In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Patrick Kindlon’s influences aren’t particularly straightforward. With countless active projects, including being the lead singer for both Self Defense Family and Drug Church, author of the comic books Twelve Reasons To Die and We Can Never Go Home, and host of podcasts Self Obsessed and Comp Lit, his influences are often obscure. Whether he’s writing a record about the pre-porn life of adult actress Jeanna Fine with Self Defense Family, or hosting Comp Lit comparing the similarities between Entourage and Girls, Kindlon has an eye for minutiae. With the release of Self Defense Family’s Superior EP last week, The A.V. Club asked Kindlon about the stories behind three different Self Defense Family songs, including Superior’s opening track, “In Those Dark Satanic Mills.”
The A.V. Club: The press materials for this record describe it as a dark bummer of a record. What was the mindset going into it? And what made you decide to base it around the proposed 51st state of Superior?
Patrick Kindlon: To start, I’m going to just sound like a pretentious a-hole talking about any of this stuff. Any time you talk about your influences there’s no way to not sound like an a-hole. So I’m just going to lean in, you know what I mean?
Anyway, I’d been dating a woman and it was 100 percent doomed from the get-go, but you do your very best not to perseverate on that part. You try to forestall the inevitable. That was probably the first record that we wrote after that relationship had fully dissolved and I had a minute to think about it and contextualize it. As a result, the songs are all kind of about that foolish expectation that things can work because you’re life is so good and they couldn’t possibly fail. It seems to be a thing that everybody talks about how doomed they are and how negative things are and I’m really not like that by nature. I assume everything will be awesome. You try your best to put the doom part out of your head but it is actually inevitable. So this is the post-that record and I think it reflects that a great deal. Just like everybody else, it can be hard to sing about yourself because it feels like you’re rolling around in your own poo, so this record was me trying to find something that spoke to [the idea of being] doomed from the start but with good intentions and high expectations.
AVC: So the failed state became a good metaphor for this failed relationship.
PK: I like these proposed states. I think that certain people go into it with this sort of zeal, while most people probably understand that it’s doomed, that it can’t happen. But I like the idea that some of these things really just come from people who are too dumb to know better. They’re just people who want a thing not because it’s in their best interest but because it’s a thing they want. That’s how I could best describe my last romance: Not in either one of our best interests on any level, but a thing that we really wanted. So you enter it with high expectations and hopes. But unless you’re foolish, you must understand that you are doomed.
AVC: This Wikipedia page is interesting because it’s really brief, but it seems like every 50 years someone picks up the cause of statehood and then it dies again.
PK: That Wikipedia [page] doesn’t deal with many people by name, it just deals with the idea, and when you’re dealing with just ideas you have a habit of creating your own narratives. In my little fantasy that I concocted for this, I thought about a young person in love with this idea [of Superior as a state]. The idea of self-determination, of being your own state, is obviously kind of foolish outside of 1700 or something. I forget what year that stopped being a valid conversation, but certainly 100 years before I was born. It’s interesting to me that in all of those attempts to propose this state in a real way there might have been a staunch 19-year-old who felt really strongly about that idea for whatever reason; they just sort of got married to it.
It is interesting to think that sometimes there is the last deluded human being, the last guy who cares about that particular matter. Eventually, every issue has that last guy. You have to imagine that somebody went to their grave really hoping that it would happen.
AVC: It’s basically ignoring the inevitable and remaining hopeful until the end.
PK: This ties a little bit to election cycles and how deeply disappointed people become, how despondent they get, when their candidate loses. It’s almost as if they never prepared for the possibility of that. I understand, because you poison a thing if you go into it with the assumption that it’ll fail, so I understand why you resist that. It’s just fascinating that we have such a capacity to not understand that it’s fucked from the word “go.” That it’s just not going to work. All our romances are going to end because certainly someone will eventually die, but you’re not thinking about that part of it all.
Influence: Stan Lee’s open letter to Steve Ditko claiming that Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man
AVC: As someone who works in both music and comics, is the idea of your intellectual property being violated ever a concern?
PK: I have a very different perspective. I should be clear, this doesn’t mean I invite anybody to rip me off. While I’m a huge advocate for enforced public domain laws and limits, I do think that within the creator’s lifetime, intellectual property should be sacrosanct. It should belong to that person wholly. Granted, I never created Spider-Man, which may alter my worldview.
I think that situation is really interesting though, the Ditko-Lee situation. Now that he’s too old to defend himself, it’s become in vogue in comics to shit on Stan Lee. It’s become a thing to paint him as a crook of some sort. But from people who were there—who I think have more of a right to talk on this subject than people who were born after 1980—that’s not the case. It’s a little bit muddier than all that. What makes it interesting is that there is no mud for Steve Ditko. He’s an objectivist, and the last 30 years of his work have been kind of an examination of these objectivist principles. His skills are no longer in line with what the industry demands anyway, but even when he was hirable, he would not take work that showed grays, that showed moral ambiguities, because he doesn’t strictly believe that heroes should have them. His characters, like Mr. A, are purely objectivist heroes. There is no gray; it is simply wrong or right.
The Stan Lee letter was a rare compromise on his part. He got on the phone with Ditko and Ditko said, “I believe I’m the co-creator of Spider-Man” and Stan disagreed. But they talked about it and Stan said, “It was obviously important to this man, and it doesn’t really take anything from me, so I’ll start telling people that you’re the co-creator.” And Steve said, “No, that’s not enough.” Then Stan writes a letter believing that he’s gotten this monkey off his back, because people speculated for years as to why Ditko walked off Spider-Man. It was a matter of much speculation, because Ditko doesn’t give interviews and people only ever half-believe Stan. So Stan does this thing and then because of the language, which, if you read the letter, it says, “I have always considered Steve Ditko to be the co-creator of Spider-Man.” And Ditko does not acknowledge the validity of the letter because it uses the word “considered.” Which he considers an improper modifier, that it gives Stan the power to say that it is not objectively true. Steve being an objectivist believes fully that he is the co-creator no matter what the fuck Stan believes, and for Stan to make his belief that Steve is the co-creator the central part of the argument, it is deeply offensive to Steve. And then Stan goes on record as saying, “I knew at this point I couldn’t do anything for this guy.” And it’s true. You can’t satisfy a man like that. It’s impossible.
AVC: So he finally gets what he wants, but it’s still not good enough.
PK: That song is really about the idea that you could own an idea. My professional comics career involves pitching dozens of things that die; that are never used. In a week, I might have two ideas that I think are pitch-able ideas or I might have 20. Now, eventually that well may run dry, but I don’t really worry about the well running dry. So if something walks away on me I’d treat it like a wife walking away. I’ve seen people fight to the death over their divorce settlements; I see people get insane and cruel and vindictive. You never know until you’re in that position, but my hope is that—and I don’t think I’ll marry—if my wife steps out on me and leaves, in my dreams I like to think that she can have the house; I like to think that she can take half the money. Because realistically, to a degree, I was making it for you anyway. What the fuck do I need it for? I’d like to think that’s how it’d go, but you never know until you create a character that’s generated a billion dollars in revenue. So it’s difficult to say how I would handle it.
Influence: Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go
AVC: Of the three songs you picked, this one has a distinctly different vibe. It’s the most traditional rock song of the three, and features a lot of lyrical repetitions.
PK: This one is the most squarely reference-heavy. Where the other two songs we talked about are directly inspired by certain things they don’t directly rip off certain things. This steals lines like it’s nobody’s business. It directly takes the Gospel Of John 3:30. The line is, depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, “For you must increase and I must decrease.” Which is the ugliest line. It summarizes why someone might hate religion. For people who are religious, there is a beauty in subjecting yourself to God’s will, because you believe in a God and it makes sense. If there’s a being that’s omniscient you’ll submit to that being’s will. But if you do not believe in a God, this is one of those lines that goes past gibberish and into deep offense. If you believe in your will being a value then this is the sort of thing where you might feel threatened or, at least, you feel pity for those that would subscribe to this.
That’s where it ties into the novel that’s been the inspiration for most of my music career, the Philip José Farmer book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which is ludicrous science fiction. It is the sort of science fiction that gets you weird looks if you’re reading it on the train. One could almost call it silly. But underneath all that is a very relatable, very clear through-line of one man not willing to do what is being pushed upon him.
AVC: So both the book and song are about rejecting a higher power?
PK: Basically, everybody wakes up on the side of a river, everybody who has ever lived, and the first few days are chaos. But then eventually societies form and people start living as if this is the new normal. But one guy, the explorer Richard Francis Burton, woke up during the process of being transported there. And he spends the rest of this series of novels trying to reach the head waters of the river. If there is ever a simpler metaphor I don’t know what it is. The entire series, that is his purpose, to the degree that he dies multiple times on his quest. There is one portion of it where the aliens who have essentially imprisoned humanity tire of this. They approach him and say, “Listen, you want to be the enlightened guy? Here’s the truth: This is all a test, but you can reach collective consciousness. You join this greater mind.” And he says, “Well, so what? I cease to exist?” And they go, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter because you’re in the new collective consciousness that is actual bliss.” And he basically goes, “Fuck collective consciousness. No.”
I am essentially a 14-year-old boy at my core. I’m now like an actual adult and the other day I said, “When I’m an adult,” and somebody looked at me like I was an insane person because I’ve been an adult for like 15 years. I’m happy to say that my career is going well and all that bullshit that makes people think you’re an adult, and the fact that things are going well shields me slightly from the reality that I’m a 14-year-old. And the 14-year-old in me, it resonates so strongly when this character is offered a blissful groupthink and he rejects collective consciousness. That moment where the lead is offered an easy way out, and a chance at chilling the fuck out, and he just says, “I’m never going to chill the fuck out.” For someone like me, who is essentially a defiant teenager that is highly resonant material. Don’t get me wrong, you need the fully compromised people to keep the world turning, but it doesn’t mean you have to be that person.