The Bats and Post-Punk in a Steel Town: Michael Chabon Talks About His Musical Past
"I have a daughter in college, she’s 20 now... and she was like, 'Oh Dad, do you still have your cassettes?' and... she starts digging through them and she stops on this one, The Bats... and I was like, 'Oh, shit.'"
For novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Michael Chabon, Pittsburgh has been an immeasurable source of inspiration. It’s where he spent his formative years and started to blossom as an artist. It serves as the setting for his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and elements of the city and snapshots of its people are littered throughout his work. Despite only living in the Iron City for a few years, Pittsburgh has had a major impact on Chabon. “I always loved the landscape, the geography, the neighborhoods—the sort of lore of all the neighborhoods. And the people. You know, Pittsburghers, themselves, are just super sociable. People will talk to you, they’ll talk to strangers in the street. There is a little bit of an eccentricity to the typical Pittsburgher, more so than in other cities in the Midwest. They are very opinionated, but not in an aggressive, ‘I’m going to school you’ kind of way, just wanting to get into it about whatever.”
But while people worldwide have become acquainted with the Pulitzer Prize winning author for his prose and stylistically varied work, Chabon harbors a secret past that has remained, until recently, relatively unknown. In his senior year of college, just four years before publishing his debut novel, Chabon fronted for the Pittsburgh post-punk band The Bats on their first demo. The demo, which was unearthed and remastered by Pittsburgh’s own Mind Cure Records, has just received its first official release since the initial cassette thirty years ago, marking the first time ever on vinyl. Despite Chabon’s reservations about his singing, it is surprising how well the demo resonates with the current musical climate. From the moment that I put the needle to wax it was clear that this was something important, something that needed to be heard. In an era where everything is chronicled and cataloged, it’s rare that a record of this magnitude can stay dormant for so long. On the other hand, its hard to imagine that the five kids that stepped in that recording studio on May 26, 1984 could have foreseen the future praise.
Noisey: So you started going to Pittsburgh sometime in the late 70s, what was the city like at that point? I imagine it was kind of dwindling.
Michael Chabon: There have been a few renaissances over the decades in Pittsburgh. They tried various ways of approaching the fact that started to be obvious in the 70s that the whole Steel industry was going under, and therefore a city that basically built on it was going to have to figure out what to do. When I first moved there in the mid 70s, the Steel industry was still in the act of dying. All of the mills were still active. So the first Pittsburgh I remember seeing—even though unemployment was soaring and the economy was tanking—looked like I thought it was supposed to. And there was a smell; in the summertime on a hot day there would be this recognizable industrial stink. By the mid 80s, the mills had gone, and a lot of that stuff just disappeared. That stuff is just ghosts now, but I was there at the very end of it all.
Pittsburgh is not typically a city that is associated with music, what was it about the city that opened your perspective?
I just feel like the Pittsburgh music scene has always been interesting. It was going through a really interesting period when I was there. When I got there in the fall of 1980, there were bands like Carsickness, The Five, and The Wake. You know, some bands have come out of Pittsburgh and gotten to a certain level, but I don’t think people realize that there has been so much great music bubbling under the surface. It just never really had its moment. Maybe that is not a bad thing.
Was it hearing bands like Carsickness that sparked your interest in the local punk scene?
Yes, I picked up their records but also there was a radio station at Carnegie Mellon, WRCT, that I listened to a lot, and they completely embraced—at least some of the DJs—what was happening in the city. In terms of being a part of that world, it was not only something that just would have never occurred to me but I was a bit of afraid, too. I was just not that kind of kid at all. [laughs] I mean most of the people in the punk scene weren’t that visually distinguishable but a lot of them were. They would have mohawks or whatever kind of crazy hair—what was considered the height of punk style at that time, which at that point was a little bit behind the times. I think it was already well over in London, but it was still happening in Pittsburgh. You know, I’d see people walking around that a few years later, in my senior year when I was involved in The Bats, I was like, "Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m talking to this dude who I’ve been like mildly afraid of for the past three years."
How did The Bats come along?
That came about because of my friendship with the bass player Lee Skirboll, he and I are still friends to this day. You know I was just hanging out with him and hanging out while they were rehearsing, and I got this thought that "maybe I can be in a band, that would be a cool thing to do." But, they all actually knew how to play instruments and I did not, so it didn’t really seem like a real possibility until they invited me to give it a shot. I remember Skirboll just saying to me, "We are rehearsing in my basement, just come with me and hang out, and then at some point you should just go up to the microphone and just start singing. Just do stuff and see what happens." And that’s what I did.
I always felt like they were just being polite. Even when we went into the studio to record, with much greater posterity than I could have imagined at the time, I had this feeling of somehow not being what they needed or wanted, musically or lyrically. I was never entirely comfortable in that position.
It is strange hearing you talk about being so uncomfortable because it doesn’t translate on the record, especially with the last track “What Time Is It?”. Both thematically and vocally you seem to really tap into this transformative period in the mid 80s.
Right, I mean that is something that I was very concerned with at the time. That was really the moment when—I mean, it’s so commonplace now that we don’t even notice it—the recycling of periods, styles, dress, music, and everything else, became the dominant mode. That we’ve been through this very distinctive series of cultural moments and it was like "Does this mean we are just done? Is there nothing more new that we can do? Are we just going to keep recycling all this stuff endlessly?" And the way that we answered that was, "Yes, but there are still new things you can do with it." It’s the way you combine it, not the source material itself.
The Bats Demo Cover "Art"
Being someone who is a bit intimidated by the whole process, what was your reaction to hearing the demo for the first time?
By the time they got the demo back from the tiny studio that we recorded the four songs in, I was gone. I went to Paris for 6 months. So I just got this cassette and, you know, I listened to it a few times. I thought it sounded fantastic but that was it. I held on to it, but eventually I put my cassettes away, completely. So my cassettes were stuck away inside a cabinet in my house for more than 15 years or something like that. A couple years back—I have a daughter in college, she’s 20 now—the cassette was having a little bit of a comeback, and she was like, "Oh Dad, do you still have your cassettes?" and I’m like, "Yeah, there all in this thing." She starts digging through them and she stops on this one, The Bats [pause] and I was like, "Oh, shit." I was afraid to listen to it, and I was really afraid for her to listen. I just did not know what it was going to sound like. It is just so weird to have something that was just so lost in the sands of time—suddenly not only are people listening to it but it’s on vinyl. It’s crazy. It’s cool.
And, it is a pretty rare occurrence anymore, especially when you have someone involved of note. People are cataloging and documenting everything.
I guess there was some moment when [lead guitarist] Sam Matthews posted some of it to his Myspace page—so that probably dates when that happened—, but I don’t know how many plays it got in that venue. It certainly didn’t cause any kind of ripple like this thing did.
After having not heard the record for over a decade, what was it like listening to it again?
The one song I can listen to that I think sounds really good is “Home on the Range,” and I didn’t write those lyrics. In that song, the lyrics were written by Mark Miller who was the drummer. Maybe because he was the drummer and he had that sense of rhythm, there was a sense of cadence in the lyrics that fit with the music. When I would sing it I would actually feel like I was making music with other people in a way that I didn’t necessarily feel on other songs. When I hear that one—I don’t have a clue what the lyrics are about, or what they meant, and I never did—but I hear a sense of comfort in my singing that I don’t hear in the other tracks.
Michael Chabon 2014, courtesy of Getty Images
What did your daughter think about it?
She seemed to kind of dig it. She thought it was pretty good. Going into it, we both had this sense of potential dread and I think she was ready to be really embarrassed. At that point she was in a band, and she connected to it on this level of a 19 year old, listening to five 19, 20, 21 year olds doing this raw sounding thing that she was busy doing. To her, it just sounded like what she is listening to. She connected to it in a way that I just can’t, that I still can’t to this day. You know how when you hear your own voice on your answering machine and you are like, "Is that what I sound like?" I can’t get past that when I listen to it. So I was just like cringing through the whole thing, and I was very relieved when she liked it and wanted to play it for her friends.
Following The Bats you obviously had a very successful career, how do you recall that time, as a whole?
For me it was just a moment. It was a moment, and it was a really great moment. I always said afterwards that being in the band for the brief period that I was in The Bats was one of my favorite moments of my entire life. Just having that sense of a crew. We all liked each other. We would just hang out, eat pizza and drink beer, go places together; it’s your gang. And, there is that feeling that you are also making something with these people, and building something every day. My work as a writer is very solitary, and when you work in movies you kind of have that, but not with that kind of energy or intensity. The thing about making music that you just can’t get with writing or working in movies, is that immediacy. You know, you just pick up your instrument or step up to your microphone, and you are doing it. You are making something just right there. I loved it. If I hadn’t already made the plans to go to Paris, I might have been really tempted to just keep doing it. I kind of never had that again.
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