Charles Douglass story is an elusive one, pieced together from different tidbits. Douglas spent time at Brown University before he dropped out as a result of alcohol and drug addiction. A stay in an institution followed where he recuperated from a nervous breakdown and went through rehab. Soon after his release, he reentered society as a Burger King employee.
During this odyssey, Douglas was also making music. As one-half of Vegetarian Meat, he released an album and then recorded two solo albums, Minor Wave and The Burdens of Genius, in the mid-90s. In 1999, The Lives of Charles Douglas was released. Produced by Moe Tucker and featuring the former Velvet Underground percussionist on drums, Lives was a lesson in straightforward minimalist rock and rollfull of songs with quirky lyrics and catchy hooksand one of that years best records.
No. 6 Records recently reissued Douglass first two solo albums as a single disc titled 31 Flavors. Recorded on eight-track, all thirty-one songs were written, arranged, and performed by Douglas. As a result, 31 Flavors comes across as the product of a singular but fractured mind. At turns idiosyncratic, serious, and funny, these songs range from a tribute to Prince (Douglass hero, as youll see), to a tale of a drug-addled survivor surrounded by primates on "Monkey Island," to a hate letter to a former boss, "Henry Lee." I recently had a chance to speak via e-mail with the artist responsible for these creations.
Gadfly: How did you decide on life as a musician?
Charles Douglas: I was always pretty into music. When I was 14, I started a band called Vegetarian Meat with some friends in Dayton. Kim Deal even came to see us play once (she also lived in Dayton back then). We were pretty bad but in a comical way, I guess. No.6 Records actually put out a couple 7" singles and an album in the early 90s. It was so much fun, I just kind of stuck with it and got really addicted. I was also really into the whole pre-Nirvana indie scene, so it was a good time to be making noisy strange music.
At some point, when you were at Brown University or working at Burger King, did you see yourself doing something else?
Yes, those are two of the more interesting parts of my life. I actually did end up graduating from Brown, although it took longer than it was supposed to. And yes, for a while I actually did work at Burger King. It was both really funny and really depressingI was certainly aware of how bizarre and pathetic it was at the time. I did meet all kinds of interesting people there, though. All kinds of weirdos. The boss was about 18, which was funny considering I was in my early 20s. I was pretty hopeful that I wouldnt have to end up working at Burger King for my whole life. I did steal a big box of Burger King crowns before I left, which I used to wear when I played live.
Your bio mentions a struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, and you were actually hospitalized after a nervous breakdown. How much of 31 Flavors reflects this struggle or is a result of it?
Yeah, I figured there was no point in trying to hide the whole drugs and alcohol thing. I definitely went way off the deep end for a bit (not that it wasnt fun in a sick kinda way). My time in the hospital was actually related to coming off drugsand there was a long stay in rehab too. I think what happened was that early-20s experimentation with drugs just went too far. Most of my friends back then were also heavily involved in drugs. There wasnt a whole lot to do except get high and make music.
I think 31 Flavors really exemplifies my drug-addled lifestyle. The Minor Wave part was me high, trying to make a really catchy, slick pop album on my eight-track (an impossible task probably). The Burdens portion was just me in a pretty crazy state, trying to document my madness. I barely remember recording some of the songs on it"Suicide Note," for example, just kind of appeared.
Did alcohol/drugs have a positive or negative influence on your music? How do you write songs differently without them?
I think drugs and alcohol at first had a positive effect in terms of freeing my mind to explore all kinds of things. However, pretty quickly they began to sabotage the musicyou might be able to hear a decline in sound quality/vocals/playing from Minor Wave to Burdens (although the songs get more interesting). I rarely drink now and dont do any drugs stronger than occasionally smoking a joint. I was completely sober for The Lives recordmaybe it was a tad too straight ahead (more on that later). But the new stuff Im doing now is very strangekind of like a bigger studio version of the 31 Flavors stuff. I think in the long run drugs and alcohol probably dont matter much if the songs are there; I mean, Prince apparently doesnt drink or do drugs and his stuff was fantastic for years.
Do you see any parallels between the music of someone like Daniel Johnston and yourself?
Yeah, theres definitely some parallels, especially with the Burdens half of 31 Flavors. However, I think there are two important differencesfirst, Daniel is genuinely mentally ill whereas I think in my case drugs were the contributing factor. Second, I think Im trying for a bigger scope now than he was/is. My favorite songs of Daniels are the stripped-down acoustic ones, not the ones with the whole bandI havent really liked the last couple that much (although I guess I do really like Artistic Vice, and thats him with a band, I guess). I do love his music though, and Im sure some of the Burdens part is reminiscent of his more out-there musings.
You thank Harmony Korine inside the CD. What is your connection to him?
I admire his film Gummo a lot, and I think his Dogma film Julien Donkey Boy is pretty interesting too. His films inspired me to make my own film called The Sparkle Room (its just been certified officially by Nimbus Films/the Dogma collective in Denmark as Dogma #26). Most people are horrified by it when they see it, but then theres like one percent who love it! Filming it was just insane but fun. My friend Manish Kalvakota (he plays on 31 Flavs and the Lives record and has done 3 solo records) put up the money. His grandfather was the Prime Minister of India in the early 1990s, so he is rich and dabbles in film production both here and in India. If you can imagine a film that looks how 31 Flavors sounds, then youll have a pretty good idea of what its like!
Beginning with Minor Wave and moving through The Burdens of Genius and then The Lives of Charles Douglas, you seem to have been making a natural progression towards more straightforward rock and roll. Whats taking you this way?
Well, the new stuff Ive been doing is a little stranger again. I think because The Lives of Charles Douglas was recorded so quickly, and because a lot of the tracks were cut pretty much live in the studio, it was both more "rockin" and straight-ahead too. I guess it was also a batch of songs that maybe were more traditional musically and lyrically than some of the 31 Flavors stuff. It was a lot of fun to record, thats for sure, and its great in a Velvets/Ramones/Beat Happening kinda way.
Minor Wave and The Burdens of Genius seem to fit together like thisalmost like a double album. To me, if your last album was called The Lives of Charles Douglas, 31 Flavors could almost be called The Mind of Charles Douglas. Would you agree?
Hey, thats actually a great title. Yeah, I think the stuff on 31 Flavors is probably more personal and bizarre, just because a lot of it was performed and produced by me alone. I guess its very excessive in a waylike one hundred percent of my madness shines through. I always like things like that, e.g. Princes records, David Lynchs films, etc. I think 31 Flavs gives an accurate series of snapshots of my mental state at that time.
The Lives of Charles Douglas was really one of my favorite albums for a while. Was there a conscientious decision to make it bigger in scope than your previous efforts? How were you able to get Moe Tucker involved?
It was the first record I ever made in a real studio, as opposed to 31 Flavs being all home four and eight-track recordings. I think better sound quality, etc. and Moes drumming made it sound much "bigger." Moe got involved because I sent her a letter in 95 and a copy of Vegetarian Meats album, which she liked. We kept sending things back and forth, and then finally in 97 I asked if shed like to produce The Lives record and she said "yes." Then she also volunteered to play drums because I didnt have a drummer, which I thought was really cool (she is my fave drummer ever, pretty much). Moe is really cool; she had a lot of great stories about Lou and John Cale, too. Shes still very close friends with Lou, in fact.
The Lives was very reminiscent of the Velvet Underground at times. Was that a conscientious decision or a natural result of having Moe Tucker involved? Who are other influences, inspirations? Are you inspired by other art forms?
I love Moe Tucker. She is the greatestand her drumming is just perfect. Working with her was a blast, and maybe in the future well do something together again. I think her drum sound definitely made the record sound kind of "Velvety," which was what I wanted (I love the Velvets, of course).
Some other artists I really love are Prince, The Pixies, and The Shaggs. I listen to tons of 60s stuff, of courselots of Syd Barrett always. I love Bjork, too. I also want to mention an "artist" I hate because I think its funny. I really dont like that guy Ryan Adams very much. His music is lame and sucky and very boring. I think hes a big poser. Hes "the next big thing" or something. Have you heard his record? Its not that great, really. Hes annoying, too.
How do you write songs?
Well, most of them are personal, I guess, although sometimes its an experience or incident that gets reconfigured slightly. Others are just more randomfor some songs, the lyrics come really quickly and easily, and for others its more effort. On 31 Flavors my favorite song is "Monkey Island"which really isnt about anything personal. Its about a plane that crashes and strands a guy on Monkey Island, and then the monkeys pet and stroke him and feel him up. Hes on drugs, I think. Maybe there are no monkeys. The song "The Rabbit Never Gets the Carrot" is pretty good, too. I was trying to write a "folk song." I listen to Prince a lot, too. I love Prince!
Is "Henry Lee" a real person?
Yes, although I changed his name. He was a boss I had for a while, a pretty shady character. He was a real weirdojust the worst guy in the world to work for. Everyone hated him and made fun of him when he wasnt there. He ran over his girlfriends dog by "accident" apparently.
Do you prefer working alone or with others?
I love Prince. I own every single record hes ever done (yes, including ones like Emancipation). I probably listen to his music at least every other day. From the late 70s up to the late 80s he was really pretty fantastic. I wrote that song "Prince" on Burdens in tribute to the great man.
Anyway, I love working with people, too. My ideal method of working now is to do all the basic tracks myself (drums, bass, some guitar, scratch vocals, etc.) and then have special guest stars come in and play their parts. It works very efficiently and is lots of fun. I dont like letting the guest "stars" practice though. This freaks them out and makes them upset. I usually find the first few takes are the best, because they are the craziest or most awkward, or something. I dont let them fix takes eitherfirst is best!
Minor Wave is six years old and The Burdens of Genius, four. What do you think of these albums now?
I think they deserve a Grammy for being the best albums in the history of the world!!! Actually, I think if I just heard a song like "Suicide Note" or even the end of "Monkey Island," I would think the "artist" was surely insane. I actually think they hold up really well, and are probably more interesting than the Lives record, if a little stranger and more raw. Moe Tucker told me she met Phil Spector in the 60s and said she loved his records and he said, "Then why didnt you buy the product!!!"
As someone clearly labeled indie, does it ever bother you that despite producing quality music, you are confined to the outer fringes, especially on a commercial level or just on a media level?
First, it's definitely annoying and funny that the records are on the outer fringes. As a friend once pointed out, if they were any more "underground," then they'd be in a coffin! However, there is a lot of freedom that comes with that. I can pretty much do whatever I want musically. Yet, it is frustrating. My guess is that if I continue to make records with really good songs on them eventually some level of recognition will come, even if it's a 30-years-too-late kind of Skip Spence/Shaggs appreciation. I also think that most mainstream music is total garbage, so in some ways I'm glad I'm not even engaged with all of that. Along the way there have been a few major labels who expressed interest in my madness... and Scott Litt was calling for a whilebut then stopped. So anyway, it's annoying the records don't do better, but I'm sure I'll keep making them.
What are you working on now?
Ive recorded 26 basic tracks so far (all in 24-track studios in New York, Chapel Hill, and Philadelphiaso no more lo-fi sound quality!) for the next record. Joey Santiago of the Pixies has agreed to play lead guitar on the New York tracks, which were recorded at both Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers studio and Kurt Ralskes studio again. (But Kurt and I got in a disagreement over certain issues and wont be working together again after this one. The Kurt sessions fell apart. I ran off with the master tapes and took them to Chapel Hill.) Ive also recorded a bunch of stuff in Chapel Hill with Polvo/Superchunk/Kingsbury Manx producer Jerry Leeit sounds pretty fucking cool. Lots of weird sounds and instruments. Ive also done some work in Philadelphia, which is really neat, too. When all the tracks are finished, I guess itll be a really amazing, deranged double album. Im looking forward to working with Joey, because I really love his guitar on Surfer Rosa and the other Pixies records. There are tons of instruments on this new one, toocellos, pedal steel guitar, sitar, sax, etc.its really great. Its like the "big budget" version of what I was trying to do on the eight-track with 31 Flavors.