You have a degree from UNC Chapel Hill but currently reside in Durham, so I have to ask you the existential North Carolina question: Tar Heels or Blue Devils?
My answer will make dyed-in-the-wool fans of either team sick to their stomachs: I'll root for whatever North Carolina team is in the game. If it's the Tar Heels versus Duke, I'll root for whichever team seems like the underdog. I didn't grow up in North Carolina, so I don't have it in my blood the way many do. I don't get angry about it. That said, it would be nice to see North Carolina State or Central win something.
Grad school drew you to North Carolina, and you enrolled at UNC to study folklore. What attracted you to that specific program? Did you have a major or a central thesis?
I attended to grad school because my wife and I needed something to justify our move away from San Francisco. We left San Francisco because the writing was on the wall, culturally, for what would happen to that city. We were getting priced out and it was hard to see how we might accomplish some of our life goals, like having kids and buying a house. So: Grad school.
I had been through North Carolina several times on tour and thought that it was a place I would like to live. It was in the South, which was important to me for a bunch of reasons. UNC's folklore department foregrounded fieldwork, which I liked. I wanted to talk to people. My thesis was about a lowrider car club in Alamance County. I wanted to work on something that wasn't connected to music at all and that was a great community of people about whom I knew nothing.
Are your kids into music yet? What bands or songs do they like? Have you taught them how to work a turntable?
My daughter, who is four and half, loved the Frozen soundtrack, and then moved on to the soundtrack to Moana.
My son, who is almost nine, dearly loves Weird Al Yankovic. That's his favorite artist. But he's also a huge fan of Hamilton. He knows every word. In fact, he got to see a production of Hamilton featuring the original cast last year in Manhattan, which he loved.
Kraftwerk's Computer World is a big one for him too. Something about the crispness and preciseness of it speaks to his personality. We're always listening to music around the house—and they do know how to work a turntable—but I don't ever force anything on them. That seems like a surefire way to get them to dislike something.
There’s a lot of darkness and danger in rock and roll. Jerry Garcia comes to mind. Is there anything in your line of work – or in your record collection – that you feel like you need to protect your kids from?
No. There's nothing that I can think of. Like swear words? None of that is important to me or to our family. I've spent my life surrounding myself with art—music, visual, all of that—that feels like a genuine transmission from the soul of the maker, and that's what I talk to my kids about, what I try to show them. Only good can come from art like that, regardless of how profane it might be. If it's wide open and from the heart, it can only be good.
So maybe we're listening to Kendrick Lamar, maybe we're listening to John Coltrane, maybe we're listening to Bunny Wailer or The Sunset Travelers or Keith Hudson or Jerry Garcia or old fife and drum recordings from the Mississippi hill country. It's all the same spirit moving. Different kinds of pain, different ways of articulating, but the same spirit.
That said, I am trying to protect them from people that tell lies to benefit themselves. We rarely listen to public radio in the car anymore because there are too many stories about liars and thieves. I was always so proud to talk to the kids about Barack Obama being our president, and things are so different now.
I was struck by your recent comments on the Merge blog regarding your experience opening for Mumford and Sons. You are super complimentary of the band and its crew, and it sounds like the experience was overwhelmingly positive. But you acknowledge that they can “push people’s buttons” and that you went into those shows with some “trepidation.” Can you elaborate on why you felt that way? What happened to change your mind?
Well, I had some trepidation because I wasn't sure that their audience—which is quite large, as you can imagine—would enjoy our music. But I was wrong. Their audience was extremely welcoming to us. And I learned that Mumford and Sons—incidentally another band that is emotionally wide-open—attracts people that are attracted to that genuine spirit. So I learned something important there.
Related question: your music and your message are so inclusive, but the scene in which your band (and this blog) traffics – I’ll call it independent music for simplicity – is often extremely clique-ish. It is cloistered and sometimes hard to access. Like it or not, the fact that not everyone listens to certain music is precisely what makes it hip. Do you want to make yourself open to more mainstream audiences? Is it important to maintain the cachet, or the hipness, of an indie rock band? Have you given any thought to how you might accomplish both?
The hippest thing I could hope to see as an audience member is a musician that is wholly confident and convinced of the worth of what they're doing, regardless of how many people are in the audience and what they might think of them. I think that my music has the potential to resonate across large swaths of people because I am singing questions that so many of us ask ourselves and one another. I don't have any answers, but the asking is important.
Your question suggests—unintentionally, I think—that an artist can't appeal to mainstream audiences and be cutting edge or quote-unquote hip. But it's possible to do it all if your primary motivation, as an artist, is to do it from the heart. Then nothing else really matters very much. And it's all secondary to what I'm trying to do, which is make songs about things that matter to me, songs that I myself am proud of.
Do I like music on the fringes? Of course. I also like mainstream music too. None of it is meant to be used as a way to erect barriers.
You’ve played Charlotte a decent number of times, both solo and with the band. Have you been able to get out and see any of the city? What do you like about Charlotte?
For all the times that I've been through Charlotte, I've never had a chance to truly explore the city. What do you or your readers suggest I do? I've always wanted to go to The Mint Museum.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We recommended Green’s Hot Dogs, La Shish Kabob, and Lang Van for food. Portrero’s Western Wear for boots. The Mint Museum and The Bechtler for art. And the Thirsty Beaver for the jukebox.
Last question: you reference Sisters of Mercy in “John the Gun.” And - did you happen to discuss that band with John Darnielle? Or is it a coincidence of cosmic proportions that both you and he released albums with songs referencing Sisters of Mercy in the same year for the same record label?
That's funny. I have talked to John about a lot of things, but not the Sisters of Mercy. Pure coincidence, I guess.
Did you go through a Goth phase growing up?
Didn't everyone have a goth phase? I might not even be totally out of mine.