Here’s the second part of my recent interview with Eric in which we delve deeper into his recording and songwriting process, recent European travels and his research into alternative food systems and collectives.
I and I: How do you generally start a new song? Is it an intellectual process of thinking what you’d like to do or is more jamming and experimenting to get ideas and then embellishing and refining those? Did you try any new songwriting techniques or processes on this one?
Eric: i guess i don’t have seem to start a song the same way twice, really, but generally i seem to start with a germ of an idea, which i’ll record on keyboard or guitar, and start messing around with. i think most of the tracks on ‘the friend’ were pretty well fleshed out musically before i added vocals. in most cases, once voices are added, i tend to go back and change certain aspects of the music, usually carving out more space and minimizing parts. things that sound good when there aren’t vocals on a track seem to compete with voices once they’re added. a couple of the tracks on this album — ‘strange power’ and ‘we waited for nothing’, i remember writing on piano and wurlitzer. as for lyric-writing, like i said before, much of the lyrics just kind of came to me at various times, in contrast to the way i’ve often written in the past, which was often about writing a ton of stuff and then paring down to essential lines or something.
I and I: Can you say anything about the title ‘The Friend Is This Animal’?
Eric: the title, ‘the friend is this animal’ is a direct nod to the amazing philosopher elizabeth grosz. i took a class with her on feminism and the animal, which basically looked at how western philosophers have understood the animal, how those understandings have been and are enmeshed with how we see the human. more than that, the class attempted to look at and think animals as not just something we ‘project’ our human notions onto, or a kind of ‘outside’ or opposite to ‘society’ or ‘culture’ and such, but as beings with their own worlds, cultures, creativity, and so on. in her great book ‘chaos, territory, art’, liz grosz argues that what we tend to think of as ‘nature,’ a thing we generally oppose to our supposedly more elevated human ‘culture’, is actually the basis from which all art and culture emerges. getting back to my album, i was really moved, while working on this record, by nietzsche’s way of talking about animals and the human animal, especially the relationship between zarathustra and ‘his animals,’ who restore zarathustra to health when he enters his convalescent periods…these animals, an eagle and a snake, tell him that to get over his nausea caused by the wretched ways that humans often treat each other he should learn from animals, especially songbirds, who sing and dance and affirm life to the fullest extent. it’s hard to do justice to these concepts in this short interview, but i found these ways of thinking about the animal to be quite helpful in my own life, for a number of reasons related to the deep changes and rich experiences of my recent years that i talked about earlier.
I and I: You’ve been in and out of Europe during the writing and recording of this album and now post recording. How has that effected your outlook and your music and also the work of the Alchemist collective?
it’s hard to say if and how being in europe has affected the writing and my outlook…aside from what i’ve said already about the vibrancy and exuberance of the mediterranean. i think that much of what ‘the friend’ is moving towards is a learning to be affirming towards all things that life throws at us, and in some really interesting ways that i’m still processing, much of the things were coalescing for me and taking firmer shape while making the album have really begun to blossom over the months since the album was finished. especially in the last couple of months, spent living what i think of as a very elemental life. by that i mean that i’ve mainly been doing a few very fundamental things all summer: swimming in the sea and taking in sunshine; shopping in open-air markets, cooking and eating fresh and nutritious food; playing, writing, and recording music; exploring new places and walking around cities; reading a bit, talking a lot; and other quite visceral and essential things that literally generate life and keep it rolling along. this probably sounds quite bourgie in a club med kind of way, and in some ways, sure — the stuff i’ve been doing has been facilitated by a certain degree of situated privilege (using the term quite relatively). but on the other hand, most of the places i’ve stayed and things i’ve spent money on have been both relatively humble and quite simple in a beautiful way. and i don’t really think that living this kind of elemental life is essentially easier or less full of challenges, obstacles and frustrations than any other set of daily rhythms, just different kinds of challenges and such.
anyway, i’m kind of rambling here, but i think that the places i’ve been spending time in — spain, sicily, france — and the things i’ve been doing there have been a kind of ongoing elaboration on the kinds of life affirming values that i was finding my way towards in making ‘the friend.’ i don’t know if that makes sense, or if it’s evident listening to the record, but that’s how it feels to me. i certainly don’t have anything figured out, but it will be interesting to see where this parabolic arc takes me, personally and musically. (as if there’s a distinction!).
I and I: Speaking of collectives can you talk about your studies of collective and alternative food systems and how that has influenced your perspective on music making and the Alchemist collective?
Eric: this is a huge question with a potentially huge answer, but i’ll try to keep it succinct. i grew up hating capitalism and the hypocrisy of formal politics and reigning moralities in the US and probably most societies, but i’ve also always had a pretty unwavering optimistic side, as well. in recent years, i’ve encountered some people who have really helped me to formulate ways of thinking through how to be both critical and hopeful, how to be for things instead of just against them, how to create (and to recognize that to create is also to destroy at the same time). the list of allies in this process is way too long, but i’ll mention specifically the work of j.k. gibson-graham (which you can check out here: www.communityeconomies.org), and elizabeth grosz, who led me to take seriously nietzsche’s writing, which i continue to find extremely inspiring in many ways.
also big in this learning process has been the oklahoma food cooperative, from whose members i continue to learn a lot about how to go about building another world, starting from where we are. the fact is that there are so many people and organizations who aren’t waiting around for a revolutionary overthrow of any governments or systems and are living in a different world already, from the diverse movements that make up the world social forum, to street artists, to CSA/CSF and on and on. to say nothing of the many non-capitalist practices that everyone engages in every day, from unpaid housework and childcare to charity and volunteer work and so on. thinking of the alchemist collective as working alongside and with so many other vibrant kinds of individuals and groups is quite inspiring to me, making the moments when doing things differently seems hopeless quite rare.
I and I: What’s next for you musically?
Eric: i’ve been involved in an exciting collaboration this summer, but we haven’t talked about exactly what we’re going to do with those songs, or what directions the music might be heading in. so far, it’s kind of folkie indie music, i guess, with maybe some R&B inflections. in general, i feel a powerful drive to write and record right now, so we’ll see where that takes me. i have really missed playing live with other folks. and playing live in general. i think it’s time to get out and play, wherever i am in the coming months.