Alfred Howard’s impression on San Diego music has been paramount. From being the scribe behind seven bands to writing anecdotal, jocular, and observant memoirs (if you haven’t read ‘Autobiography of No One’, open up a separate tab and put it on your Goodreads list now), the record collector and immensely talented artist has changed the topography of the city. I interviewed Howard once before about a myriad of inconsequential and non-academic topics in 2012 (bubble gum ice cream, John Denver’s ghost), but never about his creative process. Here, I bothered the writer and musician about lyric writing, the art of publicity, and journalism.
Rob Patrick: You’re one of the most articulate, culturally aware, and intensely gifted writers that I have ever met. It actually pains me. When I first read your work, several years ago, my first reaction was to shout “this dude has to be stopped.” Nobody in the Landmark Hillcrest lobby knew what I was talking about. In your mind, what makes a compelling sentence, story, or lyric?
Alfred Howard: Jealousy is helpful. That’s my answer today, it would be a different answer tomorrow. But earlier today I was listening to Jason Molina and the lyric that caught my ear was “Their names inscribed by death in a spectral alphabet, their names look foreign and they are forgotten by the world again.” I want to be able to write like that. Don’t get me wrong, I have an ego about what I’m able to do, however it spars with a self-confidence so low, that if it were a horizontal bar, Warrick Davis could not limbo beneath it. I want to be as great as anyone who’s influenced me. That’s the end game and nothing else will be satisfying. So when I hear a Townes Van Zandt song, or an El-P lyric or some Leonard Cohen, there’s a new challenge put in front of me. As per stories, I find them easier to write. My dream deferred is to take a stab at comedy, I’ve never thought to allow comedy to enter into the song lyrics. I don’t know why, but that’s a rigid law I’ve imposed on myself (though I’d really like to write a pro-Trump rap rock song in the voice of Fred Durst). So when I write stories I get a lot of breathing room, there’s no lines to remain within, no words too unsavory, it’s just free form and comes naturally as speaking it.
You’re wonderful at marketing. You manage to operate, unobtrusively, through social media while still effectively distributing your thoughts, works, and events. What’s the key to a successful, driven, and principled relationship with publicity?
See, no one wants to hear about your show at the Casbah, but they want to hear about how you fell down the stairs and farted at the last step as if it were punctuation. So you have to write that fart story and then drop the show detail at the end. Then BAM, you’ve sucker punched them with marketing when they thought they had merely invested their time into your self-deprecation. And the hyperbole is only slight. We’re all competing for a fraction of a moment, a blink in an oversaturated day. I had the realization when I followed some click bait to see an SUV drive into a flock of bikers. When I got to the link I saw the video was 5 minutes long, and 30 seconds into it I yelled at the screen that I wanted fail and mayhem NOW!!! You have to captivate quickly and keep the material intriguing and balance something personal with your marketing, give people a window into what breathes behind a product, help them want to invest in you.
One of the greatest abilities in your book bag is your compass for humor. What makes something or someone funny? And, conversely, what are things that aren’t particularly effective when it comes to comedy?
This is a hard question to answer cause the honest answer is fucking stupid, but here it is. I grew up under the impression that I was an ugly person. The verdict is still out on that and I’ll never have a proper opinion myself, but that was my basic assessment through high school and college. I’d wear my sunglasses inside, and wear a hat to try and hide as best I could. The first time I ever felt confidence in my life was the first time I made a woman laugh. The way a blind person sharpens their other senses, I assumed an ugly person would have to lean on other attributes. So I tried to be a clever punch-line. And once you get the validation of making someone laugh, you’ll want to do it again. I don’t know what works or doesn’t work comedically. I know what I like, Peep Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down, Arrested Development, Louis CK, Hannibal Buress, Bill Hicks, David Cross, Archer, Frisky Dingo, Human Giant, all that shit all kills me, just steal what they do.
What was the genesis of The Redwoods, a San Diego based collective that has been, arguably, one of the biggest powerhouses in local music?
Josh Rice, Matthew Molarius and myself all watched the “Muscle Shoals” film the same night. It’s total coincidence – we weren’t even together – but we had an idea: we’ve been working with amazing musicians, let’s have a house band, get the singers creating together, leave the egos at the door and make it a family affair. Everyone was down and here we are.
I’m greatly worried about San Diego. If Trump wins the presidency, I’m afraid that East County will turn into a Mad Max-style wasteland, gather power from their Slipknot CDs, and devour the rest of the city. How are we going to stop this situation?
There’s a Birdy Bardot song called “Keep Your Distance“, it’s about wanting things to get so horrendously bad that you’re forced to make a change. Maybe trump is the ass backwards demagogue we need to get to the idiocracy wasteland and face the ultimate decision between evolution and extinction. There is a small part of me that wants to drive a Honda Civic 110 miles per hour through Lakeside, blasting System of A Down’s “Sugar” as I strike down a stranger with a 32-inch Easton Baseball Bat wrapped with barbed wire to get a bowl of Ramen.
Between being part of The Midnight Pine, Rebecca Jade & The Cold Fact, Birdy Bardot, Dani Bell & The Tarantist, and, most recently, Cardinal Moon, how are you alive to be fielding this interview right now?
I can’t drink caffeine either; it fucks my gut up. I’m just high on fatigue.
Can we expect a follow up to your ridiculously great ‘Autobiography of No One‘?
I’m basically done with the follow up, I just need to take a week and turn it from 400 pages of disjointed ramblings to 200 pages of semi cohesive ramblings.
I talked about Adam Driver for twenty-straight minutes on the last date I went on, and it didn’t work out. Please help with dating advice.
I took a woman to see “Waterworld” on a date, so I might not be the person to ask. If I’m being sincere: listen. So many folks just talk over each other or want to hear the sound of their own voice. Share some music; a good mix can convey sentiments beyond us and cultivate an atmosphere.
What are three songs that helped redefine what music meant to you as a listener and as an artist?
Thom Yorke And DJ Shadow’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights”, Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, and Company Flow’s “Patriotism”.
When writing about bands or musicians what are things that every journalist should address, remember, and evaluate?
As a musician, I love when I get interviewed and it’s not the same series of questions I’m always asked. I like questions that are open to elaboration. Every musician wants a platform, has something to convey, give them the opportunity to do so.
Band of Horses is never going to release another good album, and you have to get over it. Please elaborate.
I never got into them, they always sounded like a poor man’s version of some other band with a beard. I didn’t know they released a good album. Having said that, I have a lot of friends who I respect that are fans and I honestly haven’t invested enough time in them to talk shit or possess expectations.
In the past few years, while working with so many great artists, what have you learned about San Diego’s music climate?
My position in this town’s music scene is nothing I ever imagined and something I am thankful for daily. I’m a fan first and foremost and I get to hang out with some folks I really look up to. Then there’s groups like New Kinetics, Mr. Tube, Second Cousins and NST that I really enjoy. I’ve been so busy re-watching Game of Thrones and writing lyrics for 7 projects that I don’t get out often enough to check the pulse of what’s going on, but if you wanna know my theory about Bran Stark, I got a lot of words for you.
Vanessa Bayer, amirite?
And, finally, what is something inconsequential that none of your band mates know about you?
I once farted and shit my pants at a recording session and the hourly rate was so expensive I couldn’t afford to leave.