There is beautiful, heartbreaking, fascinating work resounding in the basements of every punk house in the country, and it behooves us all to listen. There are poets performing readings before punk-rock shows again, there are poets participating in punk bands again, and though the movement never entirely went away, the argument can be made that the quality of what is happening has been bumped up. One can easily point to historic high points both in the punk world and in the art world: Mark E. Smith of the Fall comes to mind, Moss Icon comes to mind, Cage comes to mind, Beefheart comes to mind, and modern re-interpretation of Slam certainly rings loudly. What we have now is bands trying to do something more artful, more interesting. We have poetry in new light and form. We have minimal punk-rooted music that introduces a hybrid in art, beautifully—a signifier to the new generation of underground poets making their way to the mainstream. Listener is a band doing this, and frankly I am wild about them. Below are some videos of their work, and if you listen closely, you just may find yourself entirely heartbroken, entirely inspired anew.
Nicolle Elizabeth (Rail): Hi Dan of Listener. You have been going since 2002, and you have some roots in rap. Can you speak to Listener’s inception and influences, start at the start, tell us how this happened?
Dan Smith: I just say the words in the band. Chris Nelson plays guitars and Kris Rochelle plays the drums, and sometime I play the bass and some horns, too. I started the band and did some hip-hop music under the name early on, but for the past five years it’s been Chris and I. I wanted to just make music, and I liked hip-hop when I was younger, and so I made it. Then fast-forward several albums and years of touring: I wanted to make and do something different, and so we did.
Rail: Spoken-word poetry has many incarnations. One could point to varying facets of “hardcore punk” bands like Moss Icon, for example. Are you influenced in any way by this movement in music/art?
Smith: I guess personally I like art that I feel is honest and from the heart, and that can influence me...all kinds of art. I’m not too versed in spoken-word poetry or hardcore punk, although I know what it is and I can see there’s a huge scene for it. I guess I don’t follow them that closely.
Rail: Do you write the pieces as poetry first or more as song lyrics first, or do you find the differential line to be a murky abyss that cannot be parsed at all—like the gap between prose poetry and flash fiction, or the camps that weave between both facets of the written word?
Smith: That’s one of the fanciest questions think I’ve ever been asked. Well, I just write bits and pieces and I know how to write long form, and there’s not much to it other than being honest and just saying what I want to say with a song.
Rail: How is listening to a poem read aloud different from reading a poem on the page?
Smith: I would think or hope that words read aloud could have some chance to get injected with some inflection and pause and emotion, but you never know how people will take what you write down and make inside their minds.
Rail: Can all poems that are read on the page translate to their original integrity when read aloud/observed? Can all poems that are read aloud be fully realized when read on the page?
Smith: I don’t know. I guess again, with my little knowledge of spoken-word poetry I’d just say that for me I’d rather listen to someone try and act out their words so I can hear and see what they are saying rather than read it. But I’m a visual learner, so who am I to say what’s best?
Rail: Who are some poets and writers on your bookshelf who you read? Who are some poets and writers on your bookshelf that you’d like to read but you always look at the spine of the work and go, Oh, yeah, and then move on? Who do you think are essentials for poets and writers—or musicians, for that matter—to be reading?
Smith: I don’t read much. I read a novel here and there, but I don’t really read poetry. I have a few books people have given me and I’ve read a few, but I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about that. My girlfriend bought me The World According to Fred Rogers (Important Things to Remember), by Fred Rogers, and it’s awesome. I’d recommend that to everyone. I also read The Way to Love, by Anthony De Mello. It’s got some really great things to think about inside of it.
Rail: the words are my favorite part.
Smith: Thanks. I like words, but sometimes words get in the way. Not all the time, just sometimes.
Rail: when did you start writing?
Smith: I started writing when I was 11.
Rail: Why do you write?
Smith: I write because I like to create and put down the words and lines that pop in my head, and I like the problem of it all and the ability to turn thoughts and ideas into songs.
Rail: Have you studied writing in a formal setting anywhere?