Keith Spillett: The Enigma
July 26, 2011
I was pretty excited to do this interview. Keith is one of my personal inspirations as a writer and one of my more dedicated supporters. He is the founder of The Tyranny of Tradition where he writes about a wide-array of topics, but cross-posts from time to time on Mind Over Metal and Metal Sucks. This is part of my interview series with music journalists. Speaking of which, his article tackling the current relevance of music reviews is worth a gander, check it out here.
Before I get into your musical and writing influences, what grabs the attention the most when someone approaches you on any level is your sense of humor. It is very distinct, have you always had the knack for comedy? Any primary influences in that area?
Lots and lots of them. I always liked the old Borsht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman when I was younger. Really quick one-liners grab me. I also get a kick out of surreal humor like Kurt Vonnegut's writing. There is a great deal of humor everywhere. People are really funny when you forget that you are one of them.
I was the annoying kid always doing impressions of Ronald Reagan in 3rd grade. Nobody really knew what the heck to make of me. I'm pretty sure I wasn't very funny, at least intentionally when I was younger, but I have always been a bit strange. Humor has helped me try to explain the way the world looks to me to other people. It lets me feel connected. Humor has come with the ability to be able to articulate how things look to me.
So you basically stood out like a sore thumb most of the time. Did that eventually bleed into your musical tastes a child? What kind of music were you raised listening to?
Yeah, I was an odd duck. I used to wear those glasses that looked like they were for welders. I even went through a stretch where I grew one sideburn....
My family always liked music, but were never crazy about it. We always had oldies radio on. My dad was into some Johnny Cash and some cool soul stuff like Junior Walker, but mostly I got into music on my own and really in my teen years. I liked radio more than plain music. I listened to Casey Kasem's Top 40 Show every week when I was a kid, mostly because I liked listening to stories about the groups.
What changed in your teen years that made me you get more passionate and into music outside of radio?
I ran into some very cool folks who listened to heavy metal. My friend Rick Donato got me into all sorts of crazy stuff. I remember he was telling me all sorts of whacked out band names and I asked him, kidding, whether he liked "Death and Pestilence." A few days later he played me the bands Death and Pestilence. I was a bit confused by the music at first, but I really connected to the energy of it. Then, when I started college, I got a college radio show and I was totally hooked. I can't imagine a time when I didn't listen to metal now.
I can imagine that to some degree, getting into metal at that time didn't help with you being the odd one out. What do you think contributed to that? Is it just a general apathy toward what most think of you?
I'd like to say I'm apathetic about that, but I do care very much. It's a terrible thing to know about yourself, but honestly, I do worry about what other people think. I just realized that I really have no clue how to be any other way so regardless of what other people think I am going to be what I am. The funny thing is, people are often much more accepting than I give them credit for. Also, people are so into their own internal world, that it's very likely they don't see me at all and vice versa.
In regard to the last sentence, I find that to be true in most cases. Given what's been said, did you ever decide to take a more active role in the music world? Learn to play an instrument, do vocals, or just join a band for the hell of it?
Yeah, I've messed around with it a bit. I have a hard time with that whole "having rhythm" thing. I always have some weird project going that exists near the realm of music. My current project exists in the genre of unMusic. My band E.T.A.F. (eats things that aren't food) doesn't record music. We create song titles and allow the listener to mentally create the music that fits with the title. It's a purely cool medium (in the Marshall McLuhan sense). Pure involvement. The audience creates just about everything and is, thus, fully connected to the material.
Oh yes! I've read about that via a post on Tyranny of Tradition some time ago. I'm a big fan of it. That brings me to your other past-time, writing. How long have you been at it and what got you started?
I started the blog in October of 2010. I hadn't written in years. I wrote a lot in my early 20s and reached a point where I felt like I didn't have anything worth writing so I stopped. It was all hideous poetry and random insights that didn't do anything for me but give me a hand cramp. I started thinking about doing some writing again a year ago and I figured blogging would be a good way to find other like minded freaks. I have gotten to know some awesome people through it and have gotten to exchange really valuable ideas. It's a blast when someone on some different part of the earth reads your stuff and gets something from it. The feeling of connection to the world that blogging provides me with is remarkable.
I think that's one of the most rewarding things about writing. Is there a noticeable change in your writing style since your 20's? What would you say helped mold your style into what it is today? What is your general approach to writing?
I read a lot between then and now. Reading great writing has helped me a lot. Tom Wolfe, Garry Wills, Philip Roth, HL Mencken, David Mamet, Hunter Thompson and a cast of other strange characters have been the best tutors I could ever have. I still don't have what I would call an original style, but I have borrowed a lot of elements from people who really know what the heck they are doing. I also have experienced a lot of things that have helped me to understand that my feelings are unique and personal, but have a great deal to do with others. My writing got better when I realized I wasn't alone. When I was in my 20s, I didn't really think anything I wrote could actually mean anything for another person and, subsequently, I wrote that way.
I've struggled with a similar problem with my writing in the past. What made you decide to try your hand at music journalism since starting the blog as a completely personal project?
Music tends to bring out visceral, genuine reactions in people. Sometimes when I'm at a concert, I turn around and watch the audience watch a band. When things are really popping and the band is on, you see this amazing look in people's eyes. It's like looking into a giant wave of emotion. That's what I like to write into. People can be so alive when they hear music. I want to connect to the part of the audience that is totally consumed by passion and on fire.
The way you do it is rather unique and different than most. You weave a story for the readers that makes one want to listen it so they can either prove your vision right or wrong. What elements helped shape your review style in the technical sense?
Thanks, Sarah. That's the goal. There are conventions to every genre. I try to understand what the conventions are, then pull as far away as I can from them while still acknowledging that they exist. Most people who have read a lot of music reviews know what is supposed to happen. The goal is to meet that knowledge, then alter the formula so that they can go somewhere even more wonderful. This is experimental and with all experimental things there are going to be some monstrous failures, but on its best day, the review can tell the story of the place where the creative exuberance of the musician meets the undying enthusiasm of the audience and explodes into a magnificent orgiastic burst.
Exactly mimicking live performances. I know that you have a full-time job as a teacher. How difficult is it balancing that with your passion for writing? Do you ever just feel like giving up on it?
A bit difficult. My wife and I have two wonderful young children who require a good deal of love, patience and time as well. It can be overwhelming, but I have carved out some places and times for writing. I went through a stretch where I wrote exclusively between 4 and 5 AM in the YMCA parking lot waiting for it to open. I keep a tape recorder in the car with me and sketch out ideas on the ride home. My wife is also very supportive of my love for writing and gives me time when I need it. I hold myself responsible for 3 roughly 2,000 words a week, which isn't all that much, so I am able to stick with it. If it ever feels like too much and it's not fun for me anymore, I am fine stopping again for a while. It's a hobby for me. The minute it really becomes anything more than that, I probably need another hobby. My three main passions in life are parenting, being a good husband and teaching. Those are the priorities for me. Writing finishes a strong but distant fourth.
I don't know where that 3 came from! Strike it immediately!
I like that :) It answers the question that I was going to ask next.
Mind reading...another skill I learned in the public schools of New York.
I do know that you are very much into sports. Has that always been a passion for you that grew over time as well?
I love sports. My father was a football coach and I grew up going to practice with him. Most of my early memories are sports related. It's always been a major part of my life. I have been coaching basketball for 9 years now and I love every minute of it. Coaching has opened up a whole new level of love and appreciation in me for athletics. The first day of practice is always my favorite day of the year. I have gotten a chance to work with and really know so many awesome young people as a coach. I'm really lucky to have found it.
Well, that certainly makes me feel like I missed some possibly rewarding times in sports. I want to go back to your writing inspirations. I notice that you draw inspiration from a lot of things and you talked about recording ideas in the car. Do you actively sit down and think on what to write or do the ideas somehow just come to you at any given time?
The tape recorder is my savior. I used to lose a lot of good ideas during the day or would lose my mind trying to remember things. Now, I just spit anything that comes to mind into it. Usually, once I say it into the recorder it stays with me, but I find good ideas buried on there from time to time (along with some completely unworkable silly ones). The trick for me is to be open to ideas all the time. Then, when I sit down to write it really flows. It usually doesn't take me all that long to write something if I am consistent with the recorder. The only thing that takes time is getting up the nerve to hit the "publish" button.
You're really asking great questions, by the way. If the Russians had you back in 1945 they would have had the A-Bomb a lot sooner!
Hahaha. Compliment well received, Keith. You're incredibly interesting. We both share a passion for a really good movie as well. What is your favorite genre if you can't pin down a specific all time favorite movie?
Genre, I'd say psychological thrillers. I've watched an obscene amount of Twilight Zone episodes and nothing makes me happier than a good hook ending. I love having a film shake my beliefs and expectations. In terms of a film, I'd have to pick Network. Everything about that film is magic. The dialogue in that film is on a whole other level. I learn something new every time I watch it. I used to love it for the "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" speech that is really what it's known for, but the forces that conspire to use up Howard Beale and spit him out are really what blows me away watching it now.
Dialogue can make a good movie or break it, that's for sure. So, at the end of the day, where do you see Tyranny of Tradition ending up in the hierarchy of the internet blogsphere? Is there are particular goal with that?
I'm still trying to figure out what it is...what it could be is a whole other ball of yarn. I would like to learn a photoshopping program so that I can put famous people's heads on animals. I've had this weird idea about what Speaker of the House John Boehner's head would look like on a rhino. I can't get it out of my mind. I'd like to walk down the street and have someone stop me and say "Hey, didn't you put John Bohner's head on a rhino once?" I mean, everybody has a dream, right?
I love that particular one. Amusing all it's own. I think I've interrogated you thoroughly. I can't thank you enough for taking time out to do this with me. I enjoyed our time together. Are there any closing remarks that you would like to add for our readers?
No, I think the thing about the rhino is probably where I should stop. This has been a whole lot of fun.