Bitter pills

Listening to a musician talk about his or her craft is often as enticing a prospect as watching sausage being made. That is, you don't want to know how many fingernails and lower intestines and skull fragments get ground into the mixture; you only want to taste the final result after it's been packaged and cooked and served on a clean platter. You know the casing is filled with blood and guts, yet you don't even think about it when you put the fork into your mouth and start chewing. You just shouldn't.

Same goes for rock and roll and the people who make it. You shouldn't have to listen to a musician describe his pain to be able to hear it in his music. You shouldn't have to have a musician draw you a map to direct you through an album. All the exegesis in the world shouldn't affect how you listen to music--how you feel it, rather--and if it does, then, baby, you ain't got no soul.

So it's with diligence and patience that I listen as Tablet vocalist-songwriter Steven Holt and guitarist-songwriter Paul Williams speak about their craft over lunch at a Deep Ellum Mexican restaurant. Their debut album, Pinned, is being released in Texas on Kudzu/Mercury Records on the day of this interview (the record hits stores nationally April 30), and they are hoping to begin a future as Dallas musicians with a national record in stores.

But even more than that, Holt and Williams are eager to set the record straight--the record being Pinned and those things written about it in these pages; something about how the songs are shallow, but how the wading pool can provide relief on a hot day.

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It has long been my impression that Tablet's a decent enough band--good pop songwriters who craft their tunes with enough care to make them substantive and enough passion to make them stick when thrown against the wall. The lyrics themselves seem, on the surface, sort of empty and vague, though as a general rule, even the most profound lyrics make for the worst poetry when you can't hear the melodies. Like Howard Stern says: What do you call a topless dancer you can't see? A girl with a really bad personality.

"Cancelled"--currently all the rage on Q102 (KTXQ-FM), where the single is in regular rotation now--is the epitome of a Tablet song: It takes you on a pleasant ride but never drops you off anywhere. "I've been cancelled, floating free," Holt sings. "I've been cancelled, look at me." Behind him, the band pulses out an incessant, giddy melody that you can't leave behind even when you're on the run. The idea is you have to fill in the blanks, but that was the appeal of a Mad-Lib, too.

Tablet has been around for three years now, and in that time has actually come a long way: Where the demo tape gave off the bright glow of promise, the follow-up four-song EP was more like a threat--cream-cheese power chords wrapped in new-wave song structures. (To their credit, Holt and Williams even acknowledge the EP's faults, though they blame most of them to one of their departed bass players.) Even worse, during the early live shows, the band shared the stage with a guy who painted "abstract" art as the set unfolded, leaving one to wonder who got the bigger take of the door receipts. Pinned is a giant leap forward by comparison, though so is a baby step.

Holt and Williams now insist they don't give a damn what anyone thinks of their music, but that's what all musicians say as they curse their critics. They assert they just want the audience to understand the songs, not necessarily like them. Yeah, they shrug, the record may well seem light and bright on the surface--it is, after all, still a pop record above all else--but dig just below that surface, and you'll find a whole world of dark.

"Most of the time the lyrics are misconstrued," Holt says. "We don't give a fuck what people think. The lyrics are very simple, but the reason for that is so that they can basically be metaphorical. We want to get across to a wide range of people, but unless you look deeply, you're not gonna understand what I was saying in the song. If you just listen to the surface lyrics, and the melody seems harmless or simple, then you might have the opinion, 'This is very simple. This guy is not very deep, not very intelligent,' and that's fine.

"But other people will look at it deeper. They'll read the lyrics. I describe a lot of things that are pretty dark and compare them to things like sunshine. Like, for instance, I compare the feeling of when a drug hits you to the feeling of warm sunshine hitting your skin, but that doesn't mean I'm writing a song about sunshine. You can gather a little from the songs or a lot. I don't expect people to know or want them to know what I'm singing, because that way everybody's going to have a different opinion about it. And, on top of that, you can intrude into people's lives who otherwise wouldn't give you a second look, and that's the idea. That's how music changes people, and that's how you affect the wide audience."  

And therein lies the rub: Once a song leaves the artist's hand, it no longer belongs to its creator. It now rests in the hands, ears, hearts, and minds of the listener who must interpret the song as he or she sees fit, and 99 times out of 100, somebody's going to take "Sunshine" ("Sunshine takes away the gloom/Sunshine makes me feel good") at face value. Is it now a better song because you now know it's really about how it feels when heroin enters the bloodstream and winds its way toward the brain and the heart? Does it pack a bigger punch or shed a wetter tear? Yes and no--the rub that will rub you raw.

If there is indeed no right or wrong when it comes to music--as opposed to good or bad, meaning you're not wrong when you like something bad but don't play that shit around me--then all you must ask from artists is that they give a bit of themselves to the performance. Passion doesn't compensate for lack of ability, but it does cover a hell of a lot of flaws in the dark, and Holt deserves tremendous credit when it comes to passion and honesty. After all, he refers to himself even now as "an addict" after at least two attempts at quitting his heroin addiction.

That's right: Holt was a heroin addict for about a year, and over this Mexican meal he recounts the oft-told junkie's tale: using rent money to buy drugs, running off old friends and new acquaintances with wild outbursts, turning a simple recording session into a nightmare of nerves and temper.

In fact, Tablet didn't even sign its modest deal with Mercury until the band was already into its recording session last September and October in Los Angeles. By then, Holt had been off the junk for a while, in and out of rehab, but he was so nervous about recording--without a deal, initially--that he began using again at the outset of the sessions being produced by Matt Hyde (best known for his work with Porno for Pyros). It was left to Hyde and the band to get Holt to focus on the record. After recording wrapped last fall, Holt says, he kicked heroin again.

As Holt tells it, he was a year away from getting his doctorate in chiropractic care when he quit school to rock full time. Tablet had a publishing deal with Sony Music "on the horizon," and Holt was so sure Tablet--his first band, incidentally--would get signed that he ditched his square life and studies to become a full-time songwriter. It was a decision, he says, "that almost fucking killed me, man.

"It was really hard to let go of those ideas," he says. "My parents were middle-class people, and they were working hard to put me through school, and it was a big thing to do that. They had always had this image of me as a doctor, and I was always to fulfill that. And I got into some really heavy drug abuse, you know, over that. If the band hadn't been there and been my friends, they would have just broken up.

"They basically saved my life. I was ready to throw it away. I wasn't there anymore. This person you're talking to, I wasn't there. I used for a year. I was living with this girl, and we just went through so much money. I had always romanticized heroin. I was into William Burroughs and Lou Reed, but I was just naive. And I just wanted so badly to be real. I wanted so badly to be those people, and when I didn't..." He pauses. "I'm glad I went through it and everything, but I wouldn't suggest it."

Well, at least that explains the song "Methadone," but then, I never really had any questions about that one.

It's probably a bad idea to talk to musicians about their lyrics, anyway: I used to think "A Real Emotional Girl" was a love song till Randy Newman explained it was about an asshole making fun of his girlfriend for crying all the time. That doesn't necessarily make it a better or worse song, but it isn't my song anymore. Just because you get it doesn't always mean you want it.  

Scene, heard
In conjunction with the release of the double CD Home Alive--an album inspired by the brutal rape and murder of Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata and featuring the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and 7 Year Bitch--the local branch of Sony Music and Dallas' Last Beat Records are putting on two concerts featuring local bands intended to raise awareness about the issue of female self-defense. The first show will happen April 25 at Trees and feature Comet, rubberbullet, Tablet, the Velascos, and Spilling Poetry--and it's for the kids, too, since anyone 17 and older will be allowed in. The following night's show takes place in Fort Worth at the Empire and will feature rubberbullet, Baboon, Centromatic Band, Crinkleroot, and Oliver Reed...

I understand someone took a photo of me at Trees during the Observer Music Awards showcase on April 14 wearing a sign on my back--unbeknownst to me--that read, "Robert Wilonski Sux." I also understand it's due to run on the cover of Buzzmonger, which is fine with me because I have a really nice ass.

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