A Conversation with David Kallison

"Sing Along Songs Will Be Our Scriptures"


“The closest thing I’ve ever came to a spiritual experience was at a show. Looking around at hundreds of kids, communing with each other and the band, ‘sing along songs will be our scriptures’ as the Hold Steady once said. In 2005, the Get Up Kids were playing what was supposed to be one of their last shows at the Metro in Chicago. It was their farewell tour. They played ‘I’ll Catch You,’ their piano ballad that was a favorite of mine …‘Remembering jinx removing,’ I screamed to no one, and I saw a few others raising their fists too, perhaps catching the Jawbreaker reference like I did...It was in that moment, alone in a crowded club in Chicago that I felt any sort of pull to the spiritual, any pull at all toward any sort of higher power. The power of creativity, communion amongst the kids at the show, if singing is praying twice, that show was my Easter Mass.”

That passage comes from episode twelve (Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker) of David Kallison’s podcast, The Sound and the Story. The feeling Kallison describes above, of feeling connected with some greater truth through music, is similar to the one that I have felt a few times in my life. There was that one Alliswell show after we hadn't played for a few years when I looked behind me and saw Chris on drums, then Durf to my left, Wes to my right, so many friends in front of me. There was that concert this past fall in Baltimore with Major and Joe. A few others that I could keep going on, but you get it, you've probably felt it too. 

It’s the feeling of connection, of creativity, of discovery, of being in on this inside joke or reference that maybe only a few people get, most importantly, it’s the feeling of community, of the idea that although it may seem like it, you aren’t alone in the world. These threads are woven into each of the thirteen episodes of The Sound and the Story, which is what made Kallison’s podcast essential listening for those of us who were saved by music.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to exchange a few emails with David Kallison as we discussed the power of music, the (sometimes) futility of writing, and trying to get better.

Our conversation follows.

Dane wrote on 2/10/18 at 2:29pm:

Hey David,

Thanks for being down for the interview. We'll start here.

One of my favorite parts of the Sound and the Story is the way that each episode feels like a first hand account about an album's emotional impact. It's a personal touch that allows the listener to either relate (if they too already love that album) or better connect with an album that perhaps they previously under appreciated. 

What albums throughout this 13-episode run connected the most with you personally? Were there any albums that you got more into through doing research for the episode?

David wrote back on 2/11/18 at 2:32pm:

That’s good to hear, because it definitely is a personal touch! I love all these albums and I’m genuinely excited to share them with people.

Like any other lonely, horny nerd, I latched onto Pinkerton like a leech. It felt dangerous in a way, a feeling I continue to seek in music. Besides when my mother explained what Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” was about, Pinkerton was the first time I realized that music could have stories, could have emotion. Perhaps it’s grandiose to say, but I don’t think I’d be the same person if I hadn’t heard that album when I did. It also led to my fascination with lyrics and why they were written. Rivers’s leg surgery is the best example, with “I don’t want to be an old man anymore,” was written because he was having painful leg lengthening surgery and had to stumble around with a cane for months. This decade-long fascination with the story behind Pinkerton was the origin of the podcast.

A few listeners wrote in early and were disappointed that there had been only male voices on the show. I totally agreed with them, apologized, and decided to do an episode on Rilo Kiley. An ex-girlfriend I was with always hated the punk/indie/emo music I listened to. But she loved Rilo Kiley. They were her favorite band. So I had definitely heard More Adventurous a lot, but it had never really sunk in until I did it for the podcast and now I’m just obsessed with that record. It’s such a little weird, angular masterpiece. 

Dane replied on 2/13/18 at 1:33pm:

It definitely comes through that these albums mean something to you too. The thrill you describe in discovering Pinkerton calls to mind the many times I’ve felt that feeling. The wistfulness evident in your voice as you recount the stories of friendship that After the Party recalls, awakens those same feelings of nostalgia for the listener. 

Though your podcast goes deeper than that too.  

I was surprised to learn so much more about albums that I thought I knew everything about. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the Transatlanticism and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy episodes. (Note: There was a time when this email would have also mentioned The Devil and God are Raging Inside of Me, but, damn, I can’t bring myself to talk about that album any more.)

What did your research entail for each episode of the Sound and the Story? Were some episodes tougher to crack than others?

David wrote back on February 14th at 1:50pm:

I’m actually really glad you didn’t mention Brand New. Before the allegations came out, their last album, Science Fiction, was going to be the final episode of the podcast. But when we learned what he did, when we finally listened to the women who had been saying this for a while, I, just me personally, didn’t want to listen to Jesse Lacey, think about Jesse Lacey, and definitely didn’t want to try to get in his head and dissect his lyrics. 

Emily Driskill, a victim, wrote a long piece about Lacey’s coercion. She has a picture of herself at a Brand New show at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas in 2007. She’s holding a camera and she looks so young. She would later have another encounter with Lacey after the show. Well, I was at that show. I was there while this horrible thing was happening right after a sold out crowd of fans fawned and worshiped him. That feels so perverse now, contributing to his ego in that way. So out of respect to Emily and anyone else affected, and because I felt gross doing so, I scrapped the idea of doing Science Fiction. I’m glad I did.

The research is what killed the podcast if I’m being honest. With Weezer and The Hold Steady, I at least knew what I was looking for. I knew Rivers was going to Harvard, I knew he had leg surgery. I knew he was a massive Madame Butterly fan. So I could start down those rabbit holes. It still took awhile, but I had a flashlight, so to speak. 

As I drifted to records which I had less initial knowledge of, it was tough. I would usually start with Wikipedia, find an interesting fact, and then try to follow that source, which was often no longer available (if it ever was). So then I’d start to look up band interviews from the years right before or during the album coming out.  That revealed some really cool stuff. I found out that although The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats was an chronicling of abuse by his stepdad, Darnielle actually thought of him as the “fun” one growing up since they would always go to see local wrestling matches together (itself a metaphor for their relationship which was explored in the Goats’ later album Beat the Champ). It changed how I looked at Sunset Tree and answers the question of: “why don’t abused people just run away?” It’s always more complicated than that.

I had no idea just how many references Brian Fallon used on that Gaslight record. That record is really just a pastiche of older songwriters. And that the ’59 sound is the sound of Elvis’s guitar player’s amp, a ’59 Bassman, that Fallon rebuilt himself. I also like the possibly apocryphal story that Jenny Lewis was living across the hall from Jimmy Tamborello who was famously sending beats through the U.S. Postal Service to which Gibbard was putting lyrics to. Story has it that Lewis would wander into Tamborello’s apartment and start adding harmonies on top of Gibbard’s vocals. Tamborello left them in, Gibbard liked it, and they asked Lewis to join the band. I like that story. I don’t think it’s true though.

I almost abandoned the Bon Iver album. It was so tough to get anything past the sad boy in the cabin story. But when I found out that his ex-girlfriend’s name was Emma, I knew I had it. I’m glad I didn’t give up. People really responded to that episode. It’s probably my best one.

Dane wrote back on February 17th at 9:47am:

For a long time, Brand New were my favorite band in the world. Since November though, I don't want to listen-to/support them any more, like you said, it feels gross. I can’t deny what that band once meant to me, but as I go forward I can learn from my mistakes of hero-worship and see to it that the voices of victims are heard, even/especially when it means letting go of something I once loved.

It’s understandable how all that time devoted to research could lead to a hiatus. As a listener, I’ve only benefitted from your dedication to making each episode the best it can be. I’m interested to know, what are some things you gained from working on the podcast? Was it a cathartic experience? Did you learn anything about yourself from a creative standpoint that you didn’t previously know?

David replied on March 1st at 10:23am:

The first thing I learned was to respect my own work, to constantly make it better. There were lots of times when an edit was just a bit off, or a fade out dropped too abruptly, and every time I almost moved on. 99% of people wouldn’t notice anyway, and I was under self-imposed pressure to release the episode as fast as I could. But I wanted this podcast to be good. It deserved to be good. So I would spend the time and put the work in to make it as clean and crisp as I could. I learned to respect the work and give it the time it deserved.

I would call producing the podcast both invigorating and lonesome. When I found an interesting fact, when the music came in after I say: “I’m David Kallison and this [dramatic pause] is the Sound and the Story,” when I would be able to describe a certain feeling really well—those moments were invigorating. That’s the buzz right there. Sometimes I feel like a film that’s just out of sync and when I have those buzz moments, it all clicks in and everything sounds clear. That’s incredibly cheesy, I realize, but sometimes there’s no hip way to say, “This is my very essence.”

It’s lonesome because I never hear the feedback. I’ve done improv and stand-up and it’s so gratifying to say something and then hear the laugh sweep over you. It makes you want to do it again, it’s Pavlovian. But with a podcast, besides the very nice emails and tweets, which I appreciate, you pour yourself and time into this project, click publish, and…nothing. You just hope people like it. It makes it harder to stay motivated in that vacuum. At least, perhaps, with my ego it does.

Did I learn anything about myself? I learned that I’m stuck between wanting to be very successful and also still do everything myself, my way, in my living room. And I don’t know where the true balance lies. That’s a depressing thought so I also learned how to do a great NPR voice.

Dane replied on March 3rd at 3:58pm:

Everything you just said, from the exhilaration to the loneliness, applies to how I feel as a writer.

Of course, the latter is something I struggle with. I’m used to playing in bands where there’s at least polite applause during even the worst sets. It’s difficult sometimes to not have that, to spend months (or years) working on something without even knowing if what I’ve spent all that time on is worth anything to anyone else. 

If I’m not vigilant I can get trapped in that feeling and just spend days beating myself up without accomplishing anything. It’s definitely a bummer. And I don’t even have a good NPR voice. Maybe I can work on one though, it would at least be soothing if my imposter syndrome sounded like Terry Gross. Right now it just sounds like old high school acquaintances on Facebook. 

Getting back to the point though… 

It seems like your experience with the Sound and the Story has prepared you well for your next step. You’ve just recently published a book of poetry, entitled My Day as a Ghost, and you’re currently writing a novel.

As you work on your novel, do you feel those same feelings (re: working in a vacuum, pushing yourself to make it the best it can be, etc) that you felt working on the Sound and the Story? And, obviously asking for a friend here, how do you stay motivated through any moments of self-doubt (if you have them)?

David replied on March 5th at 3:13pm:

I feel like at some point I’m going to steal that inner voice sounds like the kids from high school that are now on Facebook. Love that.

Working on a novel is even more lonesome. It’s the loneliest thing in the whole world except if you happen to be at a big party in Brooklyn with no one to kiss and the remnants of some sort of elderflower drink that tastes like a Tumblr blog. But besides that, writing wins. What I have found is especially tough is that, at least for me, I always want to share things. I want that feedback, positive and negative; I just want to know that this thing I’m doing is making an impact in some way. My worst fear is not that people think that what I do sucks, but that they don’t think about what I do at all. 

So then with the novel you start showing it to people and they have good things to say about it and they also have changes. I gave my dad the first 50 pages or so and he said of the main character, “I was sad she did so much cocaine so early on.” And that made me go back and look at her character and look more at her whole arc, but that was all thinking. Not writing. My advice is to not show it to anyone until it’s done, as difficult as that might seem. Write it your way, write it for you, don’t write for anyone else. Not that you won’t then go back and make (huge) revisions. But that first draft has to be pure or everything else is diluted. I got hung up on thinking about the novel instead of actually writing. The main reason I quit doing The Sound and the Story was to try to reclaim some of that pure word count back. The scripts for the show were 4,000+ words. I needed to spend some of those words in other places.

Dane wrote on March 9th at 11:29am:

Don’t write for anyone else is a good mantra. It’s what I try to do, what I want to do, as well. Just sometimes there are so many conflicting thoughts in my own head, the Kanye voice of ego, the Eeyore voice of self-doubt/loathing, the chorus in between…it can be hard to navigate. Which isn’t to act like trying to make something is this hardship forced upon me, it definitely isn’t. It’s just that everything I said applies to my life too. I would be battling these feelings regardless, because I always have.

I appreciate how open you’ve been on the Sound and the Story with some things that aren’t always easy to talk about, namely mental health. It’s something I have a hard time with too, sometimes, but not all the time, though the up times make the down times that much more difficult, because it’s like “Why can’t I just always be this way?”  

It’s difficult to talk about. I want to be seen as this confident, self-secure person, but that’s not who I am, and that bums me out even to type. I think that’s why I turn to music so often to help process those feelings. There’s this Touche Amore lyric that goes: “I’ve got these issues that you can’t subscribe/But too scared to talk to anyone for what they might prescribe.” 

It may sound cheesy but the record that song is from, Parting the Sea Between Brightness & Me has saved me in a lot of ways. It’s one I can put on any time to help me find my center again.

In a similar way, I think your podcast can have that effect. It’s the sharing of a love of music, a working things out together, that can help people feel less alone. If you’d like to speak on that at all in your reply, then please feel free to, but if not, I just want to say thanks for the Sound and the Story.

David wrote on March 9th at 12:04pm:

I think humans’ greatest fear, when it all comes down to it, is being alone, which is a sadder way of saying being unique. And we always hate what we fear the most. Especially in the last 15 years or so, we’ve both cherished uniqueness and shunned it immediately if it goes too far. Miley Cyrus was unique (a pop star smoking weed!), then too unique (a white girl twerking!), then swung back into accept uniqueness (unique talent but conforming personal life). So I think that voice in your head, that voice in my head, when I write is screaming both: don’t write for anyone else and also, don’t make it too weird!

Touche Amore lyrics, my podcast, a certain film, all help people feel less alone because they depict the things that you thought you were alone in undertaking. To me, it’s why mental illness is so hard to talk about. It is unique to each person. No one’s brain works (or doesn’t work) exactly like mine. And that’s terrifying. How can I be “fixed” if no one truly understands me? So then many of us put those feelings into our art as a way of trying to express ourselves that way. And it doesn’t work, but it sure helps. And that’s why I think art is the meaning of life. It gives us, as Sartre says is required, the ability to make meaning of our own lives. 

Thank you for letting me ramble on and on!

Best of luck to you, Dane.

Thanks, David.

David Kallison is a writer, poet, and podcaster from Austin, Texas. You can follow him on twitter: @DavidKallison and visit his website here.

The Sound and the Story is a podcast about the stories inside and behind your favorite albums. You can catch up on past episodes via iTunes.