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The Boston Phoenix Good Will Talking

The elusive Elliott Smith

By Linda Laban

MAY 15, 2000:  Among the early-evening crowd chatting, drinking, and eating upstairs at the Middle East in Central Square, Elliott Smith frowns and looks, by contrast, ill at ease. His hurried, furtive gait across the downstairs room, where he'll be headlining that night, screams anxiety. Perhaps if it weren't for the impending interview, Smith's mood would be sunnier. He does not like being interviewed, that much is certain.

Then again, Smith -- who looks the boho street-smart part with his tousled hair and clean, comfortable, but certainly not fashionable clothes -- has never come across as a particularly relaxed or happy person. Now, however, thanks to a trio of excellent mid-'90s solo albums, the Grammy-nominated "Miss Misery" from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, and a critically acclaimed major-label debut, 1998's XO (DreamWorks), he's become the indie-rock version of rock's great white hope, a status he seems to accept more as a burden than as an accolade.

His fifth album, Figure 8 (DreamWorks), isn't likely to change that. Effervescent yet with a doleful undertow, sophisticated but not showy, Figure 8 meanders smoothly from rootsy mid-tempo rockers ("Junk Bond Trader") to emotionally tethered and tattered ballads ("Everything Reminds Me of Her") to bright freewheeling pop ("LA"). Lyrics are shadowy, wafting parables, beautifully wrought with taut melody and churning rhythms, with perhaps the odd moment of more direct reminiscence, like the incensed, melancholic "Everything Reminds Me of Her."

Production, as on XO, is again courtesy of Smith himself with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf of Beck fame helping out. The resultant well-crafted singer/songwriter pop is as Beatlesque as XO was -- in other words, quite Beatlesque. Figure 8 is melodic retro-pop without a breakbeat or rap cameo in sight. This man's music, like his clothes, does not follow fashion dictates.

A couple of years ago, Smith gave me a surface-skimming description of himself growing up outside Austin as a suburban '80s metal kid listening to the likes of the Scorpions. It was in Portland, Oregon, in the early '90s that Smith, first with the band Heatmiser and then solo, found his feet as an artist. He spent more of the late '90s on the road than he did in any one place, eventually settling in Brooklyn for a time before moving to LA, where he now lives.

I spoke with him when he stopped in at the Middle East last February for a solo show on his first tour since completing the new disc. Smith, who habitually spends a lot of time on the road, returns this Monday with his band to headline the Roxy. "I was on tour for a long time last time," he explained in a delicate, weary voice. "I can't remember when that was . . . several months ago . . . I really can't remember at all."

Q: On XO, you played most of the instruments yourself. I understand you did the same on Figure 8.

A: "Yeah, Sam [Coombes of Quasi/Heatmiser] plays some bass. Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's band, the Attractions, played drums on three songs, and Joey Waronker [Beck, R.E.M.] played drums on one song.

Q: What's the significance of the title Figure 8?

A: At first it came from this multiplication song that was on TV when I was a kid that taught kids how to multiply by eight. There was a song for every number; the one for eight was kind of weird, classical-sounding thing. I recorded a cover of that for kicks; it's not on the record.

Q: There are a couple of moments where you play some classical piano parts.

A: I took lessons for a year when I was a kid, I played some classical. I'm not particularly into classical; in fact I hardly ever listen to it. Anytime there's any kind of chromatic thing in music, it makes it start sounding like classical.

Q: Do you think that people tend to overthink your songs?

A: Yes I do. Well, sometimes I do. Then again, I don't know what people think about my songs, if they think anything at all, except when people talk to me about them. I don't think it's that important to think that much about songs at all. They're meant to be heard and thought about maybe in an internal way. For me it's not important to analyze the lyrics of a song, especially if it's a song that I like, the last thing I want to do is take it all apart.

Q: So you are not into deconstructing songs yourself?

A: It's interesting to do, but it's kind of counter . . . kind of opposite to the simple experience of liking a song. A song's put together in a certain way and that's the whole point, the whole song. Like, there's a point you are supposed to look for inside it?

Q: The whole entity is the point, then?

A: Yeah.

Q: Unlike most of Figure 8, "Everything Reminds Me of Her" seems more obvious, a straightforward song about a broken relationship.

A: If it were totally one-dimensional, I wouldn't have bothered to record it. I don't know exactly what it is, but it is more direct than the other songs, and it's pretty coherent. It's like a dream that makes more sense than another dream. I don't really like to think about them, I prefer to not think of my songs that way.

Q: XO kept you on the road for a long time. Does that interfere with your songwriting?

A: That makes me want to write more, not less. If I'm touring, I get tired of playing the same songs all the time, and that acts as a reason to make up new ones.

Q: Do you get tired of your older songs?

A: Some, not all. It's usually different songs on different records that I've been playing for a long time I get tired of for a while. I didn't want to play the songs from XO; I couldn't play "Waltz 2" . . . "XO" . . . or whatever that song is called, because I played it too much. I couldn't hear it any more. But lately I've been playing it again and it was fun. That'll probably last for a couple of weeks; then I'll start not wanting to.

Q: Do you ever try to rearrange songs you're tired of?

A: I don't know, it's fun to play different versions of songs. Particularly with this tour, which is an acoustic tour, so they're all, like, simple. Just sort of like, here's the floor plan of this song.

Q: You recorded Figure 8 in LA.

A: Most of it. There was one weekend in Abbey Road in London. It was great; it sounds good in there.

Q: Which songs were recorded at Abbey Road?

A: Three songs that made it onto the final album: "Stupidity Tries," "In the Lost and Found," and "Pretty Mary K."

Q: That brings us to the perhaps inevitable Beatles comparison. Their influence is strong on Figure 8 without being obvious.

A: Well, yeah, the "White Album" was where it was at for me when I was six years old. It's bound to come out one way or another. I'm not trying to sound like them or whatever, but melodically they were it.

Q: You studied political philosophy in college? One would think art or music college was more your scene.

A: I didn't want to go to music school at all. Although some people are cool with it. I don't know, I got a job as a baker after that.

Q: Political philosophy didn't last long then?

A: No, I mean, you couldn't get a job with it, you know? You just keep going to school forever, I guess.

Q: You turned 30 last August. Was it a big resounding moment or just another birthday?

A: When it happened, it wasn't just another birthday. It was kind of weird until the day I turned 30, then it didn't matter any more.

Q: Are you comfortable with it?

A: The funny thing is, I didn't want to be younger, I just didn't want to get older. I didn't want to have to feel like I was older. I wanted time to keep passing and learn more things and get better at different things, but I just didn't want to have to feel the label of being older. But there is nothing to be done about it.

Q: Do you listen to much music outside of your own?

A: Yeah, I'm the kind of person who listens to one record over and over again pretty much until you can't anymore. Lately it's been Nico, The Marble Index. It's had a hold on me the last several months, it's a very cool record, there's just like, this static thing about it. Things are moving around but it's kind of like a trench, it puts me in a trench, which I like.

Q: Do you find time for hobbies?

A: I have in the past. Not in the last year. Sometimes I read a lot, then I don't for a while. Not because I don't want to, but I just can't get it together. I don't know other than that. I spend a lot of time just thinking about different parts or songs. That's my normal daydream state.

Q: Do you ever read your own press?

A: Sometimes I look at something, but it's better for me not to. It's too weird.

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