Random Rules: Steve Poltz

Random Rules: Steve Poltz

The shuffler: Canadian singer-songwriter and frequent Jewel collaborator Steve Poltz. He continues to tour incessantly behind this year's story-song-heavy Traveling, and its arguably superior companion disc Unraveling, which is only available at his shows.

Wilco, "Impossible Germany"

Steve Poltz: I like the guitar work by Nels [Cline] on that song. I just saw them in concert recently. They're Chicago boys.

I loved where he says, [Sings.] "If you feel like singin' / Don't let anybody say it's wrong." That kind of Woody Guthrie-esque anthem, "What Light." I love that song. I love the first song, so I'm pretty happy with [Sky Blue Sky]. I don't like it as much as I like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That was my favorite.

The A.V. Club: Did you see the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart?

SP: Yes. I wasn't into it. It's really weird. I know it was well-done and everything, but it just got to be too much, seeing people bitch at each other, and I did that with [my previous band] The Rugburns, so I was like, "Yeah, right! I don't need to see this!" [Laughs.] It was well-done. And I didn't like [Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There] either. That frustrated me. And I know I was supposed to like that, too.

AVC: You were supposed to?

SP: According to all my friends, because they know I like all things Dylan.

Elliott Smith, "See You Later"

SP: It's off New Moon—it was released after he died, and it's a lot of acoustic stuff. I think it's an all-right album—it's got a really neat cover of a Big Star song.

AVC: "Thirteen."

SP: Yeah. But it's not as good as From A Basement On A Hill. I love that record. It was a great swan-song record. But I enjoy this record, because it's all acoustic and nice.

About a month ago, somebody at a show gave me [photographer Autumn de Wilde's book Elliott Smith], and I love it. I love that CD that's in there, with a version of him doing "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down." I've always loved that song, because Hank Williams, Jr. cracks me up, because he's such a fuck-up. [Laughs.] And I loved [Hank Williams] too. I love it that Elliott covers that song and starts laughing in the middle of it, because it shows this side of Elliott that people didn't know. We listen to his records and he seems so depressed all the time, but I think he's actually kind of funny and goofy. So I liked hearing that song.

Neil Young, "It's A Dream"

SP: There are beautiful falsettos in here, and great guitar work. The thing I like about [Prairie Wind] is the urgency of it, because he was going into the hospital [before being operated on for an aneurysm] around then. I watched him speak—he was the keynote speaker at South By Southwest, and he was talking about Prairie Wind, and for me, it was like going to the Sermon On The Mount or something. Everything he was saying, I was hanging on every word. And I loved his crankiness.

He was my friend's best man at his wedding. I have this friend, Gary Burden, who designed every Neil Young album cover. We'd go listen to all these classic-rock albums together, like Crosby Stills & Nash, The Doors, Morrison Hotel, Jackson Browne, Saturate Before Using, every Neil Young record. So Gary's probably 75 years old, and I got to meet Neil at the wedding. I know he liked this CD of mine called The Answering Machine. It was 56 songs, they were all 45 seconds. When I was going home, I would make up a song every day. A friend of mine taped them, and I didn't know he taped them, and somehow Neil got hold of them, and I wanted to go up and talk to him, and rather than bring that up, I freaked when he was standing next to me, because he was Neil Young. I could have said like "Hey, I like the work you've done," or "Tell me about Lionel trains," but instead I just go, "Wow, these quesadillas are great. They taste real homemade-y." I've never used the word homemade-y before, and I don't know why I said it, but that was my only brush with him.

The Beatles, "Mother Nature's Son"

SP: I didn't get to see [Across The Universe]. I just finally saw Juno; I'm always on the road. I just saw Juno in my hotel room, and I loved it. I've gotta see Across The Universe, because all my friends say I'm gonna love it. I don't think I'm gonna, because I don't think I'm gonna like somebody meddling with their songs.

The Rolling Stones, "Let It Loose"

SP: This is from the Departed soundtrack.

AVC: Did you see that movie?

SP: Yeah, I wasn't that into the movie. By the end, I was like, "Come on! How many more people are gonna get shot?" It seemed like a Saturday Night Live skit, and I just started laughing. All my friends, once again, were angry with me, saying, "Don't you know how good that movie was?" I didn't think it was that good. But I loved the soundtrack.

The reason I bought the soundtrack was because I was so into The Sopranos, and there's this scene when Christopher dies, and then he goes, [Affects New York accent.] "Yo, Tony, have you heard the fuckin' soundtrack from The Departed? Check this out." And he plays Van Morrison singing "Comfortably Numb," and it's fucking awesome! And that scene has so much tension as the SUV he's in rolls up, and he says, "Tony, you gotta tell them you were driving," and Tony just looks at him in disgust and covers his nose. It's one of the most beautiful scenes. I immediately went out and bought the soundtrack for The Departed, not because of The Departed, but because of that scene. I'm sorry, I get really excited about this.

Bob Dylan, "With God On Our Side"

SP: That's the song where he goes down all of history about all the wars we've fought. He talks about how we fought all these wars, but we were right because we had God on our side. Brilliant song from a great songwriter at the top of his powers when that CD came out. He had been playing Monterey [Pop Festival], film festivals, Joan Baez, he was screwin' her, and he was the hit of Monterey, and he was about to go electric.

I love his voice, and it's the same reason I love Frank Sinatra's singing: They're like stage actors. When they sing, the words they sing become the shape of what they're saying. When Frank Sinatra sings "Send In The Clowns," I think it's beautiful. And with Dylan, the way he mopes, nobody does Dylan better than Dylan. And the words themselves, and the disdain he has when he says "With God on our side," underlines a sarcasm that's in that whole line. The disgust. And his breakup songs make us feel the pain.

AVC: Dylan was on the last episode of The Sopranos.

SP: How good was that, when Tony jumped in the car with that girl and said, "Hey, this guy's pretty good!"? I think David Chase is brilliant. The way he ended the whole show. That guy, he's like Dylan.

AVC: Somewhere on the Internet, message boards are still trying to sort out that Sopranos ending.

SP: Oh, there are. I'd go on them to read what other people say. I never registered, but I wanted to know what people were saying. I never did about myself, only about shows I was watching. Have you ever seen that TV show Monk? The only time I ever spent watching Monk was during some weekend—Labor Day weekend or something, and there was a marathon, and I got so hooked on it for the entire weekend. I ended up going into chat rooms about it. My girlfriend was like, "What the fuck is wrong with you, man?" And I'd go [Affects dejected, high-pitched voice.] "I can't help it, honey." But I have so many stupid theories. I won't shop at Trader Joe's. I think it's a conspiracy. It's expired food that's really bad for you, put into new packages to look cool.

AVC: What are some of your other theories?

SP: I can't sit on a chair for five minutes after someone else has gotten up from it, because I'm afraid the stuff up in their butt crack soaked through their pants and will crawl up my pants and into my asshole and get in my body. I'm convinced of it, and I can see it happening. So it's really a drag if I'm at someone's house and they want to switch chairs. I start going into a panic attack, and I try and act like I've got a phone call until the chair has cooled down. I'm sort of germ-phobic. That's not too weird, though.

AVC: Well, not compared to Monk.

SP: Yeah. That guy's weird.