Q&A: Kaitlin Fontana, Fresh at Twenty

The conflicts of interest just keep rolling here on Q&A—this time I talked with Kaitlin Fontana, author of the new oral history of Vancouver’s Mint Records, Fresh at Twenty. She’s a friend of mine from several years back, a writer whose work shows up in places like Rolling Stone, Spin, and The Walrus, and an all-around good lady.

Fresh at Twenty tells the story of Mint’s two decades in the music business, in the words of those who lived it firsthand. (Over the years they’ve broken bands like the New Pornographers, Neko Case, the Organ, and many more.) It’s a brisk, thorough, and wonderfully readable introduction to a label that turns out to be surprisingly introverted and uncool, given the calibre of indie rock, folk, and punk they’ve brought to the nation’s attention.

As one person remembers the two owners, “These Mint guys, they were who they were. These goofy dudes who typically wore shorts all the time.”

Kaitlin and I talked about the oral history format (which is going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment), classic Mint recordings, and why I bailed on helping her with the transcribing.

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Can you tell me a little about the process of how you decided this could be a book? Did you know Bill and Randy’s story—the business sidealready? Or did you approach it primarily as a fan of the music?

Kaitlin Fontana: I had been writing about music for nearly a decade, and I knew that that part of my life was coming to an endnot because of anything bad, but because I was naturally progressing towards more literary nonfiction as I got older (plus being a rock writer is naturally a young person’s game, and I was starting to enjoy sleep and quiet). So I was seeking a music book project to cap off that part of my life.

At the same time, I was writing an article for a Seattle magazine called Sound, which doesn’t exist anymore, sadly. It was a great music magazine about the northwest. The article was about Vancouver’s scene, a kind of state of the union, and I ended up talking to Mint’s Bill Baker for it. He was so self-deprecating and funny, and he mentioned in passing that Mint’s 20th anniversary was coming up. So a lightbulb went on.

I was a fan of Mint bands, in a passive sense, but I knew very little about the label itself. It was therefore a serious undertaking in terms of research, but I like that.

Did you always know it would be an oral history? Why did that format appeal to you?

KF: Pretty early on, it struck me that this should be an oral history. With all of these voices, it just made sense.

I’m a big fan of music oral histories, particularly Please Kill Me, which is the oral history of the New York punk scene. It begins with Lou Reed saying he has no one to talk to, and then this grand conversation commences. I always liked how the individual voices came together in that, and that it seemed like there was this room that everyone was coming into, sitting down, and chatting. The oral history also deals with issues of memory and distance in an interesting manner, and I was intrigued to see what would happen if I just laid contradictory statements side by side. On top of all of that, too, was the idea that an oral history elevates individuals above the narrative, lending them an importance (as if to say “you wouldn’t dare edit Lou Reed’s pithy pathos!”). You naturally want to do this with people like Reed or Iggy Pop; I wanted to give Mint folks the same courtesy.

(I wrote about oral histories in more detail on my blog.)

I’m assuming you knew a fair bit about Mint’s history and roster going in. What was the best musical discovery you made along the way?

KF: I actually didn’t, at least not directly. It was a definite learning process, which I always seek in any nonfiction project. Going in with a curiosity is always better. The best musical discovery, in my mind, was cub. I didn’t know anything about them when I began, but as I progressed I started to love both their story and their music.

To tell this story, you had to get into a lot of personal details in Bill and Randy’s lives over the past 20 years, and neither comes across in the book as naturally extroverted. Was it ever difficult to get them to talk about this stuff in such detail?

KF: Oh, definitely. I had to build a relationship of trust with those guys as we went along, because I was dealing with their whole lives for these past 20 years. Everyone else in the book it was mostly about their professional lives (with some notable exceptions), but with Bill and Randy it was everything from 1991 to today. Which was tough for them sometimes, and sometimes freeing (Bill occasionally called it “free therapy”). We fought a little on occasion, about what could and couldn’t be included, and I tried to be as magnanimous as possible while still being an information hound. I am extremely grateful to them for their openness.

At one point, I had agreed to do some of your transcription for you. Now that I’ve seen how many people you talked to, and at what length, I’m kind of relieved I backed out when I did. How did you manage to take that mountain of raw information and distill, edit, and organize it into what appears in the book?

KF: Haha. Yes, you and everyone else, my friend. How did I manage it? Let’s see… well, my deadline was approaching, and I was also doing my MFA, so it was really sheer necessity and force of will that drove me to get the thing done.

On a narrative/organizational level, however, it was about stories. That sounds trite, but it’s true. When looking at the crazy amount of raw data (the book ended up being about half of the info I collected), the thing that made the most sense was leaving out everything that didn’t make it a great story for that particular chapter, and for the book as a whole. It was almost mathematical in a sense. Kind of like that Picasso quote about leaving out everything that’s not the elephant, you know?

Let’s help out the uninitiated a little: what are three essential Mint recordings that you think everyone ought to know about?

KF: Oh boy. Well, Mass Romantic by the New Pornographers, for sure. cub’s Betti-Cola, and The Pack AD’s we kill computers. Those are my choices right now, but I could name many, many more.

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Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy Fresh at Twenty: ECW PressPowell’s.

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

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Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

Katherine Silver (translator), Tyrant Memory

Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves

Alison Espach, The Adults

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

Read the full Q&A archive here.

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