Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
Were we betting men, we'd confidently say that it will be the same way with everything J.R.R. Tolkien wrote or Steven Spielberg directed in 2,000 years. "The Return of the King" and "Back to the Future" will be panned for religious undertones and will become as divisive as the Bible itself is today. Some way or another the flux capacitor will be attributed as crafty symbolism for the love of God or the resurrection. In the year 4,006 - if the calendar ever matures that far - we'll probably have dissected Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and Motley Crue's "The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band" so many times that they'll have been transformed into pieces of salacious text tossed at the fan and reassembled to be nothing like they originally were. The contents of each will have been sent through a ringer and dramatized to the point that they'll be nothing but interpretations of the origin and fed out as subtle examples of faith. They will have been re-examined and considered so many times that the original intent will have been sufficiently bent into something unrecognizable.
They will be probed with conjecture and meddlesome assumptions that do more than read between the lines. It can't be too far out of the realm of possibility that "The Dirt" won't warrant its own college course some day from the theology department of a prestigious four-year, Big Ten University somewhere. Out in the Pac-10, maybe there will be a course focused on the post-modern romanticism of the self in Joe Willie Namath's autobiography "I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow 'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day" or Wilt Chamberlain's "A View From Above," in which The Stilt claimed to have slept with over 20,000 different women in his lifetime (and this was 1992 so tack on a couple thou more). The more time we're given with something, the more we pick it apart, to get to its blood vessels and its cartilage. The epidermis is ripped into and we go layers beyond it to find more. We can't quit Shakespeare no matter how many people think he's been solved. And Hemingway, well, if his meanings and imagery weren't just the most perplexing quagmires ever in the history of American literature, some nice tweed-jacketed men would be out of work and mumbling something about how their lives were wasted.
The way it is now, as the Anno Domini years continue to fly by, certain words and phrases in the Scripture are made almost off limits in popular song without the undertones getting carried away with themselves. You can't talk about bearing a cross, dying for sins, breaking bread or frankincense without giving off a stiff whiff of Christianity. You scare people away. Page France does not scare people away. And this is fascinating because? It's fascinating because they mention the big guy and that son of his by name. Lead singer and songwriter Michael Nau writes about the man at the Pearly Gates and trumpets. There is breaking of the bread. There are wedding feasts for the "snakes and beasts with the angel teeth." There's a hint in "Chariot" that a God-like man would be here on earth, staying here, giving grace and playing a tambourine in the band - a thought after Joan Osborne's own heart. When Nau's asked about the significance of these allusions and blatant biblical references - what they mean to him - he's coy and almost mum about any intentional or accidental purpose for such strong language. The words he uses and reuses repeatedly throughout the blithe, beautiful and endearing Suicide Squeeze release "Hello, Dear Wind" are rife with double-meanings and weight, yet he insists that those were just the ones that captured his thoughts best. His explanation is what makes this record even more of a wonder. Listening, you're never wary about what's coming next, in fact, you're curious. The wordsmith in Nau is creative with his musings even when he's mixing them around with the other words he's so fond of. He uses the same approach to pet words as The Hold Steady's Craig Finn does. We don't give him shit for talking about skaters and hoodrats all the time so a little slack cut for Nau singing about dogs, kings and queens and circuses is about right. In fact, Nau might just treat religious themes the way Finn does - with an eye for the story and life in it all, for the way that it's still such a turbulent balance waged between fact and fiction, provable truth and the truth that needs faith to vouch for it. There's still so much to question in the "Good Book" that it's a wellspring for those questioning their own insides. Nau attacks it the way Isaac Brock did in "Bukowski," when he sang, "If God controls the land and disease/And keeps a watchful eye on me/If he's really so damn mighty/Well, my problem is I can't see/Well, who would want to be/Who would want to be such a control freak."
Keyboardist/backing vocalist Whitney McGraw - one of those cherubic-type figures that Nau sings about frequently in verse - offers another touch of splendor and bassist Jasen Reeder and drummer Clinton Jones add the missing touches of necessary glitter to these songs of discovery and self-deprecating unworthiness. Nau pondering what it's all about/worth is never an exercise that's riddled with sadness. In there are the reminders that this is a search for that happy ending and sometimes strong words are needed to get there. These are hymns the way they can be stomached, without any gratuitous preaching. There's no beating you over the head with anything because they're about a man hunting for himself, not a Big Guy fishing for souls to save.
The Daytrotter interview:
*There are a lot of biblical metaphors in your songs. Are you guided by your faith in your songwriting or how do you balance the two?*
Michael Nau: The biblical metaphors have a lot to do with my upbringing, along with the state I was in when writing that record. I was not writing with any agenda. I wrote a batch of songs and we made it into a record. We had no expectations. I really didn't think about it.
*That can be a very fine line between getting too heavily theological in song and keeping a song universally appreciated by those not so religious. You do a really great job of keeping the biblical allusions poetic like they're meant to be, not preachy. Are you aware of that fine line? How do you stay away from it?*
MN: As I said, I really didn't think about it when writing the songs. I didn't expect it to be an issue. I never intended to be certain in what I was saying. I believe that there is a large amount of curiosity in that record, and I think that can be universally appreciated. You know, I just wrote a batch of songs about my day, and if other people connect with it, that is great.
*What words do you live by?*
MN: Wake up.
*When you sing, "They treat you like a dog" -- a familiar line of yours -- is it sort of like when Mr. T pities a fool (just saw him on Conan last night, sorry)?*
MN: Mr. T is still alive? It's exactly like that.
*What do you think heaven's like? Do you think about death much?*
MN: I don't think about death or heaven anymore. I just wake up thinking, "It's time to mow the lawn," or "What am I going to eat for breakfast?" I worried about things for too long, and it inched me toward a nervous breakdown. There was just a brief time when little things got me more worked up than necessary, and I just had to take a break from it, you know.
*What were the first songs you wrote about?*
MN: Oh man, I can't remember. I remember playing drums on a bucket for a friend, who, at the time, wanted to record a very strange song on my four-track. I forget what it was about.
*What's home like for you?*
MN: It's very chill. My neighbor is a small hill. My home is across from a bar that hasn't quite developed with its surroundings, but for the most part, my neighbors are hills and trees.
*What did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday? It could be anything, big or small.*
MN: That we are finished tracking a record. We just finished it today. Everyone is in very good spirits. Laughter and relief all around.
*What part of the newspaper do you read first? What do you think this says about you?*
MN: I don't get the newspaper. Sorry.
*Can you fill me in on any of your other hobbies? What's your favorite thing about your other three bandmates?*
MN: I like to race in potato sacks. What I like about my other band mates ... I could go on and on about them individually, but what I like the most about all of them is that they are loyal to themselves. They all have hearts of gold and I thoroughly enjoy being around them.
*What would make a great day for you (please be specific)?*
MN: I would like to wake up without the sound of construction trucks outside of my house. Today, I awoke with the fear that my car was being towed, because my neighbor across the street has been threatening to have it towed. I want to wake up, stare at the ceiling fan for an hour, not have to work on a record, and sit on the porch, catching rain in a paper cup.
*You all seem really comfortable together. Have you been good friends long?*
MN: We're great friends. We've known each other since a potato sack race three years ago in San Francisco. As for the potato sack races. It's a really strange event, but we were all a part of it. It took place in San Francisco, and a friend of mine had curated the event, so we spent a week racing in potato sacks. I'd known Whitney before that, but had just gotten to know Clint and Jasen better in San Francisco, coincidentally discovering that we all lived within an hour of each other, and that it took a mutual friend putting together a potato sack race on the other side of the country for us to meet.
*What do you hope 2007 has in store, personally and for the band?*
MN: I want to play shows and make another record with every friend I have.