SEVEN DAYS: You said that you're hesitant to call yourself an artist. Why is that?
TAO RODRIGUEZ-SEEGER: Well, because what we do is kinda commercial. And I guess I feel like art and commerciality don't mix too well. I'm sure there is an inevitable co-existing that they have to do. Otherwise, how can we continue to do it? But it always makes me a little uncomfortable when people call us "artists." "Commercial creators," I prefer. Of course it's not as graceful.
7D: [Laughing] No, that's a bit of a mouthful.
TRS: People like to call us artists, and I guess that's OK. I just don't feel very comfortable calling myself an artist. There is artistry in it, for sure. But there is also artistry in motherhood. And cooking. And yoga. But would people call a mother an artist? Doubtful. But they should. The great mothers of our time have created the artists. So why aren't they the artists? It's a semantic quibble and I don't argue it with people when it comes up. But I do think about it. "Is this really art?" "Is Michael Jackson truly an artist?" Or was he?
7D: I actually think he was.
TRS: So do I. I would have to say Michael Jackson actually was an artist. He brought commercial pop music to a really artistic level, at times. Not always. But when he did that first moonwalk on MTV, that was pretty rad, right?
7D: Sure, but was that art? He also forever revolutionized the way music videos were done and what they could be. I'd say that was pretty artful.
TRS: Yeah. And I would say Madonna was even more of artist than Michael Jackson, because she pushed people's assumptions about women, sexuality. I guess that's what it is. Art should make you think, and it should make you a little uncomfortable. Not really uncomfortable, maybe. But a little bit. Because without that level of discomfort, it's harder to get the brain pushing in a new direction than it normally would. People are lazy and they don't want to make leaps of faith. Sometimes it takes someone thinking outside the box and doing something a little weird to make people go, "Oh wow. I never thought of that. It makes me feel uncomfortable. But I think I like it." So yeah there is an argument to be made for what we do as art, for sure. But I don't think it's safe to assume that all musicians are artists.
7D: [Laughing] Way to bring it all back around!
TRS: I've thought about it a lot.
7D: No kidding. So would you say that philosophical viewpoint is the way your grandfather most influenced your music? Perhaps less strictly musically?
TRS: Oh he's influenced my music not just philosophically. Quite specifically. I mean, I know thousands of songs because of him. My repertoire is wrapped up and intertwined with his repertoire. I can't disentangle the two.
But what's funny is that I play such loud rock and roll with my band, and yet to me it's still absolutely 100% true form American folk music. To me. Because I can't disentangle the repertoire. I can't do it. So right next to an old fiddle tune in our repertoire, our set list, I'll have banjo feedback. And to me, that's just one step of the progression of the banjo. It inevitably will be used to create feedback with an amplifier. It doesn't matter that Ralph Stanley didn't do it. It doesn't matter that my grandfather didn't do it. What matters is that I and a couple of close friends of mine are taking this instrument that was used for square dancing, playing hobo songs at union rallies … and now we're doing something different with it. That doesn't make it not folk music. Or as Louis Armstrong said, "I've never seen a horse sing, so I guess it's all folk music."
7D: [Laughing] Um …
TRS: But grandpa's politics … I once asked him how many protests songs should we do in a set. And he said, "Well, one. As long as it's the right one." But that ultimately means he recognized that really, at the end of the day, we're not artists. We're entertainers. We are trying to make people smile, trying to make people forget their troubles for an hour or two. But if all you're doing is helping people forget their troubles and not doing something productive with the rest of their time, you've wasted those two hours. If you can figure out a way to take those two hours of music and have them last longer than those two hours they were at the show, and penetrate into their lives, maybe, hopefully the song will mean something to them the next day, the next week, the next month. And they can carry it with them. And it can help them grow, or be strong in a moment of weakness.
Once it out of my mouth, or on the page from my pen, or out of the amp from my guitar, it doesn't belong to me any more. It belongs to them, the listener. And they do with it what they will. These are the things that I feel I've definitely learned from my grandfather.
The other thing I've learned from my grandfather is that I want to play music until I'm an old useless fart. Because it's not just my job, it's my lifestyle. It goes beyond my work. I find joy and sorrow, and comfort and pain in music, where i don;t think I could find it anywhere else. So that's what I do. I do it with my friends, I do it with myself, I do it with my family. And this is not a new thing. It's something that humans have been doing for a millennium. But what's new is radio and television and the internet, which are creating situations where people aren't making music for themselves anymore, they're relying on professionals to do it for them. And that goes back to that Kurt Cobain line, "Here we are now, entertain us."
7D: OK, I was not expecting a Nirvana reference …
TRS: Why do people need to be entertained, when they could entertain themselves? Ultimately, what I've learned from my grandpa is that you can inspire people through music, to pick up and instrument … to open their throats and sing, if you can connect with them on that level and show them that it's not just the professionals that do it and that there is great value in doing it yourself, then you've achieved a monumental victory that will last, hopefully, beyond your lifetime.
TRS: Immortality. If you're looking for immortality, then absolutely, be a musician. Because you will touch people in ways that they'll still be touched when you're long gone. And you'll be touched in turn. It's not a unilateral thing. I don't go out there and play music so that I can get this sense of self-satisfaction, like, "Oh, I'm going out there to help all of these people grow!" My joke has always been that you're only as good as your audience lets you be. So you have to go out there and connect with them. And through that process they connect with you and they can make you a better person, if you're open to that. They can help you grow. It's not a one-sided relationship. That's what In like about it.
7D: This last question has nothing to do with any of that … or maybe it does, actually. Tell me about writing music for Mexican Sesame Street.
TRS: [Laughing] It was really kind of a work-for-hire kind of thing. But I loved it. It was one of the most challenging and difficult jobs I've ever done. But ultimately, at the end of the day, very satisfying. I got to go to Mexico City and perform with Mexican muppets … what's cooler than that?