Nearly a year ago, Elliott Smith was on the front porch of Revolver HQ, playing Hank Williams and Neil Young covers and taking requests from the five or so people gathered there. On March 23, Smith will play his Oscar-nominated "Miss Misery," from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, for a television audience of millions at the Academy Award ceremonies.
It's been a short and unexpected path from the relative oblivion of Kill Rock Stars artist to Oscar nominee, "an odd twist of fate," Mr. Smith calls it. When Revolver last saw Smith, he was riding the crest of the critical acclaim being heaped on Either/Or, his third solo album and second recording for Kill Rock Stars. Not much has changed since then, excepting the Oscar nomination for best soundtrack song.
Smith doesn't sell millions of records, he never gets played on the radio, he doesn't have any videos on MTV, at least not yet.
Since Either/Or, Smith has recorded one new song for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, which also used songs from Either/Or and Smith's first LP, Roman Candle. Other than that, Smith's only recorded output has been the "Division Day" seven-inch on Suicide Squeeze records. He's currently working on his major-label debut (for Dreamworks), tentatively titled Grand Mal; yeah, you heard right, Smith's leaving the ranks of ultrahip indie-dom for greener corporate pastures.
Revolver recently interrupted the soft-spoken Elliott Smith at a recording session to quiz him about the metamorphosis from KRS sweetheart to Oscar darling. This is what transpired:
Revolver: Last time we talked, you seemed very happy with Kill Rock Stars. Why did you sign with Dreamworks?
Elliott Smith: Well, I had this other band [Heatmiser] that was signed to Virgin Records and we kind of broke up before our record came out. So that label had a claim to me, I didn't really have the option of staying on Kill Rock Stars in the first place. Virgin might have let me, I don't know. Things had gotten to a point where my choices were between major labels.
R: What was your reaction when you found out you got an Oscar nomination?
ES: My manager Margaret [Mittleman] called me up at like 8 in the morning. I was like, oh, boy, something really good or bad has happened. I didn't know that was the day they announced the nominations or anything. I was shocked, it was really weird. It was happy, it seems to make my friends really happy. I'm excited, I don't think of it really seriously. It's a big awards show about movies, and I happen to be involved in a movie. That in itself was kind of a happy accident, this is even more bizarre.
R: How did you get involved with the Good Will Hunting soundtrack?
ES: I knew Gus Van Sant from Portland; he used to come see me play and he had a couple of my records. He'd hang out and talk about his next movie sometimes, he was always interested in me writing a song specifically for the movie.
R: With all the attention from the nomination, are you starting to feel like a commodity?
ES: I guess, I don't really think about it. I do interviews every morning, but that'll pass. I'm trying to make this record and I'm sorta thinking more about that. There's this unexpected little flurry of attention about it, but in a month the Academy Awards will be done and this whole thing will be over.
R: Any worries about Celine Dion [whose song from Titanic is competing with "Miss Misery"] pulling a Tonya Harding on you before you play at the Oscars?
ES: I hadn't thought of that, maybe I should. Yeah, some big thug guy that's abusive to her beats me in the hall with a monkey wrench to the throat and then breaks my fingers. You never know.
Star Killaz: Seven years ago, Kill Rock Stars was a fledgling record label devoted to releasing "wordcore" seven-inches by spoken-word artists. Shortly into KRS' existence, its owner, Slim Moon, came across two bands that would change the face of punk rock in the '90s--Unwound and Bikini Kill--and decided maybe Kill Rock Stars should put out music as well as words.
In 1998, KRS stands among a handful of labels that define premillennial punk rock. The label is responsible for introducing riot-grrl, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith, as well as the aforementioned Bikini Kill and Unwound, to legions of slicked-back, wired-up boy/girl revolutionary kids. But it's not stopping there; there's new ground to be broken as we near the next millennium, and Slim Moon is well aware of that.
Kill Rock Stars recently introduced its sister label, 5 Rue Christine, to the world via the release of LPs by experimental purveyors of noise Deerhoof and the Replikants. A rock critic once said of KRS that "they could release a record of whales' mating calls and no one would bat an eye," so we were curious why a sister label was deemed necessary. A phone call to KRS' headmaster cleared things up:
Revolver: First question: Why another label?
Slim Moon: I could pretend I don't know this, but it would just be silly; people have an idea about what kinds of records KRS puts out and we've noticed that when we put out a record that strays too far from that musical preconceived notion that the people who expected something else are disappointed and the people that may be interested in that record don't even know that it exists. 5 Rue Christine is definitely very modern and forward thinking. These are records for the future rather than records that are based on the guitar rock of the present and the past.
R: As opposed to KRS not being the future of music?
SM: At least musically, 5RC is all about new sounds. KRS is all about meaningful music, but it's less relevant whether it's new sounds or not. With 5RC, it's all about taking it to another level, to a new place that's never been explored before.
R: Where did the name come from?
SM: It's one of the places that Gertrude Stein lived in Paris. I wanted to call the label Gertrude, but it turned out there was already a label called that.
R: Why Gertrude Stein?
SM: 'Cause she's the greatest, and she claimed to have invented the 20th century. In some ways I think she's right, not just in fiction and poetry but in the way that people communicate in the 20th century, like in advertising. She sort of predicted and predated it stylistically.
R: So you intend 5RC to be an extension of that?
SM: We would like to have goals as ambitious as that for the 21st century.
R: What about Kill Rock Stars, do you feel that you're still maturing and evolving?
SM: I don't think our taste in music has been evolving. I think it's been fairly consistent. I think because times have changed and we've put out so many records that the public perception of KRS has evolved and will continue to do so. I think early on, people thought that we were really specific, and why wouldn't they? They didn't know we were going to put out Mary Lou Lord and Elliott Smith; kids thought we were all about Bikini Kill and Unwound. The more records we put out, the more people's perception of us expands. In some ways, that's good, for people who are willing to try a variety of things. In some ways, it's bad, for people who only wanted us to be a riot-grrl label or something.
(5 Rue Christine, P.O. Box 1190, Olympia, WA 98507-1190)
Suicidal Athletes: Speaking of baby labels, Seattle's Suicide Squeeze Records is swiftly making its mark on the ever-impressionable indie scene. Barely a year old, the label has already pressed exceptional records by Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith and 764-HERO. The latest seven-inch, from S.F.'s Track Star, is no exception. The threesome offers up two tracks of breathy, meandering pop. "The View From Space" is an ethereal rocker reminiscent of early Love and Rockets with subtle, depressive overtones ("Sometimes I think about my funeral/And who's gonna be there"). "Removable Parts" is a gentle acoustic plea for love that sporadically explodes into brief patches of electric noise and yelling. You can check out Track Star live at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe on Saturday, March 14.
(Suicide Squeeze, P.O. Box 434, 4505 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105)
Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: [email protected]