Saturday, February 18, 2006

Interview with Alan Licht

As an improv guitarist and member of avant-garde rock acts Run On, Love Child and Blue Humans, Alan Licht is the greatest musicologist you've never heard. Through recordings like The Evan Dando of Noise? and his latest offering, A New York Minute, the Jersey-born Licht has emerged as a seminal figure in New York's art music scene. His approach has more in common with the ornate minimalism of Steve Reich and La Monte Young, and the directionless skronk of Derek Bailey, than the strum of most ax-men.

Now, touring with his first book, An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn (published by Drag City Press), a recollection of his own life told via the pop music and politics of the '80s and '90s, Licht reconsiders the past, present and future of pop music through the eyes of an unwitting participant.

Chad Radford: Your book is titled An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn, but it has nothing to do with Martha Quinn. Why Martha Quinn and not Alan Licht?

Alan Licht: It's a play on the title of the Fielding Dawson book, An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline. It's meant to be ironic. I've never met Martha Quinn. But so much of the book dwells in the early '80s that I wanted to use something that referenced the era.

You often refer to specific people in your record titles but never make any literal connections to them. Records like The Evan Dando of Noise?, Tone Poem For Nikki Sixx Million and Calvin Johnson Has Ruined Rock For An Entire Generation have nothing to do with the names in the titles. What draws you to them?

I've seen it done in other art forms. Fluxus artists would drop names in titles of things, and it always catches my attention when someone makes a reference to someone well-known, but it's not specifically a vehicle for that well-known person.

Martha Quinn retraces your life through pop music and events. Have you learned anything new about yourself by touring and reading from the book?

During my first reading, I realized that I had never read any of it out loud before and I was horrified at how some of it sounded. I had to be very selective with what was read. Now when I write I'm really conscious of how it will sound if it's read out loud. Specifically, some of the things I say about Billy Corgan are funny in print, but to go out and be pontificating about them just sounds mean.

You also write various blurbs on songs by the Eagles, Dire Straits, Duran Duran and many others. What do these songs mean to you?

Pop music isn't that different from minimalism, these songs are extremely repetitive and they get stuck in your head like they're on infinite repeat. With Steve Reich or Philip Glass, it's all about repetition and that's how they crossed over into pop music.

What was the first record you ever bought?

As a child I was way more into classical music than pop music. The first pop record I bought was by Shawn Cassidy, then the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and then Band on the Run by the Wings. I had a lot of classical records before that and in a way my first heavy metal record was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture where they used real cannon fire. I liked to play it really loud.

Are you a classically trained musician?

No, I failed out of harmony class in school.

In the book you draw a strong correlation between the attitude of pop music in the '80s and '90s with the politics of the time. Where do you see pop culture now in relation to the Bush White House, the War on Terror and the flailing economy?

During the '90s, there was a boom in the economy and there was room for experimentation for both musicians and audiences. People had enough money to check out something that was popular, but also things that weren't so popular. Now that the economy has taken a dive, there's no room for that anymore. It's all about survival of the fittest. A group like the White Stripes is playing music that references tried and true songwriting. It's new in that it's a duo with no bass, but fundamentally it's a conservative movement that reflects the conservativism of the time.

--Chad Radford

Published by Creative Loafing (10.02.03)