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On Laptop's introductory EP User's Guide you gave us 'I'm Happy You Failed,' the most spiteful anthem written about a fellow musician since John Lennon dissed Paul McCartney on 'How Do You Sleep.' Come on, which band is about?
Now that I think about it -- it was probably about the President I was just discussing. Or maybe it was my manager or my ex or The Strokes in advance of their existence.
How often are you asked that question? Do other bands accost you in New York clubs and demand to know if it's about them?
Girls Against Boys threw a drink in my face.
In fact, do other bands in New York even talk to you?
I usually cross the street if I see any.
So anyway, the User's Guide Ep came out on a major label as a taster of an album that was never released. What happened? Were you dropped?
I don't know if dropped is the right word. Island UK was basically dissolved in the merger. I think they moved some band called U2 (apparently they make the label a lot of money) over to Universal and that was it. They stuck my record on a shelf, refusing to let me put out the record elsewhere. That was nice of them. After 200 angry phone calls, from me and my radio DJ friend in Norway, Marit Karlsen, they finally decided they'd let us put it out ourselves (Uni keeps all the profits -- nice!) so we'd stop annoying them.
'I'm So Happy You Failed' includes the line "I'm setting myself up for the same song to be sung back to me." Did you allow yourself a wry smile at that line when you departed the major label before even releasing an album?
Guess I'm psychic.
Did other New York bands start accosting you in clubs and singing the song back to you?
No, because every New York band knows the meaning of "failure" (a musician's ups and downs) as much as I do -- see Helmet, Girls Vs. Boys, The Strokes (soon enough), D Generation... Besides Sonic Youth (barely) name a band from New York that's had an easy go of it since Madonna in the early 80's.
|"MCA assured me with expensive lunches that they loved, got, lurved, whatever else Laptop. I even got a Christmas gift from the President of MCA with a note: 'Look forward to breaking Laptop huge in 2000.' He was right. They did break Laptop: my momentum, my sanity, my desire to be on a major ever again."
JESSE HARTMAN ON LAPTOP'S INADVERTENT, INAUSPICIOUS DALLIANCE WITH MCA RECORDS. (PIC: Anne Senstad.)
Finally, you've come out with your debut album, Opening Credits. It's been very well received - as it should be. It's superb. Does it feel worth the wait?
Sure. It's kind of fun to be starting a new band at my ripe old age. Now, I'm like the wizened "long-in-the-tooth" pub rockers from the Stiff era: Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury. I'm a fucking rock 'n' roll veteran and it's all because I've been in legal battles with my record label the last two years!
The album has been released across the globe on Trustmerecords, a Norwegian record label. I'm confused. Norway? Can you explain.
Kind of explained already above. I wanted my label to be located about as far away from me as possible. I'm looking into a label in Saipan for my 4th album.
Opening Credits seems to have done particularly well in the UK. Why? Do they see something special in you that Americans don't notice?
I guess, to them, I'm a bit of an exotic character. Plus, they get the 'ironica' threads through Laptop's songs more than Americans do. When I play in London, people laugh between lines like I'm doing stand-up or something. Jonathan Richman would be proud.
You've even toured the UK, but you don't seem to play your home city. Why? Are you worried that New York bands will accost you in the clubs and demand to know if 'I'm SO Happy You Failed' is about them?
I'm more afraid of ex-girlfriends hurling tomatoes.
Many of the reviews of your music call you an 80s revivalist. Is that fair?
Ah, the press. What can I say except that they seem to need a tag line for every band. Sure there are references in my music-- tons, actually (I dare say, like a musical Goddard). But are they all 80's? These writers ought to take a listen to some 70's Eno, some 60's Stax, some 90's...well, maybe not the 90's.
What do the 80s mean to you then?
It means a lot of music I kind of hated at the time but love now.
What does the 21st century mean to you (so far)?
Of all the descriptions afforded you, which is your favorite, or perhaps the most appropriate? I like the one that compares you to "Gary Numan alone with a bottle of vodka."
There are two. "Laptop is Leonard Cohen remixed by Devo" and "Hartman is like a Japanese robotic young Mick Jagger mixed with a computer literate Woody Allen".
Most of the album Opening Credits concerns your apparently unsuccessful love life. What I want to know is, are the songs all about one particular girl or is this a whole series of failures you're writing about?
A whole series. At least 50. Should have been a triple album.
Have you thought of trying therapy?
I tried it for years. Then I went to Jim Jarmusch's therapist who hypnotized me...Now, I'm cured! The third album is tentatively entitled Accentuate The Positive.
Even if you've managed to keep the rival band in 'I'm So Happy You Failed' a secret, the girls you address in songs like 'End Credits' and 'The Reason' must know who they are. Have they sent you hate mail yet? Or better still, have they left messages on your answering machine that you can sample for future songs?
You want to know the truth? And you might find this bizarre, but they are actually flattered when they appear in these songs.
You have a song called 'The Wedding Band.' There was an 80s revival movie called The Wedding Singer. Are they related?
Yes. Radio DJ Steve Lamacq wrote in the British press that I should have starred in that movie instead of Adam Sandler. That thought (and an ex trying to hire me as her wedding band) inspired the song.
Are you living proof that great art only comes out of misery?
As Woody writes in Crimes and Misdemeanors, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." That's my mantra for making art.
The girls in your songs tend to be real basket cases, or at least 'Bad News,' as you call them. Doesn't that reflect as badly on your choice of partner as on the girls in question?
More like extremely intelligent, artistic and interesting with difficult pasts. Sometimes that combination produces bouts of basket case-icity.
Have you thought of trying Prozac?
Don't think depression's my problem. Anxiety maybe. I've tried Buspar and plenty of non-pharmaceuticals.
Trustmerecords has announced release dates not just for your second album The Old Me versus the New You but your third one Accentuate the Positive as well. Is this in reaction to the perpetual 'tba's of major labels?
Trustme Records and I like having the control to make plans ahead of time. We don't need to see if my next single charts before scheduling the releases (like majors do). That's the whole point here.
Are both these albums "in the can," as they say in the music biz?
Old Me is...It's out in June in the UK and out here in the fall 2001. Accentuate will be recorded this summer in NYC.
How do they differ from Opening Credits?
It's interesting. Opening Credits and The Old Me Vs. The New You almost parallel each other -- like two concept albums make by the same artist living on two similar but different planets. Shit, that sounds like Star Trek...Here's a comparison track by track:
1. 'End Credits' - about closure /The New You - about rebirth and reinvention
2. 'Greatest Hits' - about a guy pissing off a girl, she leaves him/Back Together - about a guy wanting to repair things with a girl
3. 'I'm So Happy You Failed' - about hatred/I Can't Say Hi - about hatred
4. 'Nothing To Declare' - coming home from world travels hopelessly/Whole Wide World - wanting to travel the world hopefully
5. 'Another Song' - guy hurt by girl/Not The Right Time - guy hurts girl
6. 'Bad News' - love patterns/Generational Pattern - family patterns
7. 'A Little Guilt' - guilt about one-night stands/Gimme The Nite - one night stands And so on...
Could you be happy being happy?
Gotta be...my third album's supposed to be about that. Fat chance though - is what I'm thinking.
If there's one couplet you wrote that you could take on a desert island with you, what would it be?
From "Fountain Of Youth"...'cause it's a song sung to explorer Ponce de Leon as he leaves me ashore in his ship - seems appropriate for a desert island... "Do you have an idea what a plastic surgeon costs these days? Do you know what pain that is is to exercise? Ponce de Leon, please don't say no. Take me with you I could use that Fountain Of Youth."
If there's one that you could Command-z on your laptop (assuming it's a Mac), what would it be?
Something I could "undo"? Not a lyric. Maybe a couple of select moments, years, friendships...
So far you've covered Wreckless Eric's 'Whole Wide World' and Billy Joel's 'It's Still rock'n'roll to Me,' two extremely diverse songs. What's the next gem you're going to dig up from the great treasure trove of rock and polish for us?
Two candidates out of many: Richard Hell's 'Time' Ben E. King's 'Supernatural Thing (Part 1)'
Finally, have you thought of trying stand-up comedy?
I think I've been trying it for years.
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