By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Bob Mould has always avoided living in the past — except for the last two and a half years.
During that time, he's been writing an autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (with Michael Azerrad, Little, Brown, $24.99), which publishes June 15. It tells the story of a punk rock pioneer consistently dodging his own past. He plays in bands — the bracing fury of Husker Du (1980-88), the ear-splitting pop of Sugar (1992-95) — then avoids reunions like a plague. He practically chucked rock altogether, shocking hard-core fans by reinventing himself in the new century as a DJ and electronic music maker. He lives in cities and then flees, never to return. He quits alcohol, quits smoking, no relapses. The man moves forward.
See a Little Light tells of Mould's struggles with homosexuality, personal relationships and various addictions, but this is not just another titillating rock 'n' roll memoir. There are good anecdotes, for sure — Mould almost got the job producing Nirvana's "Nevermind," and his friendly rivalry with the Replacements' Paul Westerberg actually resulted in some demos together (which were stolen from a van, but "don't worry, the stuff wasn't very good") — and makes certain we understand that we shouldn't expect a Husker Du reunion. It's a clear, plain account of one troubled musician's life, with a lively and happy present-day ending.
"I think longtime fans will be shocked but not really surprised by some of this stuff," Mould said this week from his home in San Francisco. "The plain storytelling is what they're used to from me. I didn't try to make it something it isn't. ... It's definitely my voice."
Mould will be in Chicago twice in the next three weeks, performing shows that illustrate the two sides of his personality and career. He spoke with the Sun-Times about the shows, the book and where music intersects with — or divides — a life ...
Question: In the book, you refer to Chicago as "a key city for me," with some fun tales about shows at the Riviera and Aragon. Why has Chicago been important?
Bob Mould: Strictly by numbers, Chicago is my biggest market. I do my best business there, whether it's selling records or tickets or the amount of airplay or media coverage. It's my biggest town. I always emphasize to whoever I'm working with that Chicago has to get special treatment.
Q: Why do you think we like you so much?
BM: I don't know, I've just always connected there. Joe Shanahan [owner of Metro] has been a key part of that over the years, and Norm [Winer, music programmer] at WXRT. ... It must just be the ethic of Chicago. It's a hard-working, no-nonsense town.
Q: Yet in all the different cities you've lived in — Minneapolis, New York, Austin, D.C., San Francisco — you've never landed here?
BM: That aaaaaalmost happened in '02. It was the winter, though. I've lived in the Adirondacks and Minneapolis and had about 30 years of hard winters. But my partner and I at the time said, "Do we really want to do this winter thing?"
Q: Your show this weekend is another Blowoff party. How have those volved over the years?
BM: It's myself and Rich Morel, both singer-songwriter musicians, producers, whatever. We started this party in 2003. The idea was to meet people. I'd just moved to Washington, D.C., and I wanted to meet people. We had a shared love of disco and electronic music, and we just started these DJ nights that, over eight years, have morphed into this big seasonal dance event that we take around the country.
Q: You were somewhat new to electronic and dance music when this started, right?
BM: Going back to my punk rock days, I had no time for disco and little time for '80s electronic music, which now I know is a shame because there was so much great stuff I was missing at the time. I had to go back and re-educate myself.
Q: The solo show next month will feature you playing songs and reading from the book, is that right?
BM: Yes. [Laughs] I don't know how I'm going to do that. I'm waiting for a call back from Ray Davies to see how he did it. [Laughs]
Q: Now that you have the book in your hand, how do you feel about it and the process of writing it?
BM: I'm very proud of it. It's been a lot of work. ... It's not at all what I thought it would be.
Q: What do you mean?
BM: Well, the obvious route would have been: Here's a cursory look at my childhood and some things I liked as a kid, and then, oh, I was in this band and then another band, and all these wonderful things happened. Everyone who picks this up is going to know that story already. It was clear to me that my job was to let people really know who I am, to take ownership of my life, the good and bad.
Q: This comes out just a few months after Andrew Earles' Husker Du biography (Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock). Bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton are interviewed in that book, but not you. Is that because this book was under way?
BM: Yes. I haven't read that book.
Q: You've written before. Why not write this memoir on your own? How did Azerrad help shape the story?
BM: Where he gets credit is, as an outsider, getting me to shed the stories that had no bearing on the greater story. And also, things that I'd drop as an aside, he'd be like, "Wait a minute!"
Q: The book has a different tone in the grumpy first half (when your homosexuality was an open secret) than the cheery second (when you were completely out). I'm intrigued by why you felt it so necessary to "bid a farewell to rock" in order to fully pursue a life as a gay man.
BM: I wanted to reinvent myself as a person. For whatever reasons at the time, it was not possible to be fully myself being constantly beholden to my rock 'n' roll career. I needed to step off that. I was basically planning my gay identity in '97-'98, starting to brush up on and then immerse myself in the gay life. I'd never allowed myself that, never had it. The more I sat in the van, the less I was going to have it. I just needed to spend time around other gay people and basically learn how to be one, which I wasn't getting in punk rock. The two were not going to co-exist. Now I know better, but at the time I thought I really needed to let go of this.
Q: How did the transition from rock to electronic music facilitate this?
BM: Electronic music was the soundtrack of that life. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyms where I was spending time were all playing this music. Instead of going to a rock bar every night of my life and hearing rock all the time, I was in environments hearing keyboards and processed vocals and divas. Once it was in my head — I'm a musician, I wanted to learn how people made that music. It took a number of years to get it. It's not as intuitive as pop music.
Q: What will your next music be?
BM: I'm still figuring that out. I stopped writing music when I started writing the book. So I'm just getting back to it.
with Bob Mould and Rich Morel
♦ 11 p.m. May 28
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ $16, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
An evening of reading and music
♦ 8 p.m. June 16
♦ Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
♦ $25, (773) 325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I spoke with Ian McCulloch, leader of Echo & the Bunnymen, he was typically humble. "I've got the best voice in the history of time," he said. "That's how people know my music is real, that I'm not lying to them. I'm not singing for the sake of it. I've got one of those voices that tells you it's the truth."
Echo & the Bunnymen features his dark, brooding and now a bit croaky Jim Morrison-ish voice plus the often wild and tortured sounds Will Sergeant wrings out of guitars.
The two modern-rock collaborators regrouped in 1994 after a sizzling spat and now have been together longer than the first go-round from '78 to '88. Now they return this week with one of those album concerts — playing the entirety of their first two, "Crocodiles" (1980) and "Heaven Up Here" (1981).
During this chat from his home in Liverpool, McCulloch was just as modest and more reflective ...
Q. We spoke last year when you were touring "The Fountain," which you said was the best record you and Will had made since "Ocean Rain." Does that opinion still stand?
A. "What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?" (1999) is also up there as a great Bunnymen-sounding record. That isn't to discount "Siberia" (2005). "Flowers" (2000) is not me favorite.
Q. What makes "a great Bunnymen-sounding record"?
A. The ingredients that made "Crocodiles," "Porcupine," "Ocean Rain." The lyrics and melody and sound of this band, combined. Time helps. Time can give you that insight into what you're about. Doing these "Crocodiles" shows we see, ah, these songs really are as good as we thought and a lot of people thought. The gigs are a master class in rock 'n' roll.
Q. They must be long, too.
A. 30 songs. We're approaching Springsteen territory.
Q. Time has improved the songs, you say, but how has it changed them?
A. Well, it doesn't seem that long ago. It's mad to think that between whatever demos John Lennon did in 1960 to 1970, this is three times that amount of time. Some of these songs — it's the first time we've played them since we played with the drum machine. They sound like we've just written them. We tried not to make records with clichéd sounds of the time. Synthesizers sound horrible.
Q. So why start at the beginning with these two albums?
A. We thought of this before we did the "Ocean Rain" shows [in Britain]. Some of it was to throw down the gauntlet and say, "Which of the bands out there could play their first two records and they'd still ring true?" ... We'll have to wait 20 years to do "Siberia" and "The Fountain" when people realize how great they are.
Q. So what are you getting out of this experience?
A. An extensive "I told you so," as much as anything. Of course, we're preaching to the converted.
Q. Do you find that you're carrying yourself in some way that is different?
A. They're very intense gigs. There's not a lot of "Howdy, folks." It reminds me how I used to be on stage — that important thing of attitude.
Q. Will you tour other albums?
A. Maybe. We could do "Porcupine." Tough one, that. The best way to do that one is with headphones on loud and very much in the dark.
Q. What about the final, self-titled album? It always gets a bad rap.
A. I'm pleased that it looks like it at least got out there a bit, but a lot of it I couldn't listen to. In some ways, it's the one type of Bunnymen with "The Game," but in others, with "Lips Like Sugar," there are so many songs that don't feel like us. A lot of people bought it and loved it. I have mixed feelings. Obviously, it's the one that made me think we should call it a day.
Q. When you write new songs, do you try to reach back to whatever well you drew these early ones from?
A. Whatever inspiration for "The Killing Moon" is also there on "The Fountain" in "The Idolness of Gods." If anything, I've gotten much better. I'm still trying to find that best-ever song. People say "The Killing Moon" is the best we song we've written. Nothing lasts forever, and as important as that song is to us, I try to always think of that next song that strips another veil away. It doesn't weigh on me mind. Every day I've got a head full of tunes.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
performing "Crocodiles" and "Heaven Up Here"
with Kelley Stoltz
• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Vic Theatre, 3159 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $30, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February — begrudgingly.
The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs — and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" — that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses — he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more — but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots — ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it — businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Those new and revitalized sources of income represent a seismic shift in a musician's business plan. As Damian Kulash — singer for Chicago's OK Go, which just unveiled its theme song to Morgan Spurlock's upcoming documentary about product placement — wrote in a thoughtful December essay about these issues for the Wall Street Journal, "So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing — a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes toward outside corporate deals have changed."
Bob DePugh handles music licensing at Chicago's Alligator Records. He's been with the label for more than 20 years, and he started making licensing deals for the label about a decade ago. Two songs by Hound Dog Taylor, for instance, are slated for "The Rum Diary," another Hunter S. Thompson story made into an upcoming movie starring Johnny Depp. DePugh even does extra work on the side. He's placed songs for artists at Chicago's Bloodshot Records, too — the Deadstring Brothers in "Sons of Anarchy," Justin Townes Earle in "Justified," the Sadies in "CSI: NY."
"It became more and more my full-time job as the market really grew for it," he says. "Of course, 10 years ago way fewer people knew about this scheme, so the fees you could get were much higher. About five or six years ago is when it really took off, once shows like 'The Gilmore Girls' and that ilk became highly driven by the soundtrack. The floodgates kind of opened. That was also about the time that CD sales began to drop, so it became more important [for artists]. A lot more people are now chasing this income, and by a lot more I mean everyone."
Licensing songs, however, is a crapshoot, DePugh says. Live performance is where the income is for today's musician, followed by album sales and single downloads. He's mystified by the notion of artists who include placements as part of a business plan.
"You can't rely on this income, not really at all," he says. "It's very fickle, and you're dealing with a lot of people. The music supervisor might take your song to the editor, and it might not work, or the director won't like it, or the budget will change — there are a lot of factors that make it very unreliable. It's great as found money, but you can't balance your budget assuming you're going to win the lottery."
One of those music supervisors scouting songs for TV is Evan Frankfort. He's won a Daytime Emmy for his soap opera scores and is a frequent collaborator with Chicago native Liz Phair writing TV music (he helped Phair craft her now-notorious "Funstyle" album while both were in the studio working on TV shows). Through his Los Angeles post-production music company, Would Work Sound, he also helps connect musicians with television directors looking for the right song for the right moment.
But while sealing the deal for a song in a primetime drama can feel satisfying for the artist at first, Frankfort says, the check usually is only as big as the artist. "Fees range from $500, if no one knows who you are, to maybe $10,000 if you have a following," he says.
Lyle Hysen, a New York-based music broker who works on commission with labels such as Chicago's Thrill Jockey and Drag City, has seen higher. "'Grey's Anatomy,' that could get you some money," he says, "but shows like that are usually exclusively dealing with a particular label. But that level of placement could get you $30,000 [all in]. New shows and cable networks don't have that kind of money, maybe $2,000, $5,000 or $20,000. It's not huge, and it's not consistent, but it's money the band doesn't have to load up the van for."
"A theme song, that's the ultimate goal," says Michael J. Mallen, a Los Angeles music broker who has scored Mr. Robotic many of his placements. "When we talk about this stuff, people usually think of the Rembrandts. Nobody knew who they were, then they wrote the theme song for 'Friends.' At that level, you're talking millions of dollars."
Most TV musical appearances, though, are disappointing for the musicians. Programs need theme songs and dramatic soundtracks, but they mostly need music for the background of a scene. Usually deep background.
"Most placements, I'd say three out of four, you won't even know your song is on the show," Frankfort says. "Everyone wants that final placement [like] at the end of 'Six Feet Under,' when the music plays over the drama, but it's usually at the bottom of what's going on. A guy I just did a record with had a song on a show this week. It was his first placement, and he was very excited. He e-mailed everybody. Not only was the show a big pile of sh—, he didn't even know where the song was. He called and said, 'I guess you didn't use it, after all.' I said, 'Yeah, we did, it's in the bar scene.'"
"I've listened to some placements on TV four or five times, cupping my ears down by the speaker, till I get a hint of the steel guitar lick that tells me, 'Oh, yeah, that's the track,'" DePugh says. "Sometimes the tenor of the singer's voice barely comes through. It can be that nuanced. It may not be that thrilling for the artist, until the check clears."
Frankfort has co-written with Chicago-area pop-punk band the Plain White T's, another band that has recently taken to the music licensing route to keep some money coming in. In August, the T's went on a tour not of public concert venues but of TV network boardrooms, playing mini acoustic shows for music supervisors in an attempt to market their music for primetime placements. Singer Tom Higgenson told Billboard: "With our band, our strong points are our lyrics, our melodies, our harmonies. ... We can strip our music down to bare bones and it's still just as effective."
It worked. Plain White T's songs have since been used in promos for NBC's "Parenthood," ABC's "Private Practice," Showtime's "Californication" and a two-month slot on ABC Family's "Secret Life of the American Teenager."
"Plain White T's are just so damn good in that environment," said Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin. "Especially with 'Rhythm of Love.' It's such a great song with a universal message; it certainly has made it easier to accomplish our goals."
Those goals can range widely, but the bottom line is always there. "Usually, it's supervisors asking, 'Do you have anything that sounds like the Black Keys? Or Coldplay?'" Hysen says. "They want something that sounds hot and current, but something they can clear. Good supervisors don't give me the 'I need something that sounds like a rainy Tuesday.' Most of it's fairly targeted. ... Lyrical cues are pretty big. There's a lot of home, hey I wanna go home, I'm home — a 'home' theme is good. Seeing is a big one, too — happy to see you, good to be seen, maybe a medical show where someone gets their sight back. The werewolf/vampire things are pretty on-target these days. Don't mention fangs but maybe sing about internal love, undying love. Most good love songs do that, anyway."
Does any of this actually sell records or concert tickets?
Only if flashing the musician's name is part of the deal. A few years ago, the late Nick Drake plunged back into the zeitgeist when one of his songs was artfully used in a Volkswagen commercial; CD sales and downloads spiked because the Volkswagen site mentioned the artist for interested viewers who went hunting it. Several months ago, Hyundai helped boost the sales of an unknown pop duo, Pomplamoose, by using several of their Christmas songs in a series of TV ads and correspondingly naming them on their site. Mr. Robotic saw a small sales boost on iTunes after his "Jersey Shore" appearance, because as the song played in the show it included his name and song title in the corner of the screen. Also, that yogurt shop and that sports drink — they both placed links to his songs on their websites.
That doesn't happen when the song's playing in a coffee shop behind the main characters on "The Vampire Diaries" or when it flies by in a commercial promo.
"The good thing about TV music is that you can do a lot of it. The bad thing is that it has an air date," Frankfort says. "The music lives and dies very quickly, sometimes anonymously."
For an unknown, indie artist, music licensing affords them connections that could lead to other things, as well as the occasional check for a song placement. Oddly enough, indie artists even have a leg up on snaring these movie and TV show deals.
"I'm working mostly with unsigned people, independent artists," says Mallen, Mr. Robotic's broker. "If you're signed to a record company, that means there's publishing tied up in the deal, too. It complicates things. In films, often they want something that's available free and clear. It's quicker for them, it's cheaper, but the artist gets their name out there, for whatever it might be worth. I mean, Mr. Robotic can say he was in the Netflix Top 100. That's at least something."
"Most shows don't have budgets for big acts," Frankfort says. "Cable shows, commercials, they're all looking for cheap buys. One band's cheap, though, is another band's payday. Plus, even TV shows that blow their wad on a Fleetwood Mac song probably still need 10 other songs for cheaper."
Chicago balladeer Brad Smith has no illusions about his brush with international fame by virtue of a single song placement. "There's no doubt I was cheaper to get than Bruce Springsteen," he says.
Smith, a 30-year-old unemployed actor and a local musician seemingly unconcerned with his low profile, landed a song, "Help Yourself," on the soundtrack of the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated George Clooney film "Up in the Air" in 2009. How'd he do it? A combination of luck and, you know — it's not what you know but who.
"A friend of mine from high school is [director] Jason Reitman's brother-in-law," Smith says. "He played my CD for this guy, who forwarded it to Jason while he was in pre-production for that movie. I was told this, and then I heard nothing for almost a year. Then one day, Jason calls me up. He wants to use the song, but he doesn't know anything about me, so he's asking questions, like where I regularly played music. I said I didn't very often. He asks, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I read a lot and drink coffee. I'm unemployed.' He says, 'What do you live on?' I said, 'Frankly, if you weren't using this song, I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm about to lose my apartment.' ... That made for a good story. He plucks this guy from obscurity who has no money and puts his song into a movie that's about unemployment."
But despite the song's fairly prominent appearance in an Oscar-nominated movie (in the wedding scene) and on its internationally sold soundtrack — Smith wouldn't say how much he was paid for the deal — Smith remains ensconced in relative obscurity. His soft, acoustic-based songs draw easy comparisons to Elliott Smith, but he didn't receive the same landmark Oscar performance moment.
"There was a lot of talk in the beginning about awards, and Paramount was very confident the song would get lots of nominations, but that didn't happen," Smith says. "In the end, it hasn't done much [for me] at all. My Facebook and MySpace pages got messages from people in Uganda and Romania. That was cool. I got a couple of calls from a company asking me to do a cover of 'Slip Sliding Away' for a commercial, which thankfully didn't end up happening. They wanted to put 'Help Yourself' in that show 'Hung' [on Showtime], but I don't own the song anymore, so I forward those calls to Paramount. ... And I didn't move to Hollywood to pursue this, so things just died back down."
What he did get from the experience is less tangible, certainly less bankable. After taking part in some publicity for the film, he came back to Chicago and finally put a band together. He got serious about songwriting. Early this year, he celebrated the release of a new full-length album, "Love Is Not What You Need," with a show at Schubas, followed by participation in a songwriters series at Metro.
"The biggest thing I took from it was the realization I could take this seriously," Smith said. "My parents, too. It comforted them about what, in their eyes, was something of a hobby, something that wasn't putting them at ease about my security. Now I'm trying to get my legs, as far as my live performance goes. And now I've got some contacts. I much prefer the slow build to sudden stardom, but maybe this will actually work out."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.