Aaron Weiss Interview
May 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
mewithoutYou came down last weekend. We sat down with Aaron and talked about his upbringing, the philospohy behind his work and his thoughts on Osama’s recent death.
I should warn you, I try not to be very good at interviews. I used to like having something to say. Now I try to not be so sure of what I should say all the time.
I think we’ll be okay… You guys have been playing for about 10 years now and you have changed a lot over that time. From “A to B: Life” to now, where you sing many children’s stories. What made you shift?
I don’t remember deciding to shift children’s songs; I think it was more like wanting to write songs that my grandma could listen to and feel like it was pleasant enough. You know, not all the shouting and distorted guitar. Something that was a little easier on the ear. We’re getting older, and how much longer do you want to go on shouting about all these dark or depressing things?
In a lot of your later work you talk a lot about losing yourself and not existing. Talk about that.
Well that’s part of my upbringing, to face that possibility of what we come to think of as “I” is an illusion. And even if it’s not, then we’re going to die, so even if we say “I do exist”—well, not for long. Whether you are a dream or a flash, you’re not much. Insofar as you are identifying with or as this body…
Along those lines, “Cattail Down” has always puzzled me. “You don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going. You think you’re you, but you don’t know who you are, you’re not you… you’re Everyone Else.”
It’s strange, if that were true, could I tell you that? It’s part of that same idea— coming to unpack a little bit that we’ve come to identify as and say “well maybe the answers that I’ve accepted regarding the question ‘Who am I?’ are not absolutely trustworthy,” so that was just one possibility. One of the characters in that story—I believe it was the deer—offers that insight, that you could see yourself in a totally different way. Just like you could identify one day as a Christian and the next a Muslim and the next an atheist, or you can say, “I’m an American; I want to become a Canadian citizen.” So we recognize there are parts of identity that are not fixed and sort of eternally handed to us. So just like you can be from this country or that country or this religion or this non-religion, you can also be either a person or not a person. You can see everyone as [one] common life or life that came from the same source.
It’s part of the same exact point you asked earlier. You know, “I don’t exist.” Well, okay. If you don’t exist then who are ya? What’s this? What is this body then? What is this mouth that is talking? These eyes that look around and these ears that hear, what are they? To whom do they belong?
Maybe that’s more the central question. Do you belong to yourself? Have you created yourself? I used to ask my dad, “How do you know God exists?” cause he really had a belief in God like nobody I ever knew. And he said, “I didn’t create myself.” That was it. He wasn’t fancy about it. He wasn’t a theologian. And whether you believe in God or not, it’s tough to deny that one. Even by the time you are five years old you’ve already been raised to think about yourself as a little boy. Or you’ve been given a name; you’ve been told what you are. Right off the bat, you’re taking something from outside and identifying as it. In a sense your identity is already mixed in with others. It ends up sounding kind of academic and abstract and to me… kind of pointless. Other than having a deer telling me that in a [song.]
You talk a lot about the importance of respecting your parents. Talk about that.
If your folks are still alive, whether they are good or bad parents, in my experience it is incredibly worthwhile to respect them and honor them and be good to them. Even when it seems like “Why should I? They don’t deserve it.” In my experience it has nothing to do with [them deserving it.]
The last song on your latest album talks about forgiveness. And there is one line that is particularly interesting. “If you care to sing forgiveness songs, come down and join our band. And we’ll cut you like a sword and sing forgiveness songs.” Talk about that.
Yeah, well, thanks for noticing that one. I’m glad you noticed something unsettling there. It’s not a totally happy, welcoming, “Everything’s going to be fine” kind of forgiveness. Something’s destroyed in you.
There’s a great scene in Forrest Gump. Lt. Dan wants to die ‘cause his father and other family members were war heroes. He gets his legs blown off, but Forrest Gump carries him out of the jungle and he has to live in a wheelchair and he hates his life. He kind of has a death wish.
Anyway there’s this one scene I remember where he’s on this boat, tied at the top of the mast and there’s this huge storm. Basically he’s crying out to God. “Is that the best you can do!?!” Which was inspiring to me. Some of the harsher aspects of the religious teachings, the images of God as a fire, or there are verses [that say] “I’ve come to bring a sword, not peace.” Those are about cutting, burning and destroying.
If we’re going to be singing forgiveness songs without being hypocrites, we have to live a life of forgiveness. Which means these things that live inside of us that are bitterness or anger or division and pride, basically whatever could make you think “So and so did me wrong.” Well the call of forgiveness [could be] a call to become better. Or it could be understood differently as that within you that will not forgive is going to be cut. Kind of like a tumor. There’s something in you that has to be destroyed and discarded completely in order for forgiveness to occur. It’s not like you can just say, “I forgive somebody.” The cancer within you has to be severed.
If we want to live a life of forgiveness or respecting our parents or loving our enemies well then something inside of us has gotta go. Cause there is something inside of me that hates everyone. Or at least those who hurt me, and wants to hurt them back, so you have to ask, “How much am I willing to part with?” Or “How much can I come before the sword? And have everything cut away from me that isn’t love.”
I can either ask you why you add second parts to old songs, or I can ask about the King Beetle on the Coconut Estate. Which would you want to answer?
I could give you uninteresting answers to both. My answer to the first would be disappointing. One is uninteresting and one is too interesting and I’m hardly qualified to answer it.
… Okay. The King Beetle is a story my dad told me. It’s the same thing as the sword except to the utmost extreme. Here, the tumor isn’t something about you. You are the [tumor.] You don’t have a problem. You are the problem. And that’s where the concept of “you” as an “I” or as a person who’s separate from everyone else flies into the fire.
As my dad told me this story, the beetle has these ministers. They keep describing the fire and the beetle says “No, you aren’t telling me anything. I want to know what it is, I don’t want to hear about it. I want you to bring it to me. I want to know the essence of this power that we’ve seen.” Eventually he realizes “I can’t take anyone else’s word for it. This isn’t something I can learn secondhand. It’s something that I have to experience, to do and to fall into and see what happens. And it could mean the end of me.”
I thought, “I don’t really want to do that, so I’ll write a song about it instead.” It’s ludicrous to think I can talk about this in any way that captures it because that’s the whole thing, it can’t be talked about, that’s what my dad would say anyway. Nobody can tell you any of this stuff; it’s all inside of you. It’s just a matter of your determination to awaken to it. We keep using the word truth; it seems like a fair one.
[I can’t] negotiate or find some common ground [with truth.] I can’t take a little bit of truth and a little bit of my take on things. Or have a little bit of love and a little bit of my bitterness. Or have a little bit of unity, but still want to be important. So you come to some sort of negotiation. You have some sort of relationship to truth. I suppose that’s closer than, “Who cares about what’s true, I just want to do whatever makes me feel good.” I think that’s a pretty limited and superficial way to live and I think most would agree. You end up hurting people. It’s a pretty flimsy definition of freedom. If you say “Whatever’s true for you is fine, just make up your own truth.” That’s pretty flimsy too. But at the same time [if] you’re saying you have the truth, you know what’s true and everyone else needs to think like you, you just turn into a tyrant. So it seems to be within, you need to let the real work go on there. This isn’t something you need to convince anybody of. This isn’t something you should go and manipulate or prove to anybody. Whatever that fire may be, we can make it our determination to fly into it and not dance around it.
Good answer. What was your reaction to Osama’s death and the celebrations that ensued?
I haven’t been very in touch with it. It was intriguing and it brought back some of the emotional memories of those events 10 years ago. But of course the whole world of “you kill us we kill you”—back and forth, it doesn’t seem like something to really put your faith in. “Great, wonderful! Now we killed him. We destroyed this fellow.” Now what?
It just seems like a gambit, the whole thing is a gambit. It’s a big drama that we can keep everything as this grand, global game of cops and robbers. You say, wait a minute, whether you’re in Al-Qaeda and a freedom fighter who wants to destroy the infidel, or you’re in the American military and you’re trying to rid the world of terror, it seems like kind of the same language on either side—“We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys; we believe in freedom, they believe in oppression; we believe in truth, they believe in falsehood.” You know, wait a minute, this isn’t adding up.
This is a whole game. My parents used to tell me, “Don’t go crying over the world. Or get caught up in the drama that you see. But take what you see, and go within and ask, ‘what does this mean?’”
I don’t know anything about who Osama Bin Laden [was.] I don’t understand any of it. But I can go inside and find that there are terrorists in my heart. I could find all sorts of extremists and religious fanatics and murderers and hiders. But to point and say “He’s the bad guy because he did that, I’m a good guy.” Well, it would undermine everything we were talking about earlier.
You say, “We’re all one, let’s all hold hands and have a potluck.” It’s easy to say when everyone’s getting along. But when somebody murders your family, are you one with them? Are you one with the murderer? Are you one with the terrorist? Are you one with the religious fanatic?
It seems like that’s where the line is drawn. “No, no, nope. That’s not me. I would never do that. I’m not like Osama Bin Laden, I’m not like… a pedophile or serial killer.” Or any other sleazy character you could imagine. It’s very easy to keep them on the outside and make ourselves somehow better. But the sword comes and cuts that too. There’s nothing that anyone’s ever done that you wouldn’t do. There’s no one that you’re better than.
It kinda chops everyone down and levels the playing field. And says, “Maybe the way we see things is fundamentally limited. And we could actually be completely deluding ourselves on how we think about reality.” Then what? If that were the case, where would we go? What would we do then? Would we just wake up the next day and go, “Oh well,” even though everything about it is a big fantasy? Or would we ask, “Okay, if I’m living in a false world, is there a way out? If so, what would that way be? Is there a way for me to awaken to some other world that’s not false?” [Like a] picture of a pumpkin, it may look nice, but it’s not going to feed anybody. Are you willing to live that way, where everything you do, there is an aftertaste of plastic? The way [we] look at this, something is not adding up.
So whether I be happy about Osama or angry that we’ve added more bloodshed to bloodshed, either way, something is not adding up. I don’t think I could find any peace in this particular soap opera.
So it seems to grab Osama in our heart, to grab him and embrace him as our own life and beg for mercy for all that we’ve done. Saying, “Oh God, look at us murderers. Look at this world of murder.” It keeps going like that.
That’s the dark side. That’s the humiliating side of this “We’re all one” business; it sounds so nice on the surface and then [we realize] everything that’s ever happened and been done is inside of you and you’re a part of. You can say, “you’re it” or “it’s you” but there is now continuity between you and terrorism or pedophilia. Or any other horrible thing you can say “they do.” You should say, “We do. We’re doing this”
Thank you. Last question: what have you been listening to?
One song, by Emmylou Harris—the song is called “Green Pastures.” It was on “Down from the Mountain,” a movie about the music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? The one song by Emmylou Harris (blissfully sighs)…. Take a listen.
I will, and everyone who reads this will as well.
Interview by Joshua Watson. www.joshuadavidphoto.com