I added a chat with Craig Schwartz the co-founder of toonlet.com, a neat site that makes it easy peasy for folks to make cartoons. Drop by when ya get a chance….
I’ve recently started blogging about things-creativity-and-tech at work. Using my own name even. My other own name.
Before too long, there should be an actual brand-new creativity subsite I can link to, but for now, it’s more like a post here and there. Today’s entry: Dr. Horrible and the Future of Entertainment, which reveals why Doogie Howser is the man of tomorrow.
Welcome to the second part of this interview with Blizzard VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen. If you haven’t already read the first part of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear about the power of spinning ideas, and how Metzen got his big break on a bar napkin.
Chris Metzen on the Web: Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor, Sons of the Storm
Cecil Vortex: What do you think are the ingredients of good storytelling in computer games?
Chris Metzen: You definitely want “show — don’t tell.” And it’s difficult in interactive spaces because “showing” usually means it’s very keyed into specific art resources or the way your game engine works. Also, more often than not, you don’t want to stick the player with minutes worth of exposition. Ultimately, it’s a video game and people are conditioned to want push buttons or click their mouse. Whether they’re playing Pac-Man or Half Life 2 or World of Warcraft, they want to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat — that’s the difference between the interactive medium and film, for instance. In film you’re pretty much a captive audience. You’re going to sit there for two hours and experience what the writer and the director and the actors want you to experience. You have very little say in the matter other than how you process it after the fact, right?…. [So] even if we take control away from you for a couple of minutes to show a pre-rendered cinematic, or a cinematic sequence that shows the next story note unfolding, we want to get people back into the action as soon as possible. And that determines the way your story unfolds. You have to tell it in bite-sized chunks because you know that control must resume for the player pretty soon.
CV: How do you typically kick ideas off?
Welcome! This interview is part of an ongoing series of chats with artists about their creative process. You can find the full set of interviews, including musicians Adrian Belew and Jonathan Coulton, writer Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), cartoonist Dan Piraro, and comic book creator Matt Wagner all at about-creativity.com. You can also subscribe to future interviews here. Thanks a lot for dropping by, -Cecil
Chris Metzen is the Vice President of Creative Development at Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the beloved Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo series of PC games. These are the blockbusters of the PC gaming world, famous for their rich worlds, near flawless gameplay, and graphics and audio that pull the player in and don’t let go. World of Warcraft, the company’s popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), and its expansion packs, have been the best-selling PC games for 2005, 2006, and 2007. WoW currently has 10 million subscribers worldwide.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor, Sons of the Storm
Cecil Vortex: How do you explain to nongamers what you do for a living?
Chris Metzen: My core responsibility is coming up with the worlds our games take place in. And over time, the worlds are becoming the game, strangely enough.
When I started out in this racket about fourteen years ago, we were making war games. Essentially, you’re playing through a sequence of maps with this virtual army you build over time. It was my job not only to create the single-player component of the game — the storyline that you ultimately track through in these ongoing wars — but also to just kind of create the universe behind the game so that when you weren’t actually playing, you might still be chewing on these concepts or characters or places that you’d experienced.
CV: What were some of your big influences growing up?
CM: Well, figure that everyone in the industry just loved Star Wars. Star Wars created a monster. But I think what shaped the monster [for me] ultimately was a mix between Dungeons & Dragons and comic books. Those were my absolute loves, as most geeks around here will probably repeat. I’m more a comic geek than anything else, honestly. I still have about a thirty-dollar habit per week. It’s gotten bad; I need a twelve-step program. I even still buy Marvel. So I just grew up with serial storytelling. Every week you could go to the store and see somebody’s latest adventure. That template — the way comics unfold over time — had a really big impact on me.
I loved D&D — I loved the big worlds, the big spanning themes, the big epic quests, the unfolding settings with ancient civilizations and ancient secrets coming back to haunt the present. I loved all that. I love mythology. And somehow, as a little kid, comics was the conveyance system — the media that really captured my imagination…. There was continuity, high drama, threads from beyond space and time. There were threads from the past. There were gods walking the earth. Everything I wanted to have my head in was right there.
CV: Did you create your own comics?
Photo credit: Nancy Bellen.
Ianthe Brautigan was born in San Francisco at the tail-end of the Beat Era. Her book You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), recently optioned for a movie, chronicles her life growing up as the daughter of poet and novelist Richard Brautigan and grappling with his suicide in 1984. Her work has appeared in Cartwheels on The Faultline, The Poet’s Eye: A Tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Antioch Review, and will appear in Confrontations. She’s taught at Sonoma State University and lives in Northern California, where she’s currently working on a novel.
Ianthe Brautigan on the Web: Red Room, You Can’t Catch Death
Cecil Vortex: What sort of writing had you done before you started working on your memoir?
Ianthe Brautigan: I was actually a Theater Arts major, and I was going to the Junior College, and I fell in love with my English 1A class and ended up writing nonfiction essays. At that point I realized that I was going to be torn between the two worlds, and I decided to choose writing. I still went to New York and worked for Roundabout Theatre and was in the theater world and toyed with that for a little while. And then I came back to Sonoma County and really started writing in earnest and did all the things that writers do — I took creative writing courses and did workshops and worked with Robin Beeman, who’s in the county and is absolutely phenomenal. I got my undergrad in English Literature at Sonoma State, which was the best thing I could have ever done…. You need to read a lot of stuff and get an idea of what’s going on. Then I got my MFA at San Francisco State University, and I don’t recommend that for everybody.
Going back to my memoir, God, I had started that in the form of poetry right after my dad died. And I’m a terrible poet. But I wrote a prose poem and Don Emblen read it and he said, “You’re onto it — this is what you should be doing; stay away from that poetry stuff.” [laughter] And I began writing about my dad. And as you might imagine, it took a long time.
CV: Was the transition from short stories to poetry to memoir writing difficult, or did you feel like you were finding your natural genre?
IB: I think it’s important to try all sorts of stuff. I love writing short stories. I’ve written a novella. I think that in memoir and nonfiction writing, you’re using the craft of fiction writing. In fact, a lot of what makes, I think, a good memoir is that it has a lot of fictive elements, except it’s based on truth.
CV: Can you elaborate on that — how fiction-writing techniques can play a role in memoir writing?
Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.
Keri Smith is an author/illustrator turned guerilla artist. She is the author and illustrator of several activity books aimed at jump-starting creativity, including Wreck This Journal (2007, Penguin Books), The Guerilla Art Kit (2007, Princeton Architectural Press), Living Out Loud (2003, Chronicle Books), and Tear Up This Book!: The Sticker, Stencil, Stationery, Games, Crafts, Doodle, And Journal Book For Girls! (2005, American Girl).
As a freelance illustrator she’s worked for a variety of clients, including Random House, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Ford Motor Co., the Boston Globe, and Hallmark. In the last few years she’s lectured and run workshops on the topic of living creatively for the HOW Design Conference, U.C. Davis, and schools across North America.
Keri Smith on the Web: Keri Smith.com, The Wish Jar
Cecil Vortex: What got you started making creativity books?
Keri Smith: I’ve been trying to figure this out for myself. For some reason I cannot stop making activity books based on the subject of creativity. I seem to be obsessed with it, even though I will admit that I get tired of talking about it directly and would rather just have people do something (as opposed to talking about doing something) — a conundrum for an author, yes?
I can tell you a few things that I know about it in list form (just because I like lists):
- My medium is most definitely books. I have been obsessed with books my whole life and worked in bookstores for years. As a child I had a favorite activity book (called Good Times) that I think had a lot to do with forming my creative brain.
- I love the idea of creating books that give people more of a direct experience with life instead of walking through it passively. Get up out of your chair and take a look at things around you for crying out loud! Turn off the TV and use your brain cells before they deteriorate completely! There is no time to waste. Aren’t we all just aching for a bit of adventure? It’s all there in various forms. It’s just about a conscious decision to “tune in.” My books are just a little reminder of why and how to do this (for myself too).
- I am drawn to experimenting (in various forms). My favorite artists and authors are often those who are “playing,” trying things, not necessarily succeeding at them, but seeing where an idea takes you. This concept of play comes up constantly for me and is in large part the foundation for all of my work. To truly conduct an experiment, you must not know where you are headed. It can be scary at times, but that fear is what excites me about it. What happens when I try “this”? A direct confrontation with the UNKNOWN. It is such a great metaphor for life because none of us truly know where we are headed. We can try to control it but at a deep level we aren’t ever really in control.
- My family life growing up was not about taking risks (make sure you have all your bases covered, don’t attempt things unless you know what the outcome will be, take the safe route). I think in part my life/creative work is a form of rebellion against this and about choosing to do the opposite in a given situation to see what happens. I had to learn to trust in my ability to deal with whatever comes up in the moment. And guess what? You really can deal with “whatever comes up.” You are much stronger and more creative than you think. But you have to jump off a cliff all the time to figure that out. Every time I do, I learn how amazing a feeling it is. There is nothing that can hurt you in this. Fear of taking risks is a fear of living.
- For a while now I have enjoyed working with the concepts of imperfection and impermanence (the Japanese refer to it as wabi-sabi). I think this concept is quite rare in Western culture, which seems obsessed with making things as perfect as possible — technology, bodies (plastic surgery), mechanization of life, etc.
So I see the books as another way to present the idea of embracing imperfections and actually incorporating them into your process (Wreck This Journal is a good example of this). I guess what I am saying here is that books are a way to share my philosophies and get some different ideas out into the culture at large. At some level I enjoy the thought of taking ideas from some slightly edgier artists and thinkers and incorporating them into my work so that a new audience can experience them.
CV: Can you talk a little bit more about play and how that shows up in your creative process?
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.
Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you’re just jumping in, be sure to hop back to the start to hear Belew talk about collaborating with King Crimson and the Bears, why the last two years have been so productive, and how he lets goes creatively.
Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four
Cecil Vortex: Is there anything you’ve learned about the creative process that’s surprised you?
Adrian Belew: I’m impressed to see that if you work really hard at something, it does eventually pay off. And nothing in my life has proven that to me as much as the creative process. Sometimes you do have to work at it; it doesn’t always just flow out of you like lava. Sometimes you really do have to sit and [say], “How am I going to make this work? What can I do?” And really go deep within yourself or at least concentrate to such a degree that it gets tiring, you know? So I’m kind of amazed that the process works and that it’s still working.
CV: Have you gotten any advice about creativity that particularly stands out?
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.
Welcome to the second part of this interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you haven’t already read the first part, you can find it here.
Be sure to also check out the third and final segment, in which Belew talks about the value of setting up obstacles, what excites him in other people’s music, and how he recently joined forces with two kids who don’t have driver’s licenses yet to form the Adrian Belew Power Trio.
Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four
Cecil Vortex: Do you remember when you first started writing songs?
Adrian Belew: At age sixteen I contracted mononucleosis in high school and was forced to stay at home and be tutored for two months. And the requirement was that you be inactive. I was a drummer, and I could no longer drum. I had always had songs in my mind that would just appear, and I could kind of hear them full on as though a record was playing. So I decided to take those two months and teach myself to play guitar.
I borrowed an acoustic guitar from one of my band members, and by the end of the two months I had written five songs and put them on tape. I do remember little bits of pieces of them, but I couldn’t even tell you the melodies or titles.
CV: The tapes are long gone?
AB: I’m afraid so. I wish they weren’t. They’d be on my website right now.
CV: Were you surprised at how quickly you picked up the guitar?
Welcome! This interview is part of an ongoing series of chats with artists about their creative process. You can find the full set of interviews, including musicians Van Dyke Parks, Dan Wilson, and Jonathan Coulton, memoirist Ianthe Brautigan, and cartoonist Dan Piraro all at about-creativity.com. You can also subscribe to future interviews here. Thanks a lot for dropping by, -Cecil
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew is a Grammy-nominated solo artist and a member of both King Crimson and the Bears. Belew’s big break came in 1977 when he landed a job in Frank Zappa’s band. Over the past thirty years, he’s played on records as varied as David Bowie’s Lodger, Paul Simon’s Graceland, the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Herbie Hancocks’ Magic Windows, Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral, Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak, and William Shatner’s Has Been. To date, he’s released more than fifteen solo projects, starting with 1982’s Lone Rhino. His most recent CD is Side 4, a live recording of The Adrian Belew Power Trio, a new outfit featuring Julie and Eric Slick on bass and drums.
Belew is currently posting a play-by-play of his ongoing recording efforts mixed with memories from years gone by over at his highly recommended Elephant Blog.
This is the first part of a three-part interview. Be sure to check out part two to hear about how Belew taught himself guitar at 16, what it felt like to sign on with Zappa’s band, and how he writes and performs complex, multi-rhythmic pieces.
Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four
CV: With both the Bears and King Crimson, you’ve developed longstanding creative relationships that have spanned decades. What do you attribute that to?
AB: When you know something works, you should continue it. There’s a large part of me that’s solo oriented. Like a painter, I think sometimes, “Well, I don’t really need anyone’s help in this. This is me painting a picture or me painting a song.” So as much as I can, I try to do everything myself because that’s not only the most fun, it’s also the most rewarding.
But it’s very healthy to step out of that and share something with someone else where you’re not the only one in control and you’re not the only one with the ideas. Interesting things happen that way. So I’ve tried to kind of have a diet of both throughout my career, as a way to continue to be fresh and grow.
CV: How does collaborative songwriting differ from when you’re writing solo?
AB: Well, most of my collaborative things have been quietly done — you know, one or two people sitting down together, perhaps, unamplified, where you’re just trying to get a basic outline of something. Then you take those ideas away and refine them and you meet again and show each other your refinements.
If I’m working within, say, King Crimson, with Robert Fripp, that’s exactly how it works. It’s a quiet process and what you’re trying to do really is allow each other the freedom to try things and be a sounding board sometimes, or else be the one who’s leading the parade.
CV: So with King Crimson, one person typically takes the lead writing a particular song?
Image created for Tiffany & Co. by Tobie Giddio, reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Tobie Giddio grew up on the New Jersey Shore where she fell in love with fashion and art from the books and magazines in her basement makeshift studio. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she began illustrating advertisements for Bergdorf Goodman that ran weekly in the New York Times. Other work during this period included editorials for Interview Magazine and elaborately illustrated forecasting books and editorial work for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Since 2000, her work has been commissioned by clients ranging from Seibu Department Stores of Japan, to Apple, Inc., and Tiffany & Co.
Recent projects have included a series of classic charcoal and pen and ink drawings for Amy Sedaris’s book, I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence and a series of drawings for Infiniti Cars, as well as animated projects with Dovetail Studios, a collaboration between Giddio and her fiancé, motion/graphic designer Peter Belsky.
Tobie Giddio on the Web: Tobie Giddio.com, Dovetail Studios
Cecil Vortex: Can you describe your background?
Tobie Giddio: Well, I started out in fashion illustration. I studied with a number of teachers at F.I.T. [the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York – ed.]. And one of my main mentors was a teacher who was very rooted in fine art, so I was getting taught both principles at the same time. I was learning about drawing, and drawing the figure, and drawing the fashion figure, and then at the same time I was learning how to abstract the figure and learning about color and fine art and especially the modern art folks. To this day, I work in the fashion industry, and I spend a lot of time abstracting fashion and beauty and nature.
CV: How does fashion illustration work — when you’re working on an ad, for example, what are you working from?
photo credit: James Minchin.
Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with musician Dan Wilson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic), whose new solo CD, Free Life, was just released by American Records/Columbia. If you haven’t already read the first part, be sure to check it out to hear about the summer day Wilson wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.
Dan Wilson on the Web: Dan Wilson.com, Dan Wilson on MySpace, Free Life
CV: I’d heard Semisonic’s song “DND” several times before learning that “DND” referred to the “Do Not Disturb” signs in hotels. I wondered what your thoughts were on how much you want to let your listeners in on the particulars behind your lyrics?
DW: This is an important question. I’m torn about it. On the one hand, I’m a talkative guy who has a lot of ideas and they naturally come out in my lyrics. So I often am tempted to explain my songs, or at least tempted to lay out for interviewers (and through them, listeners) the thoughts or ideas or stories behind my songs.
But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of being a kid and reading an interview with Paul McCartney wherein he said that his song “Jet” was about a dog. Not only that one, but “Martha My Dear,” that one was about a dog, too. These were two songs of his that I loved, and I was just deflated by the revelation — I had had my own mental images of the people in both those songs, not that they were visually detailed, but a kind of “songish” vision of the people and the stories. And to learn that these people were dogs was such a letdown.
Now, Sir Paul has every right to write songs about his dogs, I’ve got no problem with that. But in learning that those particular songs were about dogs, I was suddenly deprived of my own pleasant illusion that they were about people. And somehow they shrank in my mind as a result of being explained.
Another factor in all this is that I often don’t know what the songs are about until long after I’ve written them. This makes it tempting to share the interpretation — since in my mind, my explanation is as good as a listener’s. But on the other hand, once I’ve given my interpretation of my own song, it has the quality of being “the last word.” And sometimes, the fans come up with the coolest interpretations of their meanings – way cooler than the interpretation or intention I might have had.
So I try to curb my impulse to explain my songs, lest I shrink them in the ears of fans.
CV: Is there any aspect of the creative process that still intimidates you?
photo credit: Steve Cohen.
Dan Wilson first made his mark with Trip Shakespeare, a Minneapolis-based band featuring Wilson, his brother Matt, bassist John Munson, and drummer Elaine Harris. The four produced a catalog of songs noted for soaring harmonies and a quirky sense of humor that was often matched with an unusual slice of hyper-drama. After Trip Shakespeare, Wilson and Munson teamed up with drummer Jake Slichter to form Semisonic. Throughout the late ’90s and into 2001, Semisonic produced shimmering pop, including the hit song “Closing Time,” nominated for Best Rock Song by the 1999 Grammys.
Since Semisonic, Wilson has worked with musicians ranging from Nickel Creek to Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing). In 2007, he shared the Song of the Year Grammy Award with the Dixie Chicks for their hit tune “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Most recently, American Recordings/Columbia released his long-anticipated solo record, Free Life.
This is the first half of a two-part interview. When you’re done here, be sure to check out the second half, in which Wilson talks about how he wrestles with how little (or how much) to let his listeners in on the particulars behind his lyrics, the benefits of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.
Dan Wilson on the Web: Dan Wilson.com, Dan Wilson on MySpace, Free Life
Cecil Vortex: What’s the first song you remember writing?
Dan Wilson: I can’t remember the title of the first song I wrote, but I do remember the day. My family was up in northern Minnesota on vacation on this particular clear, hot, summer day. I think I was twelve years old. My parents had bought me a guitar, maybe for my birthday in May.
My parents listened to The Beatles the whole time I was growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. So the first book of sheet music they bought me was Beatles Complete. I think my brother Matt and I had been figuring out the chords in the book all summer. I believe that it was Matt’s idea to write songs — so he wrote one and I wrote one. We did the songs bit by bit over the course of the afternoon on our parents’ bed. In between “songwriting” we’d run out to the ditch by the road and play war with our plastic army men.
When we were done with the songs, we wrote out the lyrics on typing paper, with the titles boldly written on the top of the sheets. Very official. I’m trying to remember them but I can’t. I liked Matt’s more. The lyrics of mine seemed not so great to me. But the melody was satisfying — I remember thinking it sounded like a George Harrison song. Which I guess tells us which Beatle is mine.
I think the impulse came partly from just wanting something to do on a summer day. But also, once you have a bunch of the chords under your hands, you start to realize that “I can do this too.”
I told a painter friend of mine once that the reason I made paintings was often that I’d seen someone else’s painting that I liked, and I wanted to have one for my own. My friend replied that Picasso said the same thing: He’d see a masterpiece in the Louvre and say to himself, “I can do that! I want one of those.”
CV: Did you generally write songs on your own back then, or collaboratively with your brother? And what was your creative process like?
Photo credit: Greg Preston.
Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with Matt Wagner, award-winning comic book writer and illustrator, and creator of Mage and Grendel. If you haven’t already read the first part of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear Wagner talk about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators. You can find it here.
Matt Wagner on the Web: mattwagnercomics.com
CV: I recently read your Batman run — the “Dark Moon Rising” books. Could you describe where the idea for those books came from?
MW: They’re actually based on two of my favorite Golden Age Batman stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s. They’re both pre-Robin stories — before Robin shows up. “The Mad Monk” is in Detective Comics #31 and #32. #31 you’ll recognize — it has a very famous cover; it’s a huge image of Batman looming up over a small castle in the foreground. There’s a moon behind him, and he has absolutely ginormous bat ears. In fact, when you look it up, you’ll go, “Oh, of course — that cover.” The other one, “Hugo Strange and the Monster Men,” was in Batman #1.
Part of the fun of playing with somebody else’s toys is the challenge of trying to tell a story where some of the playing pieces are already in place on the board. In the world of Grendel, in the world of Mage, I’m the absolute god. Whatever I say happens, happens, and there’s never any question. With Batman there are many other aspects to consider. [Also,] any work I’ve done for DC, I always like to work early in a character’s career because I hate the giant, extended, huge continuity crap you have to deal with in their world. And I’ve just always liked primary-motivation stories.
So I decided there was a missing link in the early Batman tales, where we needed to see his transition from Batman Year One — the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli classic storyline where he’s fighting just thugs and mobsters — to his more established litany of costumed crazies that eventually becomes his absolute normalcy, you want to call it that [laughter]. And so I decided to take these two early stories and revamp them into a modern setting. I wanted to dig deep into the actual origins of this character.
Those early primal Batman tales are neat because the conventions that have since become established as being comic-booky were fresh and new and were based more on a pulp tradition than what we think of as comic cooks. And they were just so unfettered and raw. So I took those and tried to squeeze them into DC’s continuity and make them work.
CV: What’s your creative process when you’re tackling a project like this — what sort of thought bubble might we see over your head while you’re at your desk?
Image (c) copyright Matt Wagner.
Matt Wagner is a comic book writer and illustrator, best known for his original comics Mage and Grendel (winner of three Eisner awards) and a five-year run on Sandman Mystery Theater, as well as for recent stints on Batman and on Trinity, a three-issue miniseries featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
This is the first half of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out the second half, in which Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.
Matt Wagner on the Web: mattwagnercomics.com
Cecil Vortex: Were you a storyteller as a young boy?
Matt Wagner: I was. My father, and this dates him quite a bit, used to say I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle because I was very talkative…. My parents like to tell a tale of when I was quite young. I must have been five or something like that. We had literally — I kid you not — a door-to-door Bible salesman come to the door one day selling these lavishly illustrated Bibles. We were going through it and I was pointing out all the illustrations and saying, “Oh, look this is Noah, this is Jonah, Jesus” etc., etc., and we got to a picture of Adam and Eve in their loincloths in the Garden of Eden and I turned to my dad, apparently, and said, “Dad, Tarzan!” [laughter] So I think I was doomed for this profession from the very beginning.
My mother was an English teacher before she became a full-time mom, and a huge proponent of reading, so she made sure I was an early and vigorous reader. Coupled with that was the fact that I was an only child. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania in Amish country — we lived out away from most other houses…. I drew to entertain myself because there wasn’t much video entertainment in those days. I think we had probably three or four TV stations initially. And so I was a vigorous reader and I drew. And comic books were both writing and drawing all rolled into one and just became the magic quotient for me.
CV: So you were headed for comics from the start?
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The artist interviews to-date include: poets Kim Addonizio, Maggie Nelson, and Bob Holman, web innovator Ze Frank, musicians Jonathan Coulton and Van Dyke Parks, choreographer Natalie Marrone, authors Lemony Snicket and DyAnne DiSalvo, visual artists James Warren Perry and Tucker Nichols, clown and playwright Jeff Raz, standup comic and sitcom writer Howard Kremer, cartoonist Dan Piraro, columnist Jon Carroll, and screenwriter/director John August. Scroll down to peruse the interviews from most recent to least-most-recent.
You can also subscribe to future interviews — I’ll be posting a new one every week or two. Upcoming interviews include comic book creator (Mage/Grendel) Matt Wagner, musician Adrian Belew, and World of Warcraft storyteller Chris Metzen.
Thanks a lot for dropping by. If you get a chance, be sure to leave a comment to let us know what you think,
Photo credit: Joe Allen.
Kim Addonizio is the author of three books of poetry from BOA Editions: The Philosopher’s Club, Jimmy & Rita, and Tell Me, which was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award. Her latest poetry collection, What Is This Thing Called Love, was published by W. W. Norton in January 2004. A book of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, was published by Fiction Collective 2. She’s also coauthor, with Dorianne Laux, of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton). And her new novel, My Dreams Out in the Street, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.
Addonizio’s awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. She teaches private workshops in Oakland, CA.
Kim Addonizio on the Web: kimaddonizio.com, My Dreams Out in the Street, What Is This Thing Called Love
Cecil Vortex: When did you first start to identify yourself as a writer?
KA: I remember my first unfinished work. I wanted to write a novel when I was around nine. I wrote ten pages. It was a mystery, I think. I don’t remember why I stopped — probably because it was too hard. I remember writing a short story at fifteen and being eager to show it to my dad, who was a sportswriter.
CV: Do you remember what drew you to writing poetry?
KA: I wrote down my feelings in lines in high school and after, but it was hardly poetry. I seriously started trying to write it in my late twenties. I think poetry drew me to it — I think I was always meant to find it.
CV: How has your creative process changed since then?