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A Quietus Interview

A Songwriter Who Works At Home Depot: An East River Pipe Interview
Wyndham Wallace , June 15th, 2011 07:34

Cult singer songwriter Fred Cornog of East River Pipe talks to Wyndham Wallace about “scratching out a living, and trying to survive with a little dignity”…

The recent release of We Live In Rented Rooms, East River Pipe's seventh album, may have made few international headlines - but like those that preceded it, it confirms the view of a devoted huddle of fans that Rolling Stone were right: its protagonist, Fred 'F.M.' Cornog, is "one of our generation's great eccentric songwriters".

Unfortunately, he was also a man who admits that, by the end of his teens, he "only had time for getting fucked up". Winding up homeless in a Hoboken subway, he was brought in from the cold, quite literally, by a friend of another musician with whom he was engaged upon a doomed project. Barbara Powers gave him a roof over his head and, soon, a record label to release the music in which she recognised true talent. As she watched his pursuits develop over the years, with releases on Merge in the US and - at least initially in the UK - Sarah Records, she managed his career and eventually married him, giving Fred's story a happy ending that might have been, under different circumstances, the stuff of Hollywood dreams and heartstring-tugging coverage.

But Fred Cornog doesn't play the game, and this is most likely why so few have heard of him, and also why his albums rarely register in the mainstream media. Refusing to perform live, barely visible on the web – he created a Facebook page for the first time in April – and without a single music video to his name (though a fair few have been made by ardent fans), he exists beneath the radar, his music "goosing up the bottom line" while he makes a living working in his local Home Depot. This, perhaps, is what lends his music a humble poignancy and gritty realism, despite its sparkling albeit melancholic musical content. While iridescent guitar lines paint glittering pictures in the mind, Cornog crafts understated vignettes about the occasionally romantic, often grubby details of ordinary working lives, always honest, never patronising, entirely in tune with those he's depicting.

With a back story like his, and given the strength of his lyrics, it's easy to forget the simple beauty of Cornog's music. But its purity is almost unique, much as though it's cut out the middle man and transmitted itself directly from his mind to the listener's. William Tyler, the acclaimed solo guitarist whose Behold the Spirit album has won critical acclaim in both the UK and US and who has performed with the likes of Lambchop, Silver Jews and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, recently disclosed that Cornog is one of the most inspirational guitar players he's ever heard. It's easy to hear why on songs like 'I Don't Care About Your Blue Wings' on …Rented Rooms, or the impossibly forlorn 'Cybercar' from 1999's The Gasoline Age.

Taking time out from his day job and paternal duties, F.M. Cornog tells his story with his trademark candour, self-deprecation and a fair amount of humour.

Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? Were there hints that your life might end up following the route is has?

Fred Cornog: I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and I grew up in Summit, New Jersey. Summit is a little city perched on a hill, about 20 miles west of New York City. Anyway, my father was a salesman for Colgate Palmolive. He sold toothpaste and shampoo and other stuff. My mother did part-time secretarial work, and sung in the choir at the local Methodist church. I had an older brother who read a lot of books, and had a pretty good stereo system. He was always playing Bob Dylan and Jethro Tull. I wanted to be a pro baseball player when I was a kid. I listened constantly to a radio station out of Manhattan called WABC. WABC played the Top 40 hits of the day. This was the early 1970s, so they were playing Elton John, Al Green, Paul McCartney, Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Stevie Wonder, Three Dog Night, The Chi-Lites, Neil Diamond, The Raspberries, Bread, Roberta Flack, The Eagles, The Staple Singers, The Stylistics. It was a real mixed bag. Some of it sucked, and some of it was great. But for better or for worse, this was the music that started to shift the tectonic plates in my mind.

This Top 40 stuff from the 1970s got me to thinking that I should put down my baseball glove and start playing music. So, around age 14, I started teaching myself simple chords on the family piano, and soon after that I started writing songs. A few years later, after I heard Tom Verlaine play guitar, I bought a used Fender Jazzmaster. Then, when those little Tascam mini-studios came along, I knew my ship had come in.

After you left college, what happened?

FC: I farted around with college. I never took it seriously. I was never a full-time student. I only took courses I liked, like philosophy courses, and art history courses. Pretty soon I dropped out and started working a series of dead-end jobs: a greenhouse worker, a mail-order place that sold drug paraphernalia, a carpet warehouse guy. I ended up at a light bulb factory.

What was it that drove you to drink and drugs on such a grand scale?

FC: Probably a combination of nature and nurture. My older brother was a serious alcoholic too, so I have to think that genetics had something to do with it. But the nurture side, that points back directly to my father, who was a very emotionally erratic man. He was a war veteran, who saw a lot of death and destruction and horror. When he came home, he never got treatment. Much of my father's disillusionment and anger and guilt got taken out on my mother, my brother, and me. You never knew who my father was going to be from one day to the next. In a house like that, there are several layers of reality going on. It's very confusing for a kid to understand. You have to calibrate your mind to whether you're talking to your mother or your father, or both of them together. It was weird.

Do you still 'party'?

FC: No. Not today.

Do you think that music saved you? It can't be coincidence that it was what brought you to Barbara's attention.

FC: No, I don't think that music saved me. Music did however create the bridge that brought me to Barbara. I do think that Barbara saved me up to a certain point. But ultimately, one has to save oneself.

Do you think that music offers the power of salvation?

FC: Well, that's a loaded question. Salvation. I don't believe in salvation. Salvation is a mirage. I suppose that music might offer salvation to some people, but not to me. The idea of 'salvation through music' is a romantic and poetic one, but I think it's putting too much weight on music. It's asking too much. I don't think that music alone can sustain a person or an artist. I don't believe that any artistic or intellectual pursuit can do this. I believe that a deep bond with another human being is really the only way to salvation. Without a deep and direct human-to-human connection, all these pursuits seem utterly pointless. You can wall yourself in your room and read all the classics of Eastern and Western civilisation, but in the end it will all be meaningless without a deep human connection of some kind.

You wrote on 'Druglife', from What Are You On, "If it comes down to the drugs or you/ Baby, we're through /'Cause you're messing with my druglife." What was it about the situation that developed between you, your music and Barbara that this time provoked you to reject the drugs?

FC: Well, those lines from 'Druglife' are about a person who doesn't want to stop using drugs. He's warning his girlfriend not to interfere with his addictions. He's going to keep using.

But, if your question is, how did I eventually stop drinking and using drugs? Well, I pretty much had to stop. I had backed myself into a corner where I was mentally and physically disintegrating. I started to have constant heart problems from years of substance abuse, and several doctors told me that I had reached the end of my rope. But mentally, that's what really made me stop. Mentally, it was just a complete horror show. My mind felt like an empty vessel that could be assaulted and consumed at any time by the most trivial thoughts. Fucked-up.

Do you think that perhaps, like some of the characters in your songs, you just needed rescuing from yourself by someone who could show you that you were of value and restore your self-esteem?

FC: Hmmm, I've never had a hell of a lot of self-esteem, so I really don't know what that feels like. I suppose that people can be partially 'rescued'. But hell, once the damage has been done, the damage has been done. You might find a battered, three-legged dog limping down the street, and you might take him home, and give him a bath, and feed him, and give him love. But the shit that came before you found him never goes away. It recedes a bit, but it never leaves. There's always a dissonant hum in the background.

And is it fair to say that many of the characters in your songs seek redemption?

FC: Most of the people in my songs are just stunned. They're trying to scratch out a living, and they're trying to survive with a little dignity. They're walking through cheap, neon-lit wastelands, where they're relentlessly bombarded by commercialised information. Most of them have begun to think that something deep down is fundamentally wrong, but they don't know what it is, or how to change it. Many of them are trying to escape themselves, or fill a void within themselves.

How do you think the Fred Cornog of 2011 differs from the Fred Cornog of the early 1990s?

FC: The 1980s/1990s version was a nightmarish rollercoaster ride with no brakes. The 2011 version is a nightmarish rollercoaster ride with brakes that work most of the time, but not all of the time.

Do you ever get bothered by the idea that perhaps some people's interest in you and your music was provoked by pity?

FC: No, not really. I can't control what other people think. My back story is profoundly fucked up, but none of that would matter if my work sucked. Plenty of mentally screwed-up alcoholics and drug addicts write songs, but not many have had sustained careers on a respected label like Merge. I don't know... Maybe my back story provides a way in for some people. Years ago, I remember buying Joy Division's Closer, right after reading about Ian Curtis' suicide. But Ian Curtis' suicide didn't make me like Joy Division. It was the music.

And is part of your motivation to write driven by a desire to show that one can bounce back from hardship and thereby offer comfort?

FC: No. I'm not a 'motivational speaker' type of guy. And I'm certainly not a role model of any kind. The opposite would be true. I would say, 'DON'T live your life like this guy!' As a musician, my motive has always been to write good songs, and to carve out a little, tiny space that I could call my own. But, if people feel less alone in the universe after hearing my stuff, that's a good thing too.

How many of the characters in your songs are based upon real people you have met, or indeed yourself?

FC: I would say that 90% of my material is based in reality. I'm a realist painter, living in an abstract world.

In a 1997 interview you said, 'My life is just as mundane as everybody else's life. I get up, take a shower, make the bed, eat some cereal, drink some coffee, take a crap, wash the clothes, pay a bill, go to the supermarket, etc. Yeah, I write songs too, but hell, I don't look at writing songs as being something "special" or "above the fray". I'm just like a plumber, or a sanitation worker, or a salesman. I'm just doing my job... trying to get by.' Do you think of yourself as a songwriter first and foremost, or is it a secondary trade?

FC: I generally think of myself as a songwriter who works at Home Depot. But I'm also a husband and a father. I suppose most of us juggle multiple roles every day. Trying to make them all mesh together and complement each other is the hard part.

And can you ever imagine living without making music?

FC: I think I'll write songs till I croak. At this point, it's a little like eating, or laughing, or urinating, or walking the dog. It's just part of who I am. I don't even think about it... I just do it.

How long ago did you write your first song? And what was it about?

FC: I co-wrote my first few songs with a guy named Dave Woodard. We were both 15. We were best friends. We were going to be like Bernie Taupin and Elton John. He was the lyricist, and I was the musician/singer. Our first song was called 'Scopin''. It was about looking at girls. I based the music for that one on 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones. Our second song was a putridly sensitive ballad called 'Feelin' Lonely'. And our third song was about avoiding girls while they were menstruating. That one was called 'Gertie'. That wasn't a very sensitive song at all.

Have you ever written a song for the money?

FC: No. Not yet. But flash enough cash in my face and I'm sure my whore side will appear.

In your label bio, you're quoted as saying, 'For me, this whole thing has never been about fame. It's been about music. It's just what I do.' Do you think that this is more unusual than ever now that we live in an era of celebrity culture where 'to be famous' is considered a career goal?

FC: Well, many people fantasise about fame and all the stuff that goes with it, and if somebody wants to be famous, for whatever reason, I say go right ahead. If you want it, I won't criticise you, or stand in your way. But to me, fame is something to be kept at arms length. My gut tells me that fame is a trap. I can't explain it any other way. It's purely an intuitive feeling.

You talked in the late 1990s about performing with Lambchop but it never came to anything. Why was that? Do you regret that it never happened?

FC: Do I regret it? No. Things happen or don't happen and I just roll with it. I don't have a very proactive attitude about most things in general. I only move on things when they seem organically right, like a logical next step. Kurt Wagner has always been extremely generous to me. I consider Kurt a total musical brother. I'm always the problem. It's my mindset. I'm a Tascam mini-studio musician, who runs from the spotlight.

Record companies are, for the most part, very reluctant to sign an act that's not willing to perform live in order to promote a record, and yet Merge Records have stood by you for over fifteen years. Has that ever been a cause for struggle between you and the label at any stage?

FC: No, not struggle. Look, of course Merge would be pleased if I performed at least a few gigs, and did a few more promotional things. But I think Mac and Laura know by now that this has nothing to do with me giving the finger to Merge. They realise that it's just who I am as a person at the deepest level.

Can you imagine a time when your approach to making music becomes a template for others? After all, many other musicians continue to work in order to pay bills. The difference seems to be that, unlike most of them, you choose to work and don't have an ultimate goal to focus exclusively on being a musician.

FC: This boils down once again to the music/music industry dichotomy. A musician has to know that these are two very distinct things. I can be a musician right now, sitting here in this little room. All I have to do is pick up a guitar and sing. But the equation totally changes when one expects to pay bills from this ability. In most cases, it puts tremendous, distorting forces on the music you're creating, and eventually deforms it or destroys it.

Early on, I knew that the normal music business equation was not going to work out for me. I could tell by the conversations I had with music business people. They were always telling me how I had to change. They were always telling me to use a better mic, or go into a real recording studio with a real producer, or to write happier songs with faster tempos, or a hundred other things. The normal music business equation only works out if you really want it badly, and are willing to jump through hoop after hoop, when you're told to.

What inspires you to write, and what's the process you go through in order to transfer the initial seeds to tape? Each recording sounds so precise it's hard to believe that you don't spend an eternity agonising over every note and sound.

FC: What inspires me to write? Well, just read the news. Or walk down the street of the city you live in. Or listen to people talk. Those three things alone will fire off a bunch of connections that'll lead to something else, and then something else. Or maybe you just have four chords that sound good, and some stupid phrase pops in your head, like, '...Go forth, consume'. And then you just run with it. It takes on a mind of its own.

As far as recording goes, I don't agonise over things. I work pretty quickly, but I work in spurts and then step away. Later on, I come back and look. I work like a painter. I have a pretty good idea in my mind of what I want my painting to look like, but it nearly always mutates as I go along. And you have to be open to that morphing thing.

What keeps your writing? Your work rate seems to have slowed over the last decade, so has it become harder or less appealing to write?

FC: My work rate has slowed for two reasons. The first is that I work 40 hours a week at Home Depot. The second reason is that I have an eight year old daughter now, and I try to spend as much time with her as I can. I can't just come home from work at Home Depot and say hi to her, and run upstairs and record. That would be fundamentally wrong. Do I wish that I had more time to spend on writing and recording... yes. But you have to make choices in life, and then you have to accept them. I have no regrets.

How many of your songs never see the light of day?

FC: Maybe about half of what I write never gets out there. I admire people like Robert Pollard who release much of what they write. I think that's very gutsy. From the very beginning, Barbara has been pushing me to release more stuff. She has always wanted to go in a more Pollard-like direction. But I'm more cautious.

You've been covered by David Byrne, Lambchop, Mountain Goats, Okkervil River and more. How does that make you feel? And are you aware of other musicians whose profile is higher than yours but who have championed your music?

FC: Yes. I feel utterly flattered when people cover my songs. It gives them another life. It's like watching one of your kids become happy and successful in life, and wondering how the hell that happened when you're kind of depressed and dysfunctional! I mean sometimes, I've just got to pinch myself. Lambchop has recorded five of my songs! Even one would have been enough. And to have these other great artists joining in makes me feel very grateful.

Do you ever worry that your work will remain a cult commodity and that the only thing that will change that, as morbid as it sounds, is your death, which is arguably the ultimate marketing tool?

FC: No, I don't worry about any of that stuff. I can't control it, so I don't worry about it. And I don't worry about being a fringy, cult commodity either. In my particular case, I don't see how it could have gone any other way. I'm lucky to still be breathing. I'm not a religious person, but I count my blessings every day. I really do.

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