Interview: Artist David Lasky on The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song

Interview by Mairead Case with Christopher Estey:

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams ComicsArts) is a hardcover, beautifully-colored, long-form comic art biography about the first superstar family of country music (and inspiration on popular music in general), with an accompanying CD of rare radio sessions. David Lasky is the co-creator and illustrator of Don’t Forget This Song, his first full-length graphic novel with with writer and editor Frank M. Young. It had its launch party at Seattle’s literary hot-spot Hugo House a few weeks ago, and Young and Lasky were both interviewed recently by esteemed critic Stephen Deusner at roots music blog Engine 145.

The Carter Family were real American music heroes, learning all and writing all the love songs, murder ballads, and spirituals they could, and playing them for whoever would listen. This included back porches, churches, and the Grand Ole Opry; on 78s and over radio broadcasts; and directly influencing also-inspirational artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (who would marry into the family through June Carter Cash). Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) “Doc” Carter, who with his wife Sara and his family sang about all the needs and fears that had and would enflame and haunt the Western heart, from a need to redemption to a craving for loving, describing the timeless, restless roaming of every crowd-pleasing troubadour. Lasky and Young capture their origins and adventures and travails with delightful anecdotes and illustrations, making The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song, one of the best music books of the year.

David and is an old friend and fellow pal and writer and editor Mairead Case co-interviewed Mr. Lasky with me at a cafe near where I live in the U. District. Mairead contributed to the Cassette From My Ex collection of essays, has appeared in BUST, Venus, and Chicago art-lit magazine Proximity; she also did an award-winning bio-comic with David on Serge Gainsbourg for Light In The Attic Records, which was reprinted in Best American Comics 2011. (I did a couple of comics with David as well, about The Clash, for Fantagraphics’ Hotwire title.) It was a long-desired reunion of the three of us since we all collaborated on regional rock magazine BANDOPPLER back in the ‘00s. We hollered and hooted about music and comics we loved which get our creative juices flowing, drinking some coffee and tea and root beer, and sharing a big homemade chocolate cupcake bombed with sprinkles. Anyway, I hope you enjoy sharing part in this, the blog version of an old timey radio chat session:

David Lasky (DL): So we’re at the Ducks Bakery in the U-District. And we’re talking about why people don’t do good music comics. My thought is that comics are words and pictures on the page—everything that music is not, in a lot of ways. Music hits your ears and then it has this wide spectrum of sound that you can’t really put in a comic. A lot of music just falls flat on a comics page, it’s like looking at sheet music if you don’t know how to interpret it. It doesn’t mean much. A lot of comics creators just don’t know how to convey the effect of music. One of the biggest challenges for anyone making comics, is trying to convey music in a way that communicates, especially if it’s a specific piece of music and the reader doesn’t know the piece already. I think about Megan Kelso (Squirrel Mother, Artichoke Heart) in a lot of her work she challenged herself to try and depict music because she knew that was a really hard thing to get across.

Mairead Case (MC): It’s hard to do it well, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

DL: You guys are print journalists. Do you have a way you get the music across in prose?

MC: At first I don’t think I did it very well. I was all personal politics, no nuance. People were either being true or they weren’t being true. It was all about their platform, their honesty—fair for where I was at the time, and maybe interesting as its own thing. But not very good journalism. I didn’t really describe technique at all. Looking back, those pieces probably work better as blueprints for my short fiction.

Chris Estey: In print journalism, a lot of music journalism that’s seen as the lowest form is descriptive. And so describing things musically is seen as facile. I enjoy the rock journalism of the 60s, so I never had a problem with my stuff being descriptive. But it has to be appropriate, and like you said it has to respect the politics of the art. How much of what you write about music reflects the music itself? I think that’s a very liberal view, but a lot of my favorite writers don’t. A good example is Greil Marcus. When he writes about The Doors, he writes in a style almost like Jim Morrison. That’s an exaggeration, but there are other people now who stick to simply historical form, thematic form. You know — chronology, facts, whatever. I think there’s a balance to that. You look at the Carter Family book and it’s something the Carter Family would own. It’s a classic looking book, with illustrations that are timeless just like the music is timeless. Was that something you wanted to do?

DL: For me, to really get the Carters’s music across, Frank and I decided it had to be in a 1930s newspaper comic strip style. It had to. If it couldn’t be in color, we didn’t want to do the book. That was key to getting the music across. We specifically talked about which comic strips from the 30s could best get across the Carters’ times and music, and at first I was even going to take the style of these specific cartoonists, and each section of the book was an imitation of an actual cartoonist.

CE: Can you say who?

DL: Harold Gray, from Little Orphan Annie. Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, which still has a strong impact on the book. Roy Crane, various other artists. And the editor questioned, “Are you sure you guys want to do this?” The direct imitation. And the more I thought about it, I realized it was a huge amount of work for something that’s already a huge amount of work. So what I settled on was keeping one style that’s my style, but informed by these 1930s strips. I think that was the best solution. But yeah, for music in comics I think that rather than just have a word balloon with some notes in it the artist really needs to think about the art style, the composition, the line quality—that all will work towards suggesting what this music sounds like.

CE: You seem to boil the essence down. Instead of doing a direct appropriation of Gasoline Alley or whatever, you’re able to actually have an element of those strips in what you do without doing something directly formal.

DL: In the earliest version we did, which was in Kramer’s Ergot, in that kind of ‘pilot episode,’ I was more directly imitating Harold Gray. That worked for ten pages, but for a whole graphic novel it was going to be too much to try and do.

MC: Right, and plus — along the lines of judging music only by its politics, how that’s a good way to get into something but maybe limits you across a whole career — it’s cool to see how someone else’s work informs yours, instead of just looking at imitation as a trial you pass or fail for your heroes.

DL: Let’s talk a little bit about the Serge Gainsbourg comic Mairead and I did. It was unusual for me because I drew the art first, and then I sought out a writer. Luckily, it turned out to be you, Mairead. I said, “Here’s what I’m drawing, can you fill in words?” which is the opposite of how I usually work, how most comics artists usually work. Most people wait for the writing, and then draw to compliment the writing. What was it like for you, working this way?

MC: I think it was good. We’ve talked a little bit about comics about music, how lots of times they’re just someone singing and then the lyrics are just pasted on top, how that’s not representative of how music even feels. So we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to do something with a poem-y feel, and we knew each other’s work to begin with so it felt like things would probably gel no matter what.

DL: It worked.

MC: And it worked! I liked you going first, too, me writing a script to your lead. Lots of times a writer must be all “Oh I need space for twenty words,” and then the artist says “OK, I’ll leave that space,” and then you’re just kind of filling in frames, writing subtitles. It’s not really a partnership, and I think the work can suffer for that too. There were also a couple times where I had more words than we had space for and we shifted things around, so it was definitely a collaboration in that sense too.

DL: It was a fun moment for me, when I got your words and put them into my pictures and asked, “Is it going to work?” There were a lot of serendipitous moments.

MC: Well, we were good about going over things beforehand too, and we know each other’s tones from working on past projects together. [turns to Chris] Is that how the Clash comic worked, too?

DL: We did it the opposite.

CE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about Frank. I assumed he did it like mine, where I wrote a script for you to draw from.

DL: Frank and I, we co-plotted the whole book, and we both actually drew thumbnails. First, we came up with a prose outline—it was a new experience for the both of us, working on a graphic novel. Jumping into the deep end for the first time. So we were both thumb-nailing chapters, estimating that something would be four pages and then seeing how it worked once we drew it out. That process was a very equal partnership. And then, once the map was made, I drew the rest from the thumbnails and he began scripting. There was no definite script until the art was materialized as a rough draft. It was a really kind of democratic, equal process. That sounds weird. It was an equal collaboration, I guess.

CE: Yeah, I had a script for you but we kicked out what wasn’t going to work. We had the same idea about what was a bad aesthetic for comics about rock and roll, and whenever I got close to that we threw it out. But doing this with Frank as an extended narrative, to do it that collaboratively, that sounds intense.

DL: It was intense. And if I had known that it was going to go on for three and a half years, I don’t know that I would have stepped into it. I think we both thought it would be done in a year.

MC: How did you two decide you wanted to do a comic about the Carter Family in the first place?

DL: I had known Frank for about ten years, as a friend, and we’d talked about doing comics at one point but nothing ever came together. And it was in 2002, I think, Ilsa Thompson was pregnant, and she was playing all kinds of music to her son in utero, as a musical education I guess. And one of the things she played was a CD of hillbilly music and she said, “David, I bet these hillbilly musicians have some good stories. They’d make a good comic!” And I immediately thought about the Carter Family. I loved their music and didn’t know anything about them at the time. And then I thought about Frank, because he collects 78s and knows a lot about music and comics, and I thought he would be a great guy to work on something like that with. Originally we did a short story, like a ten-page story, and once we started learning about the Carters there was so much there that we both thought we could do a whole book—that it would be a great book. And then it was just a process of the fates coming together to make that possible. It took a few years. It was a lot of work and there were times when we thought it might not actually come together, but I think everyone involved wanted it to happen.

MC: I feel like you have to have that minute, with a lot of projects that matter — the “I’ve worked on this for a long time and it’s really hard, but it’s important and so let’s get it done.”

CE: So why should somebody read a graphic novel about the Carter Family?

DL: It’s a great story, and their music is beautiful—about as heartfelt as any music I’ve ever heard. And once I learned about them, their personal story lived up to the music. It’s an incredible story that encompasses a lot of things that would happen later to other musicians. Any band on VH1 Behind the Music? The Carters went through it first.

CE: There’s divorce, there’s alcohol. There’s a lot of conflict.

DL: There’s an African-American musician who they got songs from but because of racism he wasn’t able to record with them, or make a name for himself.

CE: It’s all there.

DL: It’s the story of American music [told through] a family in Virginia. So, earlier we were talking about Scott McCloud [and the combining of words and pictures] — do you feel that music has lost the album cover? That’s a visual element that has been important for at least the last 40 years.

MC: I definitely think there’s still a graphic component—maybe it’s less one album cover to one set of songs, but you still do have that connection. And you have Flatstock.

CE: I do think that we have been losing a certain connection between music and the visual image, though. I don’t blame (the size of) CDs specifically, I blame technology in general. We think about music much differently than we used to.

DL: That might not be such a bad thing, to lose the album cover. To let the listener have their own mental image and make a response.

MC: My mom feels that way, she will not watch music videos for that exact reason. She feels very strongly that you have to make up your own mind… It was interesting to walk through Flatstock at Pitchfork this year, and chat with folks — to see how they and their clients made an arc between a band, a specific album, a tour, a designer. We were talking to one guy and he was straight up about just waiting for “someone like Urban Outfitters to come through,” and cut him a contract for t-shirts. It wasn’t about the band posters at all. I was actually impressed with how straight he shot about that. And you can be bummed out and nostalgic about that outlook, or you can focus on the art and how he’s staying up while he makes it — how it works for him.

DL: I’m an old fashioned 20th century guy, and I love album covers. But at the same time, I used to love videos back in the 80s. I wasted so much time just watching videos over and over again, taping them on Betamax and watching them all weekend, my brother and I… I was at the Crocodile a couple weeks ago, and they played videos from the 80s but [on the audio] punk rock over it, so you weren’t hearing the Wham! or Madonna, just seeing the images. And without the songs, those videos look so dumb. (Except for Madonna, who looks pretty great.) I was like, I spent so much time watching this stuff? There’s not a lot of substance to it. That said, a lot of them are still really fun. Like ZZ Top is totally goofy, but you love it because it’s goofy. And then the other side of that is with YouTube, I’ll find videos for songs I loved in the 90s or the 80s and be all “Oh, I never knew there was a video for this song!” And it’s kind of exciting to see the artist when they were that age, lip-synching. But at the same time it’s disappointing because I’ve had 20 years of that song in my head, and my own thoughts and images about it, and the video can’t live up to 20 years of living. I think there’s a lot to be said for Mairead’s mom. A song should be individual things for individual people.

MC: Well, it’s also worth mentioning something I’ve heard from filmmaker friends, which is that if you are someone who does more experimental weirdo stuff, your best bet for funding, visibility, and distribution is a music video. That makes a weirdo video really unique and exciting — as a fan, I’ve always enjoyed myself more (and improved more as a writer!) being omnivorous, not anorexic.

CE: I have a weird time with new music or even reissued music not having a visual focus. I can’t understand how a kid could listen to an MP3 and get the same thing I got out of it, not going down to buy an album or a CD. I was buying a mystique, an extra-dimensionality at the touch of a fingernail—not just a sound. Without any personal narrative to it, I’m just not as attracted as I used to be. And of course I have to factor in age. It’s like what Chuck Klosterman says about religion. He says you don’t think about religion unless you’re about to die — getting older, right? Well as I’m getting older, when I do get into something like the Rodriguez record (which, as we were talking about earlier, Light In The Attic smartly presents in its full original format), then you accept that legend. You accept that mystery. That’s why those labels do well in that niche. It’s a hearkening back to that mystery, that allure of that era when that full-scale artistic statement was a thing. I don’t relate to people who are discovering a song through a computer.

MC: But also a song can mean different things over a different period of time. Speaking as fan, not someone who has a stake in one particular part of the process or another, I think about my babysitter listening to this song, gosh I think it was Paula Abdul. We listened to it in the car, while she was getting ready to go out, and at that point I just knew the song and its feelings and how when my babysitter put on Maybelline to it, I wanted to too. But then when I was a teenager and I’d see an album, I’d be all “Oh, that’s the politics of this album, that’s who they are as an artist. That’s what this means.” So that happens differently over different times in your life, but it wasn’t bad for me just to hear that single, in the car on the way to soccer practice.

CE: Were there album covers or rock art that really inspired you when you were younger, David?

DL: The Beatles’ covers. Paul McCartney’s (Wings’) Band on the Run, just such a great goofy cover. I’d listen to The Doors and Pink Floyd and those covers were kind of designed just to look at while you were stoned. And then The Pixies appeared and their covers were just kind of like—I heard the music first and the music got me, and then when I saw the covers it added a little something to the power of their music. It really complimented it well… When I first heard it, it was like music by angry children. It didn’t have the masculinity of the other punk rock music I was listening to at the time.

MC: I remember being hit between the eyes by the cover to Surfer Rosa, I was all “Whoa! This is gorgeous and intense.” And then, after that, after I saw her eyes, I realized she wasn’t wearing a shirt. That was one of the first times I realized something else was going on (besides my immediate knee-jerk reaction to anything remotely objectifying women, ha). Her breasts were out there but that wasn’t the full story.

DL: Exactly. There was nudity on that cover but it wasn’t necessarily sexual.

MC: Yeah! I was all “I wouldn’t mess with her.” It was amazing.

CE: Were there any LPs after that, that were as mysterious or compelling? Or any videos, or rock art that just really struck you? Now I’m remembering Doolittle, which was the last LP I bought that I wore down to the acetate.

MC: Spaceman 3 had glitter letting on their t-shirts, I was really excited about that and I wore that t-shirt out—but also I think because I liked glitter so much.

DL: This conversation’s making me think about when I was nine years old and saw the cover of Some Girls, with the perforation, and I was all “What is this? What does it do? Who are these people?” Total mystique. And then when I was in college, I read about this “Metal Box” album [by Public Image Limited], and how you needed a special key that wasn’t provided with the album, and I thought “Oh that’s so cool!” I got the album in its non-box form [the more accessible Second Edition]. You don’t get that mystique with an MP3.

MC: And then there are moments like the Tracy + the Plastics cover, I remember liking it just because it was mood ring and weird-looking—but also because of Wynne Greenwood’s whole thing where she was nervous to perform solo so instead she performed as three people, Tracy and Nicki and Cola. She’d make a film with herself acting as Nicki and Cola, then project that film while she was onstage as Tracy — so it was three girls together. First of all, that graphic element at Wynne’s shows was so impressive to me — to realize that you can perform at a rock concert like how you could in a play, or a movie — and second of all it just felt really brave, that it was just Wynne’s face (or ponytail) on her album covers. Like David with the key, it made me realize that an album could be bigger than its songs. In fact, I don’t think I would’ove liked that record half as much without the visual component.

CE: That’s a perfect timeline, from Hawkwind to Tracy + the Plastics. Pop art that isn’t afraid to be unpopular, but is also visually appealing. David, do you feel like the Carter Family book is a personal statement? Does it represent you and Frank?

DL: We tried to tell the Carter Family story as honestly as we could, but you know so much of us comes out in it too—so I think other people will have to judge that. The story centers on A.P. Carter, and I think Frank, as any biographer would do, put in the elements of A.P. that he related to most. And I definitely, as I was drawing the characters, I was working kind of as an actor, like when you see Maybelle Carter making an expression it’s coming out of me. I’m in the mirror, making that expression, then running to the drawing table and drawing it. You’ve both said you feel a lot of love in the book, and I’m glad because we both put a lot of heart and soul into it.

CE: A graphic novel like this, done with such a passion for the music but also a passion for drawing, is I think like how we want to write, too. We all want to love not only what we’re writing about, but we want to love writing about it.

MC: The time-span of it is a stunner. You talk about the microcosm of the American Music story, and how this was your guys’s first graphic novel too. There’s so much to work with and you put so much into it—it’s so cool, how all that energy shows.

DL: I think that if Frank and I didn’t love that music so much we wouldn’t have been able to put in the four years it took to get this done. It all stems from a deep love of their music first and foremost. There’s no other way to do a Carter Family book.

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