Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Interview: Doseone of Subtle

It only took a few terrifying seconds in February 2005 to change the fortunes of San Francisco-based indie-rap outfit Subtle forever—a patch of black ice spun their tour van off the road, leaving keyboardist Dax Pierson quadriplegic. After a long recovery, the group got back together earlier this year to follow up the excellent 2004 disc A New White with the Wishingbone EP, on which Subtle collaborates with musicians such as Beck and Mike Patton. Subtle is also a core element of the far-flung but close-knit indie-rap/electronica collective Anticon. The A.V. Club caught up recently with Subtle's garrulous frontman Adam Drucker, a.k.a. Doseone. A shorter version of this interview first appeared in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.

The A.V. Club: How is Dax doing?

Adam Drucker: Fantastic. He's back in the Bay and in charge of a small business, which is his health care. He has to hire a morning and evening attendant, and it takes three hours to get in his chair and have his day started. He's doing music, going out to the bar, really taking back the Dax life. And on the new record, he's singing and beat-boxing and playing harmonica and just being amazing.

AVC: It was heartening to see that he's still making music; the news just after the crash sounded dire.

D: It was. I never want to be in a position like that again, to see a friend not moving. There are no miracles with the spinal cord, but there are very slow versions of a miracle. Dax has been breaking barriers constantly. They said he would be lucky to get off the ventilator, and 10 days later, he was off the ventilator. And while we were mixing Dax's favorite song on the record, all of a sudden Dax said, "Guys, I'm moving my thumb." First time having voluntary finger movement. It was the day after the one-year anniversary of our crash. We all got all teary-eyed—it was like an afterschool special. Because that day a year ago was pretty much the end of the world as far as any of us were concerned. And here we are, everybody is happy and healthy, making our art. It's a logistical nightmare being middle-class and having the kind of injury he has. You basically have to be independently wealthy to fund your own treatment. The attendants are very expensive, because it's hard work. So it's really intense to see what Dax is mastering. I was always the one trying to run the small business, but now Dax has got me clipped, he's just Mr. Organization. He's getting the hang of everything—computers, I use computers every day when I'm recording, but when I go see Dax it's like "holy shit, thank God." Because he has everything at his disposal. Even though he's quadriplegic, he can access everything as far as music and entertainment, and taking care of all his business.

AVC: What does Dax contribute to the new record? The press release mentions vocals and harmonica.

D: That's stating things loosely, because we've been sending him demos the entire time. He didn't get back until January, pretty much, so we hadn't really seen each other since the accident—the six of us hadn't been in a room together. So we did a lot of osmosing of Dax's ideas. Sometimes we took his voice and sampled and resampled it and played with it. And other times, we played out parts [of songs] that he was hearing. The last song is all made out of demos that Dax made right before the crash. It's him beat-boxing and playing piano at the same time. It's all improv. We knew that would be the end of the record, how things should culminate. The experience was so heavy, and we're very artsy as it is. We're in a relationship, not a band—both with our songs and one another. Wishingbone was supposed to come out ages ago, but then we figured we'd hold onto it until we had a new page to be on, and Dax back. [He was] making plans while he was still in Texas [in the hospital] for the future of all of us. Even though Dax can't tour physically, because he needs a hospital bed every night—let alone, nightclubs are not really a good place for him to be every night. Not the healthiest place, being on the road. I'm in pretty good health and I still get sick constantly. … At first we didn't know what Wishingbone was going to be. We had all these collaborations—we quit doing remixes after a few funky experiences, and now we do reworks, where we either collaborate in the room with the person, or send them something and they start it but don't finish it and send it back, and we add more vocals and play with it. This way it's completely original. It's a little more satisfying, I think, both for people listening and us the remakers. When I was 13, I was such a sucker for when a rap 12-inch would have a different verse from the original. This is my whacking-out of that concept of reappropriating lyrics. Dan [Boeckner] from Wolf Parade, Andrew Broder, Why?, and Chris Adams and Marcus from Notwist—I have this great relationship with all these guys where I send them my words and let them pick what rings true to them, and they cut a song out of these poems.

AVC: So when you collaborate, you don't necessarily send someone a specific song or lyrics, but a range of possibilities and they choose the one that appeals to them?

D: Yeah, I give them a lot. I think for the biggest fans of [our] music who have the time to listen to it in the headphones over and over, a lot of my songs have a definitive relatedness, whether it's in the reappearance of poem phrases or just in the undertones of the songs. That's even more concentrated on the new record. A lot of songs have sister songs, so I'll send [a collaborator] both the sister songs and not let them know what's which. I like to leave all these things open. It really gives me chills, the way they repiece and rephrase my stuff. You get all these delightful surprises. If you take out a whole stanza, all of a sudden the poem still works.

AVC: Mike Patton has a pretty radical reimagination of your song "The Long Vein Of The Law" on Wishingbone.

D: That's what I love. Mike's was the interpretation of something that totally exists—if that's what the little creature that's inside that song looks like, [our album version] combed its hair and put a suit on it and made it into a song, but Mike really got at the grittiness of it. It's pretty much all Mike. We just gave him the "Long Vein" file and he Miked it. I rearranged his vocal layers and added an ambient piece and added [my] vocals to his vocals. Because that's the other thing about remixes—I always hear new vocals, and this allows me to do that as well, which is very satisfying on my end.

AVC: You live in Vancouver now, but the rest of the band still lives in San Francisco.

D: Jordan [Dalrymple]'s in Ventura, which is in between L.A. and S.F., like two hours up from L.A. He moved recently too. We both commute to do the band.

AVC: How does the geographic separation affect the band?

D: It is what it is. But it's allowed us to focus on the music a lot because our process, for four years or whatever it was, was basically two days a week. Three of the six members were working full-time, so it was hard for them to put in more time. But me and Jeff [Logan] and Jordan would dive in and be doing it all week long. It wasn't that balanced of a meld anyway. Now it's kind of matured. We work on the demos in our respective Antarcticas, and then we'll get together and do months where it's kind of concentrated. We're either—I hate to use the word— "jamming," or we're finding clarity for songs, giving them their meat, and then multitracking. And so what was really nice is this allowed us to step back. This time it was a much more full process, really grooming these songs and knowing what we're going for. There's no regret with this record. On the last one we had to learn, so there was tons of regret after we mixed it. We'd listen and be like "oh no, what if we'd—" But on this record it was much easier to set up our swings and go for it.

AVC: Since Dax can't tour, would you consider taking on someone just to play keyboards on the road?

D: I don't think that's an option after what we've been through. I'd feel like Metallica. And plus, we have everybody. We can do it, we just have to push ourselves, and that's what it's all about. So I get a little less dance-around-in-front-of-the-stage cool time. I'm cool with that. What I love about our songs is that we put so much into them on the recording level that they're totally challenging live. Eventually, I get complete control of them, and I know where my moments are that I can go for it, but I really like that I'm obeying the song and it's got me pushed to my capacity. So I'm not sitting there staring at someone with a funny nose in the front row. There's no time to space out.

AVC: Your next album, For Hero For Fool, is nearly done. What direction are you going with it?

D: It is a continuation of A New White both in its musical themes and undercurrents and also in the poems and prose. It's basically further exploring this sort of Beat poet born of rap, the gentleman with the striped face [I call] Our Hero Yes, who's on the cover of the records. He basically represents all fairness, someone who's just at the most trying to get things right. He has these various adventures, they're almost like day terrors. What happens is, these day terrors start to show up on A New White as the poems get more dense and dense, but A New White sort of occurs all in one bedroom, like a really long stanza-based quest for clarity. And then For Hero For Fool takes the same character to the street, and the same themes that were generated on A New White are still drumming in the background, so they all reappear and become twice personified. Each song on For Hero For Fool is sort of a mini-song like a graphic novel. And [if you have] the two records on vinyl, when you put the 12-inch sleeves together, it's a full board game. It's sort of this adult, middle-class Candyland, and it takes you through the entire record. On tour, I'll have all the game pieces and cards and stuff.

AVC: An entire playable game?

D: Yeah, I actually made this whole thing. My narrative [on the trilogy] is not linear, it's forward and backward and rephrasing things that have already happened, so I wanted to have a very simple way for people to get that this is all going in a direction. Because I know sometimes some people get all these words and it's sort of intimidating or off-putting. I just felt like it was the correct tie to make. It wasn't anything that was too overt. And it adds this whole chance element that phrases how I feel about everyone trying to go for these careers, whether you want to be a gallery artist that makes a million-zillion dollars, or whether you want to be Paris Hilton, whatever it is, the best in your field. This board game [is] about this sort of screwed rap career, and a quest for truth. [Laughs.] Very modern-day. And it's leading to the next record, the third in this trilogy, which will be all excerpts from the world. The day terrors eventually eclipse the hero of the record, and at the end he lets go and gives into all these things, both the poems that seem to fill him up and the emptiness that's all around him, and it all goes off. All the characters that are spoken of on this record, and that are in the artwork, the whole next record is all about them. I sat down four years ago and I wanted to find a way that I could push my writing—not my song-writing but my world. What I think about, what I choose to write about, and somehow end up in a place where I'm not always writing about myself. It would be nice to really go for something that is not all I- and me-based. I really don't know how I would honestly do that. I'm not a very political person, so I'm not into a lot of third-person topics, but I really do believe in personal politics. Maybe [I could] forge a lore. It's a really delightful way to fuse what I like about poetry, which is the license to be absurd and surrealist and still make all the sense you could possibly make at the same time just by giving truth to these phrases. [Before we began recording] I sat down and scored all the poems, which I have been writing for almost three years. I gave them this sort of layman's notation system—I'm not musically trained, so it was more about color and things I wanted to reinterpret or places to start from.

AVC: It's interesting that you mention that you were thinking about color as you were looking at the initial stages of the songs, since you are also a visual artist. Do your art and your music cross-pollinate each other creatively?

D: Yeah, they do. I didn't realize until maybe two days ago what this striping of the face was all about for me. I just did it on this cover about three years ago. I started calling it the "referee poet," and I hated that name. What the fuck does that mean? That's horrible, who is this referee? But I knew that I had to use this thing. So then I said, "okay, his name is Our Hero Yes, and he's the one." Poetry, I feel, is really about fairness and setting things straight, so that time will not interfere with the truth you were going for, so you can pick it up 10 years from now. I realize it's this fairness that's always what I find when I'm the most disappointed or dark-hearted. [Songwriters] pick their themes wisely. Some people are like this cornucopia of anything that happens in pop-culture, some people keep talking about getting laid, you know what I mean. There's all these various things that people do. I really have always wanted mine to be very honest, but at the same point I'm a very flamboyant person, and that's why the songs get as wild as they do.

AVC: What's wild on For Hero For Fool?

D: I go into a little thing on the new record about Vice Magazine—I was just talking before about trying to write poems that ring timeless yet are specifically about your time? I realized that I couldn't make up a better magazine name than Vice to write into a poem. I have this song about a "serious guts" competition sponsored by the pain-relief people, this whole elaborate thing where all these tough guys from around the world come and slit their stomachs open and spread their guts across this coated white poker table. And they sift through their stomachs for the most intimidating links of really prime stomach, competing to win the most serious guts competition. At the end there's this big reception where they're feeding a spit roast pig in your honor, and I wrote in this little bit about the Vice Magazine people, because I sort of thought it rang true.

AVC: You should try to sell that idea to ESPN as a sort of sequel to World Series Of Poker.

D: Oh dude, it would be amazing. I could see it now. [Laughs.] The actual song is about how I found, over time, watching some of my contemporaries—whether I know them or not, whether we're friendly or not, how the world really wants to love someone who might punch them in the face if they actually meet them. Like your favorite person being someone who is some asshole or violent monster man. I wrote this poem when I was thinking about what would weed out the tough guys from the tough guys, and it would be this sort of cool calm [contest]—I guess they'd pump them full of morphine, I kind of left [those details] out. I don't know how they would get it on ESPN, but it would be fantastic. Seeing all the big guys there with their stomachs out, and the winner, at the end, going to Disneyland.

AVC: Sort of like a physical version of Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch.

D: Exactly. And they're all wearing mirrored eyewear. The image in my head, is exactly what you were saying, those reality poker shows where they're [shot on digital video] and they're scrolling around the table, and you see the over the shoulder view of these guys going through their own stomach with their hands. And you get more points for the odder things one might swallow—a set of keys, coins, army men. That's how you really score high with the judges, it's like a triple axle.

AVC: So it's like that scene in Jaws, where somebody might pull a license plate out of there.

D: Exactly. [In sports-announcer voice] "One of these tough guys really made a what-have-they-been-eating?" My dad knew a guy who actually had more than half of his stomach removed, because he was kind of a bumpkin, and he went out into the woods and wanted to be strong and everlasting like these trees were, and he just began to eat bark and drink gasoline.

AVC: Wow.

D: Yeah, and he is alive, and has much less of a stomach. And he learned that eating bark and drinking gasoline will not make him stronger. It will in fact weaken him. I always think of that guy though. Yeah, that's a tough guy.

AVC: You put out a book of poetry called The Pelt in 2004.

D: It's basically a chapbook. It was a collection of things that just refused to be sung, and some things that are just personal enough to flesh out what all [my] songs are about, that maybe people who appreciate my writing didn't know, but not too personal to just be the various laundries of insecurities and childhood. I had all this material that was about where all [my] writing comes from. The more I kept working on it, it really wanted to all be together. Editing The Pelt led me to writing this trilogy of Subtle records—it allowed me to zoom out and look at things a bit. One breakthrough for me was getting a laptop, because then everything wasn't handwritten, and I could rebreak lines and move stanzas. I never really liked editing until I could do more with it—erase one word and make a mess. So after editing The Pelt, I realized that that's what I have this pull to do. I don't ever want to do 12 songs [by themselves]. My pull is always to do one record. And now I'm doing one big, three-record record.

AVC: So, as a musician, you're more analogous to a novelist than a short-story writer.

D: I realized that I've got this whole graphic novel thing going on. After the accident I was thinking of Dax all the time, and he was always reading all the good graphic novels—like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Preacher—and I realized that I loved them. I would steal them when he was done with them in the van. At one point it was Beat poetry, but all the sudden it was Watchmen that was making me have the next aesthetic large turn of my key. It clicked, and I realized that I could let things develop and write longer. Now these whole songs are really about what's there, both in the visual-image sense and then in the quest for a little bit of clarity. Each of these songs spits out a peanut of clarity, and that peanut of clarity is then swallowed by the hero. And then he has yet another day terror, or just a lucid moment, or a moment paying the bills. The record goes in and out of that. That's probably the most true-to-form goody that I can put in my music. It's something that I don't feel like is a lie. I can't do 80 songs about summertime, but I feel like there's something about this [idea] that all of a sudden you have your righteous moment of clarity, and then it passes.

AVC: The six of you are obviously close. Does that extend to the other musicians in the Anticon collective?

D: Yeah, it's a connection. When it started, it was such a fraternity. Man, we had so much fun, whether we were recording or not, we were giggling six nights a week.

AVC: What happened on the seventh night?

D: On the seventh night? Everyone was out looking for a temp job. [Laughs.] I feel like it was all very fated, and we continue to follow the right path and meet all these people that are right for us. We're all similar. Some of us are alpha or beta, introverted or extroverted, everyone has a different makeup. But when they're working on their music, everyone is chipping away at the same thing within themselves, and at the same genre-less way that we hear things. When I say I'm really proud of this record, it's only possible because everyone I know really steps it up record after record. It's a chain reaction. That's probably the best thing about this group of people and this web of records.

AVC: So the collective is more than just a group of people connected because they share a record label?

D: The first time I met [Andrew Broder of Fog], we ended up having a wonderful breakfast, and two days later we were recording together in the basement. It was like the feeling I had when I met my fiancée. Everything slows down in the room, and you have that feeling. I make music for Andrew, man. I make music for Yoni [Wolf] and [the other Anticon artists]. I think we all do that; it's a shared experience, and I think it's a really healthy way to go about doing things—it's either that, or it's all for yourself. We always like to think of each other, either in the sense of "Oh, wait till they hear this!" or "What would Andrew do?" Those are the two healthy halves of having all these people in your head, and the collage aesthetic that we have. It's really hard not to influence each other all the time, which is really cool.

AVC: There's a story that while he was still an unknown, you had thought about asking Eminem to join the Anticon group.

D: I don't know if I—maybe I did think that. That was the year that everyone [in Anticon] met, so it could have been. Basically, when I met him, I was like, "man, is this one of the ones." And I got home and listened his tape, and it was all written [as opposed to freestyle rhyme]. And then I made the aesthetic grand call [not to contact him], and then a few months later he's in the fucking Source's Unsigned Hype. We met, we had a drink together, and I thought that maybe this guy is down for what I'm in for. But he was down for something completely different. But I like that we met. I think about it often. I do think we provide a similar function for the world in a completely different manner. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you still think that was the right decision to not give him a call?

D: Yeah. He's good, but it's obvious to me that he wanted to do what he does. The most interesting thing about him is his songs are so loose and his personality is all over the place and it's commanding. It sounds like eight different people, which I love—that's what I try to do, let all these selves go in a song. But then when you see him in a video, he's just finished lifting weights, and he's stiff as a bank door, and he's posturing. It's a wild world that he lives in. He's the king of pop, and it doesn't look like it fits. Whereas when I take pictures these days, I may not look like a rich man, but I think I definitely look like myself. I think about that quite a bit, like the choices he made. He went supremely pop, he let it go into all these lyrics. While we look for other things in lyric writing. [Eminem's] last record was shocking to me though, with the poo-poo, ca-ca, pee-pee lyrics. Have you heard this thing? I would read them in the van when we were bored, just for a laugh. I don't know if he's trying to write it so his kid can listen to it or what, but there are just some unbelievable things, saying "doo-doo," "ca-ca," and all these things. I was kind of surprised that he's checking out on something that he was actually quite good at.

AVC: You play the voice of a pair of cartoon eyes in an animated film called The Zoo Project. What's the story there?

D: That was an interesting experience for me because I was I was reading words that were not my own, which is something very new to me. I [would like to] get to get better at that in the future, because to be honest, even though it may seem like I would take naturally to that, every word I ever sing is always like exactly what I wanna do. So doing something that someone else wrote is actually pretty challenging.

AVC: In a lot of ways, being a lead singer is analogous to being an actor, but since you're also the writer of your own words, you don't have to think consciously about how to interpret them.

D: Well, it changes your composition as a performer. The internal process is completely different, so I would turn to something that I would rely to get me out of a not-feeling-it moment, and I couldn't use it because it wasn't in character. I really like the whole process. When I record spoken-word stuff, it is so difficult to get takes of speaking voice when you're alone, and not in front of a live audience. When you're just talking it out, getting both the meaning and all the double meanings across, it's endlessly difficult.