by Gary Gibraltar
We chatted with Alex Kratzert about his recent publication Some Fine Paradise, a semi-fictionalized account of the contemporary jam band scene. It celebrates the highs and picks apart the lows, leaving you with nostalgia, hope and a desire to fashion a life that suits your own brand of freak.
LMD: This book fits in the tradition of Hunter S Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac. Who are your favorite writers, who inspired you to get into music criticism?
Those three are definitely my favorites, especially Kurt. He has a way of making you feel totally hopeless, but you laugh the whole way through and by the end you’re smiling and okay with it all. And just his one-liners and punchy prose; as much as I’d like to think I have a totally unique voice, I definitely steal from him, and the others too. Tom Wolfe and John Irving are up there for me, and toward the end of working on this book I started reading Tom Robbins a lot, and his writing changed the way I looked at my own – his stuff is crazy.
I also like Hemingway, though I understand he was a bit of a prick, and I’ve recently been getting into Herman Hesse. But I’m not sure who inspired me to get into music criticism, and it’s strange for me to think of it like that. As much as I may criticize music on or off the page, I have respect for anyone who puts themselves out there and gets up on stage or puts out a record, speaking from someone who’s done it and knows how tough it is. So I’ve tried to stick to, “This is what I dig and why, but if something else gets you going, to hell with what I think.” But really it was after my first Phish show and the weird stuff that came with it. I was worried I’d forget it all, so I figured I’d write it down.
LMD: Whats your opinion of the ways in which people consume music these days and of how they consume live music? How do you think the internet, cell phones and streaming services have impacted these things and the concert going experience?
I think it’s all fine, but it’s pretty saturated. You have to be a good listener. Like if you come across a fifteen-track album of a band you’ve never heard of, on Facebook or whatever, you might click a tune or two and get a sample, but maybe the song that you’d really click with is the next track, or between those. You have to be willing to spend a lot of time sifting through the noise of social media, and not get distracted by a notification or a text. It’s not like a vinyl record that just keeps spinning until it’s over, and you’re along for the ride.
As far as the live experience goes, it’s actually pretty nice. It’s great to get a free stream of the first tunes of a show you didn’t get to go to. And the cell phones at shows don’t bother me as much as they probably should, and I’m probably in the minority there. I really like photography, mediocre as I am at it, and if I could bring my high-functioning camera to every show, you’d probably see me with my nose in that a lot throughout the night. So I take a photo every once in a while with my phone, and I’m usually dancing and smiling while I do it, so I don’t see too much harm in that. I can’t say I’ve seen many people watching the whole show through their phones, but those photos of entire crowds holding up cell phones does have a sort of eerie, 1984, Martian-invasion vibe.
But many people are like that now, and I don’t know if the phones have anything to do with it. Watch Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop, or Jimi Hendrix at Rainbow Bridge – people listened. So if someone really doesn’t want to listen and immerse themselves in the experience, they’ll find another way to get distracted, like by talking. Though I will say that in the most profound, ethereal and magical moments of my live music experience, I sure as hell wasn’t looking at my cell phone.
LMD: What festivals do you think embody the spirit you write about in your book? Which embody it the most? Which festivals embody it the least?
Well I’m still kind of a newbie really; I’ve maybe been to a dozen festivals since my first festival, which was Bonnaroo 2011. That might seem like a lot to some folks, but I know there’s people who will hit at least that many in one summer, so you know, it’s relative. And they’re expensive, and if I hadn’t gotten press passes for three years, I probably wouldn’t have gone to most of them, so I don’t know if that makes me the most reliable source on all this. That being said, Lockn’ Festival really does it for me. There’s something about that place. I went the first three years and the first night this year, and it really holds up. It’s a beautiful scene, the people are great and the music is always excellent. I feel like I’m at home there, like I can be as weird and wild as I want so long as I don’t spill my beer on someone or freak someone out. And even then, they can usually freak right back.
Of the festivals I’ve been to, they’ve all embodied it in some way. Even at Camp Bisco in the book, which was probably the most up and down of all the festivals for me, had something about it that was enticing, like the crazier it got the more the good moments stood out. I’m pretty biased against festivals that are mostly electronic, but the year after when the book takes place, I went to Mysteryland at the Woodstock grounds in Bethel, NY. I fully expected it to be a bummer, but I wanted to be there to write about it, to have a first-hand look at the downfall of all things good and pure about the festival scene – I mean, following the incredible history of that place with DJ music seemed like a nosedive into absurdity. But I had a good time. Not oceanic or anything, but I had fun. I got pretty sick of the music and hearing the same samples, but I didn’t have high hopes from the start so no harm there. And I met some really great people, some of whom I probably wouldn’t have given the time of day outside the place. So I guess there’s something to be said for that.
LMD: Clearly there’s a Kerouac-ian “roman a clef” thing going on in your book. How much of you is in Wes? How much fiction is actually in the book? How did your friends and family react to the book and their depictions in it?
There’s a lot of me in him, but I still think of Wes as a character separate from me. The book is essentially my experience, but writing about myself anywhere from a year to three years later felt like writing about a different person. So I think if you asked him the same questions, you’d probably get different answers. And to write from the perspective of who I am now on who I was then, there’s fiction in that. That’s where most of the fiction comes in, because I could only make a guess based off a memory – sure there’s a lot to work with there, but it’s not like I recorded the whole thing. And at the same time, my view on an experience could be miles different from someone else who was there. So I guess making it fiction allowed me to make sense of my experiences without being stuck in what I thought when it was happening, because hindsight can clear a lot of things up. And hopefully it allows the reader to get annoyed with Wes and know I’m thinking the same damn thing.
My friends and family were nothing but supportive, and I have to give them a hand there. I tried not to dig into anyone, and if I did I tried to see their side and catch my own faults. Whether I did it justice I’m not sure, but they still talk to me so that’s good. I also feel like some of it helped clear up things that were maybe left hanging back then, so that’s good too. But I did fictionalize a lot about them, whether it be appearances, background, name, etc., so you’d have to know me pretty well in order to guess who they are. But they were psyched, and I love ‘em for it.
LMD: If you were describing this festival scene period to a music kid 30 years from now, what would be the most important thing you could say to help them understand what it was like and what it was all about?
That’s a tough one. I guess that like anything else it was flawed, but in it there was magic. To me these festivals are about coming together to ease the suffering of regular life and to celebrate something bigger than ourselves, and with that you get a glimpse at something like peace. So peace and love and all that was the essence of it, and that started way before I came around. But yeah, I don’t know, it’s just nice to think we’ll all be around in 30 years, with the way things are going.
LMD: You speak critically of people who go to festivals hoping to score or get laid? What do you think are the worst expectations and behaviors people bring to festivals? What are the best?
Well first, I’m really not one to judge. But from my experience, the best thing you can do is immerse yourself in the music. Drugs can enhance or take away from that, it just depends. I know a lot of people have found love at festivals, and that’s really beautiful. But, and I’m really speaking to men here, if you’re making someone uncomfortable, you’re doing it all wrong, and you’re missing the point and the experience. It’s like a scene at a bar – chances are that woman didn’t come out to have you bugging her. So really it’s more about letting things come rather than seeking them out, and being respectful to someone else’s experience, and their personal space. And there’s also been an issue of sexual assault, misconduct, etc. in the whole live music scene that I probably should have talked about more, and that we should all recognize. But hey, if there’s a spark and it’s consensual, and both parties are in the right mind to give consent, rock ‘n roll, you got my vote.
As far as expectations go, I’ve found it’s never going to be what you expect. Just stay open and positive, and hopefully things like love and magic will find you. And if they don’t in the ways that you’d hoped, don’t get bummed out, take it for what it was.
LMD: How has your writing changed since graduating?
It’s probably less romanticized. I used to really overdo it in an effort to make things seem grand and beautiful and important when maybe I should’ve just let them be dull, especially when writing about my own experiences, and then hopefully they’d find their own light. So I’m trying to let things be, take them for what they are.
LMD: You reflect on your arrest in the book, and it really is an interesting story arc. How have your thoughts on your arrest and the criminal justice system evolved or hardened since you wrote about it?
They’ve pretty much stayed the same – that it’s completely fucked. It’s medieval with a twist. One of my biggest fears is being locked up, and I can’t imagine being anything other than a white guy from a beach town in Connecticut – the fear is minimal for people like me. There’s a lot of privilege that goes into this festival business, and I think that’s something we all need to remember and not take lightly. But since then, with all that’s happened in this country, I guess it’s become less of fear of the criminal justice system, and more anger, disgust, abhorrence, loathing, nausea, repugnance – I just looked up a synonym for “diarrhea,” but you get the picture.