Live / L.L. Being, Jeremy Sigler and Ken Seeno
Published on the occasion of the release of 'Live', 12" record, ed.350, by Jeremy Sigler and Ken Seeno.
Ken Seeno: The weekend of the performance was very special. We were the last ones to arrive at the show, and the room was at standing room only. I didn't know they were recording it, did you?
Jeremy Sigler: I can’t really think in reverse. I don’t even remember the reading very well. We arrived after that delicious 5-course dinner Matt [Papich] and Devon [Deimler] prepared for all of us. And it was a thrill seeing Eileen [Myles] read in Baltimore to an audience filled with so many of my favorite students from the past.
K: How do you usually prepare for a reading?
J: I think I spend months without really knowing it. When I enter the room I’m like amped. And all that energy that I've stored up goes into just being myself, and actually being pretty relaxed and casual. It’s not like I’m there to put on a show really.
K: But it does have a formal precision to it. It’s very directed energy. It’s not like you're gushing.
J: I just met with Vish [Velandy] who told me he has been enrolled in a method acting class and he said they all gush. That’s the word he used.
K: You're very cool and collected though, more like a stand-up comedian.
J: Right. Like it’s all a set up for a punch line.
K: For me, preparation is more about getting myself composed. I think nervous energy has always played a big part in what I do. In fact, I was even thinking about calling my next album Nervous Energy.
J: Ha, weird. All titles are weird. I thought of a new title for a book the other day and I wrote it down—get this, Sorry, I’m Your Mind and then I had this other one: Love Compactor. Titles have to be weird.
K: Those are great titles. I guess nervous energy comes to mind because performing solo is still pretty new to me and I have a history with anxiety. When I was with Ponytail it was easy because everyone was focused on Molly [Siegel]. Now, every note I play rings out.
J: I know what you mean. It’s like your sound is so present and bright in the room without any accompaniment. There’s no shade. This is why I wear sunglasses now just about everywhere, especially on the subway.
K: I’m all about sunglasses. When I was in high school I played guitar in Jazz Band. Occasionally, I would get bored with the rest of the song and just want to solo, so for the remainder of each song I would just gently turn the volume down on my guitar and "fake it." What was I thinking? (laughter)
J: Actually, I wouldn’t title it Nervous Energy. Because the word “nervous” makes people nervous. I think it’s up to the performer to get beyond that excitement with its built-in anxiety to produce the thing that people respond to and remember, and that is really quite ordinary when it is happening, like no big deal. You know how at a student play you sit there fearing that the actors will forget their lines, but the real drama is of course experienced when you have total confidence in their craft and forget that they are even acting.
When my daughter had a big ballet recital and she was nervous and like refusing to go out on stage, I had a little talk with her and I said that she should just remember that when the people are smiling they are having a good time and that she should smile too and just focus on the fun everyone is having. But then it dawned on me that no one was having a good time! Everyone was just nervous, and there was like obnoxious anxiety ricocheting through the room. It sucked.
I know that idea of ringing out or hiding on stage. I think in poetry it has taken years for me to ring out that way. When I started out I was so bashful I wouldn’t even look up once from the poem, and my voice would hold this single low tone because I think my vocal chords were like frozen. Like a pitcher whose arm isn’t limber.
Once at a reading, I was speaking into this mic and about half way through the reading, a person informed me that the PA wasn’t even turned on, and we all sort of laughed, and then I went right back to the mic, with my lips literally touching the sponge—because I was actually hiding behind it both visually and aurally.
K: That is hilarious. I definitely know the feeling.
J: Bashfulness isn’t good in art I don’t think. For poetry though I ultimately like being natural, so that people see and hear you as the person you actually are, even if that means humble or dull, or whatever. John Ashbery impressed me so much when I first heard him read because he would stop mid-sentence, take out a hanky, and blow his nose for like five minutes, and then go right back to the poem where he left off. Professorial, in a way.
K: You were never bashful in the classroom.
J: No. My poetry slowly learned from my teaching, in that I would be shy while reading poems, but extremely outgoing when lecturing to a class. Especially the first day of the semester taking a train down to Baltimore to step into that classroom and be greeted by the kids—this was an awesome feeling.
K: I always felt that the first hour of your class, when you would sort of monologue about the past week. Then, of course, was the hour break between two 6 hours studios when I was T.A.'ing for you and we would grab a beer at the Tav and really talk. I miss the "first day of school."
J: The Mt. Royal Tavern. Pretty much a saloon. A real dive bar. I think there must still be 80-year-old drunks, MICA dropouts from the 1920’s, holding down barstools. Students, you know, who never got past figure drawing and have grown old on Mt. Royal Avenue. Certainly I’ve aged a lot on Mt. Royal. My hair is now pretty much all gray, and the downtrodden looking bartenders in there seem like I’ve known them for three lives. So what other titles do you have in mind?
K: Maybe I’ll call my next record American Landscape Paintings.
K: It's more pastoral and I like how it references art history.
J: Yes, and people don’t even know you are an artist. I mean people probably mostly see you as a musician. I remember that wonderful Hallmark greeting card readymade you presented once in my class. But I think you will be a great art dealer! You really should pursue that out in LA. That was a great idea you had. I can just see you in a A.P.C. suit, selling someone an On Kawara date painting from 1973 for like 3 million dollars.
K: Ok, I’ll become a dealer, and you become a collector, OK? (laughter) Actually, I was thinking about that print that you have in your house, hung right when you open the door. I don't remember the name of the artist though.
J: Yes, Neil Welliver. My teacher back at University of Pennsylvania, when I was an undergrad. But that’s probably the only work of art I’ve ever purchased. I am obsessed with his work and I finally found a woodblock on eBay and bought it site unseen.
J: Luckily I have a book with all of his prints, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a color Xerox.
K: And what about that older landscape painting of yours? I love how airy it is. Breezy.
J: Yes, I did my share of landscapes when I was living down near a rural part of Maryland. I would listen to Gram Parsons and older country music Lefty Frizzell and the Louvin Bros, and Townes [van Zandt] and drive out to places and park the car by the side of the road and paint the horse country. It was like painting humidity in a summer sky—one wide white stroke with a tint of yellow.
The thing about Welliver is that he’s like the cover boy (or was) for L.L. Bean, and that’s pretty darn American seeming. Kind of the painter who wears duck boots in fly fishing country. The preppy painter—the sporty painter.
K: My late grandfather was also like an L.L. Bean kind of guy. He built an incredible cabin in rural Pennsylvania and called it “Fallen Timbers.” He wasn’t an artist per se, but he was stylish as hell.
J: I do love landscape painting. I spoke once to a reality TV producer about starting a show that would combine the classic Bob Ross studio painting show with another vintage public TV cooking show called The Two Fat Ladies. Do you remember that show?
J: Before your time. In it, they seem like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and drive around on an English WWI Motorcycle in rural parts of England (one sits in the side car) and they cook these really gourmet fattening meals in the countryside. It just had this amazing feeling and sensuousness, and that sort of Mike Leigh dead-pan English humor.
But my show proposed a competition with two painters, who are also like insane survivalists, and the show follows them while judging their work for aesthetics and athletics.
K: Did you ever show that Two Fat Ladies show in class? You showed lots of good stuff.
J: Yes. I think I should have been fired for just pushing play instead of teaching anything. But really the goal was often to let the great filmmakers teach for me. Like Altman. He and Pennebaker, Cassavetes, and maybe Antonioni and Buñuel are some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. In Parapainting though, that was the point, to really try to get into the psyche of the performer, behind the invisible mask of persona. I like Nashville best because it captures that intense desire to get up on stage—to emerge from the American landscape to a place of authority!
K: A landscape not of dirt and shrubbery and trees, but of people?
J: Yes like suburbia, in general. Or any rolling hill packed shoulder to shoulder with an audience. The audience is literally the landscape. The performer is like the land-owner, the monarch. The one who gets to rule the masses. You, Jeremy [Hyman], Molly, and Dustin [Wong] were that, at least the many times I saw you play live in New York. And I was just this little anonymous person in a sea of people.
It was a thrill to see that transformation in Molly from the first class I had her, where she showed up to class as a little Hasidic boy essentially, you know, wearing a yarmulke, which in Judaism is only done by males. I had this great lesbian friend once named Bobby who looked like James Dean, so I was never confused at all by Molly.
K: I remember pretty well that second class when you paired us together as a group. You had the class surround you in a semi-circle. The energy was tense because we were powerless as to whom we were to work with for the whole semester. Everyone was really anxious to see their band mates, yet no one opposed your choices. It was pretty obvious to everyone in the room that Jeremy and I were the youngsters. We stuck way out so I think you started with us. Dustin just emitted this energy. I remember he walked into the room he had the funniest, coolest style—he was wearing tight Capri pants and white socks almost Michael Jackson style.
J: Ha. Right.
K: Anyway, I was excited when you added him because I wanted to find out what his deal was. I think you asked the room who played instruments and Jeremy, Dustin and I said yes, so instead of spreading us around you put us together. That was a very big move because we had actually all been in bands before and had secretly always wanted to be in a band still. In later years, more and more kids who wanted to be in bands took Parapainting, but that year was sort of the precedent. Then you added Michael Petruzzo and I got kind of freaked out. He just has that intense vibe. He was wearing a Destiny’s Child t-shirt and gold chain.
J: Good memory you have.
K. I knew right then it was going to be weird music. I kind of thought you were done adding and you went through the rest of the class until Molly was sort of the last one to be picked. And we had such a male group I think you put her with us to fully flip it upside down.
How did you arrive at the idea for a class called Parapainting where everyone was in a band?
J: I went into my first semester of teaching having just graduated from ULCA where I had talked extensively to Christopher Williams about Red Crayola and even met Stephen Prina, and Mayo Thompson—so my understanding of the West Coast art scene was linked to punk rock and noise.
Bands with artists in them. I saw Red Crayola play at Jabberjaw on my first night in L.A. ever, and it definitely was an art crowd.
When I came to Baltimore and started teaching the class, I wasn't really sure what would happen, but I did have a feeling that Dan Graham's Rock My Religion with his essay on Patti Smith was a sort of link for me between art and the "rock persona" or "(Wo)man on Stage." In retrospect, I think Dan has been massively influential to me, and we did in fact later meet and eat crab cakes in Baltimore.
My idea of the band was not just musical but referenced Godard's Band A Part or Band of Outsiders. The idea was definitely anti-art-star. Art as a movement that would compel people to band together and apart. My interest in poetry was also political and economic from the start. I had drifted away from the market and commercial goal of art and assumed a sort of extreme romantic position based on the "sport" of being a poet.
For me it was about finding something to do inside the fertile art school context that I saw as filled with potential for them—for you guys—for your generation. My first few classes were never designed to be more than a one-night cabaret of weird campiness. The thought that actual professional style bands would have emerged with fans and recordings is still strange. The students were almost too ambitious, far more skilled, driven, and market savvy than me.
I also showed tons of films. Like a cult film by Lou Adler called Ladies and Gentlemen Introducing the Fabulous Stains (A must see!).
But I never would have survived teaching during those years had it not been for you bringing me those coffees! I could always depend on you. Then stopping off at the Tav for a few beers before the second class became our normal practice. But I relied on the Tav and used it like another classroom. When I did our theater adaptation of Being There I remember I brought Emily [Vollherbst] (who was the lead) to the Tav so that I could coach her along.
K: Retrospectively, Being There has to have been one of the largest scale projects we worked on together. Lauren was a huge part of that as well.
J: Of course. It was Lauren [Friedman] who convinced me to do it. I tried to back out, but she wouldn’t let me.
K: It was the culmination of years of the three of us working together. It was ambitious, but so much fun. I think everyone enjoyed going through the traditional motions of putting on a theatrical production. Auditions, memorizing lines, costume design, prop design. There was a buzz about the underground project building around class.
I remember I auditioned for the part of Chauncy the gardener and you even really liked my almost mentally retarded portrayal of the character, but I wanted to have a hand in the artistic direction of the production so I backed out. Lotfy [Nathan] was much better anyway. His English wealth was brought out.
J: Yes, he really studied the Peter Sellers version very carefully. So he pulled off that strange disconnected aristocratic idea, which of course is key to understanding Chauncey’s rise to power.
K: I kind of was in charge of the musical direction, actually. I remember I taught myself a stripped down version of "Basketball Jones" based on your suggestion.
J: By Cheech & Chong. It is played in the movie with images of the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon from the '70s.
K: And when we did it, it was so bizarre because that kid Mike was dressed as a tranny and he came down the old marble Main Building steps and we all started singing “Basketball Jones” louder and louder.
J: And clapping our hands in unison. And remember I instructed to kid who played the old drunk bum asleep on the ground to get up and join in the clapping. And then he started waling “Basketball Jooooonnnneeeeessssss. I got a basketball jooooonnnneeeesssss.” I’m sure, had Barry made it to the show I would have gotten a promotion (wink).
K: James! Yes! He was a PERFECT bum! Like a really down and out bum from the 50’s. Such a cool performance. But it was Vish who truly stole the show. His project the whole semester was enrolling in private lessons at the Peabody with a Bach scholar and learning how to play Erik Satie on the piano from the ground up. He performed gorgeously.
J: Yes and the melancholy of the play relies on Satie.
K: We even moved a full-sized piano up the steps in the main building. We cut very few corners. And it was perfect that we did it off-stage. Perfect. The whole time you were at the helm. It was necessary for us to follow your lead. I suppose that's typical of a play, isn't it? It's all stems back to the director.
J: Being a director is like one step beyond being a teacher. I was very aware that I was not working for you guys, but that you were working for me. I even had a few bonafide temper tantrums, which were actually planned to inspire you guys and raise the drama to another level.
K: Yes I remember that. And you grew out that big dark beard.
J: I was like becoming a director the way M.J. becomes a werewolf in the "Thriller" video. I remember walking right past Ray Allen and I said hello and asked if he was planning to come to the play, and he didn’t even know who I was. I was very proud of the play, even if Guffman (the empty seat reserved for John Waters) never showed.
K: (laughter) Amazing. So what should we call this release?
J: Good question.
K: How about Live?
J: A live album. That’s really retro. Like Richard Pryor! Or any great comedy album. When I taught the stand-up class, Pryor’s live act was the most relevant thing we looked at. It didn’t seem dated to me at all. Were you ever in my comedy class?
K: I T.A.’d your comedy class, but I didn’t participate in the stand up night (though many people asked me to.) I mainly was there to watch the other performers and add whatever conceptual insight I could. I wanted to learn all aspects of Parapainting. Comedy class was much more introspective than the bands or Being There. It’s probably the most complex and difficult version of Parapainting as most of the work is an internal battle, don’t you think? For me, rock music was natural as I had already been studying it deep into my teens, I just didn’t know it.
J: Yes. The internal battle. Students were all petrified and in tears that comedy night, and having breakdowns before going out on stage. It was like telling a battalion of paratroopers to jump one by one, you know, standing at the open door of the plane. It was rough.
K: Ok so Live it will be. That will be the title.
J: Good. So it’s decided.
K: And I think I will title my solo album American Landscape Paintings as a title.
Actually, I'm looking at some Neil Wellivers right now. They are delightful. They sort of remind me of artwork from this label called Windham Hill that was popular with like my parents, but now you can purchase them at record stores and thrift stores for $1.
I think it's interesting to look at this art that references America through an idealistic, or romantic, lens and see how much of it is actually coming from the artist's brain. Remember we were talking about the Exotica movement? These Americans were trying to make music they thought sounded like the music that should be played in far off tropical lands. I think there is an element of that in my music as well. Do you think you're poetry ever resides in an "exotic" realm?
J: Windham Hill? Ugh. Ken that is a very embarrassing topic to me. Why are you doing this to me? If I listen to that particular kind of new age jazz now I just get this sick nauseous feeling. I did really like Yes a lot when I was a kid, and I even used to draw the Yes logo on the blackboard in my classrooms, just to intentionally demoralize myself in front of my students. I though it was like the most '70s stoner-ish thing to do, and a sure way to get a laugh. I never really lived that time though. I’m a bit younger than that.
But it is always surprising what I want to listen to, if anything at all. Like I got on this kick and got really excited about Flock of Seagulls one day and I was like off writing poems about the singer’s shirt and hair and face make-up in the I Ran video, and then I like watched early James Gang videos the other day and really wrestled with Joe Walsh on like all levels, his utterly cool persona, and… Ok I was playing the cheesiest KC & the Sunshine Band youtube video Babe I Love You So, and even sang it doing karaoke one night to my intern and the deepest emotions just sprang out of me, I have no idea where it was coming from, maybe my childhood, like a 5th grade slow dance still trapped in my soul. And I played the amazing Mamas and the Papas at Monterey Pop for Cory [Reynolds] the other morning and she had California Dreamin’ stuck in her head for two months straight. So what isn’t exotic?
But back to guitar music on this record etc.: What I like about your newer stuff is the clean bright sound I recognize of Chet Adkins. Telecaster music. And you and Lauren used to keep your radios tuned to the country station and all that modern country stuff which gets really good once you develop an ear for it. Like I know you’re obsessed with the Talking Heads. And they are kind of scrubbed for a band that came out of CBGB’s.
K: For me, Chet Atkins, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, and even Stan Getz. I really LOVE the way clean guitar sounds. I prefer a nostalgic reverb, which gives off a classic surf vibe. I love things that say “jazz” on them. Jeremy, you know how clean I am.
J: Yes you are the only student ever to offer me a clean towel in the morning. (laughs)
K: Clean like a white button down oxford and some loafers. Very early '60's.
J: Yes. Ken Seeno wore khakis.
K: Yeah, like Max Fischer in Rushmore. Or Ferris Bueller. Or Tom Cruise is Risky Business. Or Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate! (laughter) Clean! Yes! My dream amp throughout the end of Ponytail was a UK made Roland Jazz Chorus that was once used by the Thompson Twins. It was a late '70's model and if I moved my pick on the strings, even on 2 or 3, it was so clean it sounded like it was right inside your ear. Heavenly.
I think the Windham Hill guys gave honest jazz and new age a bad wrap, even if William Ackerman had a cool sense of design with those clear sleeves with white sans-serif font printed on them, and just an image of the moon.
J: Yes. I always go back to the moon. Does that make my poetry new age-y? I hope not. I wonder if they could be read this way. Ugh. Sometimes they are quite caught up in nature, and a kind of sublime. My next book is titled Marooned Reader, Here. Even the title refers to an island, a place where the reader would ostensibly have nothing, no entertainment, no other media of any sort, and picks up my book of these very minimal Chinese-like nature poems, and has the time of his/her life just reading and wondering and playing inside the language-scape I have created. But the poems aren’t exotic, as you suggest, they just need a reader who is bored to tears, and has no other option for stimulation.
But my time at the beach town of Point Pleasant has also informed my work. I have written countless beach bum poems, many from when I had a small place down there on the Jersey Shore. They maybe capture a loneliness of the deserted beach town in winter. If I become the resident poet of Pt. Pleasant, NJ someday, I think it could take on epic Charles Olson-like proportions, but I’ve never been fully immersed that way in the desolation of any one place. My best writing is on Amtrak in the bar car, or café as it is officially called. Which made all those repeated trips down to Baltimore to teach pretty productive for my writing.
But Baltimore was exotic to me. I always refer to it as my Isle of Dr. Moreau, as a kind of sci-fi off-shore laboratory at which students were my experiment, my cyborgs, and I was like a mad scientist. That’s what led me to do most of the stuff we did together, which would never have fit into a normal art school curriculum, nor are these things I would have done up in NY, near home.
K: I’m happy you think of me as your cyborg. That’s really flattering.
J: Or patient. Like remember that semester I got on this Lacanian kick and started pretending to psychoanalyze my students, having them lie down on couches. Did I ever do that to you?
K: Haha! No I don’t think I was ever psychoanalyzed by you, but I think the platforms you created showed us that we could do and say what we want. There was little to stop us. After the Parapainting performances were held at the Copycat warehouse, we started holding shows, and once Ponytail started playing out with the likes of Dan Deacon, we, Devon, Matt, Kieran [Gillen], Michael and I started putting on events under the name Wildfirewildfire. In the end it kind of goes back to studying that an artist can be a “rock star.” You were like the producer, or something…
J: …or just picking the kids that I thought looked good together and telling them that they were a band like it or not, even if none of them even played instruments. And surprisingly it never failed. The kids that looked good together always made amazing music together!
So let me ask you a question: how long did it take Ponytail to gel musically? Was it instantaneous? I’m curious how a band that I put together took off and became a band that actually invented a sound and toured the world.
K: Ponytail was instantly musical, though noisy at first. The first time we played together, only the second time we all ever spoke, we actually fully wrote a song entitled "...,,,;;;:::!"
J: That makes me proud.