artists talk to artists

Jonathan Lethem Interviews the Front Man of the Band Winterpills

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images, Corbis

Philip Price was the last of a handful of lifelong friendships I forged during my brief, ill-starred career as a college student, just before becoming a “sophomore on leave” for the rest of my life. Philip was a graduating senior, ostensibly a painter, though he dripped talent for any number of other things — writing, music, cartooning, and making me laugh like we were on drugs even when we occasionally weren’t.

We had lots of things in common: A sculpture student I was dating had earlier broken up with Philip by filling the interior of his tiny car with chunks of rebar. In his 20s, Philip started bands like other people get hives — Memorial Garage, Feet Wet, and the precursor to Winterpills, the Maggies. These bands were full of people who were my friends or became my friends, and it was only due to my severe musical incompetency that I didn’t manage to be in one of them myself. (I did inflict my lyric-writing on Philip a few times, though it was hardly an area in which he needed help.) On the occasion of Winterpills’ latest album release, I spoke with him about this musical career that I’ve long and fondly observed from the outside.

Jonathan Lethem: Before I pummel you with softballs, there should be full disclosure to readers: We’ve been friends since college in the ‘80s. Though this conversation started many years ago, I’ll try not to rely on shorthand.

So, let me start by asking why you titled the new album Love Songs. A Google search reveals thousands of releases over the decades with the same title, from the Carpenters to K-Tel – but, so far as I can tell, always compilations.
Philip Price: I won’t pretend there wasn’t at least an attempt at irony, but in doing so I realized that I always write from love — if love means obsessive thoughts, romantic fussiness, melancholia, nostalgia (the Russian ‘toska’ is better), heartache, and, yeah, the generally accepted idea, too. Love isn’t always the subject, but sometimes only the melody.

It seems like the only clear, actual object of your affections here is the British film star Celia Johnson, from David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
It’s one of the more intensely “internal” films I’ve ever seen.

Your songs have always had a cinematic quality.
My dad was a screenwriter. As a family we never missed the Oscars and stayed till the credits rolled on every film. That’s how I try to write songs, too: no real fear of the gap between the trite or the low and high art, I guess, and I always wait until the lights come up.

I recall you wrote bunches of screenplays at one point, and a few comics. But when I first met you at college you were a painter.
I actually started painting again, this past year. It’s amazing how that part of my brain was just sitting there exactly as I left it! Meaning, pretty half-assed but willing.

You studied voice at Bennington, too, didn’t you, with Frank Baker?
Yeah. He was great. But I was singing Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” and other German art songs and then opera, which was all beautiful and fun and challenging to do, but I didn’t really know how to interpret that stuff. Felt forced and artificial. Once I brought in one of my own songs and belted it out a capella to him, and he really did not care for it at all. I was a little crushed, but he didn’t get what I was going for. At least I knew that.

This album seems to draw on the range of all your projects from Feet Wet through the Nick Drake-y sound of early Winterpills, and the Dennis Wilson lushness of the last couple [records].
Probably due to me spending the past few years slowly and painfully remixing all those albums while we were also making this one. But the writing process has never changed much.

It’s omnivorous. Yet there’s a single-cell-organism feel to the songs. They float above influence.
I’ve always felt simply embarrassed by the ambition to be a culture-changing artist, so I never even tried. Probably defeatist of me, but, everything has been done. I’m more interested in the journeyman approach, and the more romantic idea that the audience will find the art. I hope that’s why we’re so annoyingly obscure: my impatience with nation-building.

Like putting a hot pie out on a windowsill to cool off, and —
— and hopefully the neighborhood kid makes off with it.

Tell me about your relationship with the female voice. Since I’ve known you, you’ve always found a way to collaborate with singers of the opposite sex. In Winterpills, obviously you’ve met your match in Flora.
Yes, very true. Part of that is kind of hating my own voice, never feeling like it was ‘enough,’ or kind of too pretty for the hard sound I wanted to make. Wanting to hide it inside the third voice created by male-female harmony. The other was my obsessive listening to X. I became very obsessed with the dynamics of those two voices; John Doe’s pretty classic-rock singing style with Exene’s unusual kind of dissonant, untrained harmony gift.

The punk influence is pretty buried in Winterpills.
Only I know it’s there and it’s more method than sound. But I’ve somehow figured out that Winterpills was a reaction to my (very selective) love of punk and New Wave. I flooded my ears with X, the Minutemen, Talking Heads, Television, and XTC when I was in my 20s, shunning my Beatles/Stones/Cohen/Mitchell/Dylan/prog-rock childhood (eventually all these things just morphed into ‘music’). I realized that a lot of those punk bands weren’t even just punk; they were also all journeyman pop craftspeople coexisting in the punk/noise Zeitgeist, being pushed along in a heady current.

I remember how your music changed after you first heard Elliott Smith.
You played him for me, around 1997! All that punk authenticity I was trying to manufacture for years looked like a sham when I heard Either/Or. “Nobody broke your heart/you broke your own/’Cause you can’t finish what you start.” I saw the future that night. I’ve always felt that what I began after hearing Elliott was figure out how to actually sing, how to hold back, when to blast forth.

You’ve struggled with characters in your songs.
The bar is so high. If you study the Freedy Johnston catechism, as I do, the characters’ voices are so lived-in you don’t even have to know who is talking to feel the weight of their stories on their lives. You can suss it out later. I’ve always strived for a certain storytelling in song that keeps itself hidden, shuns explanation. A kind of literary quality without actual literature. I want the music itself, the sound we make, to control the story. Sometimes it works.

How important is it to you to be part of whatever musical Zeitgeist is flaring up at the moment?
I learned long ago that my eye is very bad for that sort of thing. I’m late to every party and spend most of my time staring in the window from the outside, watching everyone get down. It’s hard enough for me to just figure out how to be coherent, how to get my point across. Often, I don’t even know what the point is until someone tells me what they heard. The other night at a show, someone told me that my music prevented them from killing themselves. I mean, how do you do better than that, just as a human?

I’ve always secretly mocked people who say that they are vessels for some higher power that ‘writes music through them.’ And yet I know exactly how that feels. I’m very superstitious. I really do not know what is happening when I’m writing, except that it feels really really good, and I’m very sad and hungry and thirsty when it stops. Coherency is total gravy. Which is why I’ve always really admired the incredible lucidity of your writing, so perfectly wedded to your internal chaos. Lucid chaos. I’m jealous of that.

I recall telling you I was jealous of how you get to re-inhabit your art live and in the moment, in front of people. To see it hit people in the face. When I’m done writing, the exhilaration is over. Book tour is like playing yourself in an infomercial.
Often I don’t get to see people’s faces, you know, in dark rooms. Or they aren’t even there.

Back to Love Songs. Though there may not be obvious objects in these songs, they are all full of relationships — but through a sort of mythological lens.
All human relationships are mythological. Spun narratives with tenuous connections to the real, often. Narratives with aggrandized, narcissistic, mythic size. Story lines that, if sometimes challenged, must either be rewritten or scrapped altogether. If you’re resilient, you do a lot of rewriting. Myths need to be nimble to stay vital.

There’s a certain sonic scale to this album that seems new.
We finally figured out that we just plain needed more headroom. Justin Pizzoferrato (engineer, co-producer) has been working with the likes of Dinosaur Jr, J. Mascis, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, the Pixies, for years, and recording with his sensibilities and skills gave us permission to get as loud as we needed to with no fear. It opened up something in the band, creatively. But it’s not like we suddenly became a death metal band, we’re still bird’s-nest fragile a lot of the time. We just had more room to pursue the horizon.

You’ve had a lineup change recently.
Yes — our old friend Max Germer, who was with me in the Maggies for nine years, is now on bass with us. A little bittersweet, mostly sweet. He went off and became an even better bass player so we’re really getting Max 2.0. It doesn’t hurt that fellow ‘pills Dennis (Crommett, guitar) and Dave (Hower, drums) both play with him in Spanish for Hitchhiking, so they never seem to stop working.

In spite of the lushness of this album, it starts modestly. The first song, “Incunabula,” sounds like you’ve just woken up.
Almost. I had a cold, that was the very last song we did, because we realized the album needed some acoustic air. A bit rushed, last day. We did it in one take and did not re-track anything. The guitar part was new to my fingers, the guitar I was using was buzzy and rattly, and the Ebow I was playing was brand-new and I’d never used one before.

What inspired the contradictory refrain “It’s so lonely inside love”?
I guess it’s just an admission that love doesn’t solve all human dilemmas, especially for someone who lives pretty far up a lonely dirt road inside his own head.

Where do you go from here?
To quote X, this is the game that moves as you play. My goals have certainly changed. I’m much less anxious about the things I was anxious about before, I see the whole enterprise as a privilege. But that applies to all creative work. My skin is thicker, but the stakes are the same.

Jonathan Lethem Interviews Winterpills Front Man