Dylan Hicks unveils "West Texas Winds," talks upcoming novel
It's been 10 years since Dylan Hicks has put out a record. But in the '90s, Hicks was the Twin Cities' king of all record collector-turned-musicians. He has a knack for honing in on the spirit and nuance of the most of obscure songwriters, and created his own catchy, lyrical pop masterpieces that celebrated sincerity and humor to crowd-dazzling, effervescent results. Somewhat becoming a musical obscurity himself after retreating from the music scene, Hicks has focused his writing abilities elsewhere, often writing for City Pages in the past, and ultimately a novel -- for which he has created a story about a songwriter, Bolling Green.
Dylan Hicks "West Texas Winds"
Not since 2001 has he created or released anything new. Alive With Pleasure indicated Mr. Hicks, who'd gone through a number of band setups had arrived with a new sound. It furthered a direction that strayed from his bar-band aesthetic to more electronic disco pop heights, as evidenced in the timeless song and video "City Lights."
Dylan Hicks "City Lights"
Dylan now has a new album, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which is essentially an accompanying collection of songs from his upcoming first novel, Boarded Windows. I finally pegged Hicks down to ask him about these developments in 2012.
Gimme Noise: Could you give folks a brief description of the book you been writing? What was your initial inspiration?
Dylan Hicks: Perhaps to answer your first question I should turn to the jacket copy: "Whether you are planning a romantic getaway, packing a knapsack for your junior year abroad, or" -- wait, that's the jacket copy for Cristina Mazzoni's Italian Made Simple. My novel, Boarded Windows, is narrated by a man who, in the early '90s, receives a visit from a guy called Wade Salem, a sort of darkly charismatic aesthete, drug dealer, and journeyman country musician who, for a while in the late '70s, was the narrator's de facto stepfather. The visit disrupts the narrator's life and raises questions about his origins. I guess the book started with me trying to invent characters around a very cloudy childhood memory of the goings-on before a Waylon Jennings concert in Minot, North Dakota, circa 1978.
I started writing the songs a year or so into working on the manuscript. There's a
secondary character in the book, Bolling Greene, an also-ran country singer from a movement modeled closely on outlaw country. In writing little critical appraisals and discographies of Greene's work, I came up with a bunch of song titles and lyrical fragments, and eventually started turning some of those into playable songs. But despite the album's title, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, only five of the album's songs are, to my mind, covers of Bolling Greene songs, and even these are somewhat free interpretations, with a few anachronisms and perhaps two or three lines that Greene wouldn't have entertained or tolerated. The rest of the songs derive from the novel's narrative in other ways, or borrow some of its phrases, images, or themes.
What's your feeling about that K-Mart on Lake Street? How long were you out there freezing your nuts off for the video?
I wish you'd been there. It would have doubled attendance! I have generally warm feelings about that K-Mart, although once someone there misdirected me when I asked for vacuum-cleaner bags. Granted, the person I asked was just another customer, and a very young child.
In grade school, I hated it when I or other kids were tauntingly accused of shopping at
K-Mart. I suppose this was one of my earliest exposures to class conflict, though usually it was internecine conflict -- working- or middle-class kids defensively picking on other working- or middle-class kids. For several decades now I've been under the impression that K-Mart is on the very brink of collapse, which must not be quite true, so I've developed some misplaced sympathy for K-Mart itself.
The "shoot," if it merits the term, was cold but fairly short. My wife, Nina Hale, shot
three takes from different angles on a tiny camera, but our plan to somehow will these
three takes into one seamless, many-angled video ran into trouble, and by that time we were kind of ready for lunch.
Did it feel tingly inside to be a writer going in to the studio to do music? You know, kind of like if you had been a swordsman your whole life then all of a sudden you were able to apply that to some new found skills working in a butchery. It's kind of like that, right?
Your analogy is almost creepily in line with what it felt like; I hate to revisit the whole diary-theft thing, but it does make a fella wonder... But it felt good, and kind of expensive, to go back into a professional studio. If nothing else, our backward-masking messages should give folks a lot to mull over.
Are you going to start playing this stuff live maybe do some book readings?
At last a chance to get my plugs in! Yeah, Dylan Hicks and the Toughies -- that's me on piano, along with guitarist Terry Eason on guitar, bassist James Everest, and drummer Erik Mathison -- will be playing at Red Stag Supperclub on February 22, at the Amsterdam on April 25, and then to celebrate the album's release we'll be playing two shows at the Bryant-Lake Bowl on Saturday, May 12. The book "launch" or release party will be at Open Book on Thursday, May 10. And I'm doing some out-of-town readings, so I'm excited about those as well.
So who are your favorite writers? Is there one you think local bands today would benefit from reading their works?
Well, that's a long and ever-changing list. I wasn't a wildly literary young person, but I read a lot about music, and still love to read music and literary criticism. Among living writers, some of my favorites are J.M. Coetzee, Phillip Lopate, Geoff Dyer, Lydia Davis, Bob Hicok, Nicholson Baker, Samantha Gillison, Anne Carson, Dana Spiotta, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Philip Roth, Ben Lerner, Sam Lipsyte, John Ashbery, Greil Marcus, Alice Munro, J.C. Hallman, Jonathan Lethem, Mary Gaitskill, Michael Krüger, Zadie Smith, Evan Lavender-Smith, Charles Portis, William Gass, and many others. Among the relatively recently dead: David Foster Wallace, W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, David Markson. Among more long-dead and highly canonical figures, I particularly look up to Montaigne, James Joyce, and Evelyn Waugh, and have had peak reading experiences with Shakespeare, Dante, Yeats, St. Augustine, Borges, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Nabokov, Chekhov, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Bernhard, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Mann, and many other big names, including some philosophers whom I won't bother mentioning and whose works I probably misunderstood anyway. I'm far from scholarly, and sometimes get depressed by how little I remember of the books I consider favorites.
At present I'm a bit out of touch with local bands, sucky or otherwise, but of course the bookshy often make great music and the well-read often make bad music, so it's hard to say how that all works out.
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