Throwback Interview: Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself To Live

Photo credit: Aki Mimoto, August 2005

I wrote a few book-related things back at university, when I lived in Vancouver and worked for The Peak. I thought it’d be mildly interesting/severely embarrassing to repost some of them here, now, a bunch of years later. And against my better instincts, I’ve barely edited them at all—which means you’re getting a clear-eyed look at a teenager trying to write his way out of a wet paper bag. Enjoy?

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Even though I’m the one with the tape recorder and photographer, Chuck Klosterman just can’t keep his journalism (and music fanaticism) roots completely restrained. When I ask him what albums he’s been listening to lately, he gives a fairly quick answer and then asks, “What about you?” I mention that I’ve been listening to Mates of State. He presses on, asking me what they sound like, and for a minute I forget that I’m talking to a columnist for Esquire and Spin, as well as an author with three books under his belt, and it feels like a friendly bar conversation.

That night, following his book reading/signing at the Robson Street Chapters store (for his new book, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story), we really will have a friendly bar conversation, and it’s hardly surprising that he seems absolutely in his element as the pint glasses pile up. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tape recorder going for the drunken Batman debates, so the official document will have to suffice.

In your career, you’ve spent a lot more time on this side of the interview process. Do you still feel weird being asked the questions, as opposed to doing the research?

Chuck Klosterman: What I’ve found is that it’s actually harder to be interviewed than to interview people, which I would never have guessed. Let’s say I’m rude to someone, or that I’m hungover, or maybe I talk too much and I say something that’s too personal. I can almost see the reporter lock into that, because I do the exact same thing [as a reporter].

So it’s really kind of stressful. You find yourself not wanting to say anything that’s remotely controversial or interesting, and I find myself giving kind of a banal, dull quote that so many people I’ve interviewed have given. Because there’s almost no benefit to being interesting. For the most part, if you’re interesting, it just ends up making you look kind of crazy or something, or mean, y’know?

One thing I like about your journalism for Spin is that you paint a very realistic, and therefore imperfect, portrait of the artist being interviewed. Do you get a lot of negative feedback for showing both sides of musicians?

CK: The problem with a lot of rock writing is really two-fold. One: A lot of people go into it because they want to meet musicians. So because of that, they end up writing the article wanting the artist to like them. And that’s totally useless to readers, because the reader already knows about the person as a musician—they want to know the real things about them.

The other problem is that a lot of people who write about music would not be a writer if music didn’t exist. In other words, the only reason they went into journalism was to cover rock bands, and I was lucky enough to have worked at newspapers where sometimes I had to write about a guy who does ice sculptures with a chainsaw, or a guy who blows up beaver dams for a living. You have to figure out what’s really interesting about them. And I think I carry over some of those daily newspaper principles to my rock journalism.

Actually, I really appreciate you saying that it doesn’t seem like I leave things out, because I feel like a lot of people, they interview Pearl Jam or whatever. And they spend the entire interview basically trying to get the quotes that they think are supposed to be in a Pearl Jam story, and they forget all the little details that happen along the way. That’s the stuff readers can’t get. Like, readers can get a guy saying, “This record is really personal.” They don’t need a reporter to tell them that. What they want to know about are, like, how does Eddie Vedder laugh? Or if he’s checking his cell phone, who’s calling him? Those are the things people are interested in.

So you think that passion for the genre can hurt a writer sometimes?

CK: No, the passion for it does not. The unconditional appreciation of the genre can hurt. Someone says, “I’m going to do a story on the Strokes.” And they love the Strokes. So it doesn’t matter what they do, they want the Strokes to be popular, so they’ll try and persuade other people to like them, too. I don’t try to persuade anybody of anything. Like, I love Kiss. Kiss is my favourite band. But I would never try and talk you into it. When I write, it’s my perception of it, it’s autobiography. It’s not a “larger truth.”

When people talk about the state of the music industry, they tend to polarize it to either “really great” or “really boring.” Do you think either of those are true right now?

CK: The music industry’s kind of fucked up now because there’s no middle class. You either sell 14 million records, or you sell 70,000 records. There was a time in the ’70s where a band like Steely Dan could put a record out, and eventually it would sell a million and a half or two million records. That doesn’t really happen anymore.

Now, it’s kind of like, you’ve got to be an artist like Britney Spears or 50 Cent, or you’ve got to be this indie band that’s on a tiny, tiny label and sells hardly anything. And that’s kind of problematic because it puts these bands in a position where they either have to be billionaires or broke. So it’s easier to be in a band now, and it’s easier to make a record because of technology, and it’s easier to have people hear the record over the internet or whatever, but it’s harder to make a living. And I think that’s what a lot of the artists bemoan.

But I write about culture, I don’t really try to influence it. I have an opinion on whether something is good or bad, but what do I know about the music industry really? I’ve never fucking looked at a spreadsheet in my life. I could never be an A&R guy, all I’d do is find bands that sound like Thin Lizzy and Guns N’ Roses.

I’ve often heard that because you write about the virtues of pop culture, people feel that you validate their tastes for them—that now they’re allowed to openly like them, because it’s on a bookshelf now.

CK: I feel like there are lots of people in North America who want to think critically about the art that’s important to them. And there are venues that do a very good job about that, like National Public Radio and The New Yorker, but the problem is the objects of art they’re picking, a lot of people can’t relate to. Like, “I’ve never listened to early Yo La Tengo records,” or “I’ve never seen this movie because it didn’t come to my hometown,” or “I’ve never even heard of this author.”

I really feel that you can think critically about anything. So I pick things that I like that I feel are normative. I mean, everyone knows who Pamela Anderson is. And you can write about Pamela Anderson in a way that’s smart, that’s not just a guy in Maxim saying that her tits are big. There’s a significance to her popularity. So a lot of people probably would be like, “Well, you know, I’ve always liked Def Leppard, but I always felt weird because I was always told liking Def Leppard meant I was dumb.” And here’s a book where I’m saying, “No, I’m going to talk about Def Leppard in these really intellectual, almost academic terms.” So if people feel that way, that’s great, man.

I don’t feel guilty about anything I like. I don’t like the term guilty pleasure, I think it’s crazy. Why should I feel bad about something I enjoy? I think it’s hilarious when people say, “Oh, you know, Survivor is a guilty pleasure for me.” It’s like, yeah, because if you weren’t watching Survivor you’d be reading Nabokov. [Laughs.] People use “guilty pleasure” to say, basically, “I’m ashamed.”

A large portion of your audience is the university and college crowd, the 18-24 demographic. Do you know why your work appeals to that age group?

CK: There’s this desire to think—especially when you’re in college, you’re really interested in the world, and really engaged with culture, and it’s fun being smart, right? So you’re looking for things that you can, for lack of a better term, be smart about. And if you’re 22 years old, you’re bringing in this base of knowledge to the things I write about, without even trying. Like, you’ve seen a bunch of the seasons of The Real World, or you know everything there is to know about Nirvana, or whatever the case may be. It’s almost like I’m just writing about the subjects that they already care about.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens as I grow older, if a lot of these 18-24-year-olds will stop reading my books, or if we’ll both age at the same time.

(Interview originally appeared in The Peak, September 12, 2005)

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