Tao Lin, Novelist, Poet, and Indie Icon, Talks about File Sharing, Lady Gaga, Living Perpetually between Headphones and Feeling Neutral about Stuff.
At age 27, Tao Lin is already a prolific writer with half a dozen books under his belt. His most recent novel, Richard Yates just came out, but he also is collaborating with Carles of the blog Hipster Runoff to form the band Jesus Christ (the indie band). Their only song so far "Is This Really What You Want" is already saturating the Internet. I listened to the song a few times, and then I played it for my girlfriend.
"What's fucked up is that I really like this," she said. "I know what you mean," I said. The song has the words of Tao Lin (which feel like they were cut and pasted from a gmail chat between two young, therapeutically educated people breaking up) over electronic beats, and the whole thing screams PBR and skinny jeans. But I like it - does that make me a hipster?
I emailed Tao Lin some questions about music and he emailed me back. Then, I emailed him again. Then, he emailed me back. This continued for many weeks until I felt the interview was over. While we were doing this, I was living in Los Angeles and he was living in New York City. As I write this interview, I am listening to Son Lux's "At War With Walls and Mazes", again - as I always do now when writing something related to Tao.
What music are you currently listening to?
"Less Than Nothing" by I Hate Myself.
Do you listen to music while you write and, if so, is it different from the music you listen to when you're not writing?
I listen to music almost any time I'm not sleeping, "hanging out" with specific people, or showering. I listen to music maybe 99% of the time I'm working on writing (the other 1% I've lost my earphones temporarily or something). I don't have specific music for when I'm writing. I'm usually listening to the same playlist or "artist" before I arrive at the computer as when I'm walking somewhere after leaving the computer.
You listen to music 99 percent of the time? That's impressive. Where
do you find all this music? Do you have friends that introduce you to
things or do you find it online (blogs, music sites, etc.) or in
magazines? Do you have a primary source for new music? Or do you often
repeat the same stuff you've been listening to over and over again?
I think I see what bands are on the same label as bands I already like
and then listen to them also and usually like them. Or I see what bands the
people in bands I like are also involved in. I download songs "randomly"
off music blogs sometimes. Probably 40-60% of the music I listen to is
the same music I've listened to the past 7-10 years, since high
school or college.
Why do you think you keep coming back to the same music you've
listened to since college 40-60 percent of the time?
I'm not sure. Maybe because I'm not focused on finding new bands. In
high school and college I had Napster and downloaded a lot of new
things every day, and listened to like 30-50 new bands every week or
something, so maybe I was just able to find more music that I liked,
whereas now I maybe listen to 3-6 new bands a week.
What are those bands and what events or feelings do they evoke in you now?
The bands I listened to in high school and college that I still listen to are
The Blacktop Cadence, Neva Dinova, Rilo Kiley, Strung Out, Good Riddance,
The Weakerthans. And maybe 10-30 others to lesser degrees. Because
I've listened to them continuously for years I don't think they evoke
specific events/feelings anymore. Bands that I don't listen to
continuously usually will evoke the event/feeling of the previous time
that I listened to them a lot though.
Do you find that music can help set a mood for a scene you're about to write? Are you ever listening to a song while writing and think, "wait, I can't write to this, I have to change it." Or does none of that matter?
I don't think music affects what words I choose to type in what order, within what punctuation, at this point, because I'm rereading and editing each sentence, at this point, in my published books, probably 100-150 times each, on average, and listening to probably 20-60 different songs in that time. I think I can write to any music or any noise, unless it's a special noise that causes me to not be able to think, like some alternating combination of sirens, screaming, and, like, Disney music.
Do you use it to set a mood for other things (examples: cleaning, sex/masturbation, feeling depressed, waking up, understanding god or the lack thereof, etc.).
If I feel very depressed I historically have felt "even more depressed" or "both uncomfortable and very depressed," based on my observations of myself, if I listen to Broken Social Scene, Belle and Sebastian, or [some other bands]. But if I listen to Samiam, Neva Dinova, Jets To Brazil, [some other bands] I seem to feel "consoled," to some degree, in a manner that I am able to begin to view my situation as almost enjoyable, though a different kind of "enjoyable" than if I were "frolicking" in a field with a girl I like or something. For other situations I don't think I have any observations like that. If I'm "happy," for example, I feel able to enjoy songs like "Less Than Nothing" by I Hate Myself and also, like, a happy song by Blink 182 or Wu-Tang Clan.
If you were making a movie of your latest work, "Richard Yates", what
bands would most likely appear on the soundtrack?
I think I would want either no music, classical music (maybe Chopin or
something more "mechanical," like Bach or simply "scales" or
"exercises" on a piano), or non-melodic instrumental music, like maybe
Don Caballero. I feel like having a band with lyrics or melodies would
automatically give the movie a definite tone, like "drama" or "comedy"
or something, which I might want to avoid with a movie. Maybe not
though. I'm not sure really.
Right now, I am listening to the album "At War with Walls and Mazes" by Son Lux. I listened to this album routinely while reading your novel "Richard Yates" and the two will (possibly) be forever entwined in my mind. Does this bother you/excite you in anyway?
I don't know Son Lux. I think I feel neutral about what you said. I like when certain things are connected with certain songs, so maybe you like that also, since we are both humans, so in that sense I feel glad about what you said.
Can you talk a little about forming Jesus Christ (the indie band).
What inspired the single, "Is This What You Really Want?"? How did you
and Carles record it?
Carles started a band at some point, and he asked me to join at some
point. We discussed band names a little. I don't remember what other
names were considered. I think something like "Damn" or something. I
recorded vocals and emailed them to him. I think "relationship
problems" inspired "Is This What You Really Want?" Carles recorded it
on...maybe Garageband. I'm not sure what he used. I recorded vocals on
Garageband on my MacBook.
Will there be more leaked music of Jesus Christ (the indie rock band)?
I'm 40-95% certain "yes." I know Carles has at least 3 other songs in various stages of completion. One song is about my penis and jock itch. I think one song features some kind of South Asian instrument, I forget the instrument's name. One song has the large, weird-sounding Australian instrument. Carles seems like a patient man. He will not release songs until "completely satisfied," I think. He probably sometimes lets a song "simmer, to some degree," by not thinking about it for an amount of time, before working on it again.
How and when will the album be available?
Perhaps early 2013. I think Carles is "very busy" with other things after being named a "best blog" by Time Magazine and winning Gawker's "Hipster of the Decade" thing.
[Tao Lin's name is synonymous with the term "Hipster." I know what Hipster means because I used to work at an independent bookstore in East Hollywood, but just for the hell of it, I googled a term for "Hipster," and found that someone had pasted this quote from Time Magazine in the wikipedia page for "Hipster":
"Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care."
- Time, July 2009
The following questions were formed while thinking about Hipsterdom. I didn't use that word for fear that Tao may get defensive or biased in his answers. What he wrote surprised me. He DOES uphold some of he Hipster ideals, but in a way that feels genuine, and thus, kinda NOT Hipster...]
I found this press blurb on Jesus Christ (the indie rock band)...
"This is not a band-this is a sound project. Tao and Carles are looking to capitalize on emerging music + audio media markets. The product is intended to be something that you can 'authentically empathize with', moreso than a traditional 'indie band.'"
I found the word "capitalize" to be interesting here. Are you doing this (at least in part) because of the money? If so, how do you feel about the whole file sharing thing? I know you've admitted to stealing objects, but do you download music illegally? If so, would you be OK with people downloading your books illegally in the future?
I'm okay with anyone receiving [any abstraction, in whatever form (book, piece of paper, audio)], that originated from my brain, for free.
If I self-published a book I would make it be "creative commons," so anyone can do anything with it except sell it for profit. I'd be okay even with them selling it for profit, I think. I would still sell the books myself, also, though, to have some amount of money. There will probably always be people who will buy your book even if it is free because they want to "support you." If someone is poor and has made songs that I like, and I can see that they would like some money, I will give them money.
I think the word "capitalize" in that context is 30-60% sarcastic. If we wanted to capitalize it seems like we probably would have released more than one song in whatever amount of time has passed, and had some kind of plan, which we don't seem to have. If I wanted to "capitalize," generally, in life, I would probably focus on getting a literary agent and having the literary agent submit my books for "as long as it takes" until FSG or Knopf accepted it.
I have downloaded music from mediafire.com and megaupload.com before. If a band didn't want me to download their music I think I wouldn't download it. I'm not sure how I feel about file-sharing. Maybe that I think each situation is different and I don't have general thoughts about "file-sharing."
If Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber wanted to do a concept album based on your novel "Eeeee Eee Eeee" but they weren't going to pay you anything or talk to you about it, would you feel honored/angered/nothing?
I definitely wouldn't feel angered. I'm not sure in what situations in life I feel unsarcastically "honored," so I don't think I would feel "honored." I'm not sure what it feels like or what I would be thinking about if I were to feel "honored." I wouldn't feel nothing. I would probably feel very excited due to the unexpectedness and difficult-to-discern effects, in terms of my life, and other people's lives, of Gaga and Bieber doing that.
Do you ever feel differently about someone after hearing about the music they listen to? Same question, but with books instead of music. If you do feel differently about someone, does books or music carry more weight in the feeling of differently?
I used to feel differently about people but I think I almost always "suspected," to some degree, based on observations of myself and others, that what music people like is almost entirely sociological or cultural, or "nurture" (and not "nature"), and have gradually been able to increasingly internalize that. Today I think I still instinctively begin thinking differently about people upon learning what music and books they like but am able to quickly suppress that thought process and...not do that. I'm not sure if books or music are more powerful in that regard. I'm really not sure. I think it depends on the specific context, goal, perspective.