This is the final posting in this series of reviews: an extended Interview with Hunter Altschul (www.hunteraltschul.bandcamp.com) about his 2011 CD titled THE NIGHT SKY.
1. Your lyrics have a near Nick Drake like virginal quality to them, at times full of innuendo and ambiguity, yet always retaining a certain distant innocence. Only two songs, STRANGE and MARCH 20TH directly mention sex. In STRANGE you speak of the black flag girl and touching your body thereby imparting a heterosexual frame on the lyrics. However, in MARCH 20TH you sing of having unprotected sex in the open door, but you only mention yourself (the “I”) and one other person who you identify as he. Is this a song of male-male sexuality? If it is, what importance do you place on expressing male-male sexuality in your lyrics? If it isn’t, do you see the concept of male-male sexuality as an unresolved ambiguity within MARCH 20TH?
That’s an interpretation I hadn’t actually thought of! But I didn’t really intend on much about March 20th being straightforward. The name itself is a metaphor; it’s the last day of the last season (Winter). Therefore, to me, the date itself reflects things coming to an end – which is the theme of the song. That isn’t to say that most of what I mentioned in the song didn’t actually happen. The parts about crying in the truck stop, being in love in so many ways, a (taxi) driver stopping the car to free me were all (among others) very real events. But I selected a number of random, specific references to illuminate a linear storyline. On that note, I want to say that, besides using the words “unprotected sex”, March 20th didn’t mean anything to me about sex or sexuality at all – I used that specific reference to say that my lover and I were simply unprepared for some of the things that followed our relationship. It happened in “the open door” because the – I don’t know – spontaneity itself was exciting (or dangerous).
2. YOUR CAR has an enigmatic quality of hidden meanings and unknowable imagery. It encompasses anger (throw them in your face; home-made explosives, breathing poison), joy (the gifts we would bring to the night sky; I wish I had floated up and away) and separation (that puddle your face painted on my bathroom floor; my heart feels so hungover; I don’t want you to come back). Yet, even though it embraces such a broad emotional spectrum, it still seems to defy definition. Is this song merely a patchwork of dissonant images or is there an underlying unifying theme here that refuses to surface? Please clarify.
I’m not sure if I’ve figured that out myself really. I mean, the song has a set of different meanings for example. The “car” in the song was never referring to an actual car. In one of the meanings I thought of, the car could have been the other persons attitude or their ideology. The reason why I probably can’t find where it’s parked is because it is constantly moving, driving somewhere or another. You can’t really pin down a car because its function is to bring motion to the one driving it. The basic message of the song, to me, is to show that I just don’t know what to do (“what happened last night?”) and it’s particularly upsetting – and I guess finding “your car” is the answer.
3. Your use of words is mind-sparkly numbing (that’s a good thing). Songs, like songwriters, evolve over time and, like people, change with experience. In FALSE PROPHET you write you shout, “hunt, shut your fucking mouth” and I just feel shackled, baby I just feel shackled. Yet, on the album you omit the final shackled (in bold). This has the profound impact of changing this segment’s focus from being about someone crushed under an oppressive silence (i just feel shackled) to one who approaches a near state of grace by being able to feel anything at all (i just feel). If this omission was intentional, what does it reflect in your own personal evolution? If it was unintentional, what value do you find in it as part of the ongoing evolution of FALSE PROPHET?
Thank-you! The inspiration that led me to False Prophet is probably the most unique of all my songs. It was brought about when I had to face the fact that my former partner was becoming seriously disillusioned with me in many ways. She wrote a poem and one of the lines in her poem was “what I was beginning to see was a false prophet”… said prophet being me, of course. It led me to some pretty strong emotions afterward, besides feeling just horrible, in general. So, “I just feel” could definitely be the theme of the song – in some kind of possible implication that I am telling the truth and not trying to fool her or anyone else. I hadn’t meant to omit the final shackled but the more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems.
4. Of all ten tracks, OLD FISHING LINE has one of the clearest thematic cores which you declare right within the song’s first line: the connection we have. It also contains one of your most fanciful metaphors: I just want to take it and start knitting a microphone that reaches to our singing faces. This clarity amidst metaphor creates a certain tension of saying without saying, and seeing without being seen. How do you balance the kabuki-like act of hiding meaning in metaphor against the heart’s longing to be unmasked?
My god – the better question is how can I not? The heart certainly longs to be unmasked and it has to be some kind of terrible curse in which I feel like I say so much, and know how to write my ideas, but I cannot fully communicate it all as well as I’d like. “Our singing faces” refers to Amy Shaw and myself when we are working on our duo project Surrender Lion.
5. You have an astounding nack for creating images of incredible depth and fascination as in SEARCHING FOREVER when you sing your eyes perplex me to death. The eyes are often referred to as the window to the soul, most oft meaning that the eyes of the seer are looking into the soul of “the other” upon whose eyes the seer gazes. Consider instead the possibility that it may be the seer’s own soul which the seer sees within the eyes of the other. With this alternative definition, what do you find most perplexing about your own soul?
There is so much to say in answer to this question. I guess I can say that I seldom feel like I am solid or in one place about things. I tend to feel like I have two (or more) contradictory ideas, etc. going on. When I finally make decisions, the options I don’t choose get heavy with doubt, and it can lead me to feeling like I have not made the right decision or that I am incapable of making the right decision.
6. In YOU FILL ME WITH WORDS you write you fill me with words in a language that humans speak throughout the earth. Is this love, and if so, can you speak of love’s place within the human condition?
I really liked using vagueness in the line “a language that humans speak”, especially because of the context it’s in. My hope is that it’s clear enough that listeners understand I am not talking about anything like English or Spanish, but its more of a reference to an attitude and a behavior – that sort of thing. That “thing” can definitely be described as love, and in fact I had romantic and sexual affection in mind when I was writing that part. Everybody speaks it, all over the earth. If it is going to be a reference to love, then, again, everybody speaks it – some better than others.
7. You use birds as metaphors twice on this album. In WILD BIRD it represents the fatalistic phoenix-longed quality of a decaying household which can rise in the darkest skies just like a breached ship will crack its hull to futilely rise above the waves before sinking into the darkest of depths. By contrast, in BOOKS ABOUT BIRDS you use avians to raise our own arrogance in claiming to know creatures who fly beyond our reach when we can’t even figure out each other. Does life hold a fatalistic arrogance for you, an incurable desire for unattainable perfection? If so, how does music offer you personal therapeutic salvation when you feel trapped within this paradox?
If music did any better a job at offering me therapy, that would be just wonderful. It also might be terrible and ugly. Music – and this is especially true of when I am writing it or understanding the message fully – has such a fetish for stirring shit up inside me when all I want to do is relax. But the best answer I can give you begins and ends with the word “if” because I am hopelessly uncertain, just generally, about life. Arrogant can be a word to describe this desire we’re talking about. To me, it’s more sad than anything. I don’t feel much anger anymore, I feel more immobilized in that regard. . . so many people want so hard that they don’t see what they have. Worst of it all is, nobody in the world understands this as well as the person who actually is, or has been, had.
8. Of all your songs, my favorite image comes from SKIES PAINTED GREEN when you say So I had some tea with my language, because it is such a compelling impossibility with a benevolent mad-hatter-like quality. Speak about this line and what it represents to you.
This is either a song about being lied to, being betrayed, or both. The defining line for me is “I had to ask why lovers wouldn’t say what they mean”. Not that I don’t already know the answer to that: because it’s easier on the person whose done wrong – what ever that may be. I guess a better question would be – who hasn’t had tea with their language? Though we may not always do this consciously, the line is about picking apart something that someone has said to you. If you’re like me, tea is just the necessary occasion to coax a “language” into being straight up with you. Maybe you can call it grown-up talk – serious talk. That is what the line means to me. Somebody interpreted this to me once as possibly referring to using the word “green” in the title as referring to envy (envy of the person who was in bed with my lover when I spontaneously showed up at her apartment last year). That is not the actual meaning of the song though. The only significance the color green has in this song is that it is not the color blue. The sky is blue and therefore it could only be imagined painted green. This being a reference to the reality and the truth being painted over with something fabricated.
9. I would qualify STRANGE as an expression of love and hate being two sides of the same coin. Would you talk about its black-white imagery and explain why you agree or disagree with my interpretation?
Right, well I invoke the “black flag” and “white flag” due to their somewhat traditional meanings. I wrote “I wish you would draw back your white flag” as a way of saying please don’t give up on me. I wrote “black flag girl” because the person who I’m talking about identifies as an anarchist, and the black flag has historically been one of many symbols of the anarchist movement. In this sense, the imagery between the white and the black has no relationship. In a deeper sense, however, it’s more and more clear that perhaps the black-white imagery could be interpreted as reflecting contradictions or – maybe contradictions isn’t the right word – dualities manifesting as one. So, I don’t disagree with your interpretation because I do feel a level of affinity with that interpretation.
10. Most of us, real or imagined, grow up believing the household (family) to be (or should be) a nurturing, supportive environment as comforting and protective as the womb’s prehistoric saline. Most of us come to a point where it no longer is, or worse yet, realize it never was. in WILD BIRD you sing about this turning point and describe this household like some kind of world war I didn’t sign up for. In your own life, when did you first experience this kind of personal denouement and, given we constantly evolve (which also implies we are never complete), how do you resolve yourself with this disillusionment on a day-to-day basis?
I’m not sure when my personal denouement came, I’m not sure how long it lasted, and I’m not sure if up until now I have been plagued only with an intense apprehension, and not necessarily the final understanding itself. I started the album with March 20th (a song about endings) because I had hoped it would amass a greater understanding about the other songs afterward. The placement of each track has been important to me and in a weird sense, Wild Bird represents beginnings to me. I think it has to do with how I feel like everything comes at odd times. I have felt hurt and disillusioned from the relationships I’ve had with my parents. Coupled with some really bad break-ups and a number of other hard things to deal with, something like Wild Bird was just bound to happen. I know a lot of people have felt similar to this, or at least felt strong disillusionment over something. How does one deal with it other than just try the best they can? I mean, I try a lot of different things to cope with how hard it all is, but that’s just the point – we’re all trying. That’s where the line “I’m trying to hide my mouth” comes from, because, knowing what I know now, I feel like I’m just bound to say something ugly.