A Fireside Chat with Brad Mehldau
AAJ: How formidable is it to try to give a standard or an indie rock song its own identity?
BM: The song has an identity already. The nature of its identity is what determines whether it's a good vehicle to interpret and improvise on. What sort of form does it have? Simple is usually better. What sort of harmonic movement? Is the harmony quirky - too quirky or idiosyncratic to the original version maybe? What is the melody like on a piano for me? It may be beautiful, but almost unplayable on piano. That happens with a lot of rock tunes.
AAJ: "Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods."
BM: It has to do with my understanding of life and the redemptive power of something like music, which is probably a mix of Freud, Harold Bloom, and a little Gnosticism thrown in. You have these early experiences in life that are intensely pleasurable, followed by this disconnection from that pleasure. What leaves a mark on you, what seeps into your memory forever, is the pain that comes from the disconnection from that pleasure, I think, more than the actual pleasure itself. Pleasure depends on its temporal, fleeting quality for its existence; it can only be defined in opposition to the inevitability of its lack, which is felt as pain. So you try to make sense of that pain because you're always confronting it. You develop a love for the pain out of necessity. Romantic works are informed by that troubled love, but you can probably see why I've moved away from using "romantic" to describe that pheonomenon because this description could work for anything from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Shakespeare's Hamlet, or even something like the blues. In any case, those kinds of works don't give us a representation of the prelapsarian, untroubled pleasure before the first disconnection. They show us the moment when the "glass shattered." There's a nostalgia implied there, because they're perpetually trying to capture the first time the glass shattered in our early memories, and that early experience takes on an emblematic, legendary quality, seen through rose colored glasses. There is a folly in that, because we are willfully engaging in a misperception of something painful. So there's a quality of irony if all that gets played out in an artwork, where one can be aware of that self-deception and simultaneously engage in self-deceit anyways.
AAJ: What helps you sleep well at night?
BM: I have my own bullshit meter which is always on and operates independently of outside successes. If I have a good gig, I sleep well at night. If I have a less good gig, I sleep less well. I'm a little better at rolling with the peaks and valleys than I was a few years ago, but I definitely don't have some Olympian calm about my status as a musician. I want to continue to grow, and I am driven by a fear that I will stop growing; it's that simple. Freud was right - it's the fear of death that keeps us running around the hamster wheel. I'm okay with that actually in a creative sense. It doesn't strike me as morbid; it's just the way it works, for me at least.
AAJ: Fear of standing on success. That yearning to push your own envelope can get cumbersome.
BM: The yearning does get cumbersome; that's an astute question, because you're pointing out a by-product of the process of growth. You're pushing yourself so as to ward of a creeping banality - the banality of the expected, the safe, the tried and tested, the pedestrian. And then the process of pushing, indeed, can suddenly become banal. What do you do? Keep pushing; push through that. Or, change your musical surroundings radically. I've done that a few times over the years.
AAJ: Having left the bright lights, big city, do you miss Hollywood?
BM: I have nostalgia for Hollywood, my old neighborhood around Franklin Avenue, and miss the scene there, miss the regular Friday nights at Largo to see Jon Brion, miss some friends. But I get back there a few times a year, fortunately. Los Angeles is, quite simply, one of the weirdest places on earth and will always be so for me. I wouldn't change it one bit. I love the freaks, the wannabees, the creative misfits, the car-culture, the rock 'n' roll, the slight feeling of danger at all times.
AAJ: Has family life changed you?
BM: As an artist it's hard to say how being married and having a child has changed me - too early to tell. As a man, I've definitely matured from the experience, and I'm grateful for that.
AAJ: When we last spoke, I remarked on how elitist the jazz guard had become and you referred to jazz's need to inbred and keep away from everything else. Since, you've torn down some of those preconceived borders. There is a satisfaction that comes with knowing you are bringing a new audience.
BM:Yes, that's satisfying.
AAJ: What is it about you or your music that makes sense to Gen X?
BM: It's hard to say. I think any vital music should be able to reach people of all ages. It's very gratifying, though, to see people my age and younger at our shows.