walkin' after midnight

Elliott Smith sits down for a talk with JIM's m. bates.

I can't say enough good things about Elliott Smith's music. He sings beautifully-crafted, devastatingly sad folk/pop songs about people-- himself, his acquaintances, maybe fictional characters-- addicted to many things, but to nothing so much as fucking up, and who lose many things,usually that which they love most. His live show is amazing, taking these songs to a whole other level. Unfortunately all this is colored by an aura of tragedy. He often opens his sets with "Division Day," the tale of a man "dying from fright." In closing out this interview (recorded early Nov. '97), Elliott told me candidly and unemotionally of a suicide attempt earlier in the year, saying simply, "I jumped off a cliff," probably saying this to dispel rumors that his recent hospital stay had been rehab for a heroin habit. Elliott turned out to be a nice, modest guy who suffered the interviewer's fanboy ass-kissing, misconceptions, and misquoted lyrics with grace and patience. This is what was said:

I guess I've heard a lot of conflicting rumors-- What's up with Heatmiser?
They've been broken up for over a year.
Oh, really.
OK, I guess I'm behind the times. The other thing-- is it likely that yr next solo album is gonna be on Virgin?
No? Cause I'd heard something like they had a binding thing on you.
They did, but I'm getting off of Virgin one way or another. Actually, it's only one way, not another. I mean, the only way to get out of a situation like that is to be bought out of the contract. Which means that I can't do any more indie records.
Because they don't have the dough to buy it out?
Yeah, either way, I mean, either way, Virgin has a binding thing on me. It's like a standard feature of major label contracts to have a leaving member clause, where they have the first option to pick up whatever you do, against yr will, too. And I fought against that for a long time before we signed the contract with them. We got everything else we wanted, but not that.
It's kind of surprising, 'cause a lot of bands are making the leap, as they call it, get a lot more leeway. I mean, Beck can record for whatever labels he wants between records for Geffen or what-not.
Yeah, I mean, even that is a contentious issue. Things are definitely better now they were 30 years ago or 20 years ago that way, but there are things that still are virtually impossible to get, and that's one of them.
Cause when I was under that impression, I had a lot of trouble imagining pretty much any major knowing what to do with yr music.
No, they won't, you know.
It's very delicate.
It's never gonna sell that many copies. There's just nothing I can do about it, and it doesn't matter to me, b/c I'm gonna do the same thing whether Kill Rock Stars is putting it out, or Virgin, or nobody. It's just... I've been doing it for a long time before anybody put anything out, and it makes me happy to do that. I don't read press and stuff. So, if you don't read yr own press, there's nothing thats gonna hurt you about whoever puts out yr record. As long as you know what yr doing, y'know?
It takes a lot of confidence in what yr doing and the decisions yr making.
It's not so much confidence as doors being closed, and narrower and narrower options. I don't have a choice. I can't record with the people that I first would like to. So it's either record with a label I really don't like, or one that I like a little better.
I guess, considering you said you didn't read yr own press, I'll ask a question thats going to end up being dumb. It's that yr compared a lot to Nick Drake. What do you think of that?
Well, I've heard about two Nick Drake songs, and I liked them. He seemed a lot softer or something than I feel like I am, lyrically. I don't know. I liked him, so I guess it's a compliment.
Cool. You've got a very intricate guitar style. Like, some of the fingerpicking stuff you do requires a lot of skill. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about musical training you've had.
I took piano lessons for a year when I was ten. Other than that...
It's just you playing with a guitar and learning it yrself?
Yeah, I learned songs off the radio when I was a kid and stuff, and records. It's not really that intricate and it's not really that hard. Once you learn a couple picking patterns you can fuck around with them and change them. You know, it's like everything else: you do it for a lump of years, then you find new things to do so that yr fingers stay happy and don't get bored.
I think you'd have to admit, at least-- I mean, you say yr style isn't that intricate, but compared to a lot of people who are considered yr peers, either they put together really good songs out of a few chords, or they're doing stuff thats very complicated, but maybe not as accessible and human.
I think that you have an amazing balance of that.
And I was wondering what yr songwriting process is like, cause when I hear some of the stuff you put together, I just really wonder about that.
I make up most stuff when I'm walking around. I wrote a lot in bars. I usually hear it in my head-- I think of it first, and then I play it. Or sometimes my hands just make it up without me even being involved in it, 'cause I play guitar a lot during the day. I watch TV and play guitar at the same time. So my fingers just do whatever they're doing while I'm watching General Hospital. Sometimes I go, "Oh, good job, fingers! I liked that."
And that becomes the basis of a song maybe?
Sometimes, yeah. You know, "What was that? Wait, do it again."
I don't know if this is overanalytical, but I noticed that the moon comes up a lot in yr lyrics, in quite a few songs-- "Coming up Roses"...
"St. Ides Heaven," I'm forgetting one that probably has moon in the name, and "Division Day," say. What does that image or that symbol mean to you personally?
Well, for a long time I made up most songs walking around at night, just cause I liked walking around at night. And, so I saw the moon a lot. It's a really overused image, but theres always ways to use overused images well. To make them new again, or to at least try to. I wouldn't say that I succeeded at that, but... but now I don't see the moon a whole lot cause I live in New York.
Oh, really?
Actually, I noticed that on Either/Or-- and this may just be b/c I've been living in LA for a few years now, I go to school out here-- the album seemed to be a lot about LA. I mean, certain songs, like "Alameda" [a street in LA], "Rose Parade" [in Pasadena, on New Year's Day], "Angeles."
Well, Alameda is a street in Portland.
Oh. I didn't know that.
And Rose Parade is a parade that happens in Portland every year.
Oh wow. So...
But, "Rose Parade" wasn't really supposed to be about that parade. It was just supposed to be about parades in general, like the way people parade around and expect you to join in on their peacock march. You know? Someone does, "We're looking good," that kind of attitude. It's like, people get fucked over a lot by sorta trying to parade around as something that they're not really, but they can be for a little while, but then it all goes wrong.
I liked how it was "Energizer Bunny" with the exclamation points in yr lyrics, that was pretty funny.
Well, actually it was Duracell bunny, and the funny thing is that I just made it up that way, and I recorded it like that. And then someone was like, "Hey man, it's the Energizer bunny." And I was like, "Oh, yr right it's not the Duracell bunny!" But actually, I like it even better that way.
Yeah, it's like you twisted it.
'Cause it's even less right. [laughs]
It's kinda funny, b/c somehow I'd taken all this meaning about the city of LA. I somehow imagined you just...
Well, "Angeles" was more that way.
I'll inject a little of myself into this: I go to USC and in "Rose Parade" I liked the, the... oh of course, my mind goes blank... the part about the trumpet being drunk and fucking up even the simplest of parts, and trying to get you to sing along to some half-hearted victory song.
ES: That's right. [laughs] Uh huh.
That totally made me think about our band-- "The Greatest Band on Earth"-- up there playing with Fleetwood Mac and stuff.
Right. "Tusk!" Yeah.
Geez. I came with some other lame questions, let me see. OK. Here's an even more overanalytical one. A line that really struck me in "Some Song," I sort of noticed that it echoed something from a Heatmiser album, on Cop and Speeder, "Collect to NYC" "yr a song/ with just one fucking note," and then again ["yr a symphony, man/ with just one note" in the first verse of "Some Song"]...
That kind of made me wonder whether the songs were about the same person, or a similar situation, or if you just really like that phrase.
I don't know. I have a bad habit of repeating phrases or only changing them a little. Sometimes, like three songs will have like a really similar phrase. I don't know if it's a bad habit. I really don't care about it. I don't feel like its really important to make everything completely different from before, but...
Well, it sort of helps build-- overanalytical again-- build themes within yr body of work maybe?
Well, yeah. You do it in a song, you know? Most people have repeating choruses, but there's other ways to make it familiar again in another part of the song by coming back to some image, but in a different way. So I don't really think its a problem to do that b/w songs, cause it's just like, the record comes back to that again and again, and whatever.
I mean, I think if you listen too much to music or listen too closely, as I tend to do, almost everybody, every singer has their motifs they go back to. So, it wasn't really a criticism of it. I actually find it kind of charming-- maybe that's kind of almost a condescending word, but I don't mean it that way...
No, I don't mind. If I did it across records, then I would not like it, but if its within one record, then I don't mind so much. Yr example is not within one record, but I don't know, they were written several years apart. The "Collect to NYC" song was written when I was 20, and the other was when I was 26.
So you changed a lot in between, different situations and everything.
Yeah, but I still like that phrase.
I do too. I think it's an amazing way of summing someone up in line. It's like a whole story in a line.
Yeah, I tried to use it in the first song, but I didn't get it quite right, so I tried to do it again later and place it better. Who knows, I might sing it again, you know?
You've recorded, I think, pretty much all of yr solo stuff so far on 4-track.
Well, the first thing was on 4-track, and the second and third one were on 8-track, y'know.
But, even on the 4-track stuff, you got a really good sound out of it...
That was just a total accident.
I guess this gets back to the press again, which maybe since you don't pay attention to them maybe this won't resonate as much with you, but what I did notice is you don't get lumped in as sort of lo-fi. Its something that kind of plagues people; like Lou Barlow gets sick of it, I think Pavement or Beck get sick of it to a certain extent. I think, thankfully, people manage to focus on yr songs more.
Yeah. I don't like lo-fi anymore than I like punk or any other particular style. I mean, sometimes it's great, most of the times it's not. I never liked lo-fi bands when I was growing up. I liked the Beatles. I liked George Martin. That's all I had to do it with then, and now I have more things to do it with. And some people are scared to get into production or whatever, but fear is not a good guide. You have to use yr ears, not yr head. So, theres no style that's really worth anything, to me anyways.
Its all about the songs and the performance?
Well, all styles are capable of great songs. There's no points in pledging allegiance to this or that, yknow? Cause it's just a way of keeping yr world really small.
I wonder what kind of stuff turns you on now. Like what would be yr favorite music? What do you listen to a lot?
I've been on a big Beatles kick now, for like a year. Mostly Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album.
Yeah. I end up skipping some songs on the Mystery Tour.
I skip some too.
It's like, I go to maybe the bigger ones like "Strawberry Fields" or whatever.
Yeah. I skip "Hello Goodbye."
"Blue Jay Way" somehow doesn't turn me on.
I really like that one, but I skip "Baby Yr a Rich Man." I quit, I turn it off after "Penny Lane" for the most part. I don't know. I kind of listen to the same record for like months at a time and I don't really listen to anything else and they're always old ones. They're almost never new records, not cause I don't like new records, but I listen to stuff when I take the train into Manhattan, so I take a tape that I'm gonna want to listen to all night, and its not gonna be, like I don't know...
Green Day, or...?
No, y'know. Usually its gonna be a Beatles record, or a Hank Williams record, or... not all really famous, like I like this band the Left Banke that was a chamber pop band from New York from the '60s, '70s. I like the Zombies.
Not to be a total sycophant, but yr music is getting that way for me lately.
ES: Oh, really.
When I found it you were coming to town, it like made my month, kind of. I mean, I don't know. I don't want to seem like a big weirdo or a stalker, I just really dig yr music.
No, that's cool. There's already one real stalker right here in LA. He's totally insane and he wants to kill me. He thinks that he's me sometimes, and he's suicidal, but he gets really weird, and he thinks that I'm him and he's me...
Did he come to the show last night?
No. Well, if he did, I didn't see him. I haven't come here in a long time, b/c I really believe that he was gonna try and shoot me. I know it sounds totally preposterous, but it's for real. It's not just me that thinks it.
And I could buy it. If it's through yr albums, some of the stuff is so personal that is someone wasn't as with reality, they might fall into that.
It's just totally, y'know, he's not taking his medicine, and I could probably be some guy in a car commercial, and he might think that he was me. Y'know, I think that it's just that if enough people come across a particular person, there's bound to be someone who's in the process of losing their mind. And God only knows how they're going to react to that. I'm sure there's somebody who wants to kill the guy in the Chevy commercials, y'know, I just don't happen to know who he is, but I bet the guy in the Chevy commercials knows who he is.
It seems like it's been a really quick tour. You've gone across the country in a few days, more or less.
Yeah, it's only like 6 shows.
Is that tough?
No, actually, b/c I flew everywhere. Not b/c I can afford that but b/c I have some songs in a movie that's coming out.
Oh, really? What's it called?
It's called Good Will Hunting. It's Gus Van Sant's new movie. I'm not supposed to talk about it b/c of this buy-out thing, but... Miramax was flying me around, 'cuz I had to come to LA. I've been to LA like 4 times now in the last week and a half.
You sound so happy about it.
Well, I'm starting to like LA better, but for a while I really didn't like it much here 'cause-- not b/c of I the people that I actually meet. All the people that I meet are really nice, but they're all people that I think would be happier in New York. I mean, in LA, I see like an elderly black man washing hubcaps in the Capitol Records parking lot, y'know? Or, like all these falsely tan people w/ great abs, that y'know wear impossible clothes, and I'm always the scrappiest-looking person walking down the street, and it makes me uncomfortable. And I'm sure LA is a great place once you get used to it, but I feel a lot more comfortable elsewhere.
I mean, I don't think anyone likes that. I'm sure even some of the plastic people would complain about how plastic the town is.
Yeah. Yeah. I know, but I'm not trying to dis LA. I just, I don't feel quite right there.
What is it about New York that seems to have matched something inside you?
Well, theres just more people that look like I do. Not that... I don't look any particular way, I don't think, but I'm not the... people don't stare at me, y'know? They don't. I don't look outrageous at all, but I feel kind of out-of-place here, but not in New York. There's always much bigger freaks than me in New York, y'know, on every block.
I was watching Conan O'Brien last night and Lewis Black was on, saying that Halloween is redundant on New York, b/c everybody's in costume every day.
Well, the thing that I like about it is actually-- I mean, there are more people in costume in New York maybe than anywhere else I've been-- but, there's also more people that are not in any costume there, y'know? They're not... I just see more people who kind of look like they're going about their business doing whatever they do, and they just don't get up and spend an hour getting themselves all spruced up. But, I'm kind of a sloppy person. My room is always messy. I don't know. I just feel better there.
I think for a little while you went to Hampshire College [one of the Five Colleges in Western Massachusetts].
Did you like it there?
No. I didn't like it at all, but I did like the professor I had that was the main guy. I graduated from there.
What was yr degree, as it were?
Philosophy, political theory type of thing. It was a place w/ no grades and no majors. It was like make yr own program, and it was pretty hippie in a good way. But the people going to school there were a real problem to me. I didn't like it. I moved off campus as soon as I could, y'know, second year. So, I tried not to really get caught up in all the crap going on w/ people coming out of high school who are like, "I wasn't cool in high school, so now I'm gonna be really cool." I just did my work. I liked what I studied, and I liked the classes that I took, but I couldn't stand the atmosphere. So I lived in Northampton.
Did you like it there better or was it still kind of oppressive to you?
No, I liked it there better. I mean, it was still just a total college town until the summer. I spent the summers there b/c I had to work. I was going there on a grant and a lot of loans, and I had to work all the time, like full-time. And I stayed there over the summer, and over the summer all the rednecks would come out, y'know? Like the townie guys would come out and drive down the street calling me a faggot, y'know? And the rest of the year it was this college town with a bunch of people running around talking about post-structuralism. So it was like a total hot-and-cold, both extremes, both bad extremes. It was just kind of a bummer all the time, but it wasn't as bad as actually being on the college campus.
I think that I've run out of good questions, so I really want to thank you for taking time out.
Yeah. Sure.

The climax of an Elliott Smith set is often, "Say Yes"-- the last song on Either/Or, his most recent album (on Kill Rock Stars), arguably his best song and definitely his happiest. "Insanely optimistic" in his own words. It is the testimony of a man who has changed, grown up, become better in the wake of a woman who put faith in him, who was "still around the morning after." So it seems to go for Elliott. Talented friends, acquaintances, and collaborators who count themselves as fans include Mary Lou Lord, Lou Barlow, M. Doughty, multi-instrumentalist/producer Jon Brion, and filmmaker Gus Van Sant. Despite a messed-up record label situation he is resigned to, Elliott is moving onward with his music. His songs are prominently featured in Good Will Hunting, a Golden Globe winning, Oscar-nominated movie. "I could get an Oscar," Elliott deadpans, unable to hide his smile of disbelief. Good things are on the horizon, and you will be hearing this guy's name again. Or, as Elliott puts it, with a smile, before departing my company, "I'm feeling a lot better about things now."