Interview with a Luthier (i.e. Someone Who Makes Musical Instruments—in this case, for Arcade Fire, Spoon, and The National)

image

The following is a digital expression of an interview from The Believers 2014 Music Issue that I conducted with Reuben Cox. Cox, who grew up in a log cabin, is a luthier who focuses on building guitars with found wood and electronics as well as refurbishing aged guitars. Before he opened Old Style Guitar Shop, in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cox worked as as art and editorial photographer, with credits from the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. In 1993, Cox began making guitars as a hobby. His guitars came to the attention of the music world after the National began to perform with them. He has since sold guitars to members of Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, and other notable musicians. Disclaimer: He has fixed my Gibson. Enjoy the following conversation as well as some videos of artists performing with Coxs guitars, and the requisite slideshow of fetishistic guitar pix.

—Adam Baer

The National playing “Fake Empire”at Old Style, which has become something of a magnet for musicians and spontaneous shows.

THE BELIEVER: Why did you transition from photography to making guitars?

REUBEN COX: Working on guitars takes a lot less brainpower than making an interesting photograph, so I guess you could say it began as my “golf.”

BLVR: What tools do you use?

RC:  I have a wood shop a few miles away. I use a table saw, jointer, planer, band saw, and the hand tools you’d expect to be lying around. I have a small tool chest and medium-sized mess here at the desk by the cash register. The feng shui is terrible.

BLVR: For some people there is a fetishistic attraction to electric guitars. What do you think that’s about?

RC: Well, the top part is shaped like a penis, and the bottom part often looks like Jayne Mansfield’s waist and tuchus, so there you go. But like a plastic surgeon who’s popped in thousands of implants, I’m numb to it. Seriously, though: I think some guitars have songs inside them and others simply don’t. It’s unexplainable.

BLVR: What skills do you need to build and repair guitars?

RC: I repair whatever comes through the shop—acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional violin, pump organ. I got a baby to feed, you know! I generally say yes to everything that comes in for repair. I build only electric guitars, though, which is a very different skill set. To build an electric guitar, basic carpentry skills will get you to the finish line.

BLVR: How did you learn woodworking?

RC: My father is an architect, and I have memories of going to job sites with him as a kid. Also, watching him build an addition on our house, or just watching him fix a screen door, was formative. I also attended art school for undergrad, and you’re expected to get a handle on materials in that sort of program.

BLVR: Did you have to read books on the subject or apprentice with a master like the violin luthiers of seventeenth-century Italy did?

RC: I didn’t read any books. I think an accomplished violin-maker would probably regard what I do as fairly entry-level. My spiritual instrument-making ancestors are blues musicians who nailed a wire—often from a screen door—to the side of a house and played with a bottleneck. Bo Diddley’s homemade guitars, too.

image

BLVR: Would you accept an apprentice now?

RC: Sure, I’ll take an apprentice. I’d probably be pretty self-conscious about it, though, as I’m self-taught and am certainly doing some things pretty backward. I’d really just like someone with a trust fund and a lot of time on their hands who would like to hang out in a shop and glad-handle customers.

BLVR: How did you get your guitars into the hands of influential musicians?

RC: My first “good” guitar was finished in 1995. I sold it to Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf, whom I knew through my brother, Chris. Before I sold Eric a guitar, I tagged along on his south-east tour one summer taking photographs. He’s since bought a few more. My lovely wife, Miwa Okumura, fills the Lee Krasner/Martha Washington role. She’s amazingly supportive and also is the head of East Coast operations for Beggars Group. Beggars umbrellas a number of great record labels including Matador, XL, and Rough Trade. When Miwa goes to bed, I take a flashlight and copy phone numbers out of her Rolodex.

Read More

"We don’t realize what we’re walking on half the time.”

image

An Interview with Blake Butler

Wherever and whatever “the line” may be, the power of transgressive fiction comes from finding and crossing it. Plenty of books get there, but Blake Butler’s immense 300,000,000 begins on the far side and only goes farther, into a zone not meant for humans but still somehow perceptible to us, or to what will be left of us once what’s going to happen happens.

Opening as a prolonged rant, we’re thrown right away into the consciousness of a maniac called Gretch Gravey who, possessed by someone or something called Darrel, musters an army of lost boys to kill everyone in America (the 300,000,000 of the title is our former population). Into the wormhole opened by this devastation plunges Flood, a detective who serves as the reader’s shaky interpreter until he’s so overcome by the terrain that all sense is drained out of him. Then, in a place devoid of life but richly haunted by emergent, bastard forms of perception, the rest of the novel plays out in a state that I’ve never before felt a text induce in me.

The America of 300,000,000 is beyond collapse, over the brink that ours feels like it’s approaching. Threading its ultraviolence through suburbs, outlet malls, and a kind of normalcy wrapped around animal terror—“Outside, in the mash surrounding the house with cash and unending television…My skin around me did a slither”—its response to the spate of shootings of recent years does more than those events ever could to expose the black heart that both animates and threatens to annihilate everyone currently alive in this country.

Butler’s books have always been minds to sync up with and wander through, rather than guided tours of pre-existing places, but never before has he deformed the shape of his reader’s consciousness to this degree.

I spoke with Blake by phone in August. I was in New York and he was in Atlanta.

—David Rice 

I. BLOW MYSELF OUT OF THE WATER

THE BELIEVER: 300,000,000 makes an extreme demand on the reader’s attention. It’s a book that says, “Fuck you, sit down, and listen.” It almost feels like bondage, another kind of violence beyond the violence of the subject matter. 

BLAKE BUTLER: I’m glad that that comes through, because it was also violent to write. When I started it, I was probably in the worst emotional state of my life. I was like, “If I’m going to do this, I just have to explode. There’s nothing to hold back this time.” I feel like books are marginalized at this point too, so if I’m going to get your attention to make you even open the book, I’m going to take you by the fucking coat collar. I’m not trying to be macabre, but I was thinking, “This is going to be the last book I ever write.” 

BLVR: A lot of your work has a pre-apocalyptic quality. Like the world’s in the process of ending. But in this book it feels like even that mindset is blowing up, like it was the terminus of some trajectory for you. 

BB: It was definitely a transition point for me. I didn’t know what else to do, and I felt like I was pacing the same places again in everything I tried to write. That, coupled with being beside my dad dying over a slow four-year period, and I was also going through a really bad breakup—everything felt like shit to me. And I write all day every day, so when I feel unproductive, it magnifies everything else. It was just this collision of factors where I was like, “I’m gonna do everything I can to make this have every trick in my mind on paper, and then I don’t give a fuck what happens after that.” My main goal was to blow myself out of the water.

Read More