Thursday, August 28, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Tim Slagle

Q&A: Tim Slagle

Tim Slagle says he feels like he’s lived in Minnesota, albeit one week at a time over twenty-plus years. The Detroit-born, Chicago-based political satirist not only tears into government in his stand-up routine, he’s also a contributing editor for Liberty Magazine. In addition to appearing on C-Span, Showtime, and MTV, Slagle produced and starred in “Mudslingers Ball” with Lewis Black. The pilot, which aired on local TV station KSTP, came in at #2 in its timeslot.

Q: When did you first get interested in politics?

A: Probably since I was old enough to vote. I had been doing comedy for a few years and I saw Will Durst’s work. It amazed me that he could take something like politics and elicit laughs from it. I started going in that direction after that. Looking back, it probably wasn’t a good decision. Especially now, that things are so polarized. With any political joke, you have a good chance you’ll alienate half of the audience.

Q: Is there a tactful way to handle that?

A: If there is, I haven’t found it. Whereas most comics, when they upset people in the room, they say, “Oh my gosh, I have to do something to get the audience back.” I say, “You don’t like it? You can leave.”

Q: What are the biggest mistakes our country is making right now?

A: Putting too much confidence in Washington. People get into government nowadays not because they’re the most qualified or the most intelligent but because they’re the most convincing on TV. Our government is now being run by used car salesmen and slip-and-fall lawyers who are selected by people stupid enough to believe that you could lose 100 pounds in 10 days without diet or exercise.

Q: What would your ideal government look like?

A: A ghost town. [Laughs.] Government should be there for minimal purposes: to protect you from me and us from them.

Q: What do millennials need to know about politics?

A: To not take it too seriously. It’s a joke. It’s an accident created by imperfect beings.

Q: Do you recommend voting?

A: In the past, I always believed everyone should vote but I’m starting to think no. If you don’t know why you should vote, why should you vote? There’s a popular refrain that says, “We have to get more people out to the polls” and I strongly disagree with that. If you pay attention, yeah, good, go to the polls, but there’s no reason to think that you should show up just to show up and vote for the people whose names look interesting.

Q: You’ve been doing comedy for a long time. How have you seen the industry or the craft change over the years?

A: When I first started, there were probably only a dozen people making a living at comedy. It seemed impossible for anyone unless you’d been on The Tonight Show. Then you were knighted as a comic. I saw it go from that to hundreds of people making a living to thousands of people making a living at comedy back to a couple dozen people. It’s classic supply and demand. When I started doing it, it was a unique thing, like, “Wow, you’re a comedian? That’s really interesting.” Now it’s like, “You’re a comedian? My brother does that.”

Q: What makes a successful comedian?

A: If I knew that, you wouldn’t have had to go on my Wikipedia page [before the interview]. It’s really hard. In the beginning, a good VHS tape would get you booked. If you had a popular MySpace page, that would get you booked. Today, there’s so many ways to crack into the industry, who knows. There’s comics that are only popular because people heard them on XM stereo or their podcasts. I have no idea what the next big thing is going to be.

Q: Everyone’s been talking about the death of Robin Williams. Is there a link between the desire to be a comedian and depression?

A: There’s an old joke I remember from when I was a little kid: a man goes into the psychiatrist and says, “I don’t know what to do, Doctor. I’m thinking of killing myself. I’m so depressed.” The doctor says, “You need to go see Grimaldi the Clown. He’s the funniest clown I’ve ever seen. I died laughing.” The man said, “Doctor, I am Grimaldi.”

That’s kind of been the stereotype for the longest time. There do seem to be a lot of comics who suffer from depression. I think a lot of comics believe that success will stop the pain. I know a few comics who have said they thought that’s what was lacking in their lives.

Those of us who don’t have fame or success or money, we have something that people like Robin Williams don’t have—and that’s hope. We hope that if we win the lottery, it’s gonna solve all our problems. We hope that our YouTube post goes viral. We all have these hopes and we put these little candles on paper boats and send them afloat on a pond, hoping that this one will end the pain. I think what’s most striking about Robin Williams: he had everything that anyone in the world could dream to have, except because he had all that, he had no hope left.

Originally published on in Aug. 2014.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Strand of Oaks

Q&A: Strand of Oaks

Timothy Showalter is Strand of Oaks, a folk rock act based in Philadelphia. A former Mennonite from Indiana, the 32-year-old Showalter drew on an excruciating time in his life for his fourth album “HEAL.” Professional disappointment, a troubled marriage, and a major car accident all culminated in the making of the 10 tracks on the critically acclaimed LP. Instrumentally angry but lyrically tender, “HEAL” is a testament to the therapeutic effects of music and the resiliency of Showalter himself.

Q: Your new album is called “HEAL.” What are you healing from?

A: Do you have 14 hours? [Laughs.] I think it’s just life catching up with you, whether it be relationships or problems keeping my mind healthy, or substances. It was a culmination of all of that boiled over. I don’t know if I’ve healed yet—I think we’re always healing in some ways—but I don’t think I’ve found the finish line.

Q: Some people struggle to express themselves when they’re in the midst of a painful experience. It sounds like that hasn’t been your experience.

A: It’s easier for me to express myself when things are more dramatic. I feel like there’s a live wire I can get tapped into. It’s hard when you’re denying your real emotions. I had such a clear dialogue going on and zero filters. It was easy to share. I couldn’t have written this record if I hadn’t been in that state of mind. I wouldn’t have had the courage to be this honest.

Q: You wrote 30 songs in three weeks. What was that period of your life like? It sounds intense.

A: I don’t remember very much of it. I think I went into some kind of haze. I didn’t sleep a lot. I definitely have manic tendencies. I feel bad for my wife because I don’t think I was a pleasant person to be around. I don’t think I was mean or angry; I was just in a different world. I love writing music but I don’t write while I’m on tour, so it was like two years without writing, and getting home, there was a lot of melodies and songs. Granted, some of them were horrible, but the process of writing again was so exciting to me.

Q: How did you pare down to 10 tracks for the album?

A: I wrote a lot of genres. I would write almost a heavy metal song and then a synthesizer song and wonder, “Can these be paired together?” I chose the songs based on how they flowed together. Lyrically, I knew it was going to be a dark record but I didn’t want any of the songs to be about self-pity. There were a few songs that were too bad to put on the record, like, “There’s no use for these. They can stay in the archives a little longer.”

Q: You mixed the album shortly after having a severe car accident and suffering a concussion on Christmas Day in 2013. How did that affect the finished product?

A: I’ve never been that close to dying before. My head was in pretty bad shape, my body was beaten up. I didn’t want to delay the album process because I’d made a goal to myself that I wanted the record to be done by New Year’s. I had it scheduled, so I went ahead with it. I don’t know what a concussion does to your hearing, but it made me turn things up louder and make it more visceral.

Q: You come from a background of faith. Do you feel like the traumatic events in your life happened for a reason?

A: I think we live in a chaotic universe and that things are not necessarily planned or destined. I think it’s how people choose to deal with them. Every problem can be turned into a bigger problem or a solution. Throughout my life, I’ve tried to find a reason why things happen and how I can improve upon the bad times.

Q: If you didn’t have music, what methods would you use to heal your pain?

A: I don’t think I would [heal]. I think music is the reason I’m still here. If I were in better shape, maybe I’d be a rock climber.

Q: You mentioned your wife earlier. How involved is she in your creative process? Does she get the first listen?

A: She has to hear probably 400 different versions of the song. I record in my house, and I’m always pulling her into the room, like “Listen to this! Listen to this!” Nothing really has changed for her ears, but for my ears, I might have added a new high amp part or something. She is always the first ear for every song that I write.

Q: We’ve talked about a lot of dark stuff. What brings you joy?

A: That’s the first time in about 8,000 interviews that anyone’s asked that, so thank you! I love to be outside. I was just in the woods before you called. I don’t like being idle. I’m always hiking or kayaking. I’m a little bit obsessed with reading. I’ll read four books at the same time. And listening to music. I would have thought that love would have dulled with making music being my job, but I listen to records constantly. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Erica Rivera Interview Henry Phillips

Q&A: Henry Phillips

Henry Phillips is one of the most versatile comics on the comedy scene. The lifelong Los Angeleno splits his live act between music and jokes. His one-liners focus on awkward human interactions and everyday grievances while his original songs hone in on jilted love. Phillips, a guitar player, has released five albums, landed airplay on nationally syndicated shows, and appeared on Jimmy Kimmel.

Phillips also cooks—or attempts to—in “Henry’s Kitchen,” an instructional YouTube series where his curse-filled culinary adventures often end in disaster. More of his short video series include “The Loner,” about a man who flubs barfly come-ons, and “You and Your Fucking Coffee.” Deadpan delivery and a resigned attitude are Phillips’ trademarks; he rarely smiles onscreen, but he leaves his audience in stitches.

Q: How did your musical comedy style develop?

A: I did a lot of open mic nights as a musician. Eventually I started laughing at some of the people I was working with and how they took themselves too seriously. I started satirizing that and it became an act of making fun of folk music, kind of in the way that Spinal Tap made fun of heavy metal music. It took off from there.

Q: Which musicians influenced you?

A: The kind of stuff I’m making fun of would be Neil Diamond, Gene Chandler, and Billy Joel’s more serious songs.

Q: What sorts of experiences are you mining for material? They seem to be primarily love songs.

A: That’s what most songs are about. I never liked it when people did a song about something that has nothing to do with anything a real artist would sing about. For example, Billy Joel has this song “She’s Always a Woman” and it’s about how this girl does all these awful things but “she’s always a woman to me.” So I listened to that and thought, “What if there was a guy who wanted to sing that same thing, but had a reverse situation where she was brought up well and lived in a wealthy country, and yet somehow she’s a bitch anyway?” [My musical persona is] a guy who wants to sing like the big boys do, but his experiences are not quite the same.

Q: Your YouTube series “Henry’s Kitchen” is hilarious. Who taught you how to cook?

A: I don’t know how, actually.

Q: When you made the water bath for the cheesecake, I thought for sure you knew what you were doing.

A: Wait, which?

Q: When you submerged the cheesecake tin in a pan of water? That’s a “water bath.”

A: Oh, yeah! I think that was just in the directions. I try to make it so I’ve never done the dish before [filming]. When I made the sushi in Episode Five, the sushi came out perfect. It was a real problem, ‘cause I was like, “There’s nothing funny about this sushi.” So I had to do it again and this time I had to overstuff it and use a butter knife to try and cut it so it would go all over the place. Making sushi is not quite as difficult as you would think.

I think being a good cook is like music—some people have a knack for it. Having a sense of how long to cook stuff or how much of a certain seasoning to put in, that’s just sort of a natural thing. Maybe you get better at it over time, but I’m not very good at it in real life. And, remember, no one can taste what I’m making.

Q: What recipe would you use for a seal-the-deal meal?

A: It would probably be stir-fry, which I’ve only recently started experimenting with, and some kind of fish, but I would hope to God that it came out good. Generally, I like to go to a restaurant and leave that to the professionals.

Q: Do you have any plans for future series?

A: I have “You and Your Fucking Coffee.” I purposely used the profanity because I knew it was never going to be on TV. I don’t know how its commercial success will be, but I will continue to make those two-minute vignettes of me making coffee and making a decision that winds up destroying the lives of people around me. We’re probably going to make a sequel to the movie “Punching the Clown” and that will shoot in November.

Q: Was the coffee bit based on yourself or something you observed in the population?

A: It feels like when you’re a coffee drinker and someone offers you something to drink and you choose coffee, they always get this look on their face that’s disconcerted, like, “[Groans] Why do you have to make me go make you coffee?” So that’s what it’s based on. It’s all exaggeration, which is what most of my comedy is. 

Q: Failure and loneliness seem to be recurring themes in your work; what makes those things funny to you?

A: I think that’s what all comedy is. I don’t think I’ve cornered the market on that one. I guess there are certain comedians that are more about chest-bumping and bravado, but I don’t find that funny. I think it’s funnier to laugh at people when they’re down and out. Maybe it’s cruel but there’s nothing funny about watching when life is well put-together and you’re making all the correct decisions.

Q: Do you find any humor in how people live in Los Angeles?

A: Our lives are very similar [to other places]. Everything’s becoming more global. We’re all watching the same media nowadays. We listen to the same podcasts and satellite radio. People think everybody in L.A. is rollerblading in their thong bikinis and drinking cappuccino with Paris Hilton. And, yeah, I do that every week.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Erica Rivera Profiles Knock Inc.

Erica Rivera spoke to Knock founder Lili Hall about how she built her advertising agency from a team of one and how she rebuilt the business following a fire. Read the article in the August 2014 issue of Minnesota Business magazine.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Jenny Lewis

Profile: Jenny Lewis

No one can fault Jenny Lewis for taking a break from recording. The singer-songwriter, who performs at First Avenue on Sunday, only recently emerged from what she calls “one of the most difficult periods of my life.”

It all began when Lewis’ estranged father died in Hastings, MN, in 2010. Lewis visited the Twin Cities several times during the two years prior to his passing.

“It’s a crazy thing when a parent passes,” the 38-year-old Californian said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a really unfamiliar feeling. It’s harder than you think it would be.”

A year later, the band Rilo Kiley, which Lewis had fronted since 1998, split up. In the aftermath of the loss and grief, Lewis was struck with a severe bout of insomnia. She credits music for pulling her out of the funk.

“I was a little bit out of sorts for a while,” she said. “But I think ultimately, it informed a lot of the songs on ‘The Voyager,’” her first solo full-length since 2008’s “Acid Tongue.” Lewis sought out Ryan Adams as the album’s producer, a collaboration that “forced me out of my own way and out of my head,” she said. “It was very loose and liberating, creatively.” Recorded at Adams’ Pax-Am studio, the ten jangly, nuanced tunes on “The Voyager” might be the most personal of Lewis’ career.

“Hopefully it will speak to everyone’s journey” she said, then added with a laugh, “That sounds really pretentious.”

The first single, “Just One of the Guys,” is an anthemic tune about fitting in, which Lewis conceived with Beck. Lyrics like There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby seem awfully autobiographical, though Lewis insisted, It’s a statement. You can project what you want to on it. It’s a choice that you make in your life: to have children or not have children and either way, it’s cool.” Lewis pointed out that one advantage of her child-free status is “I can stay out real late.”

The music video for “Just One of the Guys” was Lewis’ directorial debut. She cast Anne Hathaway, Brie Larson, and Kristen Stewart, as her drag-dressing band. “The older I get, the more women that I put in my life, the realer it gets,” she said. “You can kind of get away with stuff with your guy friends, but it’s your girlfriend that is going to call you out on your shit.”

Lewis is plenty outspoken herself, especially about sexism in the music industry. “As a professional woman in Hollywood, there are certain expectations of women and it can be a struggle,” she said. “I think you have to fight to be successful. All we can do [as women] is keep working and creating good stuff and putting it out there and not being afraid to take on the hard work. You get past it if you take risks.”

Lewis is certainly moving on. Not only has she emerged from her dark night of the soul, she appreciates the bright side of life more because of it. Her new tour wardrobe staple—a suit airbrushed in rainbow colors and stars—is evidence of this new perspective.

“I’m like a party clown,” she said.