Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Gap Year: Eric Stern interviews himself (thanks for the idea g.g.).

Photo Credit: Michael Bodine
Photo Credit: Scott Bump
ES: I recently read a Vagabond Opera fan posting that described the band in the past tense...
Eric Stern: Yes, I read that as well. It started out: "A fine Portland band from the Pre-Portlandia era..." and then went on to say some very nice things.. But that framing of us, in bygone era, well I protested, at first.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Well first because I'd hate to use Portlandia as a temporal limiter, or as a means to define anything about this city, but mostly because...well the last gig we played was in November. I mean, don't be so quick to put nails in the coffin.
ES: And yet you've shaved your moustache, and if you make a public appearance these days you're usually seen playing an obscure Arabic instrument.
Eric Stern: The oud isn't obscure in the Arab or Turkish world. And yes, I'm obsessed with it, the same way I was once obsessed with the accordion. But that's besides the point. I'm not ready to say that Vagabond Opera is over, but I am taking a gap year.
ES: A gap year?
Eric Stern: Yes, you know when high school students take a year before college and travel to Europe or find a job at home and just experience life away from the pressure of school. The band has been going for around twelve years. I needed a break. A break from the band, from the persona, from the music industry. That's all.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Do I need a reason?
ES: No. But from what I know the band was touring, producing interesting shows, with interesting music. So why...sort of the "if it ain't broke principle," I guess...
Eric Stern: All of that is true, and even behind the scenes there wasn't the drama you often hear about in bands, and I've still remained friends with almost everyone that's been in it. That's almost part of the issue...I wish I could say that some cataclysmic dramatic event ended the ensemble with a resounding finality.
ES: So it is over?
Eric Stern: Never say "never." The music industry is an odd beast. I went into it, I mean the whole band thing, and maybe even when I was in opera, with this David Copperfield idea, that if I did my absolute best and greatest work, and that if I followed my heart that we would achieve unparalleled success. Rise to the top.
ES: You are of the "follow your bliss" generation and also from a country that is constantly in the throes of what Salman Rushdie calls the "cult of celebrity."
Eric Stern: I didn't need us to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I just wanted us to achieve a level of recognition maybe on par with our friends of The Decemberists or the Portland band, Pink Martini. In the end, I always knew that the true success...well this sounds trite but I mean it...that the true success was already achieved because in every show we gave our hearts minds body and blood practically and brought all of our art to serve and were rewarded instantly with the energetic return from the spectators. That much I knew, and that may be enough. But you don't hear too much about the economics of these things. You know I'm reminded of an R. Crumb quote where he said something to the effect of being an artist in the United States usually equated with being a loser. I wouldn't go so far, but I also did get tired of the ratio of work I and the band would put into projects versus our financial return. And there was another more important ratio. I found myself spending more and more time on promotion (even when we'd hire a promoter!), and less and less time to work on craft. And craft is vital to me. But rather than whine about it I've decided to do other things.
ES: Things that make more money?
Eric Stern: No things, that don't cost as much. Of course, right away after I made the decision to take a break I started an opera company and composed an opera and mounted a production and then began to think of all the things that would have to happen: fund-raisers, concerts, recruiting volunteers the whole catastrophe as Zorba would say and the oddest thing happened. I almost feel embarrassed to say it...
ES: Go ahead...
Eric Stern: I felt my body putting on the brakes. The only way I could put it is that I didn't want to be outward. So no big Fall production, no fund-raisers, none of that. Instead I started a little creative collective out of my home that met on Wednesdays, just me and a circle of my friends practicing songs, writing, but even that was too much. All I really wanted to do was play the oud, watch Christopher Hitchens on youtube or learn about history and philosophy, and write. Of course I didn't immediately embrace that; on the contrary I fought it for a month or so, but gradually, and with the wisdom of age, I knew to listen to what my body was telling me. It's been nourishing.
ES: What has?
Eric Stern: Going internal, I guess. Learning. being in one place. I'm barely performing (just once a week in a band that plays Arabic music for belly dancers. I play the oud, and accordion once a week at a French Restaurant), and I'm mostly writing, on a schedule, either alone or with my business partner from Hungry Opera Machine, Annie Rosen. Fiction, essays, short stories, a radio play and even a mystery novel. I don't wear striped pants or a moustache. I'm finished with that, for now. And besides I get to do this:
Elena Villa with Eric Stern. Photo: Phoebus-Foto

I'll also be blogging more...

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