“Supermax,” off of Save the Plant! by The Size Queens
The Size Queens, described by novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) as “the glam/poetry/lounge/rock and roll band from San Francisco” in The Rumpus, has recently released a new album, Save the Plant, which addresses “the shape of contemporary protest” and “the exultation and poignancy of revolutions, pointed and pointless,” according to their BandCamp site.
Our assistant editor Nicolas Amara recently had the pleasure to ask core members Adam Klein and Michael Mullen a few questions about the band’s musical process and philosophical disposition.
Nick: How did you approach writing Save the Plant? Did the politics of your work act as a frame before writing music, or did you write songs and then build the politics via lyrical content? (I guess this could also be approached as ‘”Which came first–the lyrics or the music; the ideologies or the sound?”)
Michael: “Save the Plant” was written the same way as all of The Size Queens’ records: We improvised it, me playing music and Adam pulling words from the air. Then we learned how to repeat what we’d improvised, fidgeted with it slightly, and then improvised it again during recording. I call it “dipping into the Idea Pool”. The song “Onomonokanamana” was recorded in one take by a band that had never played it all the way through before, not even once, and some of the lyrics made their first appearance during that performance. That’s an extreme but not unique case. So the politics don’t come first, they come simultaneously with the sound.
Adam : Michael and I have to work very quickly as I have been living overseas in Kabul for the past three and a half years and I don’t keep a place in San Francisco. Obviously, we don’t share the same politics, but I think we overlap quite a bit. Michael often understands my lyrics before I do. I had no idea that “Save the Plant!” would, or could, invoke Trayvon Martin, Edward Snowden, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Indian Maoists, the Virginia Governor, and the Baader Meinhof Group. The broad umbrella—really only apparent after weeding down the songs–was that everyone on the record is making bad decisions or, perhaps not making decisions at all, but trying to circumnavigate power structures from the nuclear family, to the prison industrial complex, the surveillance state, to the more abstract conceptual apparatuses that keep us feeling powerless. “Supermax” speaks to this, I think. It’s clearly about the desire for safety, but also a son’s claustrophobia in the suburban world that his parents welcome, even becoming workers at the supermax prison. There’s something inscrutable in our desires for both safety and risk.
M: When it’s time to write, I try to provide music that will inspire Adam to express himself spontaneously (and by extension, me), in an atmosphere of great trust. We welcome the unconscious. We discuss what we’re doing, often in depth, but we don’t tidy it up in the interests of making linear sense. Size Queens records do sometimes start with an idea, but throwing out that idea can be part of our process. For example, at one point we were going to write a record about critical theory. We spent a lot of time on the phone laughing about song ideas (“Your phallocentric notions of hegemony never privilege my ass. WHAT ABOUT MY ASS?”). But when we finally sat down in the rehearsal space, we ended up writing Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea instead.
A: We wrote that album in one sitting and recorded piano and vocals in one take.
N: You have described this record as being about “everyone making bad attempts to circumvent the status quo.” Though they may ultimately fizzle out, do you think these figures and protests hold any political or intellectual merit? Which ones?
A: Well, insofar as the record starts with the song “Daughter”–about a girl who joins her trucker boyfriend on the road and ends up dead–I think the record connects individual, reactionary behavior with some highly considered and provocative (however misled) attempts at revolution. I read Ulrike Meinhof’s writings in Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t. I found myself copying out sections of it, stunned by the work she produced during her incarceration; it’s so visceral and sad. I also read Murakami’s account of the Sarin gas survivors in Underground and for some reason, years later, found myself thinking of Aum Shinrikyo and what strange, senseless intoxications people are capable of. “Airport Sleepers” was written with Edward Snowden in mind, but actually, I was thinking of the Dubai airport where I’ve spent a great deal of time. I’m very sympathetic to the Weather Underground; they struggled to transform themselves while trying to transform society. I think the Binayak Sen case is incredibly important. He is an Indian doctor who works with the poor in India and was charged with sedition for engagement with the Maoists. A case of guilt by association, but more deeply, it suggests India’s war with its agrarian people. So, Save the Plant! is suffused with stories that touch me deeply.
M: The Size Queens have great sympathy for all of those bad attempts. “Magic Blimp” portrays a bunch of doomed attempts at transcendence, through drugs, spirituality, shopping, ANYTHING! For the end of the song, we instructed Danny Pearson, who was drumming, to imitate a 14-year-old boy, unable to play, but who’s trying to be Keith Moon. In other words, we’re representing people who are gleefully pushing themselves beyond their capacities. “Freedom sex is in your mind!” And we sympathize with them, because, hey, let’s kick out the jams!
A: Danny got so into playing that 14-year-old kid that he fell off the drum stool. You can hear it!
M: The problem in politics is that you can end up as a Maoist sniper “sitting in a tree” or a homegrown terrorist bombing a florist shop (“tears for those bouquets”). Perhaps there’s wisdom in your theory; it’s just that the world doesn’t allow untrammeled expression of it. It gets distorted; it gets perverted. And unfortunately, any theory worth its salt can justify the silliness or sordidness or violence of the actions it produces. I think Adam and I would agree that there is much merit in these attempts to subvert the status quo. We’re the veterans of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience ourselves. But proceed with caution. Don’t be seduced into thinking that if you hurl a bomb, Gerhart Richter will use you as a subject for his art as he did Ulrike Meinhof. And if you pass out in front of a nightclub, don’t expect not to be kicked into the gutter.
N: In your opinion, is the futility of these attempts at “revolution” a direct result of the prison-industrial complex?
A: That’s a great question. I think, with the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground wiped out, whatever we assumed was the American “left” moved to the center. I hate to say it, but it’s on the right wing of the spectrum where you really see a radical agenda, a desire to overthrow the government (though always couched in the idea that we’re somehow getting back to the constitution and the second amendment.) I think the left in America and elsewhere has become quite diffuse, not because it lacks ideas, but because, rather than being reactionary, it is trying to sort out the complex machinations of late capitalist consolidation, the mass disenfranchisement of the electorate, and the impact of technologies (surveillance, Wikileaks, the NSA leaks, drones, etc.) that are really redrawing our ideas of public/private, of what is conflict and what is humanitarian intervention, the impact of so much consumption of goods and information at our fingertips. What is certain is that the prison industrial complex, like the military industrial complex, are massive usurpations of potential revolutionary and creative energies. This feels like a hijacked period of history to me. There’s an unconsumed universe of potentially radical actions that may be within reach. Such is our collective tragedy.
M: I don’t see the U.S. or Europe as places where revolution is impossible or inevitably unsuccessful. But if it comes in the near future, I’m afraid it’s not going to be people like us who foment it. The left has no grand theory to unite it, something that Tony Kushner has been lamenting in his plays for years. And the right in the U.S. apparently doesn’t need one. They have guns, xenophobia, bigotry and “the Constitution” as a fetish. In Europe, too, the right seems much more poised for unpleasantness than the left. I just read Nancy Mitford’s comic novel Wigs on the Green (1934) in which she attempts to satirize fascism, something that members of her own family were very involved in. But history made the joke unfunny, and the book was out of print for many years. In the case of “Supermax”, what the prison-industrial complex really makes impossible is safety. Even if you’re working for the penitentiary, as the parents in this song end up doing, you can’t protect your children from the violence inherent in such a system.
N: Adam, does any of your work with The Size Queens tie in with your own writing and editorial work? Michael, does work with The Size Queens influence your other musical output?
A: Yes, without a doubt. We wrote Appetite for Redaction when I was in the midst of working on the anthology, The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing. The video for the song, Afghan Star premiered on Electric Literature with a short piece of writing that I later developed into a piece for Fiction International. I’m currently working on a piece of writing to accompany the video for Spinning World. So yes, there’s constant interpenetration of mediums. When Michael and I operated as an earlier incarnation, Roman Evening, we wrote a soundtrack for my novel Tiny Ladies. Dzanc books will be adding it to their rEprint series with the sound files, and that is really gratifying. When that book originally came out, we had to clumsily attach a CD to the book with a rubber band. This will be a much more seamless integration.
M: Prior to the advent of The Size Queens, I was actually writing some political songs myself. But ever since our first record Is It In Yet?, I’ve let Adam Klein be the lyricist of my political discontent. He’s really so good at it. And I’ve been freed to go in other directions — write love songs, immerse myself in songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Jimmy Van Heusen, set poems by John Ashbery or Ezra Pound to music. I don’t think my own songwriting would be so sensitive and focused if my writing with The Size Queens weren’t so acerbic and free-wheeling.
Check out some bios and outside links below. “Supermax,” from Save the Plant!, is streamable above!
Adam Klein received his MFA from The New School in 2009 and was an Assistant Professor of English at The American University of Afghanistan until december 2013. Dzanc Books published his anthology: “The Gifts Of The State: New Afghan Writing” at the end of 2013. He is the author of High Risk’s Lambda Book Award-nominee, “The Medicine Burns” and Serpent’s Tail published his novel, “Tiny Ladies” in 2003. “A Hardship Post” appeared January 2012 in “Fourteen Hills” and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, he has published in the “New York Times At War Blogs” and an essay, “The Unnameable Poor In India and Bangladesh” in openDemocracy. He is also the author of the artist monograph, “Jerome: After the Pageant,” and the singer/ songwriter for the band, “The Size Queens.” His work has appeared in “Bomb,” “Best American Gay Fiction” (Little, Brown), “Men on Men 5” (Penguin/ Plume), MIT’s “Performance Art Journal;” “San Francisco Camerawork;” “Essays & Fictions;” “Educe;” and other journals and websites. His interdisciplinary piece, “Appetite for Redaction” was featured on the November 2011 “Electric Literature” blog and The Size Queens’ Valentine’s Day video diptych, “Old Skin” premiered on the Ninth Letter blog site. His most recent song cycle/ video “Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea” was premiered on Election Day, November 6th 2012 here.
Michael Mullen is a prolific songwriter and active musician based in San Francisco. His longtime collaboration with novelist and songwriter Adam Klein has produced nine records so far, seven with The Size Queens. He has released his own songs under the name Pocket Shelley (“Small Illuminations in a Darkening Sky”, 2006), and has nearly completed a new record, “Pocket Shelley’s Golden Treasury of Well-Thumbed Poems, Volume 1.” He contributed keyboards and arrangements to John Murry’s “The Graceless Age”, one of Metacritic’s top-rated albums of 2013, and toured Great Britain and Ireland with Murry twice in 2013. With Murry, he has performed on BBC2, BBC Scotland, BBC Ulster and Bob Weir’s “Weir Here” radio show. He contributed keyboards to Carlos Forster’s “Disasters” which is being released by Acuarela in December 2014, and has been a session player on many other recordings. He has performed with, among others, Carlos Forster, Danny Pearson (American Music Club), Hannah Marcus, Terese Taylor, and in Annie Bacon’s “Folk Opera”. He wrote a Master’s thesis on Daniel Defoe in U.C. Berkeley’s English Department (somebody had to do it), and is currently writing “Late Night Lonesome,” a play with music.
Read Moody’s full article, “Swinging Modern Sounds #50: The Big 5-0!,” over at The Rumpus‘s site.
Check out Augury editor Kate Angus’ recent interview with Klein about The Gifts of the State for The Awl.
Listen to more of The Size Queens’ music here.