Q&A Greg Dwinnell had with Elliott Smith back around 1997 when X/O came out...
Yeah Yeah Yeah: You’ve lived a lot of places in your life. What town do you consider your home?
Elliott Smith: I don’t know. I’m kind of never anywhere for more than a week or two. I guess Portland. That’s where I went to high school, mostly. I lived in D.C., too. It’s a weird life, living on two different coasts, and I guess there’s something about the two places that are kind of the same. They’re both kind of dark and gloomy.
Y3: So, I love the new record. Tell me about the title.
ES: It’s XO, like people write in a letter, and it’s about all I can say about that.
Y3: Well, from your last record, it’s gone from Kierkegaard to Rod McKuen. It’s a very esoteric title to a very simple title, and I was wondering if you did that on purpose, because I’d heard Grand Mal was the first title.
ES: I wanted to call it Xo before Grand Mal but I thought it was too much like Either/Or, like too opposite.
Y3: That’s the way I envisioned it. It’s sort of the sweet side.
ES: Yeah, but I thought it was too much the same. But now I like it just fine. There was a band called Grand Mal that didn’t want me to use their name as my album title.
Y3: What do you like best about this record, what makes you happiest about it?
ES: That it was easy to make and that I only hated it for a couple of weeks after.
Y3: Is that a natural reaction to your records?
ES: Yeah, I always hate them after they’re done. I don’t know, I sort of have to detach myself. Like sometimes when people break up with people, they hate them for awhile, and there’s no good reason. And later on they go, “Wait a minute, that person wasn’t so bad. It just didn’t work out.” As soon as the record is done, it has a limited design. That’s boring. It’s more fun when it isn’t done yet. Change is still possible.
Y3: The sequence of the tracks on the CD changed between when the advances came out to when it was released, and you added a new song, “Independence Day.” Was that out of your need to change the record once it was finished?
ES: Maybe. I don’t know, that was like half a song. I was supposed to be recording for the b-sides of singles and that song was barely a song at all when we started recording it. But that’s a pretty happy song. And I think it needed more happy songs.
Y3: No matter how lighthearted the melodies of your songs may be, people have to dig a little deeper, because those melodies are just what’s there on the surface.
ES: Right. I wrote a lot of sweet, happy melodies this time, but the songs aren’t really happy. But you can pretend they’re happy.
Y3: Now that you have a good-sized budget and a nice studio instead of a basement and a four-track machine, how did the recording process differ this time around? How do Rob and Tom work with you?
ES: With the last record, they mixed it and there were a couple of songs they helped record. But with this record they were involved from the start, so I didn’t engineer this time. So I just played…all the stuff. It’s easy for me to work with them, and to say something, and they’ll finish it and know what I’m talking about.
ES: Yeah, on the same wavelength.
Y3: Any guests on this record?
ES: Jon Brion. He played on Mary Lou Lord’s record. She told me that there was this guy knew all my songs and he might come down and play some songs with me at a live show I was playing in L.A. And I was like, “Okay.” He showed up and said he knew all my songs, and I was like, “Why?” “Because,” you know. So I said, “Let’s go through a couple things at sound check.” I didn’t think he knew all my songs at all. And he was like, “Oh, okay,” but the way he said it was sort of like, “Yeah, we can go through some stuff at sound check if you need to, but I don’t need to.” So we started going through a song at sound check, and about halfway through I was like, man, he’s not kidding.
Y3: He knows everyone’s songs.
ES: Yeah. There he was, he even ended up playing on some songs that night that he hadn’t even heard before. And he was just really brilliant. He’s the most melodic, musical person I’ve ever met. He makes me feel pedestrian. He’s like our own Paul McCartney.
Y3: Call him Kid Mozart. Just remember Jon Brion would die to be able to write songs like you. He admires you to that same extent. Actually, it was Mary Lou Lord who introduced me to your music, through Jon. Jon introduced me to Mary Lou a couple years ago and they played me a couple of your songs. I ran out and bought Either/Or the next day. Now I’m a fanatic to the extent that I’d say there are two songwriters in my lifetime who have affected me the way your stuff has, Elvis Costello and Paul Westerberg.
ES: That’s very flattering because they’re two of my most favorite songwriters ever.
Y3: What stuff got you inspired in high school?
ES: Pretty strictly Elvis Costello. Elvis Costello got me through high school. That and The Clash.
Y3: What about New York stuff? Were you a Patti Smith, Television, Dolls fan?
ES: Yeah, I really like Television a lot. I tend to find something to like in virtually anything. There’s not very many records that I just can’t find anything to like about. But yeah, Television’s my favorite.
Y3: Who was your musical influence in your family?
ES: My mom was very musical. She teaches first grade and kindergarten, but she’s a really good singer, a lot better than I’ll ever be. That whole side of my family is professional musicians. They just didn’t make any money at it, they had to work other jobs. They’re all really good in a technical way that I can’t approach.
Y3:Did you start on guitar?
ES: I took piano lessons when I was 10, for a year, and they had high hopes for me. Didn’t pan out. They wanted me to pursue music. I mean, I always really liked music and my piano teacher was really excited, ’cause I was playing like Rachmaninoff after a year. I quit piano lessons, I think, in order to play soccer.
Y3: I was going to say, must have been sports, girls or drugs.
ES: Yeah. It was also ’cause the piano teacher lived too far away. But anyways, my parents were divorced when I was one. My dad saw me like once a year for like a week. He got me a guitar for Christmas one year and I tried to play but it was too hard. I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was like 13.
Y3: When did you find Bob Dylan and the like?
ES: Early, yeah, when I was like 12 or 13 and really liked his work. I had a tape that my dad gave me of this radio show. It was like the Bob Dylan story, so it had mostly a lot of really early folk songs, and I liked that quite a bit. When I started playing guitar and I learned songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Don’t Think Twice…” and tried to learn how to finger pick.
Y3: So that was an adopted style. I love your picking style. On Mary Lou Lord’s “Shake Sugaree,” I heard the record and knew it was you playing.
ES: Yup, that was me. I don’t really have good technique, but I have my own little idiosyncratic way of finger picking, but I don’t use as many fingers as I should. I learned a lot of stuff from flamenco records. Even though I can’t play flamenco. I really like how it sounds. So by trying to play it and not being able to, I kind of wound up with weird bastardized patterns.
Y3: So…videos, singles, tours—what’s the big Dreamworks game plan?
ES: I don’t have any plans to make a video. And there’s no real single. I think they’re sort of trying to make “Waltz #2” the main song, but there’s no particular, you know, MTV-oriented plans.
Y3: I thought the video for “Miss Misery” was wonderful. It put you and the song in just the right setting.
ES: Thanks. Yeah, that was okay. But MTV put it on that show “12 Angry Viewers” and they hated it. And I lost to Hanson.
Y3: The Gus Van Sant Hanson video?
ES: No, I don’t think so. But wow, that would have been weird.
Y3: Besides Mary Lou, have you heard anybody else covering your songs?
ES: It’s kind of fun on the couple of occasions I’ve heard someone cover something. Sounds like a real song when somebody else does it. When I do it, it just sort of sounds like something made up.
Y3: Are you touring by yourself?
ES: I’m playing half-electric and half-acoustic, which is kind of liberating. Quasi. opens for me, and then they’re my band for the electric half.
Y3: I have to ask you about your tattoo of Ferdinand.
ES: Oh yeah, a children’s story.
Y3: I grew up on that story. The bull who was too gentle and content to attain fame in the bullfighting ring like his friends, and chose instead to while his days away in a field, smelling the flowers. It’s a great dichotomy, this powerful beast who doesn’t want to use his power.
ES: Yeah. I’d like to say I got the tattoo because of the story. I do like the story, and that’s one reason. But my initial plan was just to get a tattoo of a bull, and I like Ferdinand better than I like the Schlitz Malt Liquor.
Y3: It’s almost analogous of you and your life. I noticed it on your arm and went, “Oh my god, that’s Ferdinand.” That is just the most perfect tattoo. It’s the first tattoo I ever saw in my lifetime that I would get.
ES: I haven’t ever regretted it. It seems to make more sense with my life over time. Somebody came up to me two months ago at a restaurant and said she had something to show me. She pulled up her sleeve and she had the same tattoo. I don’t think she got it because I had it, I think she just had it for a long time. I got mine in Portland, like eight years ago.
Y3: Do you have any other tattoos?
ES: I have a tattoo of Texas inside the KC And The Sunshine Band sun on my other arm. That one’s older.
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