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Steve Poltz

A Conversation with Steve Poltz

SP: Sorry about the mixup earlier. I screwed up on my time zone. I thought I was in--no, I'm in Adelaide, Australia right now, and I thought I was going to talk to you tonight before I played a show in Sydney.

PM: Now, so it's early to you, is it not? Like it's only 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock in the morning, right?

SP: Yeah. But I'm in an airport. Welcome to my life.

PM: Exactly.

SP: So I'm up early every morning. We played last night in Adelaide, and I'm headed to Sydney right now. The night before we were in Brisbane. The night before it was Perth.

PM: So tell me, if you would, about Brisbane. I've heard it's such a nice kind of Bay Area type city.

SP: Yeah, I liked it. It's weird. It's really tropical.

PM: Oh, it's tropical.

SP: A lot of birds, parrots and stuff. It's more north in Australia. The further north you go in Australia the less arid it becomes, so it's really green.

PM: Wow.

SP: When you're in Perth in Western Australia, I think that it's really arid and similar to San Diego, where I live. But in Brisbane the air is more wet. You feel more humidity right when you get off, and it seems like there are a lot of nice cars; and it's more of a tourist town, because you're near the Gold Coast. So it brings in a lot of tourist dollars.

PM: Right. How are the Australian shows going?

SP: So good. This is the best one yet. It's just amazing. People are coming out, and they're so into it, and they're so generous and nice. I'll tell you what, though, I've been doing two and a half, three-hour shows every night. They don't let you get off easy. And they know, now with the power of the internet, so many songs that I haven't released, and they're just making all these rare requests.

PM: Really?

SP: So naturally, being Catholic and everything, I don't want to let people down. So I'll easily go for three hours playing. That happened last night. Then I get home and I want to eat, and I'm hungry.

PM: So are you playing solo?

SP: Yeah, it's just me.

PM: Damn! Three hours by yourself!

SP: I kind of make it interesting, though. It's not like some guy just sitting up there.

PM: Oh, no. I saw your show.

SP: Oh, you did?

PM: I saw your show and met you afterward at The Basement in Nashville, where I shot a bunch of video. Short cat, shaved head.

SP: Yeah, I remember talking with you. You still had the camcorder in your hand.

PM: Right, I shot a lot of footage that I plan to include with the interview so people can get the sense of how awesome Steve Poltz is live.

SP: Oh, cool! Yeah, so these audiences have now seen me like six, seven times, and they're so loyal. And they buy--this girl last night bought everything. She bought the Rugburns Morning Wood, the Rugburns Hitchhiker Joe, and the Rugburns Taking the World by Donkey, Mommy, I'm Sorry, One Left Shoe, Answering Machine, Chinese Vacation, Live at The Basement, Sydney, Australia DVD and Traveling.

PM: She bought nine CDs and a DVD?

SP: Yeah, she bought everything. She just said, "I'll take everything."

PM: Oh, my God.

SP: And that's how they are. Every night when I'm leaving, they just don't want you to quit playing, and they've been buying everything. But it's taken a lot of work. Like when I first came here without Jewel, without being in her band and playing, there was like six people at Brisbane. And now there's over 100. And I love that amount. I think 100 is a perfect size crowd.

PM: 100 is a beautiful number.

SP: I like 100 people jammed into a small room, and they're quiet, and I love to tell stories and just take them on a journey. I never use a set list, so every night it's different. I never even know what I'm going to open with. I just like to go out and feel the energy of the room.

PM: Because I go out to see music all the time, and yours is one of the best solo shows I've ever seen.

SP: Oh, wow, thank you.

PM: I mean, it's up there with--in its own way, of course, and totally differently--it's up there with Richard Thompson--very few guys do a show like you do a show.

SP: Wow. That's heavy praise, because I love Richard Thompson, too. I appreciate that. I remember when I went to see Loudon Wainwright one night. And I was in the Rugburns, and then I was also playing classical guitar. I remember after seeing Loudon, going, "Man, this is what I want to do. I'm going to just do it solo. I'm tired of being in a band."

PM: Yeah. It's very rare, it's so rare to see a solo act that's--I mean, a lot of them are good, but so few of them are entertaining.

SP: Yeah. It can get boring easily. That's my biggest fear. I don't want to be one of those boring guys. I always feel like there's a string between myself and the audience, and I want to keep that string really taut, so I can feel the tension from it.

PM: That's such a good image for the solo show, to keep the string really taut. And I don't think most people pay very much attention to that.

SP: No. And I can do it. If I look out and I'm playing a soft song sometimes I think, okay, I need to do something really funny to get their attention again, or something shocking, or I need to do this or do that because I don't want to lose them. There's nothing worse than--if you lose one, then you start losing a couple more, it can become contagious, and they can turn on you really fast and all be like disinterested and chatting through your set. And I'm not having that. [laughs]

PM: Or if just the people at the front table start to talk among themselves, it's death.

SP: Yeah, exactly.

PM: Even if you gotta go stand on the table, you can't let it happen. [laughs]

SP: No.     

PM: The thing that jumps out at me from every corner of your art is that you seem to be really grateful and that you're having a great time. I really respect that approach to living.

SP: Yeah, I am definitely, really grateful. Every time I play--and this is going to sound like a real Country Western artist, but every time I play, before I go on, I just stop wherever I'm at, and like before I go on, "No, give me a minute." It's just like a ritual I do, and I totally say a prayer to whatever God is, whatever that idea is, if it's anything, a Great Spirit, or whatever you want to call it, and I thank that Great Spirit for the opportunity. And I swear, it reminds me of what I'm doing and why I'm there; it keeps me really psyched.

PM: One also gets the impression that you're an unusually well-traveled person. Is that also above and beyond your career, that you're just a world-traveling kind of person?

SP: Yeah. It's weird. Most people when they come off the road they want to just relax and go home. But me, I'm going to Tahiti after this thing tomorrow, because I haven't been there yet, and I want to see what made Gauguin paint all those paintings, and I want to see the Tahitian Islands. So I always look where I'm at and see what's near there that I haven't seen, and then I have my guitar available in case a song just comes to me.

PM: Wow. Although I didn't know the word before I was getting my questions together, I believe that makes you a xenophile.

SP: A what?

PM: A xenophile. You know the word xenophobia, it means a fear of foreign lands?

SP: Right! I'm a xenophile, yeah. I like that.

PM: I mean, that's a beautiful thing to be. What are a few of your favorite places, especially maybe off-the-beaten track ones?

SP: Oh, this summer it was Croatia and Slovenia and Bosnia.

PM: Wow.

SP: That was great. I wanted to swim in the Adriatic. So that was one of my favorite places. I've always loved Ireland. I still haven't been to India. And after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, that even whetted my appetite more. I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan.

PM: That was pretty funny.

SP: Yeah. I love all his films. I have his movies on my iPod, and I just rewatch TheRoyal Tenenbaums over and over. I heard that Gene Hackman didn't want to do that part, originally.

PM: Really?

SP: So I like watching him slowly warm up to the idea of doing it.

PM: [laughs]

SP: I like studying his acting and looking at him. I love films. I'm obsessed with it.

PM: Me too.

SP: Just any time I can when I'm on the road I'll see a movie or I'll see any documentary.

PM: Yeah. I'm absolutely obsessed with it, too. And I'm going to take your lead and go rent The Royal Tenenbaums again, maybe do a Wes Anderson marathon.

SP: Oh, my God, he's so good.

PM: Because I didn't know that Hackman took the role reluctantly. Oh, that's funny.

SP: Especially since Wes Anderson wrote that role for Hackman.


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