One Level Up: A Conversation with John Andrew Fredrick




AFTER 25 years and 13 albums fronting Los Angeles band The Black Watch, and with three novels to his credit (and a fourth in the offing), John Andrew Fredrick might still be picking up steam. Near the start of 2015, he thought he was done with music. Instead, Highs and Lows, the newest Black Watch album, bookended a big year. Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy, which was meant to be the bands swan song, came out in January of last year. The months between brought resurrection: Fredrick found a new publisher in Rare Bird Lit. Tyson Cornell, who heads up Rare Bird, proved so agreeable Fredrick invited him to join the band.

In his new novel, The King of Good Intentions II, Fredrick writes that, “Every band, at any level, believes they should be one level up.” Trouser Press laments the fact that The Black Watch has accumulated a following “the size of a kitchen sponge,” and notes that the bands music is “worth searching out by more than just epicures of obscurity.” Frederick has ensured remarkable quality across the bands life span, despite numerous lineup changes and more albums than most bands ever get a chance to make.

Fredrick meant to be a novelist, but found he could write multiple songs in the time it took to complete a page of satisfactory prose. Hes an ambitious writer and performer, but hes not so self-serious as to downplay his own misadventures. He calls his aborted retirement plans “Going grandstanding. Transparently.” Hes also committed to tweaking pieties (or jokingly angling for publicity via high-profile lawsuits) by making antic choices, like naming an album Led Zeppelin V.

Theres a manic energy to Fredricks thought processes. It stands out next to the smoothness of his voice, his unruffled vocal delivery. Ask a question and he offers layers of allusions and caveats, jokes and asides. This never gives the impression hes hiding anything or dodging the question, but it does establish clear expectations of his audience. Come to him, you omnivorous readers with strong opinions. Gather round, lovers of shoegaze and The Beatles and clever, literate songwriting. Follow him from A to B, and youll laugh, and furrow your brow, and maybe even raise an objection. He wont mind. If anything, its an excuse to set off deeper into the thickets of bands and songs and books and writers. Its not a dangerous trip, but blink and youll almost certainly miss something.

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JOHN MCINTYRE: So you were going to retire from music, but that seems mostly to have gotten you a series of indulgent nods in response. Something along the lines of, “Okay, John. Sure. Call me when youve got a new batch of songs.” Where does the lineup for The Black Watch stand now?

 JOHN ANDREW FREDERICK: Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy was well and truly meant to be the swan song of The Black Watch: I was despairing of having much more energy for writing and recording and thought, “Well, that’s something of a sign — how arduous it was to make this LP.” But, turns out, the difficulty had more to do with trying to do all the instruments save drums on my own. And de facto producing.

I wanted to make the record by myself as a sort of who-needs-you to someone who’d just quit the band. I was exhausted, and heartbroken, and it was terribly-frightfully lonely to make an entire record by myself. Thankfully, long-time associate and many-time producer Scott Campbell came along and he mixed it at his lovely home studio in the San Fernando Valley.

The current TBW line-up is me, Tyson Cornell on lead guitar, Rick Woodard on drums, and Chris Rackard on bass. To Rick and Chris I said: “Look, don’t worry — just because you aren’t going to be on this LP doesn’t mean I am breaking up the band.” And then I went and “quit” music. I meant it at the time. Thing was, it was a very short time! You might say I was fooling no one at all — least of all myself. Going grandstanding. Transparently. Oh, well.

Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy was going to be the final album from The Black Watch. In that context, the final three songs (“Anne of Leaves,” “A Major Favor,” and “Dear Anne”) feel like a gentle, almost melancholy sendoff. Then Highs and Lows comes, and its got these great fuzzy instrumental bursts, and such terrific momentum. Its not remotely the sound of a man ready to pack it in. What specifically happened between the two albums?

I met Tyson Cornell. He became my publisher for The King II. He had a spate of ideas about cross-marketing with the band and artwork and the whole motif. Then, knowing he loved catchy pop music and was reputed to play a mean Rickenbacker, I said: “Why don’t you join the band? We’re going to SXSW in a month — come and play!” And he did, and got on swimmingly with Ricky and Chris and the rest is minor indie history. What happened as well was I got really inspired and wrote songs with Tyson’s style (very riffy, very tasteful, very out-there as well) in mind — that is to say, fewer words, more space, more spaciness.

These two albums arrive alongside the second novel in a trilogy (The King of Good Intentions II) about a fictional band called The Weird Sisters. Youre also working with a new publisher in Rare Bird Lit. Im not going to accuse you of writing a roman à clef, because that way I can pretend you arent judging me for liking Galaxie 500 and Luna. Some things here do seem to cut pretty close to your lived experience with The Black Watch, though. Did you ever consider treating those years as a memoir rather than fiction? I mean, Dean Wareham got away with it.

I did write a roman à clef — it’s not an accusation, per se. So did Proust; so did Anthony Powell. And Hemingway. Do I sound defensive, in bringing up precursors to my own thing? I didn’t write a memoir because, really, most of the stuff in both novels, and especially in part three, the forthcoming The Hollow Crown, is made up. Epistemologically/solipsistically, we make up other people any old way. If I knew you, John, I would only know the you of my own making anyway. The me of my own making as well. One writes fiction to write about what didn’t happen — not what did. Who said that? John Fowles, perhaps. Besides, I wrote fiction well before I ever founded TBW. I founded TBW because I failed to finish a 500-page first novel, set in London where I lived for a year after university. It was so hard, writing! I could write five songs in the time it took me to write one page. I was a slave to Joyce and Flaubert, having heard they spent days on one sentence. So that’s what I did. And consequently wrote something that … well, let’s just say I’m glad it got tossed. I really like Galaxie 500, mind you. And I really loathe them as well. Hating them, in the books, as John does, became something of a riff and motif, an inside joke like what Yul Brynner was in my first work of fiction, The Knucklehead Chronicles.

I am obsessive-compulsive, artistically and maybe in real life. My kid is like that as well: we both can say a phrase over and over till we’re in stitches. I worry about us.

Both King and King II are set in years that meant a great deal to you musically and personally. The novels are no doubt a mixture of memory and invention, but was there a musical version of Prousts madeleine you turned to when working on them? Did writing the novels jog memories?

There’s no madeleine for me. That’s something of a conceit/contrivance on Proust’s part, don’t you think? There’s this palpable sense that we really do see that scallop-shaped biscuit, though! I write to see what my characters will do. Plots are for graveyards. Though there is a plot in both novels, it emerges from character. And from happenstance. The happenstance that the Imagination makes happen? You might say that. You must understand, moreover, that you’re talking to a madly ambitious writer here. I mean, I have, throughout, tried to marry a sort of trenchant Proustian consciousness, making serious observations, in an authorial-intruding/voice-of-the-gods-from-on-high — that sort of sensibility, with a Rothian (but WASPy) kind of rant-jeremiad, to an Amis/Amis-pere/Nabokovian madcap and mordant sense of dark humor, with the small world (cue David Lodge ref) of indie rock and a sort of Dickensian panoply of all of Los Angeles in the mid-90’s. A preposterous venture, put like that. And doubtless something of a failure. Unless you laugh out loud a number of times. That’s my real goal: to make people laugh aloud while reading. It’s the greatest pleasure, I think.

But no, there never was or is a moment where I go eureka-ing down the lane. I rush home from work or rehearsal or tennis to be with the characters that, to me, are as alive as anyone I know. Apropos of the question about bands that stopped when TBW did not? Hypnolovewheel — a band from Jersey that was on Alias. Three records, I think. And of course the band that I saw with seven other people in Santa Barbara that prodded me into starting a band: The Lucy Show — two Canadians and two Londoners who did a Cure meets Beatles thing that, well, I stole and kept on going with! I owe them so much! Thievery par excellence on my part, surely. We were a lot more … well, I won’t say reticent. Just shyly, slyly confident. In ourselves. In music industry and label people … never. Perhaps that’s why I am so gleefully skewering them in The King II: they deserve it. The A&R and major and indie worlds are just too rife with ludic hubris not to be subjected to someone’s satire. May as well be mine.

At one point in the novel, John observes that every band, whatever level theyre at, believes they should be one level up. Have you shaken that belief since the early days of The Black Watch?

I will never shake the feeling that TBW should be a bigger band than it is or was. And I will always be very philosophical about it. Tim Boland, Irish guy, former lead guitarist and producer for us says I’ll get my proverbial due when I’m dead. I can wait. That’s all right. It’s perversely thrilling to be underground still, to stay underground. I doubt Joyce Cary (another major influence and someone who must have lifted loads from his own life, certainly in the divine The Horse’s Mouth, don’t you think?) got his due when he was around. Sort of the motif of “Right, you blighters — have another record that only a few thousand people will buy or ‘get.’” A little part of me likes that there were only 500 copies of The Knucklehead Chronicles. I like that book as much if not more than the Kings and no one has read it save a few hundred people. There’s, at this late stage, a lot to be said for surmounting our critical fate with scorn, as Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I am very proud of the achievement, you know. Some records and passages in the books more than others.

The King II is great on the absurd, endless repetition of touring, and Spinal Tap comes up in the novel, but you dont co-opt that strain of absurdity. The King II has weirdos at every level — radio people, zine writers, label heads and staff, band members, club owners. Fans. You end up with absurdity based on the endless repetition of touring, and the way that grind foments peoples worst traits. How do you talk yourself into heading back out on the road now, knowing youre probably going to encounter another in the endless variations on these themes?

I am going back out on tour — the West Coast early in 2016. I think you just go gilding your memory lilies. Like: “It wasn’t that bad, Marfa or Birmingham or Boston or Madison. I will trick myself into going, I reckon. My fave psychologist Karen Horney talks about how we prefer to focus on the positive when it comes to love and to childrearing. Same thing for indie rock tours — one’s baby, one’s love.

There are also the lines from one of Mark Kozeleks newer songs (“Sunshine in Chicago,” as Sun Kil Moon) where he sings about the way touring has changed over the course of his career:

Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad
My band played here a lot in the ’90s when we had
Lots of female fans and fuck, they all were cute
Now, I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes

I don’t know if youve heard the song or not, or if it lines up with your experience.

Kozelek is yet another guy I love to loathe and of course love (Red House Painters [were] genius, first Sun Kil Moon [is] amazing, Benji [is] the most grossly overrated record in history). I reckon he’s bored and facing the fact that he’s a star that never swam into the general ken. Why else would he be so obsessed, lyrically, with other stars of rock? Benji made me crazy on account of so many thought it masterly and, me, I thought of it as a high school diary writ large. “But it’s so honest!” many crowed. Ah, but honesty’s the most overrated virtue, artwise, methinks? Gotta have that artifice in art, I say. What do I know? A bunch. And nothing. I would never put down guys in tennis shoes coming to TBW gigs. I myself am a guy in tennis shoes. Always. Unless Topsiders.

How did you settle on the structure of The King II? Johns rants are highly specific and often very funny. They almost feel like between-song monologues in the way they break up the plot.

The dramatic monologue aspect of much of The King II came from a lifelong love of Robert Browning. Plus a belief that you want to know someone — let them gab on. Sort of like painting, you know — deepening the portrait with more coats. Some of those monologues, like Barnacle Bob’s, for instance, maybe got away from me artistically. But he’s good company.

The first book is fondly indulgent of John, but in The King II, we begin to notice some patterns in his behavior. Hes a little older, and those patterns arent as flattering. They havent landed him in absolute crisis yet. Should we be on the lookout for higher stakes and higher drama in the final book of the trilogy, The Hollow Crown?

The books get darker as they go. Leavened with what I hope is substantive humor and poetic but not too purple writing. John’s nervous breakdown and doppelgänger was meant to be Pinterish — a sort of homage. The Hollow Crown really shows how John gets his comeuppance for his sins. And there is meant to be something very funny as well about that.

You did an interview with Magnet in 2011 where you accounted for the longevity of The Black Watch. You said, “The so-called secret to our longevity is that I think that every record weve put out is, to me, a failure of sorts and that I have to make another one in order to make up for the previous flunk.” How does your experience as a novelist compare to that? Do you find yourself making like Robert Lowell, and taking the finished book and paging through, making notes and corrections in the margins?

I think the books are failures too. Brilliant failures, of course. And again I don’t mean brilliant in the look-at-me sort of way, but brilliant in the sense that parts of them (and I hope the preponderance of them) truly shine. As comedy. And very very human and humanist. Isn’t that enough? Yes, I revised the first King five times. The hardest work I have ever done. Much harder than writing a dissertation on Ford Madox Ford and Virginia Woolf. I just got sick of looking at The King II, I revised it so much. I’m a Jamesian and a Joycean. I could revise all day — trying to lift the prose into poetry, trying to make the jokes zanier and tighter. There’s nothing wrong with failing. Failing is an energy. And in a way, paradoxically, the books are not failures and I am being very disingenuous about the records. You shouldn’t trust me; I’m an unreliable narrator in real life, too.

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John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. He previously wrote about Ferran Adria and David Goodis (each under separate cover) for LARB.



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