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In this episode of Dispatches from The Well, Kmele Foster continues his search for the meaning of life inside the minds of some of the world’s most creative visionaries. 

Godfrey Reggio revolutionized film with his experimental documentaries. Steve Albini is preserving the spirit of music by committing to analog recording. Fred Armisen turned his creativity into a career by combining his passion for music and comedy. Kmele sat down with each of these creators and asked them about the “why” behind their existence. 

From sitting behind the camera to stepping in front of it, these artists have found meaning in their lives by committing to the things that, in simple terms, are the most fun. Join us as we explore the perspectives of these “rebellious creatives” in episode six of Dispatches from The Well.

Dispatches from The Well, Episode 6:

- Good morning.

- Hey, how it's going?

- How's it going?

- He's in there.

- All right. Thank you.

- You're welcome.

- It's a little dramatic. Good morning. How are you?

- How are you?

- It's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for making time.

- Your name again?

- Kmele.

- Kmele.

- Kmele.

- Kmele, yes.

- Kmele.

- Nice to meet you, sir. What are we listening to?

- Stravinsky.

- Godfrey Reggio is a filmmaker like no other. Now that sounds like hyperbole, but you'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone else who'd made the journey from monk to social worker to critically acclaimed director. His first film, "Koyaanisqatsi" is a pioneering work exploring the collision of urban life and technology versus the environment- all without a single word of dialogue.

- You have to tell me what you want to do.

- Well, I'd love for you to just show us around. Tell us a little bit about the space.

- I'll do my best.

- While making this show, we've spent a lot of time looking at rules, from the physical laws that govern the Universe we live in to the patterns and complex systems that give rise to emergent phenomena. But there is also something to be learned from the people who write their own rules, pathbreaking artists, who make meaning through their daily practice; and whose ethos informs not only the work that they make, but their very approach to life.

- So everything in here looks like chaos, but I don't believe in chaos at all. I believe in, what's the other word? Complexity.

- In this episode, we'll meet three people who find fulfillment through creative acts combined with the art of being present. Steve Albini.

- I'm too busy doing it to worry about somebody else's impression of it or what it's going to mean.

- Fred Armisen.

- See, now I feel dumb, right?

- And Godfrey Reggio.

- Meaning is what you do. It's not what you say, it's what you do.

- Three madcap visionaries who might be able to teach us something about humanity's eternal search for meaning and purpose in our vast, miraculously complicated and rapidly expanding, incomparably mysterious cosmos. This is "Dispatches from the Well." There's a sharp contrast between watching one of Godfrey Reggio's films and the experience of walking into this room. His films often give you a single image to sit with and meditate on- but his studio is a bit overwhelming.

- What can I tell you? I mean, it's gonna drive you crazy. I can tell you about all of these, but it's the way I work. Everybody works differently, so I have to see it. That's what I call my script or mania. You know what that is?

- No.

- When you have a mania, you can scream and go nuts or you can write everything down. I write everything down. While it looks like I don't know what's, see, I can tell you every image that's here. My mind works perfectly. My body's a little fucked up.

- Okay. Godfrey's path towards filmmaker is not what you'd expect. Born in New Orleans, he left home and joined the Christian Brothers at the age of 14. And after years of fasting, silence and prayer became a monk.

- It was the best thing I ever did. I made final vows, 1965, and in 1968, I was exclaustrated or thrown out of The Order for working with street gangs causing trouble.

- In spite of this, Godfrey continued his social work with street gangs here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and worked to bring medical care to the area's most impoverished barrios. All of which begs the question: How did you get into filmmaking?

- Good question. First of all, I find it most valuable that I didn't go to school for filmmaking. But after working with street gangs so long, my own thought is that these kids are fine. Of course they're fucked up and do all kind of nasty things, but it's the world they live in that fucked them up. So I wanted to make a film about the world.

- I think a lot of your work is about the milieu that we find ourselves in and the things that make us who we are. And I'd love to just try to define some terms, not so much explain your work, but have some of the framework perhaps that allows us to think about the work you've been doing.

- When you do a film without words, it doesn't mean it's not narrative, it just means it's not narrative in a traditional sense. So for me, the narrative, which is up to each person to interpret, is the soundtrack, is the music of Philip Glass. And Philip always has a foreground and the background going at the same time. And when I chose Philip, I knew that, because in my films, we have the background and the foreground. The foreground is what's called second unit in regular films. It's like that which is incidental, and the foreground is stuff way in the back: character, action, narrative. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that that which is most present is least seen. And that's what I wanted to show with the film, how to show that which is all around us and it looks so normal that we don't notice it anymore. So that's what the films are about. How do we perceive the normal, which is what art's about. Art is about changing the perception of something. It's not about education, it's not about data points. It's about giving you another, a whole different point of view about something.

- At what point is technology something that can put humans out of balance?

- I get in more trouble with technology. I not only use technology, I with my crew create technology that hasn't been created before. And yet, my films are radically against technology. So technology is the environment we live in. It's not an addendum too. It's not just to make things more efficient. It's that we can't live without it. It's become a necessity because whatever you do with your fingers patterns your brain. Because I'm obsessive, I figured out it's in the range of 40 to 50,000 times, your finger touches your pad during a given fucking day.

- While I consider myself less skeptical of technology, Godfrey is touching on something that many of us feel. Technological innovations have connected the world and provided innumerable benefits. And yet many of us feel increasingly disconnected from one another. For Godfrey, it comes down to interrogating our habits and intentions. Because while some habits can lock us into a rut, others can help us unlock our potential. This studio is a reflection of the eight and a half years of discipline, daily toil that Godfrey put into a single project, a 52-minute film called "Once Within A Time"

- The Dalai Lama was in Albuquerque in '91 giving a big lecture, and after the lecture he said, "I'll take a few questions." Young lady jumps up and said, "Your Holiness, what's the single most important thing I can do?" "Routine. Next question." That's who we are. We become what we do. Let me ask you this: Is it the content of your mind that determines your behavior? Or is it your behavior that determines the content of your mind? It's not a trick question, but it can sound that way. But nine out of eight of us, it's our behavior that determines the content of our mind. What we do every day without question is who we are. I believe in this: "Begin and the work shall show you how." Meaning discovers you if you put yourself in the occasion. Look at it this way, if you were with your beloved at a sunset, you wouldn't ask your beloved, "I wonder what the sun means tonight." You would say, "Was it a meaningful experience?" That's what we're looking for.

- Do you create something every day? I remember walking into this space and you're having this music washing over you.

- I've never stopped doing what I'm doing right now. And I haven't changed since I'm a young kid. It's not how long we live, it's how intense we live, how much we control our own life, our own destiny. This is what I do. You become what you do, you know.

- A life conveniently excused by the plane. It's my art. And I disguise my body in the shape of a plane. Look at me, look at me, I'm a plane.

- This man pretending to be a plane is Steve Albini. He's considered to be one of the most talented record producers in all of rock music. Only, he doesn't consider himself a record producer. He sees himself as an audio engineer.

- Hi, I'm Steve Albini, and today we're gonna talk about recording acoustic stringed instruments.

- His meticulous analog recording methods and his principled approach to working with bands has led to him working behind the boards on literally thousands of records, including perhaps most famously Nirvana's "In Utero." In the music industry, record producers have long gotten a cut of a record's profits, which can create an incentive for them to shape a band's recording in the direction of saleability. Steve finds this way of doing business, "ethically indefensible," and famously told Nirvana that he should instead be paid like a plumber. It was this refusal to play by other people's rules that by some estimates, left probably $2 million on the table. Steve is a man with a code, and a man with many opinions. And if you thought he couldn't work his passion for analog audio into a conversation about interstellar space probes, you'd be wrong. The Voyager probes shot out in the space and they were gold records. I'm curious about the medium and whether or not you think that the gold records were a good choice.

- I think that putting phonograph records on the Voyager was genius. Specifically phonograph records, because anyone smart enough to encounter the Voyager probe out in space is going to be able to discern that that disc has encoded information on it. And the encoding is obvious. It's an analog of a waveform. That's one of the great things about physical media is that the object itself explains to you how to use it. Like if you pick up a book, it's apparent what is going on with the book. It's a written language and it's serialized and so you can tell what you need to do to understand what's in the book. That's not the case with digitized information because digitized information is encoded in a way that needs a key to comprehend it. So I think it's great that the Voyager records were sent out during an era of our technology where we were not sufficiently advanced that we would make indecipherable media to put on there. That's why I persist in doing things in the analog domain. This might sound slightly bigheaded of me, but I feel like my day-to-day job is being a vector of history. Like I'm making recordings which are gonna sit on a shelf and then at some distant time are gonna be discovered again. Making a permanent record, I take that part of the aspect of it very seriously. I'm certain that analog recordings will survive over the scale of centuries. I have no certainty about any digital formats surviving that period. I'm a loyalist to the analog recording techniques, and some people think that that is for aesthetic reasons and I try to dispel that very quickly. I'm not making an aesthetic case for analog recording and saying that it is better than digital recording for aesthetic reasons, that it sounds warmer or anything like that. My position is that analog recordings are a durable archive of our culture. And in the distant future, I want people to be able to hear what our music sounded like. I want people to be able to hear what we were like as people.

- Where do you think that impulse comes from to have a conversation with the future?

- I'm not a hundred percent certain that this is where the steps my brain took to get to this point but when I was a kid in school, I wanted to be a journalist. I went to Northwestern University to study journalism, and part of that education and that training was going to the stacks in the library and looking through old newspaper articles, going through the microfilm. And the reason that we know about what happened in various communities was because they had newspapers and those newspapers were printed and preserved. Even in marginalized or hidden communities, stuff that was underground culture, stuff that was illegal, like we can read about that stuff because it's all been preserved. And I kind of feel like I have a similar perspective on culture and art and music.

- You have worked with and alongside artists, but you're an artist yourself who's also a maker of music.

- Yeah, though they seem unrelated to me. Like I'm a musician. I'm in a band. My band plays in shows and tours and makes records and I'm content in that band. I love being in that band. The hour on stage when we're on tour is the best hour of my life in that year. But that's not the job that I have when I'm working with somebody else's music. ♪ Ask yourself if you could do better ♪

- How much does your subjective appraisal of the quality of the music that's being made come into play?

- I feel like the best music is made in service of the mania of the people doing it at the moment. Like in service of their creative impulse, their ideas, their expression, their mayhem. Other people getting into it is kind of a side effect. And I know for a fact that when people start worrying about what their audience is gonna like, it weakens everything about the project. People who are deeply rooted, invested in their own personal world will make the most interesting music and the most interesting records. The people who are trying to be popular, who are trying to like entertain, a lot of that music is trivial.

- There is so many like interesting things about the way that we respond to music, that we can have these deep emotional responses that we may not even understand, but things that seemingly can make music objectively good or objectively bad in some sort of way.

- Well, there is an intensely technical part of what I do. There's a part of what I do that demands a technical proficiency in getting things right to an objective standard. But the emotional effect of music on people is not a technical matter. A friend of mine once told me that the dime bin, you know, the bin at the record store of the records that they couldn't sell is full of records with no mistakes on them. Like every beat absolutely in time, every note, absolutely in pitch, nobody gives a shit about those records, right? And the records that people respond to seems to be that unfiltered communion from one person's creative impulse manifested into reality somehow, and that's what people are responding to in music. I genuinely don't care at all about things like the time and the tempo and the tuning and all that sort of stuff. As a listener, as a consumer of music, none of that stuff matters to me. What key a song is in, I don't care. What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to make sure that there are no technical obstacles or no technical impingements on the creative side or the artistic side; and that's why I am required to be rigorous, and I'm required to be careful, and I'm required to be above board, and by the book on what I'm doing, so that everybody in front of the microphones can behave like idiots and jump around and do whatever they want and they don't have to think about it. The comedian, Fred Armisen used to do a bit where he was a musicologist. He did a character who was, I want to wanna say his name was Niles Covington. And he would grill people. He would say, "Oh, you like music, you like the Beatles. What's your favorite song? 'Yesterday?' What key is 'Yesterday?' Do you know?" And that to me sort of is an encapsulation of this idea that there's like a technical realm of music that can be correct in finger quotes. And then there's just the experience of listening to music, which is unrelated to that, totally unrelated to that.

- It's funny that Steve brought up Fred Armisen, the very next person I'm going to meet. But it's not surprising. The two men are a product of Chicago's punk scene, and they both seem to embody a bit of its play-by-your-own rules mentality. I spoke with Steve Albini, who's also from Chicago, someone I know you know, and he is fascinating. And we had this really incredible, expansive conversation about the universe of different things like meaning, purpose, music, like the kind of narrative of one's life.

- I can't picture him talking about the Universe.

- Fred Armisen is a versatile American comedian, actor and musician known for his work on popular sketch comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "Portlandia." His approach to comedy blurs the line between fiction and reality.

- 'What did he say?

- I'm not really sure. Just look at the floor. But look back at him.'

- And in addition to his knack for comedy, Fred is a talented musician and it was drumming in bands that indirectly led to his career in Hollywood. I'm curious about how someone with Fred's penchant for exploring the absurdity of life makes him think about some of the bigger existential questions that I've been pondering.

- Do you think much about kind of the big grand questions of existence? Like the weirdness of consciousness?

- I find it easy to grasp the idea of it all. Because I think of it a little bit of like a dream. And we're very lucky when we get to meet each other at the same time. The fact that I know Steve, when I die, I'm gonna be like, what a miracle that in that existence, in that dream, I got to be friends with this person. And that goes for all my friends or people that I've met once- and then it's a wonderful experience.

- Does the "why?" of it ever-

- No, 'cause the why of it is like who cares? And for me, not for everyone else, but for me, I'm like, "It doesn't matter to me," because it doesn't have to be a why for anything, really. Everything is so arbitrary and abstract anyway that it's like, just 'cause you know, and that's fine with me and it makes it actually easier to be alive, you know? Then it makes it easier to get through life and then also to not worry about death or anything.

- But like the absurdist perspective on philosophy is a lot like what you're describing. You know, why is it happening? I don't know. Nobody really knows. What does it mean? And it may not mean much of anything, but you're here, now and you should do something with it. You should be happy. You should laugh in the face of the absurdity of all of the things.

- Yeah, it's like, if we have this gift of life and life is just so abstract and weird anyway, I'm like, "Oh, let's just have fun with it." That seems to be the message. So then great, let's have fun with it all the way through.

- When did you arrive at this perspective on life?

- I can't remember really, but I've always had this feeling because I see it most when I watch musicians play, you know, or watch TV and movies and something in there feels like, "Oh, we're all just goofing around." As I walked towards it, somewhere where I was a kid. It's sort of, I don't think I was able to define it, but it was more of a feeling.

- In addition to being this renowned comedian.

- Oh, no renowned and very good looking. You know what I mean?

- Sure, yes. I'll give you all of the compliments.

- Prolific and-

- But also a known and respected musician, particularly a drummer but I don't know how you made the jump from being a percussionist in a band who's touring to becoming this renowned comedian.

- I was in a band. 'Hello, thanks for coming out tonight. We're Trenchmouth from Chicago. The first song goes like this.' And I became interested in video cameras. I was like, "I like that." Like the idea of like video camera, but not a set, not a comedy. Like it was just like a one person. And one of my first interviews was with Steve Albini. I think in my band, like in the van, we would make each other laugh. So I was like, what happens if I start going towards this other thing? It's just something in that zone. Characters, video camera made me really happy. And as I started doing it, I just started getting more comedy jobs. So someone would say, "Do you wanna host this thing? Will you interview this band?"

- 'I love your songs.

- Okay.

- Well done. You get my approval. That's a big deal here, isn't it? Right, I don't approve it much. I always say, "I don't like it," right to camera. What was the other ones? I don't like it.' Then like little by little, I found myself just working in comedy. I just kept saying "yes." Moved to L.A., started doing standup as like different characters. And then now that I do comedy, I could do more music, I could do fake bands and stuff, fake records.

- What do you miss most about touring with the band?

- I miss the constant drumming, the actual physical, every night. You know, for what is it? Half an hour, 40 minutes? Next song. That part of it was the best. Like that focus, like how does this song go? Where do we end this song? Like in your brain, you don't read sheet music to do it. You're just like in your head. So that every night of drumming, I really miss that.

- How do you deal with tragedy, disappointment?

- I accept it. Like, acceptance is a big part of life. I remember when I was a kid, John Lennon got shot and I was like, 'I love The Beatles so much and I just can't wrap my head around it.' And then Yoko Ono sort of described it. I might be paraphrasing but she tried to think of it more as like a car accident. Yeah, but you know.

- It's very in line with the prescription that the stoics give for kind of dealing with tragedy.

- Yeah, in fact, I really celebrate death. I have my funeral all planned out and everything. I want it to be like a coffin that's shaped like a coffin, you know, like this. And then spooky sounds and then that song, you know, like organ and like really like a real funeral. Like I put it in writing. I love cemeteries and stuff so much. I gave everyone instructions that I really want my funeral to be scary like Halloween-y.

- You know, like even as we're talking, like I find myself trying to figure out like how much of this is actually true.

- No, it's true. It's true. I have a grave site at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and I'm even looking forward to that part of my life. But do we know your philosophy on the Universe? Is it as absurd?

- Well, this is the thing. I mean, I'm 42 years old, I'll be 43 the end of this year. So I'm officially I think approaching, if not in firmly mid-life crisis territory. I do think that there's something really profound about accepting the things that you can't change, about being in the moment and really enjoying it and having a deep respect and appreciation for just how improbable, like all of the things that happen to us are for good and for ill- but especially for the good. I mean, we're all just trying to figure it out.

- But I don't think you're going through a mid-life crisis.

- No?

- No. Because I haven't told you about the other stuff, but yeah.

- Well, mid-life crisis is if you were trying to like relive something from when you were in your twenties.

- Maybe I need a better word for it, but I have a pronounced sense of uncertainty, and a lot of questions about whether or not I'm doing the right things. I've been forced to revisit some stuff. The kind of thing that you're told you have to read as a younger man. But then when you read it with a couple of years under your belt and some defining experiences, it means something different to you.

- Thoreau, there's a beautiful passage: "As the willow has presented itself within the doors of the doorknob. We know yet that the..."

- I didn't know where that was going. But Fred, I've enjoyed meeting you enormously.

- Likewise.

- And I'm really grateful for the time we've been able to spend together. This has been a unique, unexpected gift, so thank you very much.

- Thank you.

- It's easy to let ourselves get overwhelmed by the demands of our everyday lives or sometimes to become a bit obsessed with big, existential questions. But what both of those extremes can do is rob us of the opportunity to be present, meaningfully present: that something Fred, Godfrey, and Steve seem to have an almost innate ability to do. And their example reminds me of the importance of really embracing the moments in front of us. As Fred suggested, it's so remarkable and improbable that we're all here together. We should probably focus on enjoying that. At this stage of your life, I wonder if you have a specific thing that you've learned that you think selfishly, like I might benefit from.

- I don't know. I wouldn't think about it too much. I'd just keep doing it until you can't. I mean, it has to be, you don't do it with a sense of 'Oh, I must do this,' it's gotta be fun. If it's not fun, it's not worth doing really. So you follow your stars wherever they may lead and be lucky that you're here to do it. You just don't think about it-that's all. Don't get involved with ego.

- So what's the secret there?

- The secret is you're willing to express what you actually feel and not what the other person wants to hear. That sounds hard to do, but if you're in that modality as it were, and that's the form, you get used to it pretty quick.

- It feels like a really great last word.

- All good. That was excellent.

- So let's have a drink!

- Sounds good.

- It looks chaotic, but it's actually full of complexity and this one here, reduces it to a clear complexity. Well, that's what I tell myself.

- Yeah, go ahead and say it one more time please.

- I get to clap again?

- Yes. That's my favorite.

- How did you get Steve Albini... Steve Albini did not sign one of these.

- No, he did not.

- He signs nothing.

- That's right.

- I used to try to do it and I didn't succeed, but he's like, "Not my problem."


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