This interview originally appeared in the now defunct Revolt on March 5, 1997. It is posted here by kind permission of Adrian Bromley.
Point Of Ares
Not Your Average Band – Q&A
Massachusetts’s eclectic theatrical/Wizard Rock trio Point Of Ares are a cut above the rest. Their music is not only well-crafted, but it is also highly imaginative and creative. Based on the book trilogy Enemy Glory by writer/lyricist/singer/bassist Karen Michalson (POA is rounded out by guitarist Bill Michalson and Kevin Dion on drums) the band has recently released their debut album Enemy Glory on Arula Records. By e-mail Karen Michalson found time to talk about all the good things that go into the work of POA, and talks about writing and the music industry in general. Michalson’s words are truthful and a good guide for any up and coming band to take to heart. Read on:
REVOLT: Most bands nowadays seem to go along with trends – what is hot. Your band seems to have stayed away from that and developed your own sound and direction. How do you keep focused on what *you* want to do?
Karen Michalson: For me there’s no point in writing music if I’m only going to try to sound like whatever is currently hot. If that were the case I’d do something else. There’s a lot of better paying jobs out there that require conformity as the price of success, so if I just wanted to follow trends I could easily work in a different field and make a hell of a lot more money at it. When I made the decision to commit myself to music, I went through a long period of introspection about my values, my goals, what it meant to calI myself a musician, etc. and one of the things that became clear to me was that public recognition wouldn’t be worth a damn if it was based on trying to sound like somebody else. I’m also in the fortunate position of being blessed with two bandmates who share this attitude and with being in a situation where the three of us have genuinely complementary visions for songwriting. Although we often have healthy disagreements about particular songs, we all generally agree about POA’s vision and direction.
REVOLT: The difference between a writer and a lyricist for songs?
KM: Working in two mediums has forced me to think about this a lot, but you’re the first writer who’s asked. In my opinion (for what it’s worth) a writer creates art in which language is the sole element. In fiction and poetry the words have to work harder because they have to convey everything – rhythm, voice, tone, intent. There’s an example of my writing on the spoken word pieces of Enemy Glory, which are actually selections from my novel. The first has no musical accompaniment and the second only has me playing bass under the words, for atmosphere.
A lyricist, however, has to be conscious that his/her work is only one element in a song, and that the words should be there as one voice in the ensemble, that the guitar is another voice, the bass is another, etc. All of the elements of a song have to work together to say something — if the lyrics say everything, the music sounds redundant. When I’m working on a bass line or Bill (POA’s guitarist) and I are working out a progression together we have to make damn certain that the music we’re writing works as more voices that say things the lyrics may only imply — that the words and music form a whole experience greater than any one part, but in which every part is absolutely necessary. When Kevin lays down his drum parts the same thing is true – his drums are one essential voice with its own take on the ensemble called a song.
REVOLT: Is Enemy Glory more than a concept record or story? Is there a sense of realism in the songs and ideas?
KM: I hope not. Otherwise it wouldn’t be art. Well, I don’t know — the vision and points of view are true to my real life attitudes, but true is different than real.
REVOLT: Were there more songs than these? Why were these 15 chosen?
KM: There are more songs but these 15 were written specifically for this album rather than chosen out of a larger repertoire. We decided to write a concept album, mapped out a template for the album, discussed which characters from the novel and which situations would get represented, how it would be structured — then we wrote it to our own specifications. It was a very planned, very structured approach to songwriting in that we had a structure and an outline in mind before we even began. We absolutely did not want to say, “well here’s our ten best songs let’s throw them together on a CD and see what happens.” A lot of bands do that and end up releasing a collection of songs that don’t really say anything as a collection, although the individual songs may be well-crafted. It was as important to us to write an ALBUM as it was to write songs.
REVOLT: What bands have inspired you? Both past and present.
KM: Rush. Genesis (early). Rush. Pink Floyd. Rush. Jethro Tull. Did I mention Rush? King Crimson. Rick Wakeman. Patti Smith. Oh, and Rush. But I’ve probably been more inspired by other writers than by other musicians. Read an Edward Abbey essay sometime — the deep structure of his desert descriptions is musical. They take the top of your head off and you can’t tell if you’re reading or listening. Roberto Calasso makes me want to write bass lines that tell mythic stories without words. John Barth — his novels taught me a way of thinking that becomes music when it doesn’t become fiction. The lyrical descriptions in John Ruskin’s or Walter Pater’s essays. But ultimately — and this is the height of hubris or the sordid depths of self-cannibalism or both — I draw most inspiration from the characters I imagine and write about in my fiction. The sole reason I play bass is I wrote a novel about a bass player. I’m not embarrassed to say this.
REVOLT: How important is it for the music to cooperate with your words?
KM: It’s not merely important it’s essential to the point where if the music and words are not cooperating, the song-in-progress gets jettisoned. I don’t want to sound too scripted about what we are – but we really take very seriously the archetype of the poet-musician – the bard who is equally adept at language and music. Well, that is what we are. When we’re not true to that, our music suffers.
REVOLT: Do you think songwriters of the 90’s have lost heir creativity? If so why?
KM: I don’t generally like the commercial music of the 90’s. The emphasis has been on not knowing how to play, playing sloppily, no guitar solos, repetitive monotonous rhythm guitar — and, I know I’ll get some hate mail for saying this – I’m more enthusiastic about bands that strive for excellence than bands that make a virtue out of making everything sound rough. I’m very suspicious whenever I hear a musician say, “We deliberately went for the stripped down, raw sound – we wanted the instruments to sound a little off” because it implies that this approach was a conscious choice and that they could have played better had they chose. If you can play better, why do you feel you have to hide it? Will people like your art better because it’s not the best you can create? There’s something criminal about self-mutilation, and something worse than criminal in being willing to pretend you’re a lesser artist than you really are to satisfy somebody else.
And on the other hand, if you can’t play better stop posing about it and pretending. Like any other artistic movement, I think the stripped down 90’s sound worked at first as a statement — but now it’s gone past the point of cliche and become, in many cases (not all) an excuse for lack of dedication to learning music.
REVOLT: Do you feel that music is a means of informing? If so..how does your music inform?
KM: Some musicians certainly do use music to inform, and it works very well for them. We don’t. Well, I don’t know, you’d have to ask our audience if they feel particularly “informed” about anything after one of our shows. For me, music is a means of entertaining, casting a sacred space and inviting people into an alternate dream for awhile. It’s role playing in sound. If someone feels informed by this, well, that’s his business and his reaction — I won’t stand in the way – but my primary goal is to create another world for people to visit and dream in and imagine themselves in. What they do there is their business – I’m just providing a service.
REVOLT: POA seems to be a much more maturer form of music – what kind of fans do you attract?
KM: Our fans are extremely intelligent. I certainly don’t want to categorize people — but the “typical” POA fan — if there is such a thing — is a guy I met at one show who spent most of our set writing poems in a notebook (about our set) and came up to me afterwards to show me his poems and we talked a bit about whether the lyrics in “Slouching Towards Chaos” were Nietschean or Sartrean (they’re neither, but that’s beside the point). Another “typical” fan is a guy that touched me to the quick by placing a medallion around my neck after one show — the medallion had an arrow (like our logo) and he told me it was a warrior symbol from a martial arts tradition he was studying — he wanted to talk about our lyrics, our battle-imagery, etc. Across the country we get quite a bit of fan mail from people who describe themselves as neo-pagans, libertarians, goths, Dungeons and Dragons players. I answer as much as I can, because a lot of people really want to talk about the topics our music touches on — ancient Greece, personal liberty, the destruction of excellence by mediocrity, Randian philosophy, the power of fantasy.
REVOLT: Will there be a continuation to Enemy Glory?
KM: If I write another Enemy Glory novel the possibility exists. My literary agent is very close to selling the original Enemy Glory trilogy (that our album is based on) right now, and if that works out, there may very well be another Enemy Glory book.
REVOLT: If the band ever signs to a major label – how important will control of your creativity be?
KM: As important as it is now. This is not a purely academic question, as we are talking to a major label now (just flirting). The reason we decided not to sign with an indie label and to release our own stuff to start with was to have complete artistic control. Our CD is selling remarkably well across the country, and our fans really like what we’ve done. If we had taken the advice of a few of the indies we flirted with — I’m convinced our product would be less sincere and ultimately less successful. And we’re really happy where we are right now — we have an audience that seems to genuinely appreciate our music for what it is — some very willing guests in our fictional-musical universe who want to play with us — so we’re not necessarily going to jump onto a major any more than we did onto an indie – it depends on what the major has to offer.
REVOLT: Do you think music can heal?
KM: Heal what? I don’t know. I think it’s well documented that certain tones and rhythms effect brain chemistry, and that you can certainly feel high from anapestic drum beats and so on – but is this a “healing” or just a temporary mood shift induced by an aural drug. And if music can heal it can also hurt. A lot of stuff can happen in a sacred space.
REVOLT: Why is it that music nowadays has taken on more of a money role rather than expression?
KM: It always has, going back to the days when musicians made bids for the patronage of a Duke or King. If the artist didn’t create work that pleased the patron, the artist didn’t get paid. And if that meant writing contrary to one’s artistic sense to please the bad taste of some patron, well it happened a lot, and it still happens. There’s a lot of truth to economist Roald Coase’s Theorem, that market, not ownership, ultimately determines how things get used. Face it, a musician may own his/her work, but if that work has more market value when remixed a certain way, chances are that sooner or later it will get remixed. I see this in colleagues who have learned that their talent is worth more (will command more money) playing covers they genuinely dislike than in playing/writing originals they mean. And so they play covers and complain about how ”lucky” I am to write my own material. The whole idea of ”artistic expression” isn’t much older than the turn of the 19th century, anyway. It was developed by the Romantic poets, most of whom were independently wealthy and didn’t have to worry about making a living as poets. I’m not saying there’s no truth to the concept, but that for most of civilization’s history it was not generally an articulated concern. Shakespeare wrote plays to please the Queen, draw an audience, and make money. This is not to say he didn’t write great plays — but that the idea of “integrity of expression” was not necessarily his first preoccupation – he made a lot of political choices in his history plays especially – flattering the Queen and denigrating her rivals. Is Henry IV 1 and 2 an expressive set of plays? They are funny and tearful and tragic and brilliant. Did he write them for money? You bet! For me the crime isn’t writing for money per se, the crime is being willing to mutilate your own talents for money, to appear to he less than you really are for the world’s fleeting amusement.
REVOLT: What new bands do you admire? Why?
KM: I like Dream Theater. James LaBrie is a great vocalist, and John Myung is a brilliant bass player. I’ve seen them live a few times. But I don’t listen to a lot of new rock music. I like classic rock and I like to listen to music outside the genre.
REVOLT: How important is the internet to musicians? How do you use it to your advantage?
KM: For independent bands like Point Of Ares it’s essential. Being able to market and promote your own music worldwide — what a revolutionary concept. The Internet gives bands like POA the power and confidence to be able to say major labels, “well, we have a fan base that likes our music as it is, and we’re making a profit and doing what we love to do the way we love to do it, which is why we’re in this in the first place, so we’ll have to give a lot of thought to how much artistic control we’re willing to give up in this deal.”
There was a time not too long ago where the only way to promote your music on a large scale was through a major, so the choice was more like, ”Well, do you want some of what you meant to get heard or do you not want to get heard at all?”
Fortunately, musicians today really don’t have to make that choice, for possibly the first time in history.