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A 'Paris Review'-Style Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

When I called John Jeremiah Sullivan midway through the week at 9:30 in the morning, I was addled from too much coffee and more than a little bit jumpy. I have been a fan of his work since reading his 2006 essay on Axl Rose’s comeback for GQ and was excited to ask him about his new book. (If you have any doubts about his skills, just read his latest essay for The New York Times on Disney World.) I spoke to the big-hearted southern editor at The Paris Review for over an hour. We talked about his book of essays, titled Pulphead, which comes out on November 1st, as well as his various obsessions — which are many. Also, I’d like to note that I did not include a potentially mortifying video of his Moby Dick-inspired band playing live in Bryant Park, but could have. Consider it a favor, Mr. Sullivan. So read on, dear readers, and let us know what you think about this alarmingly intelligent Southern gent in the comments section below.

Can you tell me how Fayaway (your band) got started?

I guess it’s more of a project than a band. We never really played live; we never really play at all. My friend Nick who lives down the street, we sometimes get together in the middle of the night and do weird musical recordings. He’s a person who can make his own gear.

He’s making Theremins?

Synthesizers, yeah. So we mess around and then we did this really fun thing. Peter Terzian was having a reading in Bryant Park and I think the organizers said, let’s do something more than a reading, let’s get some entertainment sideshow act, so we got together with James Wood, who is a studio-level drummer on top of being one of the best lit critics in the world. James played bongos. So we did this thing in the park that probably ended up being more like a performance art piece than a show.

Were there mimes?

Yeah, we hadn’t even told them we were going to be there, it just happened. That was pretty much the existence of Fayaway up until this point. 

Do you guys still tool around?

We only talk about it. The experiment has become even more pure.

It’s just a concept.

Barely.

Were you ever in any bands in high school?

Oh yeah. My first band, Prisoners of Conscience, was great. POC. We had our own symbol and everything. I remember we all wore jean jackets of varying hues. They were pretty disgusting at practice; we would order pizzas and they would lick the pieces to claim their piece. It was just gross.

How old were you at this time?

Thirteen, I guess.

What did you play?

Guitar. I was taking lessons from a born-again Christian named Rex in the back room of Sweet River Music. He would witness to me and teach me at the same time. We figured out all the “Chronic Town” chords together.

Rhythm or lead?

Very good question. I’d have to listen to the recordings. I know there was some three-note soloing going on. I got started early because my brother is a pretty serious musician; my mom also is a wonderful guitar player. She can play all kinds of folk songs, so it was always around. These days the guitar I play is her 1963 Guild classical, the one she played in her dorm in college. It’s like playing a stick of butter. My brother is scheming even not to get it back.

Is that why you started as a music writer?

Oh definitely. Definitely. My interest has always been technical from the beginning because I was interested in songwriting, sort of the math of it. I’ve never been all that good at it but I like it in a hobbyist way. That was one of the amazing things about doing music writing professionally is that I was getting access to these people who really knew something about the science of that and how it worked; I got to ask them a lot of questions—not all of which I ended up being able to use in the articles. That included genius songwriters whose stuff I’ve always loved like Bunny Wailer, but also included people like Simon Cowell who were maybe taking more of a cynical stance on it but had also thought about it in a systematic way.

Or that moment in the book where you talk to John Fahey about blues. In a lot of ways, it seems like an obsession, as if it’s a puzzle to solve.

That really ended up being a guiding principle in picking out which pieces would end up in the book; they all are chronicles of some obsession or some subject I couldn’t get out of my head. The piece about Andrew Lytle, for instance—an experience that needed to be purged.

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