Interview: Tim Quirk and Jay Blumenfield of Wonderlick and Too Much Joy

wonderlick
wonderlick (Photo credit: lokeswari)

Tim Quirk and Jay Blumenfield were one half of Too Much Joy — or, rather, still are, as the band’s never officially broken up. However, while Too Much Joy lays dormant, they’ve formed a new band, Wonderlick. Wonderlick’s first album came out in 2002, and their second album, Topless At The Arco Arena is coming out July 7th on Missing Piece/Rock Ridge Music. When they’re not making awesome records, Jay produces and directs TV projects and music videos, and Tim is the VP of Music Programming at Rhapsody. They’re both super nice guys and agreed to this interview, where we talk about music, books, copyright and taco night.

Initial note from Jay Blumenfield: I will answer when I can add something. But the thing about Wonderlick is we sort of speak for each other. When Tim writes lyrics they express my soul, and when I write music it is the music that Tim is hearing in his. I am not sure how this works and sometimes it creeps me out but it works. It is my favorite thing about writing songs with Wonderlick and it kinda works for interviews also.
Part the First

At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?

Tim Quirk: I have been singing “Liquid In, Liquid Out,” off the new Thermals album, non-stop for a couple of days. That doesn’t make it my favorite of all time, but it’s what popped into my head when I read the question.

What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of? 

Tim Quirk: I work with a team of music freaks, so I have zero perspective on who people haven’t heard of (though I’m intimately familiar with which artists millions of people are digging at any point in time — Lady Gaga owns the world as I type). Titus Andronicus are pretty thrilling, and their shows at SXSW weren’t particularly crowded, so I assume they qualify. I really liked their record, but needed to see them live to make sure they were truly great. They were. They asked for beers from stage, so I bought them some. Hooray for expense accounts!

What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile? 

Tim Quirk: There’s a G.I. Joe rappelling from the ceiling above where I sit. He’s got a machine gun, a gas mask and a grey hood, and he has a knife in his boot. He’s pretty badass.

What’s the strangest thing you own? 

Tim Quirk: A red neon sign that says “Taco Night.” We turn it on every Thursday. Because that’s taco night.

Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)? 

Tim Quirk: Handing out 300 tambourines at the end of the last Too Much Joy show, so everyone could play along to “Theme Song”. I’d assumed people would enjoy it, but I hadn’t imagined it would actually sound so great.

Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)? 

Tim Quirk: The crew at Gama-Go. I own an embarrassing number of Gama-Go T-Shirts.

What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?

Tim Quirk: In a movie theater: I Love You, Man; Coraline; Watchmen; Wendy and Lucy; Waltz With Bashir.

Jay Blumenfield: Tim, I love you, man.

What’re your top three movies? 

Tim Quirk: A Clockwork Orange, The Jerk, Quadrophenia.

Jay Blumenfield: Yup.

Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?

Tim Quirk: 6 or 7 pieces by local (San Francisco) artists. Once you start buying paintings, it’s hard to stop.

Jay Blumenfield: I own a print of Paul Simenon smashing his bass that was used on the cover of the Clash’s London Calling. I have it because Tim bought one first and I was jealous, so my girlfriend bought it for me and then proposed while giving it to me with a note on the back.

What is your favorite game?

Tim Quirk: Scrabble.

If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?

Tim Quirk: “Tina Weymouth is kind of weird, isn’t she?” Long story, but I once got in a drunken debate with her about sampling, during the course of which she told me she didn’t think I was a real artist. Later on she apologized by hugging me for an uncomfortably long time, and whispered the following in my ear (I’m not making this up): “You are an artist. And you know what it’s like on a major label. It’s like they stick an umbrella up your ass. And then they open it. And you just have to walk down the street like nothing’s wrong.” Her husband Chris Frantz was standing behind her, smiling at me as though he were used to moments like this.

Jay Blumenfield: Is that your beautiful house??

What are your five most favorite books in the world?

Tim Quirk: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

Jay Blumenfield: Me too. Tim, I love you man.

Do you think White Noise is a good starter for DeLillo? I honestly have never read anything by him, and I’m thinking it’s probably a good time to remedy that situation. I too am a HUGE fan of David Foster allace/Infinite Jest, and, well, considering the other things Too Much Joy has gotten me into — “Chemical Wire“, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, etc. — I’m thinking you’re a pretty good person to help me out… 

Tim Quirk: White Noise is definitely the place to start with DeLillo — it’s his easiest read by far, but also his most profound. And now that I think about it, probably unconsciously inspired a lot of Lick’s debut, in that the plot revolves around a pill that eliminates the fear of dying. Wonderlick is also a deliberate misspelling of Bucky Wunderlich, the protagonist in DeLillo’s rock and roll novel, Great Jones Street, which felt cool until the Airborne Toxic Event came along — they named themselves after another plot point in White Noise.

What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?

Tim Quirk: Waiting in line at any government building — getting a passport, or the DMV. There’s nothing more miserable. Even the little things your fellow citizens try to do to joke about the situation only make it more awful.

If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?

Tim Quirk: I wanted to name my kid “Captain”, but since my last name is Quirk, it would have sounded too much like a Star Trek reference.

What is your favorite meal?

Tim Quirk: Have I mentioned taco night?

Jay Blumenfield: He makes them with lamb meat; it is very good.

What is reality?

Tim Quirk: I thought I knew, till I started reading Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett. It’s a lot less solid than we like to think. My daughter, who is not named “Captain”, came home from a science class one day when she was 13, completely freaked out. She kept going, “Dad, watch, I’m pressing the table, right? But I’m NOT REALLY pressing the table, because it’s mostly empty space, and I can’t actually touch the atoms that make up the table! I can’t handle this!” I love her.

Part the Second

The self-titled Wonderlick album was awfully dark — was this by design, or just how it turned out?

Tim Quirk: I don’t consider it dark. I mean, yeah, it ends with us singing, “We’re all gonna die” like 100 times or something, but mostly it’s about loving my wife and daughter. Jay and his wife had their first child, a daughter, during the year we spent recording those songs, but after we’d already finished “Two Women,” and he sent me an email the day Lucy was born. It just said, “I, too, now live in a house with two women.” It was sweet and tender and that’s what the record aims for. But it also tries to be honest and unsappy about it, which means acknowledging how fragile that kind of love can leave us feeling, because it can all be shattered so easily — and WILL be, inevitably, even if we don’t screw it up beforehand through our own stupidity.

Jay Blumenfield: I feel I should put music to that.

Thanks for clarifying about the first album — when I was talking about it being dark, even aside from “Monti 8”, I always thought that “I Disappear” was a tragic/beautiful song, with the ending where the narrator commits suicide with the car running in the garage — and a few others, like the lines in “Chapel of Bones” about “sometimes sleeping by my side/I pretend you have died/I feel I should be horrified/but I feel no pain” “Sometimes it’s me that’s dead/and you that carries on instead”. But I can really see what you’re talking about and going for. 

Tim Quirk: I’m glad. I’m not denying there’s dark stuff in there, just saying the darkness is something the album has to grapple with in the process of looking at something else which is the only real counter to that darkness I’ve found. Besides music itself, of course.

Why was there such a long delay between Wonderlick and Topless At The Arco Arena?

Tim Quirk: We just kept recording till we felt finished. If you add up all the actual days we spent in the studio, it probably didn’t take too much longer than the debut, but the sessions were spaced out a lot wider, as a result of our other careers. One thing I love about Wonderlick is how natural the process is — doesn’t matter if a year has passed since we were last in the studio, we pick up as though it were yesterday.

How different are the rough mixes posted on Susquehanna Hat Company versus the final mixes? 

Tim Quirk: Depends on the tune. None are radically reworked, but in some cases the final makes the rough seem more like a sketch for a song than the song itself. “When She Took Off Her Shirt” and “The Case Against Tattoos” took the biggest leaps, to my mind.

Do you have a favorite Too Much Joy record?

Tim Quirk: Not really. I have favorite songs on each, and things that make me cringe on each.

Will you tour for the new record? 

Tim Quirk: “Tour” is a bit strong, probably. We would like to play some shows. Getting many of them to happen in a row is unlikely.

Jay Blumenfield: If we book it, they might come.

With Wonderlick being so electronic and full-sounding but also just the two of you, what’s a live show like? 

Tim Quirk: When we played songs from the debut live, it was just me and Jay with guitars, playing against the rhythm tracks. It was fun because it was such a distinct break from what we’d always done with Too Much Joy, but it also meant there weren’t going to be a lot of surprises. I’m hoping we can rustle up an actual band of human beings this time round. We’ll see.

Jay Blumenfield: Drummers and bass players are overrated.

Jay — you directed the “Dear Friend” video for Flying Color. How did that come about? Were you interested in directing before, or did it whet your appetite for later making film/TV production a career? 

Jay Blumenfield: I knew Flying Color when I lived in San Francisco. I love directing music videos. That was one of my first. Directing music videos is the 2nd best job in the world.

If you could do a music video for anyone, who would it be?

Jay Blumenfield: If I had full artistic control, Miley Cyrus because it would so fun to subvert the machine and have her do unspeakable things in the name of art. But if I didn’t have full control. I’d take the Clash because it would be such an honor to shoot them…

Mutiny had a list of recommended media/sources/influences — what would a similar list look like for Topless At The Arco Arena?

Tim Quirk: Well, this one comes complete with its own essay that inspired the songs in the first place, so I don’t know that there’s much more required reading than that. Although, come to think of it, I snagged a line for “We Run the World” from Don DeLillo (the bit about the graphs), just as he sparked “Sort of Haunted House” on Mutiny. Beyond that, ten minutes watching Fox News or CNBC should give you the only other background.

Do you have any favorite lies from “That’s A Lie”?

Tim Quirk: Hmmm, I dunno. I felt obliged to come up with a new one every night, which meant there were a lot of clunkers. There were also a lot of repeats, since I couldn’t always come up with a new one, let alone a new one that didn’t suck. So, a lot of angst in general around the lying. I think my favorite is the one on the live album, where I tell a story that’s funny but true about LL Cool J overtaking our trailer on the video shoot, and the band refuses to kick back in with “That’s a Lie!” like they’re supposed to, because they can’t, because it’s not.

As musicians who’ve used sampling a lot in a popular music vein, are you interested in bands like Negativland or Girl Talk who use sampling aggressively? 

Tim Quirk: I’m more interested in their existence than in their music itself, which isn’t meant as a dis. Mark Hosler from Negativland had my favorite line ever, in response to an interviewer who asked him if maybe Negativland wanted to be sued when they continued to sample after their U2/Casey Kasem imbroglio. Hosler insisted absolutely not: “I don’t want to live in a world where I am afraid of making the kind of art I want to make… So one approach is that you try and live your life and live in the world the way you’d like it to be.” That’s a really inspiring thought, and I wish more musicians worked that way. It depresses me that, ever since the Biz Markie decision, there seem to be two extremes when it comes to sampling, and little middle ground between them. On one extreme, “sampling” means licensing the hook from an old hit and making it the hook of your song, too. On the other extreme, sampling becomes a statement or the whole point of the thing, rather than just one more ingredient for musicians to use.

In one of the Penn Jillette essays, he talks about how for the first Wonderlick album, you’d do the demos with samples, and then re-record them doing the stuff yourself (like with Penn doing the Waitsian-howling on “The Right Crazy”) — was that an aesthetic decision, or a practical one? 

Tim Quirk: It’s always aesthetic. Sometimes we sample a sound, sometimes we play it live, sometimes we start with one and move to the other. In the Waits example Penn mentioned, the feel and the noise were perfect, but it was also very obviously Tom Waits, and that fact threw you out of the song. Sometimes you want that effect, but it’s not what we were going for on that one. A lot of the sampling we do is for inspiration, to push us in directions we wouldn’t think of otherwise. To me, it’s no different than starting with a beat and waiting to see how that moves the bass player or guitarist to join in. Starting with random noises from records we like unlocks the same part of the brain. Most law around sampling is based on the fallacy that it’s about using other people’s ideas because you don’t have any of your own.

What do you think of the Creative Commons movement?

Tim Quirk: I’m all in favor of it, and plan on filling out the electronic forms to allow derivative works of the songs on Topless as soon as I’m done with this interview. That argument with Tina Weymouth I mentioned began with me defending Lawrence Lessig at a table of 19 ASCAP members. ASCAP was buying us all a fancy dinner before a policy summit in DC, and their main lobbyist started ripping on Lessig’s hypocrisy for copyrighting a book of his that, the lobbyist claimed, was all about how copyright is evil. I told him that was a mischaracterization of Lessig’s position, since Lessig doesn’t hate copyright, he just explains how it’s supposed to be a balance between public and private interests, and that balance has been lost. Turned out I was the only one at the table who felt that way. 18 heads turned in anger as I spoke.

Jay Blumenfield: I would have liked to sample that dinner?

At the ASCAP dinner, do you think it was a willful mischaracterization of Lessig’s position, or one out of misunderstanding? 

Tim Quirk: A little of both. I mean, he was a lobbyist, so he’s paid for his ability to cast the other side as monstrously as possible, and his own side as deserving and heroic. But he was dead serious about protecting “creators” against what he considered the greedy public. When I said Lessig wanted to restore the Constitutionally-dictated balance between public and private good, he told me he thought things were out of balance, but in favor of the commons, and asked for an example where that wasn’t the case. Stupidly, I chose sampling. I should have used the fact that once a song has been commercially released, anyone’s allowed to cover it, provided they pay the appropriate mechanical royalties. That’s a perfect example of copyright owners relinquishing total control over their work, but benefiting the public (and other artists!) By doing so. I told Tina that’s how I’d discovered Talking Heads, through their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” that they hadn’t needed his permission to record the song, and we were all better off because of it. She said they did need Al’s permission, and had gotten it. Chris Frantz politely told her, “No, honey, we didn’t.”

Why do you think that people are so divided on the topic of copyright and copyright restrictions? It almost seems as though people think it’s either everything (perpetual copyright on everything) or nothing (crazy IP anarchy)?

Tim Quirk: Because balance is hard. It’s actually pretty logical to think Disney should own Mickey Mouse forever, and it can be difficult to explain that remuneration to the copyright owner is a means, not the end itself. The end is the progress of art and science — that’s not me speaking, that’s the Constitution. You have to give people some incentive to get creative, but you also have to give them access to, and the right to build on, other people’s ideas. Nobody thinks some great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of Shakespeare deserves royalties for every variation on Romeo and Juliet, but most people think his kids probably did. So you start looking for an appropriate cut-off point, and it’s always going to feel wrong to someone.

Have you thought about where you, personally, would put the copyright cut-off point?

Tim Quirk: In terms of how long the term should be, you mean? I think life of author plus some additional dozens of years to benefit any children is something most parties who aren’t corporations could agree on — which suggests we might want to draw a distinction between original creator and business entities to whom that creator later assigns the copyright. The lack of such a distinction is what allows major labels to pretend they’re fighting for artists, when they’re really just fighting for themselves. In terms of sampling, I think something similar to the controlled composition clause that allows anyone who wants to cover a song so long as they pay a mechanical royalty would lead to a flowering of creativity without adversely affecting the folks being sampled. My friend Michael Harrington proposed something like that: you’d pay out 25% of your song’s royalties to the copyright owners (if there’s more than one, they all split that 25%), samples couldn’t be more than 10 seconds long, and you couldn’t sample anything that’s been released in the last 5 years. It’s not perfect, but it’s much more of a balance than what we’ve got right now, where you can sample three artists and wind up owing each 50% of any money the song makes — any system that allows copyright owners to claim more than 100% of a work’s profits is obviously deeply flawed and in need of fixing.

Recently, there’s been talk of making radio stations play performance royalties in addition to composer royalties — do you have an opinion on that? 

Tim Quirk: My opinion on that has changed as I’ve learned more about how and why things work in the U.S. versus the rest of the world. Ten years ago I’d have said hell no — since labels happily pay bribes to get played on the radio, it’s obviously a valuable promotional vehicle, right? But it turns out that radio stations everywhere else in the world DO pay performer royalties, which makes it hard to argue such a change is untenable. Also, those other countries have been collecting royalties for American performers for years, but won’t pay them out until the U.S. pays their performers. Finally, performance royalties are being paid by online and satellite radio companies, all of which I can play out of the same stereo system in my living room today, and will be able to play out of my car radio tomorrow. So it becomes ridiculous at a certain point to pretend the over-the-air signal should be exempt just because it always has been in the past.

I think my main fear is that the royalties would go to the record labels rather than the actual artists.

Tim Quirk: If/when a performance right is instituted, 50% of those payments should go directly to artists, just as 50% of publishing royalty goes straight to writers so publishers can’t claim it goes against their unrecouped advances, and just as 50% of current online radio payments go straight to artists so labels can’t do the same.

Do you think we’ll see anything like a Creative Commons approach be codified in copyright laws, or will it continue to be an outside phenomenon that some artists embrace and others don’t? 

Tim Quirk: Having lobbied congress on behalf of Rhapsody, I don’t see copyright laws changing significantly any time soon, if ever.

Tim — why weren’t you one of the ITS? 

Tim Quirk: I kind of was — I wrote most of the lyrics, and sang some background vocals, and even played guitar at their first two shows. But as a performer my presence was pretty extraneous — it’s not like I’m the guy you’d hire if you really needed a rhythm guitarist.

Did you ever hear from Billy Bragg about Too Much Joy’s cover of “A New England”?

Tim Quirk: No, although I’ve become friendly with his manager, Peter Jenner, in recent years. I guess I should ask him if Billy ever heard it.

Jay Blumenfield: Tim, ask him! I am dying to know if he has heard it. Although I may regret that if he has and didn’t like it.

How did you guys hook up with Doug Allen for the Finally cover/”Underneath the Jersey Sky” comic? 

Tim Quirk: That came after a long and painful series of artist “auditions.” The cover you see on Finally is pretty much exactly what we had in our collective head, and we explained the concept to about 8 other artists first, exactly the way we eventually did to Doug. But these other artists would give us back abstract sketches of clowns having sex and other weirdness that had nothing to do with the very specific, R. Crumb vibe we were after. It was such a relief to meet Doug and see his initial sketch. He got the concept instantly, then added all these little touches like the clock changing times when you folded down the bedsheet, having each of us pick an album we loved to scatter on the floor, and so on. I worship him. The original art is actually one of the things I have hanging on my wall at home, as it happens.

Do you have anything else you’d like to mention? 

Tim Quirk: Yes. But where would it end?

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8 comments

  1. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    I was really happy with how this one turned out…. it’s one of my favorite interviews that I’ve done! I’m really proud… even though Tim & Jay did most of the heavy lifting! 8)

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    I have to say, Tim kinda turned me around on the performance royalties for terrestrial (US) radio. My main fear was that it’d all go to the labels, but a 50/50 split sounds fair.

  3. Frank

    Let me start by saying that I’m a HUGE TMJ fan, and probably would be a Wonderlick fan if anyone had mentioned that Wonderlick was Tim and Jay (instead of vague messages from the Poobah mentioning that TMJ were fans of Wonderlick.)I even got half-starstruck when I bumped into Tim a couple times at the bagel shop on Potrero Hill a few years back.

    But Tim, you’re off your rocker thinking that a minstrel’s offspring deserve a single penny from society due to their parents work. Copyright needs to be rolled WAY back. Make it a flat 50 years, maybe even less. If the artist dies before 50 years is up, then the kids can reap the benefits until the clock runs out (if the parents were thoughtful enough to transfer those copyrights in their will.) It’s the artist’s job as a parent to provide his children the necessary tools to become a useful member of society who can earn an honest wage. It is NOT the duty of society to feed welfare to the spoiled brat in perpetuity.

    Copyright is a contract between content makers and society. Society says “We will let you reap all of the benefits of this one piece of reproducible work for a limited time. When that time is up, the work falls into the public domain and the rest of society may also benefit from it.” Thanks to lobbyists, “limited” continues to become less and less limited, and society is still waiting for its reward for offering the privilege in the first place.

    Do you not think it’s retarded that you can’t sing “Happy Birthday” on TV without pay a royalty to some asshat investment group? It’s over 100 years old!!

  4. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    I actually got to meet Tim in person once at a CMJ New Music Marathon conference back in 2002ish. (I don’t think he remembers me from that, and I didn’t mention it in any of the interview stuff, since, yeah.) But I know what you mean — his panel was real interesting, mostly about forming an LLC, and afterward I did get sorta starstruck, too, even though he’s a down to earth, nice guy. So I can totally relate to the bagel story!

    I’m torn on the use of copyright to take care of the kids. Part of me is “Well, that’s why god gave us CDs.” (um, the kind you get at a bank) — to provide as an investment. But on the other hand, given how low royalties usually can be, I’m not thinking that most rock-star-kids are going to be particularly wealthy off of their parents’ work alone.

    In earlier years, I was a sort of hardlinist when it comes to copyright – I was thinking, then, at like, say, 20 years, no extensions, no nothing. Later, something like life-of-artist-or-20-years-whichever-comes-last (to prevent any Columbo-plot-esque situations where an artist’d be killed to put something in the public domain. But that would be a pretty GOOD Columbo plot).

    For me, though — since the rise of the Creative Commons, I’ve really thrown my support into that realm. Frank — have you read any of Lawrence Lessig’s books? His new one, _Remix_, puts forth some pretty good ideas on reforming copyright. IIRC (don’t have my copy handy), his plan includes:

    * Ratcheting back copyright to a pre-’76 type of thing where it’s registered for X years and then you renew it (either that, or the original opt-out system of life of artist + 20 years, or something relatively small, with corporate-owning rules drastically shortened)
    * Allow for transformative sampling — stuff like remixing, or what TMJ did/Wonderlick does — for free, or at the very least, free for amateurs, and presumably cut way back for professionals (i.e. you and I could sample, etc. to our hearts’ content, but TMJ would still have to pay…. but it’d be a much better rate than the grand-per-word situation of “Burn Down The Suburbs With”).
    *Generally make it so copyright only cares about actual bootlegging/piracy, rather than artistic commentary/etc. So, like, if I start pressing up a bunch of knockoff copies of _Cereal Killers_, I’d get a smackdown, but if I used a sample of “Goodbye Ohio” in a song, I’d be totally OK.

    That kind of copyright, I could get behind — it’d be the best parts of putting things in the public domain (transformative use) but still allowing folks to get paid for their original creativity.

    (admittedly, that doesn’t necessarily address the part of your comment w/r/t children, but…)

  5. Tim

    Interesting comments. Frank, I think you misunderstood me. I’m not saying I personally think copyright should last that long, I’m saying my guess is that life of author plus some extra time for author’s immediate offspring is the type of compromise MOST folks can agree on. As the Reverend says, people get pretty extreme on either side of this issue, and there’s not much middle ground. But if you start with something like that, you force Disney, Sony, etc. to argue for something longer, and the fallacy of their usual arguments becomes a lot clearer.

  6. Pingback: Music - Review: Topless At The Arco Arena - Kittysneezes

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