An Interview with David E. Williams
Conducted by Nathan Leonard
Several Years back there was a small business in my neighborhood called Germ Books and Gallery. As the name suggests, it was a bookshop and art gallery. It was located just a few blocks from my house, and I, being a bookshop enthusiast, soon became a regular customer. The store was small and deliberately discriminating in the materials it sold. I would describe the store as a purveyor of unusual, contrarian, and sometimes dangerous ideas. The largest section was devoted to science (or speculative) fiction. There was, of course, a non-SF fiction section, usually containing the works of notable experimental and/or transgressive authors. And there were also sections dedicated to “fringe topics” such as UFOs, conspiracy theories, the occult, as well as various viewpoints criticizing contemporary politics and civilization from all manner of perspectives. These were the types of books that you might not find in your average bookshop, and there was a whole store filled with them! I was enchanted by the place.
But Germ was not merely a store. It also served as a community forum that hosted musical events, conferences, readings, art shows, and it served as a place to meet different types of people with a tremendous range of ideologies. As I became a regular presence there I got to know the owner, David E. Williams, who had taken up the mantle after Germ’s founder, Jennifer Bates, died in 2007. I’m sorry to say that I never knew Bates personally. From what I’ve heard about her, she sounds like a true visionary.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that David E. Williams is a musical artist of international renown who has been practicing his art for decades. He was gracious enough to give me some of his CDs and I have been a fan ever since. He is a man with a piano and a unique vocal style. His lyrics are dark, humorous, passionate, and enlightening all at once.
Sadly, in 2011, Germ closed its doors due to a number of reasons. The whole story of Germ is one that is worth telling, but it is not my story to tell. However, I can verify that its brief existence had a profound impact on a number of people, myself included. I continue to maintain regular contact with David E. Williams, and that is who I want to talk about today. Recently Mr. Williams released his first full length album in four years entitled Trust No Scaffold Built of this Bone. When I heard that he was planning to release something new, I mentioned that I’d like to review it, or better yet, interview him. He seemed receptive to the idea.
After the album came out I spent several months listening to it, and we finally got around to conducting the interview over a series of emails. What follows is our dialogue.
HH: Given that some of our readers may be unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you do in your own words? I mean, do you classify yourself under a particular genre or scene or tradition of music?
DEW. A lot of the genres with which I’m associated did not even exist when I first started writing and recording my own songs. Even goth wasn’t a term that was bandied about in the late 80’s. People would say “postpunk.” The first review of my first EP in 1987 compared me to Syd Barrett and Warren Zevon, which are almost unimaginable comparisons today.
I think of myself in the troubadour model, basically, singing my songs and playing my instrument. I think of myself much more as a songwriter than as a musician, although it’s fun to act like a musician on other people’s projects.
An early reviewer called me “Barry Manilow’s evil twin.” That’s obviously someone trying to be funny, but it’s more accurate than a comparison to Death in June or something like that. Maybe I’m closer to a Billy Joel than Barry Manilow. Cue the sound of a million pages of your blog clicking off now!
HH: I can see arguments for either side of the Barry-Billy question… So you have released a new CD, Trust No Scaffold Built of this Bone, which came out last May. Are you taking any new approaches in terms of style or songwriting?
DEW: The new CD is a further walk down a theme in the form of a question. Can David E. Williams write and sing a good David E. Williams song that is not about leukemia or stealing medicine from an epileptic? Can I, in fact, find the essential truth in almost any subject, like William Carlos Williams with his wheelbarrows and plums. Peanuts, candy, a dog and a bird. Those are all really good things. “Quackadoodledoo” is a funny onomotopoeia for us humans, but it’s really the language of life. For many humans, in fact, it is the very sound of the food we eat. And it’s important to remember that food consists mainly of the same elements that appear in bodily waste. That’s so simple and so obvious, but so ignored. And why?
After my grieving survivor album, Every Missing Duck is a Duck Missed, I wasn’t quite sure what there was left to write about. A customer at Germ told me that puns were the language of alchemy and then I thought a little bit about puns that are two, three, four and five times removed from their original source — puns on puns on puns on puns, with the first couple of puns missing. It may sound stupid, but, you know, there are still some literature professors out there who are probably trying to defend Burroughs and his cutup nonsense.
As for the music on this record, it is probably worth noting that most of these songs were written on piano, but a very conscious effort was made to not have them recorded as “piano songs with a dude singing.” There is some of that, but in most instances, they are reconfigured into synth pop, polka, the rest of it.
HH: That’s interesting, in particular the idea of puns on puns on puns. Some of your lyrics have the feeling that some kind of inside joke is involved. When I think of your recent work there seems to be a more personal quality, as opposed to your earlier CDs in which a lot of the songs tell fictional stories (assuming that stealing medicine from an epileptic is fictional). Compare, for instance the difference between Hope Springs a Turtle and Every Missing Duck is a Duck Missed. “Trust No Scaffold” also seems very personal. As such, I think your songwriting tends to be more contemplative and less cynical. Would you agree with this?
DEW. Well, a story song is only less personal in the manner that a short story might seem intrinsically less personal than a poem. Some people enjoy the naughty story part of my catalog to the point of using them as pornography. On the other hand, it is probably difficulty to find a song anywhere that is as naked and confessional as “Here Comes the Cold Narrator.” I think I can say that objectively; I’m not bragging, because perhaps naked confessionalism is not the be all/ end all that doctrinaire naked confessionalists seem to think it is.
HH: Being sort of a full-time naked confessionalist myself I can understand the temptation to elevate that particular form of expression. Maybe it was an underlying motivation to do so in my last question. What about domesticity? On “Trust No Scaffold” there is a song about picnics, there’s “Closet” which is sort of a Williams Carlos Williams-esque pastiche of scenes in a house, and there’s the line from “Peanuts, Candy, a Dog and a Bird” that goes, “Tables ain’t no places for a couch-fighting man” (one of my favorites), all of which point to domestic life, in my opinion. Is this a new theme?
DEW. Look, I’m as dug into naked confessionalism as the next guy, obviously — Plath, Joy Division, me, on and on and on. But there is also the great T.S. Eliot quote about poetry being an escape from emotion rather than an expression of emotion. And confessionalism done poorly comes dangerously close to “identity” art — the worst of the worst!
As for domesticity, those images were not consciously implanted, but hey, you certainly found them. Perhaps it’s further worth noticing domesticity depicted as terrorist and jailer, with for instance, “Turn Off All the Very Hot Things.”
Finally, I like that image of the “couch-fighting man,” I always see it in my head, some Don Quixote with a sword fighting a couch that ever eludes him. That’s the sort of thing that’s funny to me.
HH: Huh. I had a very different interpretation of “couch-fighting man.” I was imagining The Couch as an arena in which the fight occurs. Yours is funnier. I’m glad you brought up “Turn Off All the Very Hot Things.” After first listening to the new CD it stood out to me the most. It’s the last song on the album and makes for a powerful conclusion as the music cuts out but President Nixon continues speaking and concludes his point about never giving up. At the beginning of the song, your lyrics are about fearing technology. Do you see Nixon and the song’s narrator as holding rival opinions?
DEW: I also like “Turn Off All the Very Hot Things.” Almost to the point where I dare not dissect the gossamer that binds the heat fear part with the Nixon part. As they said on Seinfeld, one doesn’t dissect gossamer! Civilians and outsiders could probably draw some comparisons between the singer’s neuroses and those that civilians and outsiders usually attribute to Nixon. That is absolutely not a connection that I was trying to create. Whatever you think of his politics, Nixon’s speech here is fabulous, with a transcendent humanity unthinkable in the cardboard cutouts that have come after him.
HH: Changing gears here, you have two prominent guest vocalists Lloyd James from Naevus and Andrew King, a former member of Sol Invictus who released an incredible solo album last year. How did you come to work with them, and what was it like?
DEW: I’ve known both of them since Lloyd invited me to play at a small club with Naevus and Andrew King in London in 2002. We’ve done all kinds of things together over the years– they were both on the DEW tribute album, I’ve played on two or three Naevus songs (live and on CD); Andrew even had a live a cappella performance and art show at Germ in 2005, when it was on Girard Avenue. We made it part of the Fringe Festival that year.
HH: I hadn’t found my way to Germ yet in 2005. Andrew King is really a fantastic singer. I’d love to see him live. “Trust No Scaffold“ was released by Old Europa Cafe, an Italian record label that has put out a couple of other CDs by you. I understand you have a following in Europe. Do you have a sense of how your European fan base compares with its American counterpart?
DEW: The fan base in Europe is small, but not as small as in the US, where it is smaller. Subtract Philadelphia and we’re talking even smaller.
HH: We are the few, the proud, and the privileged. Speaking of privileged, I’d like to thank you so much, David, for agreeing to this interview.
Trust No Scaffold Built of this Bone is available for purchase from Mr. Williams’ web site, along with a number of other David E. Williams releases.