ELIZABETH NELSON BRACY and Timothy Bracy are an ideal couple and the privilege of their friendship is one of the joys of my life. They are stout fans of the DC sports teams but radical opponents of Dan Snyder’s reign of terror and the embarrassment of the football team’s nickname. Both have delightful artistic affections: for Charles Portis, for the Dude, for NRBQ. They are not picky about beer. Two cats share their home. The Weeklings has featured examples of their writing, as has NPR, the Washington Post, and Stereogum. In conversation, Beth’s timbre is identical to Claire Danes’s. They sound fun, right? They are, too, I can testify to it; they are super fun.
And, of course, Tim and Beth are musicians, terrific musicians, and two of the funniest, sharpest songwriters I’ve ever heard. (Full disclosure: I’ve contributed lines to a handful of their tunes, and we’ve collaborated on a few other projects and schemes in the past.) The name of their band, The Paranoid Style, a reference to Hofstadter’s celebrated essay on American politics, points toward the unusual Venn crossing of political science and the Faces. Put aside your concerns: it’s not that Tim and Beth are uncool; it’s that they’ve worked as lobbyists. They still rock.
To open my favorite Paranoid Style song, “National Sunday Law,” Beth sings,
Bet you someone told you, you’re a tad unreasonable
Round about the time you had your rivals shot
Petra always said, ‘I bring out the worst in people’
But you know sometimes the worst is what they want
It’s a verse that Warren Zevon would have been proud to write, and it’s also an example of how in this day and age, you can be breezy, and amusing, and render a killer guitar attack, and still be honest about how awful everything is.
To mark the occasion of the “Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall” EP (Battle Worldwide Recordings), a follow-up to “The Purposes of Music in General” (Bar/None, 2013), I sat down with the Paranoid Style and asked them to explain themselves.
TW: Can you talk a little bit about your respective musical backgrounds and the origins of this undertaking?
ENB: I guess it’s fair to say that we’ve both played music our whole lives. I played the piano since I was a kid and kept up lessons throughout my adult life. I played accordion in a string band and in a Latin American ‘popular music ensemble’ in college and grad school as well. I majored in music for about a minute before realizing that was kind of a dumb idea. Tim’s played guitar forever and has been in bands since he was in high school. I believe the first band he ever played in was called Karma Funk Crusade and they did a killer Who medley that I hope we can someday recreate in a live setting. And of course he was in the only very terrific Mendoza Line.
We also both write a lot about music for those publications you mentioned, which often surprises people—something about existing in the creative and critical worlds really is a perplex, I guess? I guess maybe there should be an obvious tension there that would make doing both of these things untenable, I don’t know. We’ve always believed that we should be able to turn a critical eye to contemporary music while being able to write and perform songs of our own. We basically are taking a page from Francois Truffaut and his cohort, who all made their own movies while writing about film in Cahiers du Cinema simultaneously. Jean-Luc Godard, another great French New Wave filmmaker once said, ‘The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie’ and we’ve always felt like the best way to criticize an album is to make another album.
TW: Well, I had planned to save this question for later, but since you brought up criticism, I have to ask about the conflict between Timothy and the band Tennis. It’s my understanding that in response to an unfavorable review he wrote of their album (“remarkably superficial music”), they wrote a song called “Timothy.” What’s I find striking is that the song is not exactly a “fuck you”-type thing. It’s more of a guilt trip (“Timothy, say something sweet to me”). Did this make you feel bad? Have you considered writing a song about Tennis?
ENB: Well, for what it’s worth, I think my husband feels like maybe he could have chosen his words a little less harshly. And if he’d asked me I probably would have counseled him to pull it back somewhat (he didn’t ask). We’re sorry they felt affronted. It can be challenging when you are on a deadline and it’s a 250-word capsule review, sometimes in order to articulate strong sentiments in a small space, you might get a little pyrotechnic. Neither of us relish writing negative reviews, and we try to avoid it if possible. Having said that, I’ll defend the substance of the piece. In interviews Tennis has claimed the review didn’t address the music at all, which is manifestly untrue—it clearly discusses the songwriting, performances and production in detail. As for the vituperation—I mean, these visibly privileged people come along in the teeth of the worst recession in 80 years, cheerfully peddling the affectations of extreme wealth as their origin story. They make pleasant, empty music with not a shred of self-consciousness about their colonization of a once vital platform for civic discourse and civil disobedience. Juxtaposed with the suffering that is going on in our society at the time, it’s just difficult to not read as horribly tone deaf. In fairness, Tennis is far from the only band of this ilk to come along in the last several years and turn independent music into debutante ball, and probably they got singled out unfairly. Hopefully that is a trend that is abating. I mean, come on. No one’s asking you to be Gang Of Four, but surely you can try a little harder to view the world through a slightly larger prism. Anyway, if we write any songs concerning tennis it will not be about the band, it’ll be about Ilie Nastase.
TW: It’s hard not to focus on the political angle. I suspect that some listeners will be wary of that and for understandable reasons. Key examples notwithstanding (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “What’s Going On,” etc.), the compact frame of a pop song (versus a folk ballad, for instance) presents an obvious challenge to presenting anything too wonky, and the traditionally anarchic nature of the genre pushes against the very notion of politics. Do you have a “message”?
ENB: I wouldn’t say we have a message, in the sense of trying to persuade anyone of anything too doctrinaire. These are rock songs, not a policy paper. I’m not too sure we have any answers anyway. Having said that, I do think it’s music which expresses a deep sense of ambivalence about the direction of our society, and the nature of the way our political discourse is pursued. It is difficult to articulate how profoundly our two party system has failed the majority of Americans, and how badly a new kind of dialectic—if indeed I am using the word ‘dialectic’ correctly—is needed above and beyond the ‘liberal vs. conservative’ or ‘Democrat vs. Republican’ shuck and jive we are constantly subjected to. There are certainly some worthwhile people in politics and media, but the vast majority of what is peddled is such utter bullshit: phony culture wars, ostensibly ‘perilous’ threats from foreign extremists, the excruciating pieties of the left, the willful myopias of the right. All designed to create a constant distraction while reinforcing a system that Jon Langford rightfully states is premised on ‘building up the temple on the backs of the people’. I think that is the general sound of the Paranoid Style—catchy music set to the groovy beat of the ruling class grinding yet more generations to sawdust. Keep those toes a tappin’!
TW: Would you mind telling us a little about the lobbying work you did? Do you think there are any American politicians who can be said to legitimately “rock”?
ENB: We’ve lived in DC for a number of years and done some lobbying and political consulting. We’ve worked with clients in both the government and corporate sphere. We’ve dealt with many in the power elite and we still do some PR work in that arena. We never did anything that really cut against our principles, but inevitably where money and influence are concerned you are going to run into gray areas. I think the concept of lobbying is a little misunderstood and a little overly demonized. In many ways, the country is essentially run by career professionals at the various departments—not political appointees, but folks who run the State, Education, Health and Human Services departments on a day to basis often over many decades. Every two years, an influx of elected officials arrives in town without the vaguest concept of how day-to-day operations really work. A lot of lobbying involves providing shorthand and a conduit between these parties. It’s an easy thing to be cynical and dismissive about, but anyone who has ever worked in Washington and is remotely honest will concede that the consulting class serves a legitimate and even important function. Still, a lot of lobbyists are total dicks.
All contemporary politicians seem to want to ‘rock’. It’s a disturbing trend, if you want to ask me. Public servants attempting to affiliate themselves with rock stars dates to the early nadir of modern America (see: ‘Jimmy Carter + Allman Brothers’). Maybe they ought to be more preoccupied with governing and less with their weird conceptions of hipster cache. But I guess if we had to pick someone, we’d go with Raul Grijalva.
TW: I’m particularly interested in the fact that you were able to incorporate a lyric by someone who can’t sing or keep time. Was that difficult? Can you speak a little about your writing process in general? What did you start with on “National Sunday Law,” for instance? The perspective is exceedingly cynical, but the song is an absolute party.
ENB: Well, now, let’s not focus too deeply on Timothy’s limitations. Oh, I kid. Others have described songwriting as like doing a crossword puzzle, and I think there is a lot to that. You have a melody in mind, you have a theme and some lyrics. The fun and challenging part is fitting those pieces together in a compelling and persuasive way. Great lyrics are great lyrics—they might appear first as poetry or prose, as is the case with a genius like David Berman. Great words can and should be repurposed in any constructive manner. We start songs lots of ways—it might be a riff or a title or a certain turn of phrase. The juxtaposition of the ugliness in the lyrics of ‘National Sunday Law’ and the relative prettiness of the melody is very intentional. We had in mind a survey of some of the real malefactors in our lives, but the more fun decision seemed to be wedding it to a pop confection. Something like ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ by our hero Nick Lowe.
TW: Why did you decide to cover “Master Jack”? It’s a scary song:
You took a colored ribbon from out of the sky
And taught me how to use it as the years went by
To tie up all your problems and make them look neat
And then sell them to the people on the street
You don’t feel like Master Jack has our best intentions at the forefront of his mind.
ENB: Yeah! Pared to its core it’s an absolutely brutal song. Above and beyond the fascination with the fact the Four Jacks & A Jill is a real band, and not just a Spinal Tap fantasia, I think the attraction was a similar tension to ‘National Sunday Law’. You’ve got a seemingly harmless pop tune that is actually addressing corporate and gender dynamics in a way that is really profound. I could argue, and mercifully will not, that on some level this is what every pop song is really about.
TW: What’s next? Will you be touring behind the EP?
ENB: Nope. We do have a few headlining and support shows planned, and we’ll be overseas at some point, but that isn’t our major focus. We’re currently working on our follow up full length LP, tentatively titled ‘Music From: Music From The Elder“. That’s the big thing right now.