Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with Davy Rothbart from Found Magazine. In the first part, Davy talks about the cover of his new book, being on the road, and what happens at a normal Found show. Today, Davy talks about how he gets into performance mode, passion, Rise Against, and his new book, Requiem for a Paper Bag. The Boston area Found show is Saturday, May 9 in Union Square, Somerville at Precinct.
You were talking about how you get a little bit rambunctious and try to read the notes with the energy with which they were written. Some actors and athletes and musicians try to figure out a way to get into a zone when they’re performing and I’m wondering do you have a ‘Davy Rothbart Found Magazine Mode’ or can you just go from sitting shotgun to jumping up on stage and doing your thing?
Well…I gotta give props to the wonderdrug, alcohol. It’s not like it’s a different person or anything. I mean, on the road all those years with musicians, I’m sure you saw that transformation and how different people pulled it off. I like to think I could be that energetic without it, but I think that, you know, you probably slept like three hours the night before and you probably slept on the side of the road and then you drove seven hours, so you need something almost just to bring you to life. I don’t know, I love alcohol and fortunately I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with it. I can drink it every night for two months on the road and come off the road and not need to hit the bottle. But I love Maker’s Mark whiskey, I like a couple beers to sip along side of it. My friend Andrew, he’s come on the road with us a couple times. [Laughing] We were doing these shows with Frank Warren from PostSecret, another community art project along the lines of Found. And Frank was like, ‘Let me see what all your pre-show rituals are,’ before the first show we did together. Andy was like, ‘Alright, Davy’ and I kind of stood there like, imagine a robot that was turned off, you know, limp limp, and my head was bent down. He took the Maker’s Mark bottle and poured it down a hatch in my back. And as he plugged it in, like you would fill a lawnmower with gasoline, I kind of came to life. [Garbled energized robot talking about Found Magazine].
Anyway, to me, besides alcohol, it’s also the content of the notes. To me, their pretty breathtaking. And profound and hilarious. I do find if I can just inhabit the emotion of the note. I might have read the same note the day before, but if I just actually think about what the person is saying and what they were probably feeling when they wrote that note and I just read it with that emotion then I find that’s bringing it to life in a really energetic way that’s real to people because it’s true. So I think you don’t really need alcohol, ultimately. Even just reading the Found stuff that gets mailed in everyday when you read these notes, you find yourself tearing up or laughing out loud. Getting to connect and touch somebody so closely, another human, and sort of be inside their mind and their heart. I think ultimately when I’m reading them during and an event it’s the same kind of thing. I try to be really present with that item, that note, and the person that wrote it.
So basically what I’m getting from this is that as long as you have one note and a full-length mirror into which you can scream naked you’ll be all set?
Yeah, exactly, that’s pretty much the way I rock it. [Laughter]
I think that people are drawn to and find authenticity and passion endearing and from hearing you on This American Life and reading the Found books, you’ve got that in spades and I’m wondering if it’s ever caused you any trouble.
Passion and authenticity?
I think it can. One thing I have problems with is acting… I have overwhelming crushes on a girl and then you act on it and it’s not always the right thing if they’re married or whatever. So that’s a place where passion, it should be a good thing, but you’d like to have a finer handle on it or how you wield it.
You know if you start Googling ‘Davy Rothbart’, the third autosuggestion that comes up is ‘Davy Rothbart girlfriend’ so that might have something to do with it. I wonder if you’re something of an Indie Heartthrob.
It’s funny you say that. I think of my brother, Peter, as an Indie Heartthrob because he’s the one with the guitar. It seems like after every show he’s surrounded by girls and he couldn’t be any more indifferent to it, he’s not even aware even. And I’m like, ‘Yo, remember me, I was the funny one, you were laughing, it was cool, what happened?’ I like passion, in other people, too. I love performers that are passionate. One of my friends, Tim McIlrath, he was my old roommate in Chicago. He’s in this punk band called Rise Against. They’ve now become this alt-rock, modern rock radio station standby, but I don’t hold it against them. But, part of their appeal to people is their live show is so intense and he’s such an amazing performer. So passionate, and people resopnd to that, you know?
I’m sure there’s people who think that Rise Against sold out, but since you know them and know they’ve been doing the same show for the last ten year, you probably don’t feel that way.
Yeah, I totally don’t. You see people fight the good fight. What I appreciate about Tim’s approach, he’s a really political guy and an activist and they probably could have made some decisions that would have kept them more underground, such as not going to a major label, but he wondered about the effectiveness of preaching to the choir. Versus having access to this much wider audience and being able to be the first to touch these kids. You go to these shows – I’m their oldest fan, well, not always, but usually – some of these kids, they’re from somewhat conservative places, and for them for someone to talk about Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, these kids’ minds are blown. No one else that they’re going to come into contact with is going to clue them in to Howard Zinn, for example. So I think it’s pretty awesome to see. They’re making good music still. When you start changing your music to appeal to a mass audience and it becomes conscious then you’re maybe guilty of selling out to some extent, but they haven’t done that. Some of my other friends who have had some success I feel like they’re just following their own vision and bringing people to it.
Even when bands do sell out, I generally don’t hold it against them because I feel like they want to make a sustainable living as a musician it requires a little selling out.
I wanted to ask about the new book because that’s obviously the point of the conversation. I saw that DelThaFunkeeHomosapien sent something in?
Basically, as I was reaching out to people I gave them the option… Part of what inspired the book is that anytime I’m explaining Found Magazine to someone sitting next to me on a Greyhound Bus or at a barber shop people always have some great story about something they found and I love hearing those stories. So I thought it’d be cool to reach out to my favorite musicians, writers, artists to see what stories they had about stuff that they had found. For some, for most, they had some story that immediately came to mind and they were awesome stories. For a few people they were stumped for a second. They couldn’t think of something immediately that they themselves had found, but then I shared some of the magazines with them and asked them if any of the finds, any of the found notes themselves, sparked a story for them. Some writers wrote great stories about found pieces. Like Sarah Vowell, there’s this one found note of a homework assignment I’ve always loved it’s called ‘What I know about US History’. This kid had listed 50 things that he knows about US History, everything from George Washington crossing the Delaware to the stoplight was invented to Paul McCartney was knighted, which I think is funny to be on a list of US History. But then Sarah Vowell wrote ‘What Else I Know About US History’ and she listed a couple dozen things she thought the kid omitted from his list. Important things, but kind of funny things. Anyway, DelThaFunkeeHomosapien. There was one note he was taken with and it’s this kid has written a note to God. It said, ‘Dear God, my dad is dying, please give me some money, God damn it.’ And then he crossed out the ‘God’ in ‘God damn it’ like at some point he realized that if you’re writing a note to God, you probably shouldn’t say ‘God damn it’, you know? And so Del thought that was a funny note and he tried to imagine who this kid was and what was going on in his life and what his story was. Which I think is what we do with all the found notes I read, it just gives you a glimpse into someone’s life and it’s up to you to piece the rest of the story together. I think that’s one of the joys of reading these found notes, the way it sparks your imagination. So Del just imagined what was going on with this kid’s life. And then also, I think the other you thing you do when you read these notes is you kind of reflect on how it relates to your own life and sometimes it speaks to something in your own life. Del talked about how he’s dealt with those types of issues in his own life.
Yeah, it actually sounds like one of Del’s songs.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s a short piece. A lot of pieces end up either being edited or they’re fairly short to begin with. It’s probably a page or two, but it is like one of his songs and I think that’s why he kind of sparked to that note.
(The Found Tour hits Boston on May 9th at Precinct in Union Square. Requiem for a Paper Bag comes out on May 5. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. Come back tomorrow for the 3rd part of this 3 part interview.)