Amanda Palmer Exclusive “Pulp Fiction” Music Video Debut & Interview With Artist David Mack
The duo discuss the creative process, Patreon, Dashboard Confessional & Palmer's reaction to Neil Gaiman's American GodsArt by David Mack Comics Features Amanda Palmer
Paste has a long history of mixing comics and music, from our creator playlists to the Songs Illustrated series of original comics based on some of our favorite songs, but this might be a first: today we’re thrilled to host the exclusive debut of the music video for “Pulp Fiction” by Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel, directed and stop-motion-animated by acclaimed comic artist David Mack.
Amanda Palmer is of course the multi-talented, multi-discipline musician who releases music under her own name, as part of the Dresden Dolls and with musicians including Ka-Spel, Jherek Bischoff and the Grand Theft Orchestra. She’s the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Art of Asking, a pioneer in the world of crowd-funding art and a prolific user of Patreon, where backers can read an exclusive short-story companion piece to “Pulp Fiction” written by comic writer and novelist Lauren Beukes. Palmer is also married to an obscure author by the name of Neil Gaiman—you might be familiar with some of his works.
David Mack is no stranger to Gaiman himself; in addition to collaborating with writer Brian Michael Bendis on the upcoming creator-owned series Cover, Mack currently provides cover art for Dark Horse Comics’ adaptation of Gaiman’s novel American Gods. Mack, perhaps best known for his original creation Kabuki, has been working in comics since the early ‘90s, bringing his signature collage and painted work to life for nearly every major publisher. He’s done title cards for major live-action Marvel projects and served as a State Department art ambassador around the world. Palmer and Mack first collaborated on the music video for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” over two years ago, and today, to accompany the debut of “Pulp Fiction,” we’ve also got an exhaustive, fly-on-the-wall discussion between the two artists that touches on art, collaboration, context and Palmer’s feelings on American Gods (hint: Neil wasn’t thrilled with her reaction).
Without further ado, check out the world premiere of “Pulp Fiction,” then scroll down for Palmer and Mack’s thoughts on just about everything to do with its making.
David Mack: It’s great to talk to you—it’s been a while.
Amanda Palmer: Hi.
Mack: Hi. [laughs]
Palmer: I just was reading my Twitter feed this morning, and you know that thing that happens when someone’s like, Oh my god my brain is exploding and my life is made because so-and-so and such like each other’s work, or I just found out that my favorite YouTuber likes Amanda Palmer, and this doesn’t happen to me that often, but it happens often enough but I’m like, oh I wonder who that person is. And it occasionally happens to me that it’s like some drag queen that I’ve never heard of who has 8,000,000 Twitter followers or some YouTuber I’ve never heard of. I went down a little link hole and I wound up in this world of YouTube and it’s a land of content that has no content. You know that place? But it also made me feel really old. Our content with no content was like, game shows. We watched The Price Is Right and Press Your Luck and commercials for dishwashing liquid that we didn’t understand. I feel like there’s this whole generation that’s watching a whole other strain of empty content with a different flavor. I don’t know why I’m telling you this right now but I actually feel like our conversation is some kind of cosmic antidote to everything that I just had put into my head.
Mack: I appreciate that. I like the antidote way of looking at things. You know what Amanda, I think I have this weird—I think I’m on the spectrum to some degree or something, and I have this weird ability to kind of edit out a certain amount of reality that I find that’s like an obstacle for me for where my programming is going, so as soon as my feelers feel like this isn’t helping anything, then I think my brain automatically goes, Hey, we’re going to fix this post. We’re going to lose all this later. Just keep going forward.
Palmer: I don’t even know where to start with my brain and what I’m watching it do lately. You know I also just had a child, you know that.
Mack: Yeah, beautiful. I love seeing the photos in the Mermaid Festival. Prince Ash and Neptune.
Palmer: Yeah, he’s really wonderful. It’s really wonderful. But I never watched my brain be more elastic. What’s the word I’m looking for—it’s not so much flexibility. It’s more ability to compartmentalize and randomly prioritize. And like, in parentheses, I’m not saying this is a good thing, but my brain now has this capacity to turn on and off incredibly huge levers in the flick of an eye. And I find myself in one moment engaged in some kind of political action where it’s the most important thing in the world and all of my brain, life, attention, energy is going into this one thing and then in the next moment actually being able to believe an entirely different set of circumstances which is that none of that truly matters, I just need to clean up these toys that are under the bed. Like that stuff doesn’t really exist. For a while it was fun, I did it, I’ll never really change the world. This is the important thing now. And I think that must be an actual piece of rewiring that happens to you as a parent. And watching the knock-on effect on my art is really interesting because if anything, it’s just made me care less in a good way about what I’m making, which is always, in the artistic process, it’s always part of your growth as an artist to able to detach from any self importance of this shit that you are making.
Mack: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. If there’s something that turns the volume down on all that other stuff and you realize like, that’s not the important stuff. Those aren’t the voices I need to be listening to.
Palmer: Yes, at the same time, there’s this danger: the more you get to know the world, and the things happening in it—and I know you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been traveling and seeing parts of the world with things happening in it—it can be so overwhelming and enticing and flattening all at the same time, to realize that there are so many things happening in the world that you cannot affect that you cannot fix, and that what you can do as an artist or an activist, can so barely scratch the surface of these things. It’s almost liberating once you realize how powerless you are. I think it’s the same thing that you learn in parenting, you feel out of control as you try to guide this child and at a certain point you realize you have no effect or control on who this person is going to be. You’re really best off just grabbing a drink and letting things take their course.
Mack: I think it’s kind of like that idea you say where both realities exist simultaneously, right? Because you can feel that way and you can know the truth one minute, and then all of a sudden something can surprise you and someone that you least expect can explain to you what ripple effect you had in their world and their actions which was very important to them and very important to their life. And I imagine as a parent, it might be a similar thing. You might have to say something over and over and over and then all of a sudden I bet Ash will surprise you about something you have ingrained into him.
Palmer: Totally. Yes. There is a diligence to parenting and arting and political acting that is common between all of them. That’s also the thing about getting older is that it becomes more pleasant to be diligent in a way that was just really fucking irritating when you’re in your 20s. And when you’re in your 20s or your teens and all you want is to like, do a thing and then the thing happens. That’s all you’re interested in. [laughs] Anything else is fucking boring. Anything that takes any kind of long-term commitment, anything that doesn’t provide instant gratification and results is just tiresome.
Mack: I think when you’re younger, you’re very goal-oriented, you’re looking for an end result. And I think as you mature you start to embrace a commitment to a process and you’re engaged in the process. And then if you’re lucky, something magical will surprise you at the end of the process, right? And you kind of like to be surprised by something new that happens, rather than the goal itself.
Palmer: I was literally just thinking about that and I want to ask a question. I’m working on a theater project right now, a long-term big theater projects with the Public Theater in New York. And I sat down with my two co-writers and collaborators many times over the past year and the process is incredibly slow and blurry. There’s been many times when I walk away from it and I don’t even know if we’re doing the right project, I can’t really see where we’re going, I’m totally lost. And I found myself thinking yesterday, I’ve heard other people say it and I think I’ve even said it myself but have sort of been lying, and I found myself thinking, probably legitimately for the first time: I don’t actually care what happens. I’m enjoying the process so much that it’s enough for me.
And I talk with Neil about this occasionally because I detested the act of writing a book so much, I don’t think I would go back and do it again. Whereas Neil actually loves a lot of the process of writing. He loves being the human being sitting in the chair with a pen and a book, putting one word after another. That’s his happy place. He actually likes the act of slogging through that process. Where I am much more turned on by the social process of making art. If I can sit around talking with creative people about things we may make someday, I would be happy! Even if we never made anything, as long as we sit around talking what it’d be, and I find that so fascinating because I also think it has a lot to do with the projects I’ve made. I’ve made some 20, 30, 40, 50 projects and some have succeeded and some have failed and some have just been okay and some have just been okay but then resonated with the world in a way you couldn’t have expected.
Then I slowed down and stopped being so paranoid about whether the product as going to be good. And it’s not going to be as important as your first book or your first comic or your first record which is basically your calling card to the world that was going to set the course for everything that will happen. And that’s true. Those first few things you make as an artist are real because they […] set a tone: this is who I am.
Now the question I have for you is about—I just did this podcast and had a great conversation with David Eagleman, and we talked about time and art and speed, and now I’m really fascinated to pick the brains of my artist friends, especially you. What have you learned, in the last 15 years being a professional maker, what have you learned about speed and what it means to try and make something quickly versus deliberately trying to make something over a long period of time and setting deadlines for yourself, or insisting on deadlines for you, and how it affects your creative process. Everyone that I talk to about it has something fascinating to say.
Mack: Well, It’s kind of the nature of what we do that sometimes there’s a built-in timeline and due date so that I just had to embrace that and that, like everything else that you have to navigate in reality in the process of finishing something just becomes part of the DNA of what you’re working on and what it reveals to you that it wants to be. The thing you’re making, the situation that you have to make it in and whatever is coming from you and what you’re kind of conducting through you—kind of like you said about rewiring in your brain, a good friend of mine that I work with also, Brian Bendis, I’ve known him since we were kids, and when he had his first child, he said there was a part in his brain. He didn’t have that part in his brain before. But once the child appeared, it was like a new organ grew in his brain that instinctively knew how to deal with this child, or how to try to, or how to approach it.
In a way, I feel like every project I do, I want to teach me what it wants for me and what it’s really going to become. The process that I enjoy is when something new appears and I feel this set of capabilities wasn’t there before I started this project. So not only did I make a project but I’ve learned a new set of something in the process. Like for instance, the first video I did with you, “Vincent Black Lightning,” we had a small window to do it because I had to wrap up some other obligations before it. And then it was time to do this video, I think I just had like a solid two weeks before it had to go out in the time that you wanted it to go out. And I didn’t really know exactly how to make an animated video of that length or how it was going to be or all the details, but I kind of liked just trusting that no matter what, I’m going to try to cut out everything of the rest of the world, of my life, as I can for the next two weeks, and I’m going to commit and focus to this. And one way or another—we talked about it like, worst-case scenario, we’re going to have some kind of modestly moving drawing.
So sometimes you start by thinking, What’s the worst case? In the next two weeks, this will happen and that will still be cool. Some people will still like that. But I’m going to have an open mind to just make it the best I can and learn the most and put as much into it as I can in that in that process and just dive in. And that there’s kind of like a freedom to that and kind of a looseness. And permission to have a little bit more of a whimsical, playful attitude for it.
Palmer: This is one of the ones that I’m because on Patreon, I’m literally approaching all of art and life differently now that I’m funded, and just accepting how that’s changed me. So I’ve been approaching life and art a lot differently ever since I started Patreon. I started the Patreon when I was six, seven months pregnant, so that was—my brain was getting rewired in every which way. Even just thinking about our project, which is one of the ones that became kind of sticky—and I’ve had a few of those—this one has a great happy ending because I’m really happy with the end result. It’s been a really interesting lesson to me just in terms of, what happens when you have an idea in your head, you take it to a collaborator you know you like and trust, and you give them a certain amount of, whatever, direction, freedom, ingredients, and in the case of our video, I had had something so narrative-dependent—
Mack: In case, you’re speaking of a different video than the one I just spoke about. You’re talking about the newest one.
Palmer: Yeah, in this case I’m talking about “Pulp Fiction,” which is the one we’re about to put out. So I had made this song, I brought you this song. I wanted something that would expand the narrative of the video and instead you brought back something explosively, fantastic visual smorgasbord—non-narrative, basically. And everyone I showed it to was like, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, it’s incredible. And I was grumpy because it was missing a story. It was missing a narrative. And I had sort of been attached to it. My first way to try to fix it was to go to you and say, can you pop a narrative on top of this project. Which didn’t work because that wasn’t the project that you set out to make. And what I find so inspiring about the Patreon is that I then took a couple steps back and said, Okay, what’s your problem, Palmer. Clearly everyone loves this video. You’re just grumpy because it doesn’t have the narrative arc that you were craving. What is it that you really want? What is it that you’re trying to do? What is it you’re trying to share with the audience? Why was that your purpose anyway?
My workaround—I’m so proud of my workaround because it made everything make sense to me—and my workaround was to turn to the fiction writer that I was hanging out with that week, and I asked her to give me a narrative. Full circle, I was in South Africa because Neil was there shooting Good Omens, and since we have a child together and I didn’t want to be single-parenting, I tagged along and I went. When I was down there, I connected with a writer who I had only known through Twitter before, Lauren Beukes, and I had actually read her book Zoo City, which had won all sorts of awards in South Africa. She’s basically the Neil Gaiman of South Africa, like the young, hotshot sci-fi/fantasy, bizarre, impossible-to-pin-down-genre-wise, prolific writer weirdo. I was talking with her about this project and it was literally just a coincidence that she was sitting there at my kitchen table as I was trying to come up with a creative narrative solution for this video. And I just turned to her and I said, “Will you just do me a favor and write me a short story about binge-drinking so I can fix this fucking problem?” She was like, “Sure, when do you need it by?” [Laughs]
And I felt this incredibly empowered delight at being able to use my Patreon to give super off-the-cuff work to a writer who was just sitting right there. I basically wrote her a check and said get me a short story by next month. I trust you. Here is what the song is about. Here’s David’s video. Watch it a couple of times. Talk about it with me. Here’s what I’m missing. I want a story about these women to somehow merge with the video and merge with the project so that I can give it to the public all in one giant, confusing package. And she nailed it. She wrote this beautiful short story, it’s maybe only three or four pages long. It’s a five-minute read. It’s going to be a really beautiful companion piece to this video and the song.
It’s a fantastic game: the short story re-contextualizes video, the video re-contextualizes the song and the song re-contextualizes the short story. It all goes around eating its own tail. And by the grace of Patreon, because there’s no way I would have just called her in to do an unpaid favor. But there is also no way I would have just reached into my pocket and said, Uhh, I kind of want this to happen, I’m willing to lose money on it. So to me, this was a breakthrough moment. It was about adding context to work in a totally new way that I never would have thought of, and I’m really excited about it. This is the first time using Patreon that I’m going to be releasing any kind of literature. And it’s also the first time that I’m releasing two different types of media at the same time, kind of wrapped around the same project, and both of those things are really exciting.
Mack: Yeah, a song, a video and a short story. At the same time. I love that.
Palmer: And so now instead of putting out a video to a single that came out over a year ago—which is in itself unheard of in the music industry because you just don’t do that because you’re off-cycle and things like that don’t make any money and don’t promote things that are out there for sale—I also hired a fiction writer, a short-story writer, to riff on your video and my song and create an original short story that going to go out with it. This is just bananas. I’m imagining myself going into Roadrunner Records in 2005 and saying, “Hey guys, I know this record came out a year ago and didn’t sell very well but I know how I’m going to fix it. I’m going to put out a video that costs money and I’m going to spend money on a short story and I’m going to package that all together on the Internet and send it to some people.” [Laughs] I can just imagine them cringing and shaking their heads.
But the amazing thing about all of this is this counts as real art. Everyone is getting paid, everyone’s just putting their creative time and work in. And Patreon has sort of created this universe in which the artistic conversation never ends. It’s no longer this superficial, artificial boundaried album cycle where the album comes out and that music is important for two weeks and then it’s over and it’s cast into the digital dustbin of history. It’s becoming more like a painting, which goes up and stays up and continues to have a conversation around it and relevance around it because it sort of flows and resonates through the world.
One of the things that I’m becoming fascinated with, and again your medium, my medium, they’re very different but they have a lot of overlap, is—what we grew up thinking about art, like what is a comic book, what is a drawing, how does it exist in the world, how do people see it, how do they pay for it, what do they think of it, how do they share it. It’s all just being completely torn asunder and I love that this is happening and I love it it’s breaking my brain because, just like you were saying, I feel like I’m learning so much from the process of having to respond to the medium that we are having to respond to. Which is, yes books still exist, yes vinyl still exists, but mostly? Ninety-five percent of my art is being ingested digitally. And I have to respond to that and I want to respond to that. I want to figure out how to be an artist who lives on the Internet and also lives on stages and then maybe also lives in books and collaborates using the tools of 2018 instead of the tools of 1995.
Mack: And having a Patreon the way you do, where instead of kind of bumping into different projects or different offers or whatever, you get to start by saying, What do I want to do? I imagine, in a way, like I described before, a lot of the choices in the process of making something is kind of revealed by the parameters that you have at the moment, including time. That still exists clearly, as we’re all here in three-dimensional material world, but I imagine that gives you an incredible amount of less walls and less parameters. And I imagine you have to think—you have to ask yourself about your internal parameters, because the financial ones aren’t there as much with the situation.
Palmer: Except that they are. And they feel random. It used to be that the record company would say, okay, we need to make videos as a promotional tool. We spend money making videos. How much money can we afford to lose making this video in the hopes that it will promote the album to enough of a degree that it will pay for itself and maybe sell more records? Is it $10,000? Is it $20,000? Is it $70,000? And I’ve watched Roadrunner Records go through the same head-scratching, random, we-don’t-fucking-know flailing that I am. One of the things that I found, is that I set myself kind a target budget for every project. But how insane is it to think that every piece of so-called art is going to cost, oh, about 10 grand? It’s just nonsense. Some pieces of art cost nothing because I just sit down and write them on my laptop. Some cost 1,500 bucks because I go to the recording studio down the street and sit at a piano. And some cost 65,000 fucking dollars because they’re huge videos that go over budget and then it rains and they go even more over budget and there’s all these acts of God.
This brings up the interesting point that all of the things that I’ve learned about money and art and the intersection of the two of them are sort of all being put to the test. And it’s moments like these that I look at what Neil’s doing with TV and what I’m doing with Patreon. We’re both swimming in similarly weird waters where we both try to figure out what the intersection of creativity and money is because if TV production is anything, it’s kind of trying to find the perfect balance between I have this fantastic idea, oh but it costs this much. Well what’s the second-next fantastic idea? And at what point is it not even a fantastic idea and we should just cut it from budget because it’s not going to look good? And Neil has learned so much about working on Doctor Who and American Gods at a scale 50 times my scale because he’s dealing with budgets that are in the 10s of millions versus in the 10s of thousands. And it’s really fascinating stuff. And also, in a way, it makes me want to go to some kind of school. [Laughs] What is this class? What is this course where we could teach artists how to think about time, energy, attention and money—how would we teach them how to do this, especially in the new modern world of total DIY, and that includes running your own Internet platforms and running your own small businesses, which most artists are doing nowadays.
Mack: In the meantime, for me, it has always felt like the best school for making something is just to make it. That’s where you learn everything. Every time I do a project, it’s like the next project or class in college or something. I didn’t know exactly how to do it beforehand, and now something was made and afterwards I now have this set of tools in my toolbox for the next time we approach something like that. It would be it would be nice—I thought that myself, even in high school, if they’re teaching you math, why aren’t they also teaching you how the stock market works and how financing a loan works and how all these other real-world things happen where you can make that math practical? And I’ve wondered that too, but you kind of have to be your own school and cultivate your own curriculum with the projects you choose as an artist.
Palmer: How do you decide—one of the things Neil and I have been discussing lately is how we’re both very guilty of being reactive artists. Which is to say people are constantly asking us, hey, will you do Project X, will you do Project Y, and our schedules wind up being filled with reactive creativity. And then occasionally we look up and we say, “Hey, wait, what? I have my own good ideas, why am I doing this other thing?” How do you chart your course as an artist? You definitely have lots of possibilities, lots of possible projects, lots of potential collaboration. You could just sit home and draw, you could just try to hang your shit in galleries and sell it for X-thousands of dollars. How do you try to diversify? And how do you feel when you’re getting it right? And how do you know when you’re off course and you’re wasting your time and energy departments in the wrong departments?
Mack: Wow, there’s a lot there, and that’s a great thought. First of all, that was such an interesting thing for you to ask me, because I would think, from the outside looking in, it seems like both you and Neil are doing work that seems very self-motivated, from the outside looking in. So in a way, that’s kind of reassuring that you both feel that way too.
Palmer: No! We both suck. We have not figured it out. And we’re completely overwhelmed and miserable. [Laughs]
Mack: I have a very similar feeling to you. The first time anyone says, hey, by the way, I have this project—oh man, I’ve got a dozen projects of my own lined up that I still need to get to. So you have that, and then of course the other thing is, you have all these things coming, and like you said, I could just stay home and paint and draw relaxing things all the time if I wanted to. Why aren’t I just doing live figure drawings and giant paintings in my garage all the time at a very relaxing pace. And sometimes I think, I’m going to cut the amount this chunk out to do that, and I’ll still try to do a drawing just for fun and to get my head in the right space. Just drawing from life at least once a week if I can. We’ve overlapped in some of those areas, where I was drawing at your place, we were drawing at Allan [Amato]’s for The Art of Asking.
The first time I ever met you was 2009 at San Diego Comic Con. The first time we ever met, it was a packed room and you were fielding questions as you were posing. And we were drawing you. It was me, Terry Moore, Camilla d’Errico, and we were all doing quick drawings of you in this giant ballroom of an audience. But I love drawing from life. It gives me permission to disconnect myself from an end result or for anything else. It’s just you and the person that you’re drawing, and you’re getting an energy from them and how they’re presenting themselves to you, and that goes into it. Just the vibe and the chemistry and that’s all going into it. So I love that. It seems very, very simple. It’s like a reset for me. So I try to do that just to ground myself in terms of, you know, making something spontaneous. But the other thing, probably similar to you and how you described what you and Neil discussed, I have all these plans and projects and ideas that I need to eventually get out, and some of them come and at the same time, there’s all these things that just kind of happen in the world. You bump into somebody else and they suggest a collaboration. And a lot of times you want to do that collaboration because you respect this other person as an artist, or they’re bringing something interesting artistically to it. And it’s kind of about just working with them even more than it is about the project. And sometimes it’s about the project.
I don’t think you can ever get it figured out. [Laughs] I think it’s just constantly—we’re spinning on this spinning world and everything’s spinning. That’s kind of a segue to this video. First of all, I’m glad that you’re happy with how it’s progressed and all the things involved. Because every time I would show the video to people, they loved it. Like, “This is the best thing we’ve ever seen of yours!” And they were loving it so much. And I was like, “Okay, are you sure? I’m thinking to tweak this, tweak that.” And also it’s like a six-minute song, right? So it’s a pretty long video, and it was all stop-motion filming. And at one point, you mentioned to put liquid in it, so I had submerged everything into a metal pan of water. And so I was filming through water. I had candles and at some point the candles were burning and lots of it caught on fire, and water and fire were overflowing into my place. So it was like a really fun, exciting, ridiculous thing to be doing every day, and then in an odd situation—did you hear I did a video for Dashboard Confessional that came out last year?
Mack: So that happened because of this video too. I got on a plane in Japan heading to Singapore, and sitting next to me was this very friendly guy. And it turned out to be a guy named Chris Carrabba, who is the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
Palmer: A little bit!
Mack: So at the time, I was doing some work for the State Department in Singapore. So when he said, “Oh, what are you doing in Singapore?” I just said I’m doing some work for the State Department, because if you say, you know, I’m making videos from Amanda Palmer, I’m making comic books, then you know if you want to sleep, you’re going to have to talk about comic books the whole time. [Laughs] So I had all these State Department trips planned and I spoke to all the schools and stuff in Singapore. But on the flight to Singapore I just kind of said that and kept it low key.
And he spontaneously started talking about his love of comic books and all the stuff he did. He would show me on the phone that he was on the set of Daredevil and I was like, that’s weird I was on the set of Daredevil too and I have the same photos, and I was on the set of Jessica Jones I started showing him mine. And he was like, why do you have all this? So I showed him my comic books and some other stuff and he’s a huge comic book fan. He told me about he’s a musician, and he had some songs in some different comic-book films, in Spider-Man and something else. And he was like, “Oh man, can I see some of your stuff? It would be cool if we could collaborate in some way.” And I was like, yeah I love collaborating with musicians, I do a lot of stuff with Amanda Palmer and I did this music video last year, and I’m actually working on this new video but it’s not out yet. I really can’t show you, that but I ended up showing him—I had taken some photos of the process with my iPhone, so I showed him a few, I was flipping through the photos. And he was like, “Oh, this is amazing, this is incredible!” He was so taken by all the photos of the making of this new video…
Palmer: Oh wow! By the way, I would have had no problem with you showing him.
Mack: Okay. [Laughs] So he was like, “This is amazing, you have to do a video for us.” I think it was a seven-hour plane ride from Japan to Singapore and we ended up talking the whole time. And just a very creative, kind of like this conversation with you, but in this case it was a complete stranger for each of us. We didn’t know each other before. And then by the end of the flight, he was like, hey man, I really want you to do a video for us. We ended up connecting in Singapore with his band and stuff. I figured maybe two years down the line or something they would say, hey, we found video that’s right for you. And then right after the Singapore trip, his record company called me and was like, hey, we found a video for you and it’s due in one month. So doing the video for you got me hired on a different video for them. I was still hoping your video was going to come out first. I think there’s came out in December at the end of last year, January. You can see it on YouTube, it’s called “We Fight.”
Palmer: That reminds me, I’m not afraid to do shoptalk, it won’t be interesting for this interview, but—I’d actually love you to get kind of nitty-gritty about the process because I don’t understand most of what you did. That this sort of takes us off into another tangent. I’ve been having this other constant conversation with my art friends. I’ll kick it off by talking about stage- and songwriting but it gets into the process. I don’t know about you, but I appreciate art so much more deeply when I know the story and I know the process and I can also see a little bit of the backstage.
This came out of a conversation that I was having with Jherek Bischoff from the Grand Theft Orchestra, who plays instrumental music. And he was telling me that he started experimenting with introducing his instrumental songs with stories. Not even the story of how this quartet was arranged. But the story of what inspired the writing of it. Really abstract stuff, like this really hardcore experience he had as a child being trapped on a sailboat with his family very close to shore, knowing they might die, and be able to see into this house with these really mundane people cooking their dinner and watching TV while they were stuck 500 meters out to sea. And then he plays the song. And even though it’s the same instrumental, beautiful orchestral stuff that’s in the rest of his set that he’s playing every other night on tour, that’s the song that everyone goes to the merch table and wants to buy. And I thought there’s something so fascinating about that that.
Being able to visualize your studio space and visualize those candles and visualize that water and imagine you slaving over that process. And just to be able to tell people, just so you know, this video didn’t take six hours to make, it took six hundred hours. We’re so feeble and unimaginative that it’s almost like we need to be given permission to understand the grandeur of some of the things that we’re looking at. And museums understand this more than anyone. It’s why they curate and put signs next to everything which of course turns into its own tunnel of people staring at the plaques instead of that the artwork. But, I know that for my own little feeble brain, a little bit of context and a little bit of story can go a really long way.
And one of the things that I’ve been experimenting with my stage show is trying to figure out how to not go on and on and on and do all of the work for the audience and explain every little last bit of art that’s about to land on them. But to just give them enough context, and enough keys, so that they can be engaged and appreciate and go on the journey with me. It’s kind of like giving them a little glossary of information so that they can understand and appreciate the song that much more deeply. And I just I just saw Ben Folds in concert and I watched him do the same thing and he was so masterful. There was not a wasted word on stage and yet it felt really casual. But he was able to, using his anecdotes that were packed with information, give you a much vaster appreciation of the music that you were hearing. And I wonder about that.
I mean, visual artists and book writers—this takes me back to Neil, which takes me into one of our most harrowing marriage conflicts, which is American Gods. Because I read it and didn’t like it, which made him really sad. [Laughs] But I also felt like, not so much that I was the wrong audience for the book, but I picked that book up when I was just starting a relationship with him. And I went into that book totally cold, hoping to learn something about this guy I was dating. Which is not the way most people read American Gods. Most people read it in some other context, though there’s maybe been a few other women who have done that. [Laughs]. I might be totally alone in my experience of having read that book. And it made me angry at the book. No one was holding my hand and giving me a glossary to unlock what this was actually about and what it was telling me about Neil Gaiman. And maybe I was too thick, and maybe I was lazy.
Looking back, I think I was just too lazy and I really wanted the information and the emotional information handed to me on a very clear platter. My relationship with that book and now with the TV series and with Neil, has just been this interesting thing running throughout our relationship as I just understand it and its creation and what it means to him emotionally, and how emotionally turned off I was reading it. It’s almost like a problem child in our relationship where we have to both keep working as partners to maintain a good relationship around the thing itself. So watching his relationship with the TV show made things even stranger because that wasn’t his creative baby. It was somebody else’s. And he had the input that he had, but he had very little control over what happened on that screen. So layers and layers of fascinating art-life unfolding.
Mack: I guess since I’m doing these covers for American Gods for Dark Horse, I’ll mention my experience of the book. I first listened to it on audio while I was traveling. It was a really fun book to listen to on audio. A lot of the books that I experience, because I’m trying to get so much work done all the time, a lot of times if I can listen to it, and you can be sitting down working and calm and connected to your work—
Palmer: You! You are lucky motherfucker that you don’t have to use your ears for your work.
Mack: Right, so like instead of watching a film or something, if I have a film on, it’s like a film commentary or documentary, so I don’t have to look up and watch it. So there’s that part, right. So you don’t have to keep your eyes focused on it. But likewise I would guess there’s a converse of that. And in your situation you can maybe be listening to something while you’re blissing out to something else maybe, I don’t know but if that’s the corresponding situation. But it was a really fun audio book to listen to because I was traveling a lot while listening to it. It was probably such a different experience than everyone else was having. Like if I’m biking through Hawaii, I’m walking through Hawaii, I’m on planes from one island to another, I just had earphones on and I was listening to this book.
Palmer: You were on a parallel American road trip.
Mack: [Laughs] Yes! I was. I love that, that it was like a road trip story, and I was doing a road trip. And every now and then you would see something in real life that corresponded. For instance, on the big island of Hawaii, there was this store that had this giant buffalo head in the store. And I was listening and then there’s the buffalo-headed man in the story in my earphones. It was just like, what is this buffalo here doing on this tropical island? It was such an interesting juxtaposition on its own. It was a fun way for me to experience it. Even if there were some parts I wasn’t completely focused on because something else in real life was happening, or I was riding a bike or something else, I would just go back and start the chapter over again. And I would listen to chapters over and over and over, and the third or fourth time, you get brand-new things out of it that you didn’t get the first time. And I would also use it to wind down from the day, like when I’m laying down, Okay, now let’s have a peaceful time just listening to your headphones and listening to this cool story while you’re laying down. And you can fall right to sleep and then you just replay the stuff that you slept through later.
Palmer: You’re almost listening to it the way some people listen to music.
Mack: I think that’s a good point.
Palmer: And who says there’s a difference? I’ve been getting into this argument with people lately who tell me that they can’t sing then I point out that they’re already singing, because speaking is basically singing. We’re doing things with our voices. It’s the same shit. Language has just completely warped our reality.
Mack: Yeah, language definitely shapes how we interact. It maybe even shapes our thoughts because we have to form our thoughts into these tiny bits instead of the odd, amorphous things that they are. But with American Gods, I knew I had gotten the gig, I’d been asked to do the covers, so it was kind of a fun way to listen to, I guess kind of just the poetry of the story from a unique angle while letting my head be imaginative.
Palmer: I’ve got a question about that. When you’re listening, say to American Gods, when you’ve been commissioned or hired to create work, and you know that you need to try to capture an image—this isn’t a graphic novel, you’re not being asked to transmute this entire thing into visuals. You’re being asked to capture the essence of this thing in an image. Do you sort of make mental notes of things that are visually arresting or things that are clearly symbolic or are things that are really provocative? Do you make a mental file? Do you make an actual file? Do you have a notepad on your computer where you jot down possible images? How do you actually organize it?
Mack: That’s exactly it. You’re exactly right, Amanda. I’m asked to crystallize a single issue for the cover, and in a sense, that cover is conceptualizing before you’ve ever read the book. It’s doing a couple of jobs. Number one, it wants to make you interested in the book, whether you see the image online or in the stands. I want to make a cover that, if you see it from across the room in the comic shop or the bookstore, I want it to stand out from every other book next to it and I want it to physically make you walk up to it and pick it up. So that’s number one.
Palmer: You effectively want the cover to be sort of slutty.
Mack: [Laughs] That’s an interesting way to look at that. Here’s how I look at that. I think some people, if they’re asked to do a cover, they’re only thinking about the cover themselves. I’m thinking about the context in which people view it, and that might be as a little tiny image online or it might be across the room on a shelf with 100 other covers. So the first thing I have to do is make it stand out from the covers next to it. And one way I do that, I try to add what I call a buffer area along the edges. The very first cover [for American Gods] that I did, it’s a shape of a bird with a coin in its mouth. And the outside area, outside the bird, I’ve left white. So immediately, from what’s on either side or top or bottom, it’s going to stand out.
Palmer: The Malcolm Gladwell book cover approach, which now all business books must follow, which is an arresting image in the center of a vast blank space.
Mack: Yes, and it works. I’ve picked up all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. And they’re all really arresting. I usually started reading them right there in the bookstore before I decided I had to just take it with me.
Palmer: That’s how good the covers were.
Mack: And then the other thing is conceptualizing, like you might say something before a song. The cover might also give you a psychological way of how you might want to read the book or what you might expect, the feelings of the book or something. I wanted to crystallize in one single image the feeling or the flavor of what’s inside. I did just what you said. Any time I would come across something that I thought was a visual totem in the story, I might see how I can turn that into a symbol or a shape or something. What might be a good central cover image to grab your attention, but also might be a moment from the story.
Palmer: Yeah, it is incredible how powerful and completely—I guess for lack of a better word, dominating—that image is over the entire book within. I’m thinking a lot about the books that I read as a kid. You know, the characters from some of the books that I read as a teen or preteen would be rendered on the covers of the books, like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. There she was painted on the cover of the book as a blonde girl in a purple dress in front of this house. And that was her. It informed everything I read. That she was pretty. That she was blonde. None of that stuff was ever mentioned in the story. But I had a huge opinion about her on page one. It’s really fascinating. As someone who is really happy with the book cover for The Art of Asking, thanks to Allan and all the collaborators who came.
Mack:That was such a blast, becoming a part of the cover.
Palmer: That was actually the second attempt to make a book cover. I had started a collaboration with another pretty well-known cover illustrator. And the stuff we were coming up just wasn’t right and I couldn’t say why, and I couldn’t put words around it but it wasn’t resonating. So I sort of went back to the drawing board and started over, after doing a whole photo shoot and rounds of discussions with this other artist. I just wasn’t feeling it. And also, I’ve learned what a lot of other authors have learned, which is that when you sell your foreign book rights, you also sell your soul, because occasionally, versions of your book will pop up on the Internet with covers that you never approved, that completely change the tenor of your book. In my case, there’s a Russian translation of The Art of Asking that has, I shit you not, a cartoon on the cover. Like a cartoon pretty girl holding a flower. It’s pretty abysmal. And it makes it look like a children’s story.
Mack: Oh interesting. So it’s like their cartoon version of you holding the flower? Is it sort of like Shel Silverstein style or something?
Palmer: Yeah, it’s not like kid, Peppa Pig cartoon style, but it’s silly enough that I look at the cover and I shake my head and I think, no one is going to understand that this book contains stories of death, devastation, abortion and the darkness and the harrowing details of life. They’re going to think that this is a feel-good self-help book. Oh fuck, that’s not what this book is. And you know, the people who should be picking up this book aren’t going to pick it up, and the people who pick it up might be shocked and disappointed.
And then again, I always take my own thoughts with a grain of salt, because the publishers will always come back—and this has happened to Neil too—the publishers will always come back and say, “Oh no, no, no, you don’t understand our culture. What you think this means isn’t what this means. We’re experts, we know what will sell in this market.” And Neil and I sort of look at each other and shrug and go, “Oh, we think it’s terrible, but sure, go ahead.” I’ve seen absolutely bloody his head banging it against his desk seeing some of the covers to some of his books. There’s so much out there that he sometimes doesn’t even see until two years down the line when it’s been published and someone happens to put a tweet or an Instagram up of the book cover and his jaw drops. But I have to say it’s one thing about being a musician that I really appreciate. No one ever does that to your album covers. That’s a specific book-world tragedy. I’ve never been in Japan flipping through a record bin going, wait, why are the Dresden Dolls rendered as Peppa Pig cartoons?
Mack: It’s interesting. I guess it does seem more sacred, like the album cover is a sacred thing interlocked with the album in a different way than the book covers are, that are constantly changed.
Palmer: Yeah! It reminds me of how bizarre the world of international making is. At some point, someone decided that when books get made, they will not have a definitive cover. And someone decided that, and someone decided that when albums get made, they will have a definitive cover. And when they’re published over time and in different territories, that cover is going to be consistent. And publishing decided, oh no, that’s going to screw up our international market. And it’s pretty weird when you think about it, these Japanese and Russian and British people trying to market these records have every right to put their fingers up and say wait, wait, wait. People are more likely to buy this Madonna album if it has x, y and z rather than r, b and q. Yet book-publishing people take it as totally normal and music publishing and distribution people take it as totally normal too, but it’s arbitrary. That was somehow and somewhere an arbitrary decision, which is totally strange.
Mack: That is something that hadn’t really occurred to me before. It’s interesting especially when, for both of them, they really give a certain context to everything. And I was also going to say that I kind of think of the cover as the door of the book. It’s the doorway into it, but it’s also the face of it. As well as attracting you to it, you also want it to give some conceptualization for it. I’ve done film and TV titles before. I did the opening titles for a TV show called Jessica Jones. It’s almost like a short film in itself. You want to set the tone for how people should be experiencing what’s going to come after this. It puts their head in a space that tells them, you’re in good hands here, but this is the setting your brain has to be on.
Palmer: Yeah, this is exactly how funny you are supposed to think these things are, how serious. It’s that same thing that we were talking about, the introduction to Jherek’s song giving people the keys, the glossary, and like you said, kind of the safety to know that they are going to be experiencing something. It’s almost like introducing someone to someone else at a party. “Now that we’ve been introduced, I’m allowed to talk to you” sort of warm, fuzzy feeling.
Mack: [Laughs] That’s a good way to put it. Conversely, I did film titles for a film called Captain America: The Winter Soldier where there were no main titles at the beginning. They were only at the end. So it was a completely different way of thinking. We were thinking, okay, this isn’t an introductory situation. This is a punctuation mark. This is conceptualizing everything at the end. Giving you the feeling you want to have when you walk out of the theater. What are you taking away, how do you put all that together.
Palmer: Usually, there’re both. Usually a film is bookended. And interestingly, a book, the front and the back covers are sort of both the front covers. Nobody waits to look at the back cover until they’re finished with the book. [Laughs] Whereas film is linear in time. Things are being shown to you in a certain order and you have to take that into account. I find myself doing this—I’ve now done 50 Patreon projects. And a big part of doing this work, and I think a big part of why these 11,000 people stick with me, is that I’m not simply dropping content off at their door. I take a lot of time to explain the context of the work. The process, the backstory, the whys and hows, the personnel. I do a lot of credit writing. Sometimes it feels like that’s my full-part-time job is sitting down and collecting the stories and the images and putting them into words.
And then occasionally, I’ll actually feel like a project is going to have more power if I don’t soak it in it’s own story. The song that I put out last month, “Mr. Weinstein Will See You Now,” I think I’ve said all I need to say in the title. You just need to see the artwork, you need to read the title and you need to listen to it, and if you’re a Western-type person who’s reading the news, you already know what you need to know. And I’ll put the credit in and I’ll give a little bit of background as to who played what and who sang what. But I’m going to stop right there. You guys are on your own. [Laughs]
Mack: No, it’s really smart to be able to tell when it can do that. Sometimes a title is its own cover, right, it its own opening titles.
Palmer: I actually—the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that I read when I was finally over my allergy to it, because I thought it was a boring high-school book. And I finally read it in my 20s and the copy that I read was just a maroon cover with yellow lettering. Totally simple. I’m really attached to that cover. And when I see other covers for The Catcher in the Rye the drawings or interpretations or add extra, I get angry at them, because they ruin the simplicity of what I grafted on to that story, which is such an incredible story and it’s so powerful. And it almost makes you think that the best books should be able to go naked. Coverless.
[Editor’s Note: I interjected at this point to let them know how long they’d been talking.]
Mack: Steve, you got more than you bargained for.
Palmer: I would like to close by telling you that secretly, during this entire conversation, I have walked over a half a mile and picked almost half a pound of dandelion greens. That’s my final contribution.
Mack: I love that. [Laughs]