Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: An Epic Interview With Disco Vietnam

Douglas Martin is lo-fi power pop personified. Before those of you in the peanut gallery start throwing things in the name of nepotism, I must remind you that we here at Passion of the Weiss aren’t...
By    January 16, 2013

Douglas Martin is lo-fi power pop personified.

Before those of you in the peanut gallery start throwing things in the name of nepotism, I must remind you that we here at Passion of the Weiss aren’t in the business of writing about bad music. Barry Schwartz — he of Disco Vietnam — just happens to be both an enormously talented writer and an equally gifted musician. He’s enough of both to where he can provide intelligence and insight from standing in front of the busted shell of Fat Beats with Ka, create an unlikely acoustic banger for Wu-Tang Pulp (shout out to Zilla Rocca, another friend of the site), and still have time to conjure power-pop gems like “Fear of Lava.”

Not only is he an artist of many talents, but he is also a great thinker and clever raconteur (no Brendan Benson) who you can have a deep and substantial conversation with about virtually anything. In addition to talking about his music during our two-month-long email interview, we peel off on some wild tangents including the Knicks and the Kinks, Guided by Voices and Gunplay, Animal Collective, and the unspoken kinship between African-Americans and Jewish people. With a full-length follow-up to 2010’s really great Totally Awesome Decisions hopefully on the horizon, Schwartz is shaping up to be a can’t miss artist in 2013.

 What do you think you’ll remember most about music in 2012?

  1. Sitting in a gas line for an hour, smoking a blunt, and listening to a bootlegged copy ofReloaded.
  2. Running on the treadmill, listening to Andre 3000’s verse from “Sixteen.”
  3. Checking Ka outside Phat Beats to buy a copy of Grief Pedigree.
  4. Seeing Animal Collective at Hollywood Bowl with Jeff Weiss discussing the fall of Western Civilization.
  5. My little brother playing drums for the dude in 311 that says “chilllll.”
  6. Peter Rosenberg dancing to “Starships” at his wedding.
  7. Guided by Voices reasserting their quality.
  8. The second snare on Usher’s “Lemme See.”
  10. Blunting to the beach, listening to Life is Good.
  11. Seeing a boring Radiohead concert while Johan Santana pitched the first no-hitter in Mets History.
  12. I don’t remember things generally.

There are a so many interesting directions we could take here, but let’s make this interesting early: For those who don’t follow you on Twitter (Writer’s Note: Literally everybody in the world should), explain what Animal Collective have to do with the decline of Western Civilization.

I think their music is contrived and their success is a product of false inertia. It’s a matter of honor.

But isn’t all art contrived in some way? And how do you mean their success is a product of fale inertia? You mean their popularity is a bullshit way to say we’ve “progressed” as far as the artistic level of mass taste?

I’d rather not discuss it.

 So your rock stuff (“Fear of Lava” and the equally excellent Totally Awesome Decisions) is under the name Disco Vietnam, but you also produced dope rap beats under the same name. What’s the idea behind that? Do you ever think about artists artists adopting new names for whatever new musical project as some sort of separatism?

I suppose it’s because I enjoy surprising people. I just thought it would be more interesting for an audience to have no idea what they’re going to experience when they click on the name. It could be a rock song, a rap beat, an essay, a tweet, a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, an argument with my mom about Christmas lights. As long as it says Disco Vietnam, you know it has something to do with me or my brother Kenny and hopefully there’s a surprise in store.

Some people prefer to compartmentalize different aspects of their creativity. Adopting a different name can supply you with a renewed focus. You don’t feel beholden to the body of work you’ve already created. You don’t have to be quite so precious. But if I use Disco Vietnam as an umbrella for everything I do creatively, however disparate the material, hopefully people will eventually connect the dots and think, “Wait… that’s all the same guy?” The challenge for the audience becomes putting the pieces of the puzzle together. That sounds like a better way to engage an audience accustomed to deconstructing art until there’s nothing left.

 During your epic Animal Collective Twitter rant, you mentioned (either publicly or privately to me) that you feel critics have dismissed good songwriting as “formalism.” How do you approach your songs in terms of being an artist? As the frontman of a power-pop band, how do you approach your art in ways to surprise people who claim they’ve seen everything? What part of writing songs applies as “art” to you?

Haha. That’s way too broad. I’m just one person.

 Do you ever have specific moments when writing or recording your songs where something catches you and and you think to yourself, “Holy shit. There’s no way anybody else could have done that?”

When I show Kenny a new song and he makes a decision I would have never considered. It takes the song in the direction it’s meant to go. Kenny’s the truth. I don’t pay him, so my only job is to write songs he likes. As long as he doesn’t feel he’s wasting his time, I’ve probably earned it. He keeps me honest. He doesn’t let me repeat myself. And that’s why every Disco Vietnam song is written by Barry Schwartz and Kenny Schwartz. Brother element. I think that’s what makes us unique even though our music isn’t particularly forward-thinking.

 How are the lyrics written? Do you take much consideration into them? Does Kenny occasionally edit them, or is that a realm you have total control over?

The lyrics are always a work in progress until the moment I record them, which can sometimes take years. Sometimes they begin as unintelligible gibberish. Sometimes it’s trying to make out a conversation in the other room. Sometimes they’re improvised. Sometimes they’re a joke. Sometimes they’re a tweet. Kenny usually lets me write whatever I want because he doesn’t know how to read. Great drummer, though.

What are your influence, musical or non-? What parts of those influences contribute to what you do as a songwriter?

I’ve always been drawn to songwriters who blend sophistication with infectious energy, like Glenn Tilbrook or Doug Fieger. I love playing hard and fast, but I also love chords and harmony. We’ve been compared to jazz-fusion Kings of Leon, but I think we sound like the Knack!

I totally hear the Knack in Disco Vietnam. To me, your band sounds like Guided by Voices if Robert Pollard was a sarcastic Jewish guy and unabashed fan of the Knack and Squeeze. I don’t know if the sarcastic Jewishness is incredibly pronounced in your tunes, but I feel like it’s definitely there.

That’s fascinating. I’ve never considered the “Jewishness” of Disco Vietnam’s music. Being Jewish is like being born 5,000-year-old, so if you’re an old soul, you’re going to be a really old soul. It’s an inescapable part of your identity. It shapes your sense of humor, your personality, and your creative process by extension.

(That’s what’s always drawn me to Wu-Tang; there was an ancient quality to the cosmology that reminded me of Talmud.)

I don’t think my music is sarcastic. Quite the contrary. A lot of my songs are inspired by absurd experiences, the more comically tragic the better, and I try to reach some positive conclusion, a technique for survival. That’s pretty Jewish.

Guided by Voices are a study in ethics. That’s what I’ve always admired about them. I like to imagine Robert Pollard on a boat somewhere tossing pink diamonds into the ocean. Nothing is precious. Nothing is sacred. It’s a great attitude to have and I think something worth aspiring to.

Squeeze are superlative songwriters.

 I don’t think the sarcasm of your music is as prevalent as the Jewishness, but it kind of goes hand-in-hand. I guess I kind of pay attention to that sort of thing because I feel like, as a people, Black people and Jewish people are similar in a lot of ways. One time, I was having dinner with Jeff and we were talking about Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he said, “Black people and Jewish people love each other.” I know nothing about Judaism, but have a very close kinship with people who were raised as secular and observant Jews. I feel like Black families and Jewish families are raised with the same core values.

Comic tragedy is definitely a characteristic African-American and Jewish people share, but yeah. There’s this kind of stepping back and observing the absurdity of life that is the basis of African-American and Jewish humor, and some of your songs make me think of that.

I think you’ve hit on something I’ve always suspected, Disco Vietnam is a hip-hop group that just happens to make power-pop indie-rock. Modern Jews and Blacks are both extremely comfortable with our otherness — everything is folkloric — and we can wield it with frightening precision at lethal speed. I think that’s where a lot of our kinship comes from, or at least the potential of it. Our perspective wisdoms mirror each other; there’s really nothing a five-percenter can say that a Jew can’t see the sense in. I honestly believe that.

Before I get off the topic of the inextricable bond between Black people and Jewish people, I think the world would be benefited greatly by a Disco Vietnam/Gunplay joint-interview. I think you two would get along famously.

I would love to have a conversation with Gunplay. There’s only three or four truly exciting young rappers and he’s one of them. He has a swastika tattoo, which is fascinating, and I don’t care, which is equally fascinating.

Could you elaborate on the ethics of Guided by Voices? I think I know what you mean, but I would rather you explain it than to try to explain it to you and risk getting it wrong. Also, we’ve never talked about the Replacements, but there’s something about Disco Vietnam that feels similar to me, even though the music is only somewhat on the same spectrum. I think it’s because your songs have a lot of personality and identity, not having to resort to production parlor tricks or arty bona-fides. It’s straightforward in execution but contains multitudes. And that is truly indicative as to what I love about Paul Westerberg’s songwriting.

I believe the fundamental job of any songwriter, or any artist, is to finish what you start. And that takes tremendous discipline. The critical part, the “Is this any good?” should be unwelcome during the creative process. If those [finishing what you start] are your first principles, you have the potential to be extremely prolific once you’ve developed your artistic intelligence. Hence Robert Pollard. But critics don’t know how to engage prolific artists. They’re almost annoyed by it. No effort is made to understand how or why they’re prolific. But a prolific artist is a healthy artist. That should be encouraged. And it’s the critic’s job to encourage that.

Paul Westerberg is obviously another superlative songwriter and I’ve definitely learned a lot from him. A song should exist beyond its aesthetics. You should be able to extract the music and lyrics from a recording because that’s where the integrity of the song is found. The essential elements. A recording should simply capture one great performance of an interpretation of the song instead of being some precious sculpture. We’ve gotten away from that.

Let’s talk about “Fear of Lava”’s title. Is it as self-explanatory as it seems?

I suppose as conceptual metaphors are concerned, it’s fairly self-explanatory. A fear of lava is essentially a fear of everything and a fear of nothing at the same time, right?

Is it meant to be an addendum or an antithesis to Totally Awesome Decisions?

A progression.

How do you feel you’ve progressed from that record? Is it a catch-all kind of thing, or do you feel you’ve progressed in certain categories?

The songs on Totally Awesome Decisions are rather long. They have a lot of parts and progress through a lot of different sections and that was kind of the point. But when it was all said and done, it didn’t feel great to see 4:57 or 5:22 next to a track. The songs on Fear of Lava are more economic: same structural quirks that I love — bridges, pre-choruses, modulations — but I think get from point A to point Z more efficiently and the songs are stronger for it. I credit Twitter.

In terms of the content, I finally felt like I’ve managed to incorporate my absurdist sense of humor into my lyrics. Its title notwithstanding, Totally Awesome Decisions is about some really serious stuff. I suspect Fear of Lava is easier to digest.

Have you been working on any songs since Fear of Lava and Poyple? If so, how do they progress even further than what you’ve done thus far?

Poyple will be a full-length. My downstairs neighbor Ryan Siegel has produced everything we’ve done and there’s a professional studio in my house so it would be pretty inexcusable. I’d like to have some control over how it eventually sounds this time.You may be right; we haven’t been able to apply an aesthetic. Unfortunately, we just never have the time to devote to it. We’re generally always at the mercy of the people who know what they’re doing.

The songs on Poyple are … different. I challenged myself to write different kinds of songs to surprise Kenny and keep him engaged. Different forms, different pulses, different subjects, different tunings, different chords intervals. There’s a song called “And if You Don’t Find That Attractive…” that’s maybe my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It’s got a cool structure. The lyrics are pretty funny. It’s almost like a Joe Jackson thing. There’s a song called “I’m Gonna Ask Her to Marry You” that’s kind of about Kenny. I wrote a song on piano called “RIAA” that sounds like Phil Collins. Some of the songs are kind of bluesy, which is weird. I’ve also forbidden Kenny from using tom drums. No toms. Maybe even no high-hats. We’ll see who wins that argument.

MP3: Disco Vietnam – “Coldplay” (Left-Click)

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