with Will Dodson of Arbus
Name: Will Dodson
Bands: Arbus, Charles DeMar
QRD – How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a professional musician?
Will – I am not a professional musician, nor would I even call myself an amateur musician. I have at times recorded noises that I have chosen to call “songs.” That term may be relative to the listener or reader. I started doing that around 2001, when I was 22 or 23.
I was living & working in eastern Kentucky, & on the side I worked with a lot of young bands in an informal network called Youth Bored. (Get it? A clever pun.) There was a communications platform, a message board (very sophisticated at the time), called “Appalcore,” which bands & artists & fans used to organize & promote shows & gatherings. I sort of latched on to the talented people &, as I had access to an unused space - it used to be a chair factory, I think - I could be useful to everyone.
I had a friend who had previously been in a West Virginia horror-punk band called Blitzkid. He was their drummer, but he left the band around the same time that I was in Kentucky. So we started kicking around ideas about music, & we came up with Arbus. We had a lot of the same influences – the photography of Diane Arbus, obviously, & the original “industrial” bands & collectives, Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions, Skinny Puppy, Cabaret Voltaire, Pigface, Front 242, Frontline Assembly, all that. We liked everything that industrial was: impersonal, collaborative & tribal, politically active, angry… performances as happenings that involved improvisatory art with the audience. Basically everything that industrial was before Trent Reznor turned it in to high school confessionals: “I’m so sad & lonely, I hate myself, woe, woe is me.” We wanted to go back, before the crying. So that’s where Arbus came from. We had a bunch of people scattered around the country, so we tried to have people record different pieces, different expressions, that we’d then assemble into songs. Great idea & it might have eventually gotten good. But we didn’t last long enough & didn’t give it enough focus. So we recorded maybe 20 songs & about five of them aren’t embarrassing. None of them are good, but neither are they shameful. Well, some of them are shameful. I’ll pretend they were satirical or parodic. & there’s some truth to that. We weren’t into music taking itself seriously. But we also just weren’t able to click together in a way that was musically interesting. It was fun & felt good to do. I wish we had been able to keep going & gotten good.
Later, after my bandmate & I lost touch, I recorded a few songs as Charles DeMar & still occasionally do that. Again, nothing particularly good, but nothing particularly embarrassing, either. It’s a nice outlet.
QRD – What are a few highlights of your musical career?
Will – I played exactly one live show (on a star-studded bill featuring Remora, Electric Bird Noise, & Jamie Barnes) as a solo acoustic act. It went all right & I got paid, so I can say I came out ahead financially in my performing career. I like a few of the songs that Arbus & Charles DeMar have done for Silber compilations. The real highlight was Youth Bored, the music & arts collective that I coordinated in Kentucky. We were in the middle of nowhere, but we managed to attract touring bands & attract audiences ranging from 15-300 any given weekend. We were so successful, & unusual, that we got covered by the Associated Press, National Geographic. Some of the kids made a short documentary about the collective, & it’s screened in various places. I left Kentucky in 2005 & now it’s ten years later looking back & I’m really proud of that time. There were so many talented young people & being a part of that group really shaped me - clichéd as that may sound.
QRD – At what age did you decide you wanted to become a father?
Will – I didn’t. I knocked up my girlfriend, though I was planning on asking her to get married anyway, so let it be known I’m an upstanding kind of guy. I never really thought about having kids & suddenly I had three, as my wife brought two awesome stepdaughters with her. So now I have three daughters, Huxley (13), Harper (8), & Helen (2). The “h” names, by the way, are completely coincidental. We were not trying to be cute.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your family has had on your career?
Will – I suppose the same trade-off for me as anyone. There are new demands for your time & the kids have to come first. I’m very fortunate to have a flexible, salary-based (as opposed to hourly) job that allows me to take off when necessary to tend to a sick kid or wife. It’s exhausting & you just don’t get to do many of the things you like as an individual any longer. That’s just the facts. All of my projects take longer now & it’s harder to get the time & quiet you need for intellectual work.
But there’s also no comparison to the love you feel from your kids hugging you or saying thanks or telling you they want to spend time with you doing something special. I have rituals with each kid. Huxley & I stay up late on the weekends to watch episodes of Supernatural on Netflix. We also talk a lot of music & hike in the woods. Harper & I play dolls & I like it, frankly. It’s very freeing. Helen & I do the weekly grocery shopping together. I’ve never seen a kid get so excited about Costco. I should give them a plug for feeding my kid the equivalent of lunch every weekend via their free samples. We’ve all made short films together & I’m teaching Harper to play guitar this summer.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your career has had on your family?
Will – Probably the most unique & positive aspect has been our living situation. As a faculty-in-residence, I live in an apartment on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It’s a three-bedroom, so there’s room for all of us, & it’s part of a residential college full of artsy underclassmen. The program allows students to take classes in the building they live in & do a lot of artistic & social justice based projects. So my children get to do art projects, an annual haunted house, see live music festivals, & generally hang out with the college kids & the campus is basically their yard. It’s a great situation for them & they really enjoy it.
QRD – Have your children affected the music you make &/or listen to?
Will – I’ve always listened to a lot of music by women artists & it’s not something that I ever noticed before having daughters. I began to realize it when our oldest began getting into our music - Ladytron, Bikini Kill & Le Tigre & Julie Ruin, The Duke Spirit, that sort of thing - & I was surprised at the relative parity of female-to-male artists in my collection. Huxley was looking for women artists as role models & as I searched through my music collection, I realized, happily, that for every Jello Biafra & Chuck D in my life, there has also always been a Johnette Napolitano & Nina Simone. So yay me. It’s kind of curious to me as to why that is. I think I probably owe it to MTV, that era of 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers’ Ball. Especially on 120 Minutes, there were a lot of female artists. I became a big Babes in Toyland fan as a result of their performances on that show. Don’t me wrong, all those shows were predominantly male, but as a 12, 13, 14 year old kid, seeing Concrete Blonde, L7, Throwing Muses, Kate Bush, Juliana Hatfield, all of those artists on TV evidently made a big impression on me. Of course, I’m also a big Danzig fan & I was worried none of the girls would like him. They don’t, but they don’t mind when I play him, so that’s a win.
Will – I do have to censor a lot. Hip-hop has definitely taken a hit. I still play a lot of Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, MC Lyte, the older, more political hip-hop before gangsta rap. I have to be a lot more careful about the language &, obviously, depictions of women. The same applies to the punk music we play. A lot of heavy metal has the same issue. I’m not trying to censor, per se, but to decide when the kids are ready for it.
QRD – Do you think being a father or a musician has a greater impact on your community?
Will – I’m not sure how to answer that question. I’m a faculty-in-residence at UNCG, so teaching Rhetoric, Literature, & Media Studies; developing curriculum; & coordinating a residential college probably has the most impact on my community. On the flipside, having young children actually makes me contribute less to the community, in terms of supporting artists by attending shows, or buying art, or anything social like that. My wife & I are sort of out of commission for a few more years, until we can leave the younger kids with the oldest as a babysitter.
QRD – Would you rather see your children eventually become musicians or parents?
Will – I don’t want any of our daughters becoming parents for as long as possible. So musicians. Definitely. Practice playing music while you have the time, young people!
QRD – Both family & music seem like things that will take up as much of your time as you’re willing to put in. How do you end up dividing your time?
Will – Music has suffered, although given the quality of my music; perhaps my children have done the world a favor. Again, I’m not a professional musician, but I am a professional writer & teacher. So while touring & performing aren’t issues for me, I spend a lot of my free time researching for my writing & prepping new classes. I find myself in a conundrum where parenting stimulates my creativity but saps my energy, so when I do have some time to myself, I’m more interested in spending it with my wife. But as the kids get older, I’ll have time to get back into the groove, as it were.
QRD – What do your kids think of your music?
Will – I don’t know that any of them have heard my music, but as a curator of my musical tastes, the kids seem to like what I’m sharing with them. Huxley, the oldest, is about to turn 13. She’s gotten into Bikini Kill & all things Riot Grrrl & I’m very happy about that. Harper, who’s eight, really loves t.a.t.u.’s cover of “How Soon Is Now?” & both love Ladytron. Huxley’s first concert was Remora & Clang Quartet & her second was The Pixies. So naturally I’m proud of their burgeoning tastes. Young Helen is a big fan of Amon Amarth.
QRD – Do you think you could ever do a musical project with your child?
Will – Absolutely. I’ve been planning several… hopefully we’ll make some noise very soon. Huxley wants to learn drums & Harper wants to learn guitar. So we’re all going to be practicing this summer. It’s part of my Father’s Day present; they have to practice with me. They don’t know that yet. I’m going to record lots of noises & see what I can make out of it.
QRD – Any words of advice to young people?
Will – Stephen Crane once said, “Brevity is an element that enters importantly into all pleasures of life.” That’s good to remember.