If I opened up this interview by saying it's not every day I sit down to talk to a tenured philosophy professor, that wouldn't be entirely accurate, given the circles I tend to travel in. It is unusual however, to come across someone who's also a gifted singer/songwriter, tackling subjects like the Orwellian nature inherent in our age of surveillance, but such is the anomaly that is Steve Weinstein.
Dividing time between his academic life at the University of Waterloo and Perimeter Institute For Theoretical Physics in Canada (where he now calls home) and pursuing his rock'n'roll fantasy, Steve is a man of many moods, talents, and a wealth of stories spanning an incredibly fascinating career (or should I say, "careers"?) I recently sat down with Steve for a brief chat about his two personas and new album, the spirited Last Free Man - it evolved into the kind of long conversation you'd have with an old friend you've gratefully reconnected with.
I think we'd both agree - our initial contacts have evolved into such an alliance. It was a daunting task trying to condense all we spoke about into this interview (and it's likely a second installment is called for) but here's a constellation of subjects touched upon during those conversations with the man who's also discussed Quantum Theory with Morgan Freeman, host of tv's Through The Wormhole series, airing on Science:
DG: Reading your bio Steve, I must say it's quite the trajectory to go from playing punk clubs in New York City to discussing Quantum Physics on Discovery's Science channel.....
SW: To me, they've always been intrinsically connected, as far as my story goes. My interest in philosophy began as early as eight years old - I started thinking about those kinds of heavy questions about life and humanity. And rock'n'roll was a part of that equation as well: the first album I remember buying was Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix: Live At Monterey - after I heard it at my local library. That album grabbed me like nothing I had ever heard before. Are you familiar with it?
DG: No. But it sounds pretty groundbreaking to me....
SW: What's memorable about it was that you hear Otis stretching out from the soul bag and embracing a rock'n'roll sound........branching out to a wider audience. The music and the philosophy feed off of one another on a subconscious level, though I've never really integrated my academic teaching into songwriting. But what they have in common is that they're both ways to tap into the mysterious parts of our world.
DG: You spent some time in NYC, doing the club scene at places like the iconic CBGB's. What was that like?
SW: I hung around that scene between 1986 - 1992. Actually, I would drive down to New York from Boston, where I was also playing the clubs. I'd pop into CBGB's once in awhile - when I first started playing around in New York City, I was doing places like Folk City and Speakeasy as a solo artist. Unfortunately, I got there after the heyday of the punk rock scene, where folks like The Ramones, Patti Smith and Television began their careers.
DG: I remember that time fondly - mainly because I got my first gig as a rock'n'roll journalist back then: I was music editor for underground magazine, The Daily Dope, and got to interview and hang out with the likes of Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks, and later Magazine), Wendy O. Williams (Plasmatics) and other seminal figures of the punk movement. That said, the 80's post-punk movement in Boston was nothing to sneeze at either. And you were immersed in that, were you not?
SW: It was a pretty diverse scene - the heart of it was more or less what we would call garage rock...not "garage" in a Lenny Kaye/Nuggets sort of way, but still rough around the edges. The Neats were a part of that scene (more aligned with the jangly rock of REM than garage or punk), as were The Del Fuegos. You also had groups like The Neighborhoods, who were huge in Boston but never quite broke out nationally. The stuff I was playing back then with my band would likely be classified as "alternative rock", and arrived on the cusp of that scene, musically speaking. And of course, "alternative" morphed into what we're now calling "indie." I was sharing the same studio as The Pixies (the renown Q Division) and recall almost coming to blows with producer Steve Albini (who went on to helm Nirvana's albums) over something or other, but it was pretty intense. And I was a big fan of Aimee Mann and her band, Til Tuesday during the post-punk days of Beantown.
DG: Not to mention Morphine......
SW: Absolutely! Any discussion of that scene would be remiss without mentioning the huge contribution of Morphine, which as you know, sprang out of Treat Her Right. In terms of press, I would say Morphine and The Pixies were the big success stories that came out of Boston. Aimee too, but she had a harder road being more on the pop side of things.
DG: I hope saying this doesn't make me come off as some old fart.....and I recently had this conversation with a musician buddy of mine - but it seems the music scene today, both in terms of eclecticism and individuality is a pale imitation of what it used to be, and the dwindling number of underground venues just confirms that.
SW: Yeah. You had places like The Rat and Boston Tea Party (The Replacements used to breeze into The Rat frequently), but you still have spots like The Paradise, The Middle East, TT The Bear's Place....there used to be this hilarious dump next to the Boston Garden named Chet's Last Call, that a lot of garage bands played at. I should also mention as an important part of that scene Scuffy The Cat, whose lead singer (Charlie Chesterman) passed away recently.
DG: As an artist, are there any particular folks that inform your songwriting?
SW: I'm not quite sure how to answer that. My music is certainly rooted in the blues and soul-influenced rock'n'roll of bands like The Rolling Stones, and I think you can hear that in the songs I write. And on some level, I'd cite Bob Dylan, as he is the inspiration for so many songwriters, though I wouldn't say he directly influenced me per se. I think I once wrote a song you could call Dylanesque, but he's a different sort of beast. If anything, it probably comes out of a non-traditional mode as far as songwriting goes.
DG: Specifically, what was the process when writing songs for your latest album, Last Free Man?
SW: With this album, I'd say writing the music came first: I made a conscious decision not to overly-intellectualize the lyrics, which was something I tended to do on past work. It's very easy for me to grab my guitar, and come up with something musically - I have tons of fragments of things I've composed that I would love to find the right words for. Sometimes they remain as fragments, other times things begin to flesh out gradually. I like to look at things as they're coming into being, and then figuring out what it is that the song is trying to make me say. Now let me totally screw up that theory by sharing the story of how I wrote the title track: I was on the plane back from London, and I was reacting to all the security cameras I was seeing, and the overall sense of surveillance, which is pretty blatant over there - they've had them since the 70's, and they're totally conspicuous. So I started jotting down some lyrics, putting into words what I was feeling about that. When I got home, I sat down with the guitar, plucked out some chords, and found a melody for the words I had written.
By contrast, "Lost And Found" was a more lyrically involved tale, but it began with the music: I had these melodies I'd written, and had to figure out what the Hell the song should be about. I'm not good at writing nonsense draft lyrics - there's a fine line between poetry and total nonsense.....you take a song like "Radio Free Europe" by REM. You're digging the tune musically, and then you're looking at the words and thinking: "What the?!! That doesn't make any sense at all! Nirvana came out of that school of thought, that the music preceded the lyrics - or you couldn't have a passage like, "an albino, a mulatto, a mosquito, my libido." Many times it's all about the presentation, versus a song having to carry a message.
DG: Speaking of which, would you consider "Last Free Man" to be a protest song?
SW: I didn't set out to write a protest song - it was just my reaction to living in that environment of surveillance. Granted, the song does have sort of a defiant edge, but it doesn't take a particular position on it. The main theme expressed is a desire for freedom, which I believe is at the heart of great rock'n'roll. It's about trying to make a space for ourselves in a larger world. There's a paradigm shift going on in our society, and I don't feel like folks have completely grasped that yet. This song is not a response to the whole Edward Snowden affair (it was written before that), but I am surprised by the general air of complacency about tracking and surveillance.
DG: But isn't rock'n'roll an agent of change in that respect? Do rock artists have any ownership or investment in affecting change, or at the very least, engaging us in that dialogue?
SW: I wouldn't say it's the responsibility of any individual artist. I hold our elected officials responsible, but what I did appreciate about the punk movement was that bands like The Clash wore their politics on their sleeve, and weren't afraid to speak on the issues of the day - in fact, a Clash song that I think is very prescient in this day and age would be "White Man In Hammersmith Palais." Toward the end, Strummer sings, "If Adolph Hitler flew in today, they'd send a limousine anyway" - the song speaks to that complacency, as well as our celebrity culture. The Sex Pistols were also great at that, being unafraid to challenge the status quo. At the end of the day, they released one of the best albums of the punk movement ever.....
DG: Which would be, Never Mind The Bullocks - Here's The Sex Pistols.....
SW: Exactly! "Holiday In The Sun" is rock protest as art, in my opinion. It almost reminds me of a Francis Bacon painting. Johnny Rotten referenced The Berlin Wall in that piece, but it's about the singer's relationship to this wall around him. I'm surprised there's so little of that sense of social conscience in rock today (folk notwithstanding.) Nirvana ushered in an age of self-flagellation in modern rock, that reflected the mood of that time. Have you noticed this? Used to be that rock'n'roll expressed the disconnect between kids and their parents. Nirvana and bands like them turned that in on itself, and it felt more insular than introspective.
DG: What about the corporatizing of today's music? Does that play a role?
SW: It's not as if the corporate guys have some sort of agenda, if you ask me. What's your take on it?
DG: Taking Nirvana as a case-in-point, I would say the corporatizing definitely plays a part in terms of an air of artistic compromise: though the rock press glosses over this fact when touting the virtues of Nevermind, truth be told, many of Nirvana'a fans who'd embraced the garage/punk of Bleach and Incesticide weren't that crazy about the appropriation of Boston's "More Than A Feeling" on "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Pearl Jam released the critically-received Lightning Bolt this year, and God bless Eddie Vedder, he's lost none of his social conscience and proletarian idealism, but it feels like the audience for that kind of edgy, uncompromising rock'n'roll that existed in the 90's is long gone.
SW: Funny you should say that....when Pearl Jam first came on the scene, I felt they owed more to Led Zeppelin than to alternative rock. But they've turned out to be the ones still carrying the flag in terms of writing songs with conviction, and I admire those guys immensely in the way they have conducted themselves over the years. In terms of what you might call "selling out", I'd have to say that concept is foreign to the majority of artists today - they don't even know what that means. Sure, their music is in movies, tv, commercials, etc., but that's how it's done now. There's never a question of soul-searching over the possibility of commerce versus compromise, and that is a huge disappointment to me. Even Dylan and (Pete) Townshend have licensed their songs to Madison Avenue. Springsteen and Tom Waits are two holdouts that I can think of.
DG: Another troubling aspect of our consumer culture today is that lots of folks own music, but few actually seem to be "purchasing" it. I can't tell you how many times I've come across people who are vehement in their declaration that they will never pay to acquire any music, period.
SW: About ten years ago, a friend I know picked up a John Prine album, and I remember a mutual friend saying to him, "Why'd you buy that? I could've burned it for you!" I thought to myself, "For Chrissakes, John Prine isn't a millionaire - he needs to make a living! You love and appreciate the man's music, but you won't spend twelve or fifteen bucks to buy his album?" And that's partly because music is not looked upon as a tangible product anymore. I mean, these days folks will pay five bucks for a double-latte at Starbucks, but won't shell out five bucks to download your album. And let's face it, a digital download (which is the preferred format nowadays) is not as visceral as buying a CD, removing the shrink-wrap, putting the disc in your player, and pouring through the booklet of lyrics and liner notes. The digital age has removed us from the tactile experience of what it meant to listen to an album.
DG: I know what you mean, Steve. I just signed on with an ambient music label, and when discussing my upcoming release, the head of Wayfarer said that in the past they would include physical CDs along with downloads, but as a small label, it's not worth the investment of even a limited pressing if there's no guarantee you'll exhaust the inventory.
SW: I've pressed a bunch of CDs for this album, mostly for promotional use to provide to critics like you, and I'm sure I'll have some left over - I might try to make them available for purchase, but I don't anticipate a market for that, because they download. But even the CD is a bit of a compromise compared to an LP - you understand what I'm saying about the album jacket containing a 12" record being more visceral than a compact disc.
DG: I think there is still a niche market for vinyl that is very substantial. You see this in evidence every time there is a National Record Store Day event - my buddy Shawn came out for the last one, and purchased the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers movie Inside LLewyn Davis at Newbury Comics, and didn't mind waiting in line to get the last copy they had. Any many audiophiles out there agree with me.
SW: Well, I know this is the quintessential argument among audiophiles: compact disc versus vinyl. And while my opinion is such to raise some hackles, I gotta say, true audiophiles should embrace the compact disc.....fidelity-wise, it outshines vinyl. I've been in more than a few debates about this. As a fellow recording artist, you know that one can make an outstanding recording with our digital technology, but when you play them back through regular earbuds or your computer (unless you've upgraded the sound card on it) it's like, what's the point? You miss the range and dynamics of the original recording. Besides, listening to a traditional LP is a totally different experience.
DG: What I miss is holding onto a 12" jacket, pulling out the vinyl, and checking out the song lyrics in a font you don't need reading glasses for. Young people today are missing out on a unique experience who have never interacted with a vinyl record.
SW: I think you're right - people listen to music all the time, but it really isn't that important to them. Once in a while, you see a breakout band that gets people's attention, like Arcade Fire this year, or Mumford and Sons the previous, or Coldplay going further back. They certainly aren't wrapped up in music like they used to be. About the punk movement: it's interesting to note that despite it being a watershed moment in the annals of rock'n'roll, the majority of those bands didn't sell many records - there are exceptions, like when the drummer for The Clash came up with "Rock The Casbah", which was an unexpected radio hit. But for the most part, the punk groups weren't that popular in their time, nor were they tearing up the charts.
DG: On the new album, you do a cover of Mission of Burma's "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate." Were you concerned about any blacklash over interpreting a song by such a critically-iconic band?
SW: I do worry about that a little, but I was more worried about alienating the fans than the critics. I really wanted to be sure I did the tune justice. I felt I could emotionally connect to the lyrics, and was gratified when the songwriter (Clint Conley) said he liked it, as well as one the guys from Fugazi.
DG: Being a rock'n'roller who also debates Quantum Physics leads me to ask you the question on everyone's lips, and that is.....when are you going to do a guest spot on The Big Bang Theory?
SW: They did approach me, and frankly, negotiations have been a bit tense. They want me to do a show focusing on the Higgs boson, and I was insistent that they make mention of Tom Kibble's role in its discovery. That would be like doing a documentary on the history of Punk Rock, and focusing on The Ramones, to the exclusion of The Sex Pistols. It's just not right.