I recently talked with multi-hyphenate Pulitzer-Prize winning author, producer, and songwriter Michael Chabon. While he’s primarily known for his literary works such as Wonderboys, and the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I wanted to delve deeper into some of his musical influences, along with his collaborations with Tame Impala and Mark Ronson. We started on some of his earliest musical memories.
Dexter Kaufmann: You spent many years of your life in Pittsburgh. Was there a music scene there, or an artist you connected with a lot at that time in your life?
Michael Chabon: There was definitely a music scene in Pittsburgh. It was kind of emerging out of punk, into the kind of music that nobody was calling post-punk yet. I was in a band that was kind of like that, and I sang. I left, but a year or two later I learned about this thing called grunge, and realized “Oh, that’s what that was”. It was this weird mixture of metal and punk.
DK: What was the name of your band?
MC: We were called the Bats!
Yes, you heard that right, Michael Chabon was in a post-punk, pre-grunge band called The Bats. Before he was writing classic novels, and making Simpsons cameos, he was rocking out in Pittsburgh dive bars. For those who need a refresher, Michael’s simpsons cameo involved an epic fistfight with Johnathan Franzen.
DK: Your novels have been adapted into multiple films. Wonder Boys for example, has a stacked soundtrack. Is there a needle drop in your work that you are particularly proud of?
MC: The Wonderboys soundtrack is great. I guess it was Curtis [Hanson]’s idea, since it was a movie about writers, they would feature the work of singer-songwriters primarily like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. When I heard [Bob Dylan] had written a song for the movie I was so excited, and it’s such a great song!
DK: Along with your literary and film projects, you do have some high-profile songwriting credits. One that sticks out to me is “Daffodils” by Mark Ronson and Kevin Parker. How did a collaboration like that come to fruition?
MC: That was so much fun. I had met Mark Ronson very briefly, and we talked and hit it off. I went back to Berkeley and I just wrote a lyric, with no music. First off, to see if I could do it, and secondly to show Mark that I could do it. That became the song “Crack in the Pearl”
DK: How did you meet Kevin Parker?
MC: At some point, he brought in Kevin Parker, and I was already a big Tame Impala fan at that point. Two of my boys, Abe and Zeke, love Tame Impala too, and we’d all gotten into them together. Of all the lyrics I worked on for that project, that was the most intimidating. It was one thing with Mark and Jeff Bhasker, we’d all sit around and collaborate, and stuff would emerge, but that song [Daffodils] was ready, it was done and sounded great. Kevin was going to sing it, and I like his lyrics. I already consider him to be a good lyricist. I thought “Why does Kevin Parker even need me? I have to write something that is worthy of Kevin Parker, or at least as good as something he could do himself”. So I really tried hard, and I wrote a couple sets, and Kevin rejected a couple lyrics in a super gentle, quiet way. He was like “This song is like a going out to a party, having a good time, looking for fun on a saturday night song”. At some point I had this idea of these yellow pills that you would take that would basically force you to have a good time. Whatever that drug’s technical name is, the street name would be “Daffodils”.
DK: Speaking of famous musical connections, considering Rashida Jones was at Abe’s bar mitzvah, have you met Quincy Jones?
MC: I have met Quincy. I don’t mean to diminish or patronize him, but he is so adorable and cute. He’s an old man, but he’s super lively and funny. He had no idea who I was, but he pretended so beautifully that he knew me and was happy to see me. We had a really good conversation and I felt like he was my best friend for the ten minutes we were talking.
DK: Have your kids put you onto any music?
MC: Rosie, my daughter, is really into country-western, americana, and folk music. She turned me on to Tyler Childers, and he’s such an incredible artist. To be that great of a lyricist and that great of a fiddle player. His song “Long Violent History” is just an incredible feat of songwriting, in the way that almost no one writes songs anymore.
DK: We wanna give a quick shout out to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, which is a country-western radio show in Poughkeepsie hosted by your daughter Rose. Do you have a favorite country song of all time?
MC: The first thing that popped in my mind was “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. It’s a pretty popular song at this point, but it’s hard to imagine a song having more than that, when it comes to what you want from a country song. It’s got an incredible story, there’s a powerful narrative buried in it. The language, how the singer describes Jolene to Jolene in such flattering, admiring terms, as she’s begging her to not steal her husband. I don’t know who’s responsible for that arrangement, but it is just mind-bogglingly beautiful.
DK: You’ve talked about how Steely Dan has influenced your songwriting, but I was curious if they’ve influenced your literary works?
MC: Yes! One hundred percent. Song lyrics taught me how to write. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker taught me a lot about writing. For example, in “Reelin’ in the Years”, the person he’s singing to, are they ex-lovers? Are they friends and one of their lives hasn’t turned out that well? Is it a girl who the male singer is singing to? Trying to figure that stuff out from the clues in the lyrics and the diction, I learned a lot about writing from that, and you can hear the Steely Dan influence creeping into my work. In the book Wonderboys, it has a little reference to “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”. Crabtree and Tripp spend hours trying to decide what was meant by the lyric about the squonk’s tears.
DK: I want to talk about your novel Telegraph Ave, the Childish Gambino song of the same name came out a year after your book, was there any connection or mutual reaching out?
MC: I know! What a biter! *laughs* No, not that I know of, but that was awesome. I heard about it from my son Abe. He was like “Childish Gambino’s new song is called Telegraph Avenue! Maybe he read your book!”. I considered the possibility, and I listened to the lyrics, and I don’t think he did. But it’s nice to think about.
DK: You recently posted some Yes-inspired album art on your instagram, do you have any music on the way?
MC: My solo album! *laughs* No… I got interested in songwriting after Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Special” experience. I collaborated with a few artists on lyrics, and I even ended up weirdly writing lyrics for a Charlie Puth song. I don’t know what happened to that. I heard they liked it, and recorded a demo, and then it just vanished, I don’t know why.
DK: WCBN is a Michigan radio station, and Michigan is the birthplace of so many great artists, like Stevie Wonder, Sufjan Stevens, the White Stripes, and Iggy Pop. Do you have a favorite Michigan band or musician?
MC: Those are all great, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Bob Seger. In particular, his early single, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”.
DK: You’ve been writing a Netflix miniseries for Kavalier and Clay with your wife Ayelet, do you have a vision for the musical score of the show? Will the music be totally inside the world of the book, or do you think you’ll include modern music?
MC: That’s a really good question, and I don’t know yet. Obviously you want to use a lot of diegetic music, like people listening to the radio in the background and hearing Benny Goodman and big band swing. But do you limit the music to that? Do you express the period, or ignore the period? Increasingly, you see shows that go against the period, and the clearest example is Peaky Blinders, using almost exclusively late 20th century and modern rock and blues stuff. To me, that can be really jarring, and breaks the spell of the music. The more I like the song they’ve chosen, the more it breaks the spell that I’m in 1890s Birmingham. But would it have worked if they used scratchy, wax 78s of terrible British jazz or tea music? That probably wouldn’t be good either. That’s a really good question and I’m looking forward to finding an answer to that question when it’s time.
DK: Do you have a favorite concert you’ve ever been to?
MC: Yes. I got to see the reconstituted Big Star. I remember I was crying, I love that band so much. A similar thing was seeing Brian Wilson do “Smile” live.
DK: Do you have any tips for songwriting or writing in general?
MC: What I learned from working with Jeff Bhasker, the pop music genius producer, on that Mark Ronson record was vowels. The vowels that are singable by a singer and the vowels that are much less singable are crucial. It does no good to write really clever, beautiful, fun lyrics if the singer can’t get it out of their mouth.
There you have it, some excellent writing advice from one of the best MC’s to ever hold a pen. When I say MC, I’m obviously referring to Michael Chabon. I want to thank Michael from the bottom of my heart for doing this interview, it was an amazing experience. Especially because this wasn’t a press tour to advertise any new projects, he just did it out of the kindness of his heart, along with an obvious passion for music.
However, if you want to support his work, check out any of his novels, from Mysteries of Pittsburgh to Moonglow. Listen to Uptown Special by Mark Ronson, which features some of his amazing songwriting. Finally, if you like sci-fi, he created the new Star Trek: Picard series.
If you want to hear more interviews, and freeform radio, listen to Baby Blue with Dexter, Saturdays at midnight. For the audio version of this interview, including the songs he references, listen here.