Photo by Cindy Fuentes
Whether he was playing as ACLU Benefit or under the new moniker Request Freebird, Noah sings with a country drawl so real that nothing fake could be uttered by it. His songs about past loves and life turn everyday vulnerabilities into poetry. This weekend, donned in angel wings and a Morphsuit, Noah performed and sang along with the crowd at the Hassle’s own Wicked Mess. Following his set he talked to me about fame, ageism, and Boston music.
Keeley Cormac: How long have you been writing and playing music?
Noah: 20 years. I started in 7th grade when I was 13. I stopped off and on. I didn’t start playing guitar till I was 17. So that’s like 15 years now of guitar songs and stuff. I played as my own name, I played in bands, and then I started ACLU Benefit in 2008. And then Request Freebird at the end of last year and that’s where we are today.
KC: How many projects are you involved in currently?
N: Well, there’s Request Freebird. The Best Thing Ever is playing what might be our final show in July at Jen Page’s wedding. Asperger’s Are Us is touring, that is my sketch comedy troupe. In theory, my band Style might play again, currently that band is on hiatus for the foreseeable future. I think we’re gonna play at Halloween. We’re going to do a combination Roy Orbison/Joy Division cover band called Jroy Divorbison. I’m excited for that. It’ll be Roy Orbison songs in the style of Joy Division. I think I came up with the name before I realized it would work musically.
KC: Do you have any really big musical influences?
N: Have you heard that song “Why Aren’t I Famous?”?
N: That one mentions most of them at the beginning, all the people I played with. Steven Merritt was one I hadn’t played with when I wrote that, but I have since. He’s probably my biggest inspiration. This band Smoke from Atlanta that no one ever talks about is my favorite band ever, but they’re tough to hunt down.
KC: Do you ever get nervous about sharing really personal things (in your music)?
N: That’s a good question. I think when I was young I was very nervous performing or talking to people or doing anything. I guess the cliché of ‘fake it till you make it’ is true. What I interpret that to mean is not pretend to be confident, but force yourself to reveal more than you’re comfortable doing and see what happens. And usually the response was really positive, so it made me more confident with that stuff in the future. It made it a lot easier for me to just tell people things that typically no one would want to reveal to an audience or to a stranger, because it made it a better show. Sometimes I get nervous about performing. I don’t think there’s anything I would be too nervous to sing about or play a show about, that isn’t the issue. I get nervous about like ‘Maybe this will be a bad show or maybe it won’t sound good’ or something. But I don’t get nervous about what people might think of me revealing personal stuff, because everybody has vulnerabilities and they respect people who reveal them. So I made a conscious decision to do that more and it’s worked very very well. I think someone called out during my set just now, they didn’t yell out, but I was overhearing someone talking to someone else saying like “He’s really arrogant” or something. It was offensive to me because I don’t think that’s accurate. I think that it’s just that I’m not insecure which is different from being arrogant. I’m trying to motivate people on purpose, which might come off as me sounding like I know what to do, but really I’m just trying to get people to do the stuff that will make the show better. So when I’m yelling at them to sing better, it’s not like I know this is the best song in the world, that’s not what’s happening, it’s like ‘You need to sing, because it’s fun’ and that’s important, having fun. And I don’t tolerate people having a bad time.
KC: How has your perspective of being a musician changed throughout your life?
N: That’s a good question. That’s a hard question. The song I debuted tonight was partly about this. When I was young, I was really just performing in the sense of ‘How much can I own the crowd?’ or ‘How much can I get the audience to pay attention to me?’. It made me a lot better at performing. But as I got old, I think part of the perspective isn’t so much ‘How much can I own the crowd?’, but ‘What can I do that will be interesting for me and fun for me to do and be something that works?’ But it used to be something much more to the need of immediacy of paying attention and having no one talking. But now that’s less important than it once was. Also when I was young I was more antagonistic. When you get old you become less antagonistic and you get more about like ‘I wanna have a good time with people’ and this is why punk bands are young or just recycling stuff they wrote when they were young. So all my punk stuff is from when I was in my twenties, a little bit in my teens but mostly in my 20’s. But now looking back on it I’m like ‘I could not write that today’. It’s too mean. I wouldn’t do something like that. I want to be nicer to people. Which is a personality change, but it effects the art. In a way I think that’s bad. I think that good art comes from that immediacy that you need to say something that’s really important to you. It feels like it’s a problem you want to correct but I’m much less about that now and I’ve come to appreciate the good stuff about people and things that I encounter instead of worrying about flaws. Or if I don’t like it, I’ll just bail but I’m not thinking ‘These bands are terrible! They need something to wake them up and play better music’. I’m not thinking that way. I’m thinking that ‘If you wanna play terrible, bad music, that’s fine’, and people like it, that’s fine. I’m not mad about that stuff like I was at 16-25 probably, or later than that.
That’s all I have to say about that I guess. I used to want to be famous. That’s a big change. I don’t care anymore. I just care about like ‘I need a crowd and a place’ and it doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be a thing where I look at myself like ‘Wow, I succeeded!’ it just has to be an audience who’s listening. And that’s all I really want. So that’s changed. I used to be hungry for success, but that’s not how I approach it anymore. I’m totally fine as long as there are good crowds and I get to keep doing what I like.
KC: What shifted to make you not want to be famous?
N: Well, I think the thing that happened recently was that my comedy troupe’s movie sold to Netflix and while we were at SXSW, for the very first time I realized what it would be like to actually be famous. Which is you would get no privacy in public and that would be so terrible for me. And all the guys, autistic people especially can’t handle surprise interactions with strangers very well. It’s really terrifying to imagine being in that position of like ‘Oh, god. I’m gonna be harassed all the time.’ Like if I’m buying groceries, people are going to interrupt me. Like that will suck. So I don’t want that level of fame. The only thing I really wanted fame-wise, aside from all the stuff I’ve done already, is to be able to have a spontaneous press conference. Just like go outside and be like ‘I’m bored. I want to do an interview.’ And then just be like ‘Hey! I’m Tom Cruise. Come hang out with me or whatever.’ And then they’ll be like “Yeah, totally. Do an interview.” And then that would happen. And that would be really fun. I would enjoy that. But aside from that, I don’t care about the fame stuff anymore, because I can see how it’s damaging. I see why Mariah Carey and Dave Chapelle went kinda nuts. You don’t get privacy for like twenty years straight. Like that’s terrible and horrifying.
KC: How do you usually record and write your music?
N: I usually record most of my music on Audacity, which is just like one track on my computer, but it sounds terrible for the most part. Sometimes I’ll have someone else who’s good record stuff. Like Love & Fame was recorded by an actual professional producer when he was too young to need any money for it, and now it would cost way too much for me, even three years later. Writing, I usually just make it up. I’ll play something on guitar, have a hook in my head and play it and go and record myself just playing it and later write it down as it was. So it’s all improv and record the improv and maybe edit it a little bit. But the hook is usually where I start. The chorus is the thing that brings me into pop music so much, and that’s what I do usually. Sometime I’ll play guitar for a long long time and come up with something. “Country Suicide” is one that didn’t come easily at all. It was a bunch of work. It was just like ‘This seems like a throwaway.’, and it took a long time, but people really like that one, surprisingly. But the pop songs are the ones where it’s like ‘Oh, shit. This is gonna be good. This is a hit.’, and then I’ll record those. I get a lot of ideas walking around. I’ll just be like ‘Where’s my coat?’, I’ll say it out loud, then I’ll say *singing* ‘Where is my coat, where is my coat’ and I’ll pull out my phone and record that and see if it goes anywhere. And a lot of the time it doesn’t and it’s fucking stupid, but sometimes it’s good that way too.
KC: Do you have any particular songs or lyrics that you are the most proud of?
N: I’m really proud of “43 Cents” which is on the new record. That one I played the most out of anything in the last few years. Every band always likes their new stuff the most, even thought you can obviously point to stuff in their back catalog that’s better. Like I’m really proud of all the stuff I did between age 23 and 27, so like the stuff on The Bathroom Tour by The Best Thing Ever and Eskemo, the record I put out in 2010, that’s the best music I think that I’ll ever make. But the stuff I’m doing now feels more present and relevant to me so I love that. “RIP Lilly” is something that I’m really proud of, because I couldn’t play it for a long time because I couldn’t play it without balling. You can hear me on the record crying while I’m recording it and it wasn’t the first time I cried while recording it. And that is just the one that ended up, so that I’m proud of.
I’m ashamed of a lot of them. I’ve written probably about 200 songs, and about 150 of them are awful. Just like worthless, no one would enjoy them. If you write a lot some of them are bound to be good.
K: What do you have planned coming up?
N: Asperger’s Are Us is going on tour because our movie is coming out in September, so we’re trying to do a tour in July and August, assuming people know we’re gonna be on Netflix and book us and care enough to come. I’m worried that they won’t because the movie won’t be out yet. That sucks, but this is the only chance we have to tour. So that will be really fun. We’ll go around the country.
As far as my music stuff, I have a show May 18th at Middle East Upstairs with Rick and Chris from Pile, Rosie and the Rosies and Kevin from Math the Band. In June I have a show at Aviary. June 16th I’m playing Aviary with Gracious Calamity and Kateboard. Those should be fun things that people might go to. That might be the important stuff. And I’m playing Jen Page’s wedding with The Best Thing Ever, but no one’s invited, so be sure to write that down. People need to know.
I’m sad The Best Thing Ever might never play again after that, but marriage typically kills art for a whole lot of people, which sucks but that’s just how it works. Better than the alternative I think.
KC: Being alone?
N: Yeah, like I struggle with this a lot, because when you’re young you’re like ‘I would never settle down with someone if I couldn’t be the person I want to be.’ Then you look at people who are 50 and single just like ‘God, this person is suicidally sad. I don’t want to end up like them.’ That’s how a lot of people get married in their 30’s. It’s that same like ‘Oh, shit. I don’t want to be that guy.’ And honestly they’re right. That’s true. You don’t want to be that guy. I worked with that guy at the hardware store and one day he disappeared and never came back. I think he went to Alaska spontaneously to go be a fisherman. It seemed like a mess. He was always my big fear for what happens if I think like ‘It’ll be cool to be to be like a traveling homeless performer when I’m old.’ Like no, that sucks. That’s sad. No one will listen to you, just think you’re a loser. Ageism is real and we’re not gonna fix it. So accept it or end up like that guy.
KC: Are you from Boston?
N: No. I was born in Dayton, OH and I lived there till I was 8. And I moved to Atlanta. Lived there for 10 years, and then I moved to Boston. And then I moved to New York, and then I moved back to Boston because I couldn’t get a job in New York. Now I have the best job I could possibly have in Boston, so I’m pretty glad that worked out nicely. Boston’s a cool spot. I’m glad to live here. Sometimes I want to leave, just because I miss the sun or whatever, but now it’s summer so it’s okay.
KC: How do you feel about the Boston music scene?
N: It’s interesting, at one time it was a really great place where it felt like home and I would go to shows and see so many people I who I knew and who liked me. And then every couple years the scene changes because the college students leave, so if you don’t know the new crop of college students every few years you lose your fans. So now, for me I’ll play and then I’ll see some people I might know from shows and then it’s really for strangers. Maybe they see me once and come back or maybe they see me and they’re like “Ok, that’s it.” I wish that there were more stability in it, but that’s just inevitable. I think there are some good bands locally. Actually this (Bugs and Rats playing downstairs) is one of them. *runs away to watch Bugs and Rats*