Culture guru Chuck Klosterman was born in Minnesota, raised in North Dakota, and now resides in New York City, where he basks in the success of his five best-selling non-fiction books, one hilarious novel, and about a billion articles for magazines like Spin, The Believer, GQ, Esquire, and most impressively, The A.V. Club. Prior to his recent appearance at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theatre, he got meta with The A.V. Club, discussing how interviews, memories, and writing about culture can all be lies, but the Midwest is still honest.
The A.V. Club: You write a lot about the culture of very specific places in space/time. Is there a particular place/time—like New York in the ’70s, San Francisco in the ’50s, or Chicago in the ’20s—that you would liked to have seen for yourself?
Chuck Klosterman: The more I think about it, I always find myself dwelling on the fact that, in another time, I would be extremely uncomfortable—physically. I would hate to go back to a time—no matter how interesting it was—before plumbing, or even before air conditioners. Like in The Great Gatsby, that scene where it’s so hot that they’re like, “Let’s drive into the city and stay at a hotel that has good windows to open.” That’s their only option! Yeah, so I probably wouldn’t handle things very well.
AVC: So you like now better than then.
CK: Well, of course it’s human nature to romanticize the past, especially a past that you did not experience, or even a past that you did experience but sort of changed the memory of. Well, like you mentioned New York in the ’70s. Culturally, yes, it’s true: Things were happening. But I don’t know if I would like to live in a place where there was that much crime. But I know a lot of people—particularly people who have sort of an artistic inclination—who feel that way. But, like, take The Warriors for example. Okay, The Warriors is sort of an exaggeration of what gang life was like in New York. But at one point, they get out of the subway at Union Square, and it’s just desolate and awful, and it’s bizarre to me that that would seem like a better life. Any time people look back at their own experience, especially if it’s a distant experience, they always all seem to take one of two stances: a.) to say how incredibly magical it was, to an extent that’s impossible, or b.) to really stress how much it sucked, that it somehow galvanized them to become the person they are today. I’m always more impressed by people who talk about the past, and the takeaway is that it was really actually more like now than it wasn’t. I mean, we didn’t have cell phones then but, for the most part, art and ideas are the same.
AVC: It seems like Williamsburg, Brooklyn became populated by twentysomethings who grew up idolizing the Lower East Side of the ’70s, which was much rougher than it is now. Do you encounter that where you live in Brooklyn?
CK: The perception of Williamsburg from people who live in New York tends to skew negative. If someone is seen on the subway, and they’re dressed in a certain style and they have a beard, they have a certain kind of glasses, they’re listening to an iPod, they’re reading a certain kind of book, the perception is that that person lives in Williamsburg. And it’s usually said in a pejorative way.
Among older people, maybe it’s different. Maybe if you’re in your 40s or 50s, maybe it validates that you were cool, or something, that they’re the kind of person you used to be.
Actually, the dude from LCD Soundsystem has talked about this, something about how there has been a real artistic detriment lately due to the move out of the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, because when all the hipsters and artists were on the Lower East Side, they were in close proximity to people who were very wealthy. So there was this natural class and cultural tension, in the sense that you walk out of your apartment that you can barely afford to live in, and maybe you would see someone who works on Wall Street, right there, and you’re sort of living together. Whereas in Williamsburg, it’s almost like a village, and those are the only sorts of people who are there, and they exist in this world where everyone is an artist, and where if a guy moved into your apartment and he’s thin and he smokes pot, he’s probably in four bands. And that’s a natural, normal thing. And what this has probably done—and I’m not sure if this is his theory, and I’m kind of parroting his theory, but—that would seem to explain to some people why a lot of the music and art coming out of Williamsburg seems more similar to each other than it is different. Because they’re not actually colliding with anyone, they’re actually collaborating with each other on everything. Yeah, so I find that interesting; it doesn’t really impact me that much, though.
AVC: So can any time or place have the capacity to be considered “special,” and it just depends who writes it down?
CK: Well, some of those places are special. What was happening in San Francisco when the Grateful Dead were new, that was a real experience. A certain kind of person was moving out there because they were interested in that kind of life. But a lot of it has to do with people’s memory of the period’s value. There was a time in the ’90s when it seemed like Chapel Hill, North Carolina was going to become as important as Seattle had been. But, okay, the situation that happened with grunge in Seattle was interesting, because it was one of the first times that the artists and the musicians within the scene were so aware of what was being done to them, by outside forces, that it changed the experience. Whereas at Chapel Hill, the musicians there were very wary and cognizant of what had happened in Seattle, and therefore it couldn’t have happened in the same way. There aren’t going to be a ton of documentaries about what life was like in Chapel Hill during that time. There might be one, at some point. Some of it has to do with what sticks, and then people go, “Well, if I’m interested in the music, that means I’m interested in the people who made it, and that means I’m interested in the community itself.”
AVC: The Chapel Hill groups influenced other artists, though.
CK: They also seem more influential because they had less tangible success. Let’s say there’s a whole bunch of artists in Williamsburg right now who simultaneously got into Archers Of Loaf. So, then there are four bands who all sound exactly like Archers Of Loaf—it would seem like Archers Of Loaf is an extremely influential band, because the average person goes, “I hardly know these dudes, and look what they’re doing now, in the present.” Whereas a band like Nirvana, or Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden, well, it’s assumed that they’re going to be influential. So, the 5,000 bands that are influenced by Nirvana are in some ways less meaningful than the five bands influenced by Archers Of Loaf, because of scale.
AVC: Does the word “influential” become a code word for “not as popular in its time”?
CK: It becomes code for “what they were doing did work”—even though people didn’t necessarily care. Look at the ’80s: There are so many bands in the ’80s that sold millions of records. Britny Fox had multiple platinum records. They’ve sold more records than The Velvet Underground. But The Velvet Underground is certainly more popular now than Britny Fox; their popularity has sustained over time. So, influence really just means that your popularity doesn’t change or, if anything, it slightly increases. Like, even though they no longer exist, it feels to me that Pavement is more popular now than when they were popular. Obviously, the Pixies are a bigger band now than they ever were at any time during their existence. So, the influence basically means that people don’t stop buying your records, even if it’s a small chunk of people.
AVC: What was it like moving to New York, having been a Midwestern boy? A lot of people still have this idea that the Twin Cities are sort of flyover country.
CK: I grew up under the impression that the perceived difference between the Midwest and New York was inflated. But now that I live here, it actually seems greater than I thought. I think kids who were raised in New York have an insane view of what life is like, because they live in a place where it’s normal to be surrounded by diversity all the time. And it’s normal to get any food you want at 4 in the morning, just because you want it. And it’s normal to assume that any film/book/movie/band will definitely be there. There won’t be a movie that doesn’t open in New York that opens in Omaha.
So, what I have found is the people who grew up in New York (or more predictable places on the East Coast) almost feel like they have been institutionalized to know what is cool. It’s not even their choice. They experience, almost, guilt if they’re interested in something that is not conventionally cool, which is not at all like in the Midwest. What was cool here was at times arbitrary, at times random—at times there were elements of what was conventionally cool in more urban places; at times it made no sense at all. Like, in a small town, there might be one band who is extremely popular, just because bands don’t often tour through there, and the one band who did has a huge impact. Like in Fargo, there was one Fugazi show, which was followed by a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show, and those two acts had such an influence on the music of the community, it was just bizarre. So, I never feel bad about the things that I’m interested or not interested in. I think it makes people more interesting, actually.
AVC: So if I wanted to be a rock star, I could be from anywhere, but what do I have to do?
CK: The biggest thing—and I hate to say this, because it sounds like a criticism—but if someone aspires to be a rock star, there are two things that really matter. One is talent. But the thing that perhaps matters even more is having an unrealistic perception of what your life can be. Because if you’re a reasonable person, you would never become a rock star or a Hollywood actor. Being the best singer or guitar player is not necessarily in line with who’s going to be the most successful. It has to do with other people deciding that you are attractive. Not even being beautiful is enough—there are thousands of people in L.A. who are beautiful who are working as waitresses. But someone has to go, “This person is so beautiful, I want to pay money to watch them.” So if you really want to be a rock star, you really have to start with the premise that you are going to be so successful at this one improbable thing, so much so that you don’t create a backup plan. Because you will take it when things get tough. You can’t be like, “I want to be like Prince, but I also want to go to architecture school.” You’re going to end up an architect with really weird clothes.
AVC: Do you think that’s true for other kinds of artists—like writers, for instance?
CK: Writing’s a little less risky. There are more ways to make a living as a writer, other than being that rock-star writer. You can be a journalist, you can do business writing, and your ability to put sentences together is going to make you more successful than the other people in your law school class, for instance. But at the same time, the ceiling is also lower. No writer is going to be as famous as someone on How I Met Your Mother, or whatever.
AVC: That’s depressing. What about the writers who say, “I do this because I can’t do anything else”?
CK: Okay, you have to be wary of anyone who says that when they’re asked, “Why do you write?” In all likelihood, they’re probably going to be fucking terrible writers. If you can’t do anything else, if that’s the only thing you can do, you probably don’t have a lot to offer other people, you know? [Laughs.] I think that’s so untrue. A lot of times, you’ll see an extremely acclaimed writer say that, and then you read the rest of the interview, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re an incredibly smart person. There are probably other things they could have done—if nothing else, they could have just gone into radio and talked the way they give interviews. So when people say that, I just assume they’re lying. Now when I read interviews, I spend the whole time going through every line trying to figure out how much I think each sentence is untrue.
AVC: Is that because you’re doing more interviews now, or because you’ve conducted so many that you’re jaded?
CK: When my books first came out and I would be interviewed, I think I was unconscious about how much I was constructing my answers. But when I would go back and read them, I realized I was almost anticipating what the expectation for the answer was, you know? And at first, I thought that was just me, but the more I’ve listened to people be interviewed and met people who have been interviewed elsewhere and can compare who they are with what they’ve said, I’ve just grown more and more skeptical about what a lot of people say when talking about themselves, because it’s a very weird thing.
When people interview you, they’re already into what you’re doing, and all that can be accomplished by talking to you is that they can change their preexisting perception. They could go from thinking something is good to thinking that something is great, but, more likely, they’ll go from thinking that something they thought was good is now fake. I always thought Bob Dylan was really good about that. I mean, he wrote a book about his life, and he still doesn’t really talk about what his songs are supposed to mean. He’s just savvier than other people.
AVC: You’ve started to become a highly quoted author in terms of Internet “quote sites.” How does that feel?
CK: Okay, like, you can watch a really great movie, and you can appreciate the writing in it. And yet it’s pretty rare that a movie is as quotable as Caddyshack or Stripes. Or the most quotable movie of all time—at least in my experience of being around drunk guys—is Monty Python And The Holy Grail. There’s a point where I can no longer enjoy Monty Python And The Holy Grail as a movie, because I’ve heard people quote lines from it. I mean, it’s a little different with books—I can’t imagine people are quoting my books so much that it’s affected how people are reading the books. But you know, a lot of how things have worked out is very weird to me, but I’m happy about all of it.
AVC: Craig Finn is working on a movie adaptation of your book Fargo Rock City. He’s also appearing with you on Wits. Are you guys friends?
CK: I liked his band a lot before, I think, he knew who I was. When I worked at Spin, [The Hold Steady] played a show at the Mercury Lounge, and we had just heard the first record in the office. And, as you might expect, the kind of guy who works at Spin is pretty predisposed to like The Hold Steady. Our whole office was really nuts about this band, and a lot of the Minneapolis people at the magazine had listened to Lifter Puller, so they had been following Craig before. So we went to the show, and it was really fun, and then we both happened to just go to the same bars. And we went to the bars ... very often. [Laughs.] So I would see him at bars all the time.
And, okay, the thing that Craig does better than anything else is getting back—in a vivid, visceral way—how something from the past felt. He’s extremely good at creating the details around nostalgia. I think he read Fargo Rock City and wanted to make a movie about the past of rock culture, and maybe he was more interested in that story than he was about writing about the hardcore scene he was into, or whatever—maybe he thought [hair metal] would be funnier. But he asked me if he could turn my book into a movie and, of course, I immediately said yes.
AVC: Do you ever find it difficult to straddle the gap between writing fiction and nonfiction?
CK: Boring answer, but no. I used to often be asked how I was able to sort of change mind spaces, or whatever. But to me, I just write the way I want to read a piece, the way I’d want it to be read. When I’m writing fiction now, I’m very concerned about the details being super real, like I want it to seem like journalism. And when I write journalism, I want it to seem a little bit more like fiction, in the sense that I want the experience of reading it to be as important as whatever information is contained in the story. So I actually think it makes both things better. I mean, I’m not necessarily saying that it makes the work better; maybe it makes it worse, I have no idea. But from the perspective of the writer, it makes it easier, I think.
AVC: People like to put writers on a pedestal, as if being able to write about sports and music is somehow more magical than being able to talk about sports and music.
CK: Yeah, and that pedestal is fake. In the same way we talk to rock stars as compared to rock musicians. Like, when we talk to David Bowie, it’s different [than] when we talk to Mick Ronson. And not because they’re different people, or because one is arguably more creative or more musical, it’s just that when we inject this idea of what rock stars are supposed to be like. When I wrote Downtown Owl, at first people asked me, “Why are you switching from nonfiction to fiction?” And it was just so obvious to me that if I’d written Downtown Owl first, they would have asked me the same question the other way. People just have to ask questions. It just seems like kind of an obvious question to ask.
AVC: Your book Fargo Rock City was blurbed by both Stephen King and Sebastian Bach. Which of those was more thrilling to read?
CK: Well do you want the real answer, or the funny answer?
CK: The real answer is getting the blurb from Stephen King was much more meaningful, because it happened before the book even came out. So, from a purely commercial standpoint, it raised people’s awareness about the book. The Sebastian Bach thing was more satisfying in a way, because when I wrote that book about metal, I did not picture anyone I wrote about reading it. In fact, it’s probably good that I didn’t—I wonder if I would have written it differently. So, when Sebastian Bach liked the book, it made me think, “Well, it must be fair.” I mean, I’m making jokes about him, I’m making jokes about people he’s certainly friends with—so I guess that was satisfying.
But, you know, blurbing is the fakest thing in the world. And the irony is that the only people who care about blurbs are the people in the publishing industry who are most aware of its fakeness.
AVC: Let’s get real for a second. What are your thoughts on Minnesota sports teams right now?
CK on the Vikings: I grew up hating the Vikings. My family are all Packers fans, and I was always surrounded by Vikings fans, and I was always the kind of guy who hated the home team. I just always was; I guess I’m just a jerk. [Laughs.] But the idea that the Vikings could end up leaving Minnesota, I think that would be a real loss to the experience of being in the Upper Midwest. Especially since it’s been decades since the Gophers were any good, and football is the dominant sport in America, it would be very weird if the Vikings weren’t there.
CK on the Twins: Twins—it’s odd, because for the longest time, the Twins, with this extremely small payroll playing in this big balloon, always managed to be competitive, even though there was no chance that they could keep their good players. They just seemed like these scrappy, over-achieving, throwback dudes, and it was very easy to like them. And then they built this stadium, and they signed [Joe] Mauer. So it sort of seems to me like maybe something has changed now. Like, now that they have this great park, and they were able to keep this hometown guy who’s probably the best player since [Kirby] Puckett, somehow it almost feels like things have slightly regressed. I guess the expectation is higher now, and maybe that’s what it is. So, it seems like something is strange there.
CK on the Timberwolves: I was fascinated by this. All winter, I was talking to my friends there in Minneapolis and Rochester and Fargo, and all these people are bizarrely enthusiastic about a team that seems terrible. I mean—let me change that. They were bizarrely enthusiastic about a team that is terrible. But there are all these aspects of it that are really likeable, like Kevin Love, Darko [Milicic] didn’t seem that terrible, and [Michael] Beasley could fill it up some nights, and what if [Ricky] Rubio does come here ... And it’s just like the Timberwolves are so terrible now that people get excited about anything positive that happens around them.
AVC: Do you still feel tuned into the teams of the Great Plains, or are you humoring us?
CK: With a lot of my male friends who are still in the Midwest, sports are the principal thing we talk about.
Chuck Klosterman and Craig Finn are appearing on Wits Friday, April 15 at the Fitzgerald Theater. Tickets are $32 (MPR nonmembers), $30 (members), or $100 (series package).