Twenty years after
Daniel Johnston taught him to write songs, Paleface is breaking out.
By RANDY HARWARD
For all the scenester exclusion and inactivity that “anti-folk”
implies, the genre encompasses some madly prolific singer-songwriters-Daniel
Johnston, The Moldy Peaches (and separately as Adam Green and Kimya Dawson),
Hamell on Trial, Dan Bern, and Beck. And those are just the famous ones. There
are scads more “AntiAllstars” listed on AntiFolkOnline.com, and they’re virtual
song-factories, one- or two-man Brill Buildings. And while they have attitude and/or
problems in spades, the scene they make up is as inclusive as it is hipster.
Meet Paleface. He’s an OG in the AF crew, having learned the
craft of songwriting from his once-close friend Daniel Johnston, but a ‘tweener
among them. He was managed by Danny Fields, who brought us such punk rock
delights at the MC5, The Stooges and the Ramones. His discography numbers 15
releases including two on major labels-his 1991 debut Self-Titled (Polydor) and 1996’s Get Off (Sire), far more than many artists muster.
But Sire dropped Paleface a month after the record came out.
They didn’t wanna compete with Paleface pal Beck’s follow-up to his platinum
debut Mellow Gold (that record, Odelay, went double-platinum). So
Paleface stayed in NYC, played “12 shows or whatever you do in New York” and drank
himself almost literally into a coma. Somehow, though, he continued to release
cult-platters-in-waiting, the types of albums whose merits are measured in
critical praise and big-ticket eBay action that makes the wrong dudes rich some
fifteen to twenty years after the fact.
Incidentally, Paleface celebrates two decades of music this
year, having met Johnston-who became his friend
and songwriting mentor-in New York
City in 1989. Certainly coincidentally, Paleface just put out The Show Is On the Road, an album that signals a new era for
Paleface, in which he and bandmate Monica Samalot (a/k/a “Mo”) will take their
anti-folk on tour. And, you know, actually promote
it, using knowledge gleaned from their new famous friends and benefactors
The Avett Brothers, who just so happen to be behind Paleface’s new label home,
Blurt caught up
with Paleface, who demonstrated he’s either hip to the new music business model
or still the same old anti-folk brother by burning copies of his albums to help
us get hip ourselves. Not that we weren’t already. (Or weren’t we?)
[Editor’s note: don’t
miss our Paleface bonus beats, following the main interview, below.]
First, thanks for all
I tried to send a good mix, the two major label albums, and
the comps. Get Off, that’s one I liked that nobody liked. I
remember Danny [Fields] inviting me over to his house and tellin’ me to sit
down. He said, “Well… They like you in the mountains.” [laughs] And I’m like,
‘What the fuck does that mean?’
“Well, nobody’s really buyin’ the record. You’re not on Sire anymore.” But he
thought it was great. I got all angry-‘Why don’t people like it?!’
me to call the record Deadbeat Boy [because of the song]. He might’ve been right. I don’t know. I should’ve gone
with that. But I wasn’t listenin’ to him much in those days.
lament their cult status, or at least have mixed feelings. Your own status has translated
Um. Yeah. You know, I don’t think about [money and fame] too
much. There was a period where I did because you’re young and you have that
rock n’ roll fantasy. I had the big label and Danny Fields was my manager and
all these people were blowin’ smoke up my ass. But I got away from it, you
know? I made music for years without even talking to anybody or being written
about. So that wasn’t really the motivation. I had a friend at the New York Press and she did an article on
me and it would up in the real estate/housing section in the back. So nobody
saw it. I never even saw it… Somebody
told me about it.
Paleface was hot
[laughs] Yeah, right. Exactly!
Take me back to the
germ of your rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.
I was just out of school and I didn’t have anything to do. I
was plunkin’ around, and the change, for me, was I met Daniel [Johnston]. That just really changed
everything for me. I wanted to be a songwriter like that. That was the coolest
thing I could think of, just hangin’ out with him and hearin’ all those songs.
I would make him play this song “Marching Guitars” all the time. I don’t know if he ever recorded it. [Note: The song
appears on a festival compilation called Woodshock
’85 and IMDB.com lists it as being in the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.]
How did he handle
those incessant requests?
He would play it for me. We had a friendship; he was a
really sweet character. And just, like… man. The [prescription anti-psychotic] drugs
hadn’t really gotten to him yet. I think he was really scared of them, and he
turned out to be quite right about that. Man, those drugs took a toll on him.
It’s really sad. He had problems with reality sometimes, but when he stayed
with me in New York,
he was pretty much okay. Obviously, he was a strange guy-but he was definitely
afraid of what [the drugs] would do to him. It was awful. It’s sad.
thing he said to me when I went down to the bus station with him was, “I don’t
wanna go back on those zombie drugs.” And then he got on the bus. I didn’t see
him for a long time. I talked to him on the phone a few times and he actually
finished a song for me that I was writing. But the next time I saw him was many years later and he wasn’t the same.
Was there a scrap of
the friendship left?
Yeah, he remembered me and I was honored just to be with
him. We sat and had a meal. I was down-I was okay, because I had gotten over my
alcoholism-but I was down and out, had no money at all. And he actually bought
my record. He bought the Multibean
Bootleg, Vol. 1. I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not takin’ your money,’ but the
compromise was I gave him a burned copy of Multibean and he gave me ten bucks.
What was the most
significant thing you learned from him?
I learned how to write a song from him. I learned that you
could write a song about walkin’ by the McDonald’s and seein’ some dude there
that was teasin’ you in school or somethin’, and that you could actually say
his name in the song. It made it easier to write a song. All these amazing
songwriters like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Paul Simon-how do you fuckin’
write a song like that? That’s impossible! Then this guy Daniel came along and
made it work in a totally different way that was so real. And it seemed like
something I could possibly do.
Did he teach you
anything about life?
[laughs] We definitely had some experiences. We went down to
the mission and ate a bunch of times. We didn’t have any money. That was
interesting. I don’t really remember that as much as the artistic impact on me
and just stories he told me. It all blew my mind. He was just one of those… he
was amazing, really.
Did you teach him
Daniel? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine. He was just so
far ahead of me.
What did you learn
from your rendezvous with the Grim Reaper?
Man. That was, like, a rock-bottom experience. The thing is,
after it happened, I wasn’t well. For years. What I had was alcoholic
hepatitis. It fucks your liver, so your immune system is bad. A simple cold would turn into this huge chest infection. I got
pneumonia. I was on my ass for a few
years. I couldn’t do anything, so I had a lot of time to think about all
the mistakes I made and all the things that Danny had taught me, or had told
me, or tried to tell me. But I wasn’t
listening to him at the time, because I was drinking. It all started to make
sense to me. I guess the biggest thing I learned was that alcohol distorted
reality for me and I couldn’t see what was really happening and make good
decisions about shit.
So it was a long painful process. A
lot of other people I started out with were doin’ great, you know. They were
movin’ along with their careers and whatnot, and I was just sittin’ there, in
debt a lot of the time.
Was it like a waking
nightmare, being able to see your mistakes so clearly?
No, it wasn’t like that. Clarity, whatever. It’s not like a
moment; it just happens over time, it’s gradual. I’m still learnin’ stuff. We left New York about a year and a half ago, Mo and
I, and decided to do this thing on the road. I’m learnin’ how to be a different
kinda performer now. It’s a whole new thing. So I don’t think there’s a moment
where you can say I was [completely changed]. All I can say is if you put my
life on a chart, on a graph or something, the low point would be when I was in
the hospital. And from that point on, when I never had another drink, that
graph went up. I don’t know if it went up drastically, but it started to go up
Where do you fit on
the anti-folk family tree?
[Anti-folkers] are influenced by different artists. I came
from the Daniel Johnston school, then I hit that scene. And also I was into
hip-hop. Then Beck came along, and we were buddies. He was just doin’
folk-blues, Woody Guthrie songs, at the time. He started to see what I was
doin’, and he took it in another direction, workin’ with the Dirt Brothers-Dust
Brothers. The family tree… I’m in there somewhere along the line.
The gene pool has a
lotta leaves in it?
Yeah! That’s what it is, really. I’m sure there are people
now that are listening to Regina
[Spektor] and Kimya [Dawson] and those people. I saw them start. I saw Regina
before she could write a song. Really, she was just this little girl that could
pay piano insanely great and sing all these scales and she was just playin’ at
The Sidewalk. And now she’s like this figure that I’m sure all these young
girls and even guys [try to emulate]. [Anti-folk] just progresses.
You mentioned the Daniel
Johnston songwriting method, which you might also call the Wesley Willis
method, or just the anti-folk way, which is its observation and thought-vomit
(not to shortchange it). Your songs are like that, but sometimes they also bear
that trad folk protest vibe.
[The protest part] was just because there was a lot of stuff
goin’ on. Rodney King and the riots [in L.A.].
I lived on the Lower East Side and there was
all kinds of protests. People were coming in and taking over, developing and
pushing people around. I just wrote “World Fulla Cops” because I saw some
communist newspaper at poetry reading where there was a picture of this cop
runnin’ after this dude with a stick, about to beat him senseless. That album
was a product of what was goin’ on in that neighborhood and in L.A.-they burned half of that city down. It
didn’t come out of any sort of… I’m not really that political. Since then, I
haven’t written too much in that vein.
Does the title of the
new album reflect a new sense of momentum or just that you’re still truckin’?
It’s a transition record. For ten years, I was a songwriter
in Brooklyn. I didn’t go on the road; the last
tour I did was in ’97 with The Breeders. I spent all that time not being on the
road and playing 12 shows a year, whatever you do in New York, and just hanging out with those kinda
people. And then we left. It’s a totally different lifestyle goin’ from one
city to the next and tryin’ to entertain a crowd that doesn’t necessarily know
you. We play a lot of bars where people don’t know us. And there’s incidental
people that have heard about you, but don’t know you, they’re just checkin’ you
out. It’s not like we’re still truckin’, ‘cause it’s completely different.
Editor’s note: go HERE to read a special sidebar in which Paleface holds forth on sundry musical
[Photo Credit of Paleface and Mo: Cheater Slicks]