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When Andy Friedman takes the stage, whether at local venues such as Pete's Candy Store or Hank's Tavern or in many a college town, audiences may not know what to expect. With musicians surrounding him and a microphone at the ready, he might break into song, rocking out as crowds at such clubs are used to. But instead, he speaks, wooing his listeners not with rambling or ranting, but simply with words-telling stories that may or may not be true, reading poetry and spinning road trip tales, artistic traumas, and romantic odes to a backdrop of loose country music and his own original artwork. Merged in such a way, he lulls listeners into his world, one, as you'll read below, where art is not simply a spectator sport, but a place where viewers and creators can share, learn and interact.

Friedman is passionate about his art, as well he should be-he left a job at The New Yorker to spend much of his time on the road, traveling to towns like Eugene, Oregon and Portland, Maine to bring his unique brand of slideshow poetry to new eyes and ears. The 30-year-old entrepreneur started his Brooklyn-based record label City Salvage Records, to release his own works, such as his album Future Blues and book Drawings and Other Failures, as well as the notable Upstate Songs by folksinger Devon Sproule and albums by Paul Curreri, Matt Curreri and Brady Earnhart. Tonight marks the start of a seven week run at Bowery Poetry Club, where he will be joined by his band, The Other Failures, featuring Ethan Hein on electric guitar and mandolin, Jason Hogue on upright bass, Natalia Zukerman on lead guitar, and a brand-new drummer, Bryan Bisordi, along with a rotating cast of writers and artists to open each show. Friedman emailed his detailed responses to Gothamist's questions, showing just as much zeal, vision and perfectionism as he does onstage (but, alas, no arm-wrestling).

You grew up on Long Island, and I'm curious how suburban life affected your view of art and music.
I was wearing Spider Man underoos under my clothes and telling the other second-graders that I was Spider Man's assistant. Maybe all the lawns and fences and straight sidewalks made me dream more, if anything.

How did the music you listened to growing up shape the kind of art and music you create now?
I think at the jewel center of my artistic development exists the "mix tape." Here was the way that I could tell a particular someone about what and how I was feeling without having to open my mouth. It was only a matter of time before I saw that my paintings and drawings could be mix tapes of their own.

You’re about to start a seven-week run at Bowery Poetry Club. What appeals to you about that space in particular for your work?
A few years ago when I first started out with the performance end of things I contacted about every club in town. Bob Holman, the fearless poet who founded and runs the Bowery Poetry Club, wrote back to me and said it sounded like my performance embodied the vision for which his club was built. The clientele at the BPC is already into stuff like what I do, the less conventional on-the-fringe-type stuff, as well as the more traditional music acts, and they go there to experience it all. So, for me it's the perfect kind of place. Add to it the fact that they have an elevated stage, great sound, a dressing room, and poets with names like Shappy and Moonshine tending bar—all that stuff doesn't hurt, either.

Will each week offer up a different set? Are you trying to cultivate a returning audience each week, or hoping to generate newcomers as they hear about the show?
It's always nice to recognize faces in the crowd and see people come again and again. And of course it's just as nice to attract new people to the show. It’s my belief that most people think my show is something linear with a clear start and a middle and a finish and that it will always be that way like a movie or a novel, but it's not the case. I have my songs and depending on how I feel on a given night I will decide which ones to play and when. And each audience affects the show, too, whether it's a rowdy crowd or a quiet one, big or small. I like to play with all these elements and throw curve-balls when fast balls are expected and I look to the audience for that. It's not a play that I'm offering. It's always different.

You’ve said that you want to make art less about something you see only in museums and galleries and more about being an interactive forum. What's missing from the modern art world that you'd like to see there instead?
What's missing in the modern art world are artists dealing with everyday emotions and situations that could be of practical use to someone. Most of the visual art these days, that I see, anyway, is art about art. It's as if the role of the visual artist is still to examine various new ways in which things can be expressed visually. Painters seem to have settled into roles of "painter as visual and conceptual scientist," not "poet to the people." In the 20th Century that was an important road, but it took us to here and now it’s more of a cul-de-sac. We’ve got to recognize that and pave painting’s new highway.

Does the one-sidedness of the current means of showcasing art detract from drawing in new art fans and collectors?
No, it just attracts fans of the same old gallery scene. I've always felt that when I walk into a gallery I'm made to feel that I should know what the art is about and where it's coming from and that somehow it's my problem if I don't. Most people feel comfortable walking in and out of a bar if they don’t like the sound of the live music that’s playing and they don’t think twice about it. But the same people might not give themselves the freedom to resent visual art for the same reason, for the sheer fact that they’re not connecting with it right off the bat or that they don’t get why they’re looking at what they’re seeing. So, they feel dumb for not getting it or appreciating it, as if they are self-conscious of what they fear is an intellectual shortcoming, and find reasons and ways to fall into the role of someone who appreciates it, of someone who cares, even if they don’t feel anything at the core. I think its OK to start demanding more from our painters and the pictures they’re making. I bet most people, experts and laypeople alike, would not be opposed to taking home something more filling than a belly full of diced cheddar and a few plastic cups’ worth of Zinfandel.

How does your artwork fit into the gallery/museum world?
If you mean the original paintings, drawings and photographs, well, then like any other visual artist's work, my drawings and paintings would fit right on the wall. But that, as far as my works are concerned, is only the exhibition of the art object, which is only half of the picture. Granted, there could be a lot to gain from getting up close to my paintings and drawings, but mostly on a technical level. The whole picture is not being shown if the lyrics and the music are not there being shown with it.

But, very few people from the gallery scenes around this country seem to consider what I'm doing as a visual art venture at all, so far as I can tell. If I were naked and painted yellow doing my show in the street, the same set-up, those same people—the gallery-goers, judges and critics—would come out and name my pursuit worthy of consideration. Or if I wrapped myself in tin-foil and played the same venues. Perhaps it's because what I do may seem "familiar" in the sense that I come off like a music act in a bar rather than a painter in a gallery. But, my whole set-up is a living, breathing painting happening in real-time. I think it’s the “entertainment” aspect of it that throws the art-lovers off.

You’re often on the road and have performed all across the country. Are local, hometown audiences more receptive to your work?
NYC is the best. I mean it. All the adventurous souls move here from all over, so NYC is like an artistic, adventurous, cultural all-star team, you know? But, I also enjoy getting to areas that many other performers don’t seem to stop at. Places like Union City, Indiana or Waverly, Alabama. There are curious, adventurous people all over this country. Being in or near a city has nothing to do with it. Everyone is going through the same emotional stuff and dealing with the same obstacles in life.

Are there any towns that have surprised you with their positive (or negative) reactions to what you do?
Well, I just got back from California and I really think I alienated a lot of people there. A drunk in Bolinas told me to take my "intellectual rock" back to NYC, and that sort of summed up a lot of the energy I get out there up and down from LA to SF. It wasn’t so much that tomatoes were being thrown, but that could’ve been due to the fact that the tomatoes in California are delicious.

You’re pretty adamant that you’re not a singer, and indeed, you accompany your backing band, or sometimes solo, read and/or speak your poems or monologues. Have you tried being a singer and/or writing traditional songs, and if so, how does that compare to the more freeform lyrical style you’ve cultivated?
Well, no, what I'm really adamant about is that I am not a "performance artist" or "performance poet." I'm as much of a performance artist or performance poet as Bruce Springsteen is, I guess. We’re both combining music and poetry in a rhythmic melodic fashion, only as a painter I've got one more instrument added to the mix with the visuals. But most of the songs I'm presenting these days are sung, less of the spoken stuff, and the visuals fit into and activate many of the lyrics with their own sound and color. All the songs are my own compositions, with the exception of the occasional rendition of an old tune. I like to think of myself as sort of a cross between Ingres and Jerry Jeff Walker, or something like that.

You had an early career at The New Yorker as an assistant to the cartoon editor, which you left to pursue musical endeavors. What was it like working there and what made you make the leap to leave a full-time job to pursue music?
I left my full-time job to pursue a full-time job in music and art. It wasn't the idea of the full-time job I was looking to leave. I was involved in all sorts of adventures and had friends with access to all sorts of backstages and places that I never would have imagined having access to, and had plenty of drink and conversation with heroes of mine. That will always affect the way you go about pursuing your dreams in life, when one or two of your heroes looks you in the eye and says you can do what you want to do. I never took any of that for granted.

You continue to draw cartoons under the name Larry Hat. Where'd you get the name from, and where do you get your inspiration for your cartoons?
My brother thought up the name Larry Hat when I sold my first cartoon. I said I needed a pseudonym and he said, “What about Larry Hat?” And that’s the story.

Being a cartoonist, for me, was a lot like being a poet. It's about letting the world around us do the work and just being there with our net to see it and catch it. It's about finding the truth and humor in the everyday stuff and keeping a notebook and a pen in your back pocket at all times.

It's actually been some time since I last submitted a bunch of "Larry Hat" cartoons to the magazine. Becoming a regular cartoonist for that magazine requires a lot of work, work that was a lot easier for me to maintain back before I hit the road. And I was able to keep it going during the first year of touring but the tour got too busy and I just ran out of room.

I'm afraid at this point Larry Hat has sort of dropped off the face of the earth and I don't know what the future holds for him. Larry Hat, you might say, is the Joe Charbaneau of cartooning.

But, I've changed nothing about my notebook routine, only now the cartoons come in the form of lyrics and one-liners rather than drawn gags with an ink-wash. I still think of cartoons, though. I have one of two golfers talking over a put, you know, doctor types, theater-goers. The one about to put is looking over his shoulder to the other and saying, “Why don’t you and Audra join Maude and I to get stoned and see Spamalot?”

You bill yourself as a slideshow poet as a way to describe your mix of music, artwork and poetry, in which you don’t actually play an instrument but have backing musicians and show your slides and artwork while reading rambling road stories. What does being a "slideshow poet" mean to you?
It means that I'm doing a new thing that requires its own sort of clever moniker to pitch to people the idea that they could come out to see it. Maybe the first singer/songwriter was billed as a "Creative Warbler with String Box accompaniment." Being called a “Slideshow Poet” means that what I’m doing isn’t commonplace enough to just call me an artist. One day I want it to be.

If I had it my way I wouldn't bill myself as a "Slideshow Poet." A club down in Knoxville thought that up for lack of a better moniker. It seemed to pique the audience’s interest so I stuck with it. Before that promoters wouldn't know how to bill the show. They would say, "Andy Friedman: Frank Artistic Discussion," or "Art Presentation." That didn’t exactly pack the house.

Before the addition of the band I had lyrics that went with the pictures, if even only in my own head, but that's what it was. Songs without music. Never a "discussion" or a "monologue," as far as I was concerned. I could understand how an audience would see it as a monologue but that's not what I was doing.

Even in your question there is a bit of that old way of thinking about what I do. I don't see it as “showing slides of my artwork while reading stories.” Not at all. Unless what Muddy Waters did was recite his lyrics in a melodic fashion while presenting his guitar compositions. In music we see it as one coherent expression, one thing. To me, the lyrics and the pictures and the music are all coming together to tell the story.

There is a line in one of my songs called "Things You Can Do For Free," for example, and it goes, "There are plenty of things you can do for free/You can count bricks you can climb a tree/Plenty of things you can do at no cost/Miss a bus or take a walk till you're lost." Now, if the image during that verse was of a dead horse on a linoleum floor that line would have a different resonance with the audience than if it were a picture of Bill Cosby eating Jello. But the image is up there during that line and it's a Paloroid of two people in an old car on a cloudy day blowing plastic instruments through tight-lipped smiles into the camera.

To me, the image functions like a little flourish of a guitar lick similar to the way that Muddy Waters may throw one in after delivering a line like "You say you love me, baby/Please call me on the phone sometime." When that guitar flourish comes in you really feel it, that's when it becomes a song and you somehow know what he feels about what he sings. It’s a cohesive unit and a complete expression. And that's what I'm doing with the pictures, music and lyrics. I’m painting a whole picture.

It's a painting. I'm an artist, a painter, not a slideshow-poet. It’s interesting that when you're organizing music into iTunes the category that tells you who is playing the music says "Artist," not "Musician."

There’s something of a very different era about your entire presentation, from the mellow blues to your voice to the mood you create. It’s slower and more relaxed and just harkens back to another era. Is there a time in history you feel like your show would fit in
with more than 2005?

Not in history, but maybe in 2007.

Your audience seems to be a slightly more mature crowd who are content to watch and listen to your set unfold; they don’t seem as impatient as, say, a strictly college crowd. Is there an ideal audience member for you?
To tell you the truth, some of my favorite shows happen at colleges. It's the curious, the adventurous, the lost, the found, and the living souls that are the ideal audience for me. Age and status in the world has not a thing to do with it. There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who cry "why me" into the night when something goes wrong and the ones who use what goes wrong to take them where they should be. The latter tend to enjoy what I do.

There’s also something pretty tough about the tone of your recordings, as evidenced by a heckler who you challenged to an arm wrestling match during a set in Columbia, SC (a challenge you accepted and won, getting him kicked out of the bar). It's not necessarily macho, but there's a lot of drinking and fighting, a rough-and-tumble street-smart sensibility that definitely comes through on the live recordings, while at the same time the pace of your music is mellow and unhurried. Is that drinking-and-brawling persona that way you are in your regular life or is it enhanced by the kinds of clubs you play?
I think it's a tough thing to be unhurried and mellow. It's a hard place to be, isn't it? Most of life is fast-paced and caffeinated, but I think everyone wants to be calm some of the time. But we all struggle to get there and if we get there we struggle to relish in it.

Maybe the pace of my music is slow and mellow because it's the place in my life where I can actually have control of the pace. You can't write and create your life, really, you have to roll with a lot of punches, but in your art, if you're tough, you can do all the things you need to do, including arm-wrestle people who are giving you a hard time. In a sense, the audience is my boss and my employer and sometimes they give me a hard time. Isn't it nice to be able to shut your boss up with an arm-wrestle now and again?

Why’d you decide to start City Salvage Records and how has it grown since you began?
I started it to put out my first book, Drawings & Other Failures. I'd mentioned the idea that when I first started touring, although the people were seeing what I was doing as a presentation of stories and pictures, in my head it was music and lyrics. Well, my first book was, in my head, the visual art equivalent of a record album. It had all the parts—the "music" of the pictures coupled with the "lyrics" of the poems—and it all came together in the book. Different from the typical gallery catalogue in that the book was not a collection of what the work looks like hanging on the wall with fine color reproductions, it was more a book that exhibited what you don't get just from looking at the work on the wall. The book is designed to house and exhibit the current that drives the work. And there are even liner notes and "track" listings and all that.

So, I started City Salvage to put out this kind of "record" for visual artists, but the only submissions I was getting were from musicians who wanted to put out this kind of "record" for musicians, as in CD's, which was fine with me because in my head it's all the same anyway you look at it, whether it's songs being looked at or songs being listened to. I’d put out a bag of bubble gum if the artist meant it and would tour with it. To date there are eight releases on the label, all CD's except for my two books, but there are a few visual artists I've been talking with about putting something out in the coming year or so.

What are your goals and plans for the label?
For someone with a lot of money and a rock’n’roll dream to take it off my hands, or for it to be picked up by an existing label or publishing house. The label needs someone running it full-time. I'm too busy touring and performing to do what kind of work needs to be done. So we just get by and do what we do when we can, but we could stand to be bigger.

There’s a sense of urgency and necessity in the live interviews you’ve given, like making your art is not a matter of choice but something you’re compelled to do. Would you agree, and how does that interact with the need to make a living?
In anatomy drawing class in art school we were taught that "form follows function." Essentially, you employ different drawing techniques to different parts of the body based on what muscle is flexing and what muscle is relaxing. You don't just draw what you see, you draw what you know. And I use that for everything. That's what my art is and that’s how it comes out. It’s all based on need. Form follows function. I live my life and shit happens, and I deal with it and make sense of it in the art. As far as making a living, hell, it's like anything else. You just got to figure out how.

You're about to become a father this summer, and I'm curious if your impending parenthood makes you see your artwork and career in a different light. Has that affected your career goals and outlook?
Well, form follows function. I'm sure having a child will affect me in new ways that I don't know now. At least that's what I signed up for, and I'm sure it will come out in my work, either in the things I muse about or the way I go about creating it. There has been no part of my life where the realities of living haven’t informed my art and poetry in some significant way.

In your set, you show your painting, "Pilot Light," one that you worked on for three years. It depicts an elderly couple, and you tell a story about wanting to know what it was like to make a perfect piece of art, something you feel you achieved, took a slide of it, and it was later ruined in a varnish accident. How do you feel about the time you put into that painting now?
I wanted to be able to paint like Carravaggio or Valasquez. I wanted to know what it felt like to make a painting perfectly as far as my own standards were concerned. And then, yes, the painting was ruined and that sent me on a whole other journey to rediscover what perfection really is. What you are actually handed in life is perfect, whether its' a knee in the gut or a pat on the back, all you can do is learn from what happens to you, make sense of it and use it to take you to where you should be. So all the time I spent on it was necessary, because the moment of ruining it would not have been as significant to me had I not literally put everything I had into it.

Is there such a thing as "perfect art" and should that concept exist?
"Perfect Art" is real art, true art, art that comes from a truthful life, art that is made with however much or whatever little confidence one may have, no matter what shape or form that confidence manifests itself. Perfect, real art does not concern itself with who may buy it or who will enjoy it. Now, adhering to this principle doesn't always make it accessible to anyone on the receiving end, but it does make it genuine. But that’s a whole other topic. There’s a lot of genuine stuff in Chelsea, for example, but none of it’s ever rescued me when I was sinking. Maybe that’s because what I’m really looking for is never exhibited. When I’m in a gallery I feel like the silver discs are being exhibited but there is no CD player, so to speak.

You called your first book "Drawings and Other Failures." How and when is art a failure?
Both beauty and failure are in the eye of the creator. The success of a piece of art depends on a combination of how well the artist knows why the piece is being made coupled with the artist’s ability to expresses what needs to be said.

Is it purely a subjective matter? Is there any value to a failed piece of art? Have you learned from the works you've deemed "failures?"
The only real failed pieces of art are the ones that the artist gives up on. An artist has to be prepared for the fact that one’s art can change directions the way a well-laid plan might. So, it comes down to picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, or just keeping at it. But remember, it has nothing to do with how the art is received. There are some times on stage in strange far away towns where I am doing one of my favorite songs or stories and no one is listening at all. It isn’t catching on and I don't care. I know that at least three people are into it at all times no matter what, so I keep going for them and for me. The noise does not indicate that I'm a failure. There is no such thing as failing unless you plan on giving up.

Can you tell me more about this Realist Manifesto you’ve recently written?
I've done a lot of interviews while advancing my performance around the country over the years. Everyone prefaces the interviews by saying the same things: They've never heard of anything quite like what I'm doing, it must take a lot of energy and patience to do it, and I must be tired of answering the same questions all the time. And the questions are all the same: how did I get the idea to do this, where does it come from, what does it all mean and why do I call myself a painter?

After three years of answering these same questions I took it as an indication that there may be at least a small contingent of artists and people out there who might find the answers to these questions containing some small level of artistic and poetic worth, so I wrote it down. The result was a manifesto on painting and the new role, as I see it, of the 21C visual artist. A lot of the things we talked about here. I'd like to get it published sometime in the next year or so by a bigger publisher than myself.

How do you get an audience's focus back on you when they're talking or otherwise not paying attention?
They say when the rider is nervous the horse gets uncomfortable. I don't really try to win-over anyone at all. I do my thing and I do it the way I mean to do it and I find that this kind of light pierces through the thickest darkness and the noisiest crowds to the ones who need it, the ones who are picking up the signal.

If you go through life, or a performance, worrying about how to win people over then you will either come off looking like an idiot or a Vegas lounge act. My heroes are the ones who sing their songs and then look up to see if anyone is listening.

Photo by Daniel Coston

For more information on Andy Friedman visit www.CitySalvageRecords.com. Andy Friedman and The Other Failures perform every Thursday night at 8 pm, beginning tonight, through July 7th, at Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery at Bleecker. Tickets can be purchased through Virtuous.com (recommended). Special guest readings and performances open each show as follows: May 26 (New Yorker cartoonists share rejected works, hosted by The Rejection Show’s Jon Friedman and Matt Diffee), June 2nd (Amy Sohn, no tickets available), June 9 (Nancy Rullo), June 16 (Amanda Stern), June 23 (David Gates), June 30 (Todd Levin) and July 7 (Still-Film by Peter Cunningham).