Five Questions: Brian McBride (Stars of the Lid)

Brian McBride is one half of the minimalist/ambient/classical duo Stars of the Lid (often regarded as one of the most prominent and influential musical acts of their genre) and a highly accomplished and award-winning director of debate at the University of Southern California

I rocked up to Brian’s house in L.A. one week before our scheduled appointment because I completely misread my calendar, and he was super kind about the mix-up. We sat on his porch in the sweltering SoCal heat and talked about his relationship with music (his own and that of others), ways he tries to get himself out of the doldrums, loneliness and his process to deal with it, his thoughts on partnership, making mundane moments into special ones, and a car accident that nearly took his life. And before you ask: Yep, he answered Five Questions. Meet Brian.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?

I don’t really ever think of things in terms of greatest, so that’s probably going to be a scuttlebutt for some of your questions. People’s lives change, and certain moments and certain things are more resonant than others. There have been times when working with a small group of people that was super hungry to do well in something like debate, and helping them succeed did feel like an amazing accomplishment. But one of the things that does stick with me is that—this is something that never in a million years did I ever think would happen—the idea that my music could be important to people in times of need.

To receive correspondence from people who may say, after the fact, “You don’t know how much a song or a record really helped me through a difficult time in my life.” Part of the reason why I think that accomplishment is so important is because it’s something I can relate to and a lot of people can relate to it. There are so many of these tiny things—and it’s not just necessarily something that we consume—but can be a TV show, a piece of music, a friend’s take on things. And those things help people out. Just providing an anchor or a ballast through hard times. These times are fucking hard. They’re fucking hard no matter what it is that you do. And so the littlest things are of extreme importance. To think that I could be one of those little things is great.

Me: You mention understanding that feeling of being profoundly affected by art. What are some specifics?

Brian: The last two Talk Talk records were super important to me. I remember the last year that I was living in Chicago. I’m a fan of 70s soft rock. I’m not going to hide it. I love it. I don’t know if it’s just the nostalgia factor or the tempo or something like watching films that were made in the 70s and earlier, they have that different kind of stock and production feel to it. But for every day that last year I was living in Chicago, I put on the last song on this 70s compilation called AM Gold. And it was Send in the Clowns. I put it on right when my coffee was being made and I’d sit there and love the oboe and the horns. It was a big deal.

It doesn’t have to be so on the nose. Even comedy is super important. I’ve watched that Zach Galifianakis Live at the Purple Onion, his stand-up bit, a bunch of times whenever I’ve felt low. So little things like that.

Me: A lot of people are really earnest when it comes to their feelings. They’re really serious about them. I like the idea that not everything has this great weight to it. 

Brian: Exactly!

Me: Everything can be interpretable. 

Brian: That’s something that I don’t think that everyone knows. I know there was a time in my life that I didn’t know that. I was living in Chicago and there was something about the whole “what I’m feeling is so important and this weight that I’m having and this baggage, it is something that’s so profound that you should feel this way.” It’s like you’re watching Kieślowski films or something. It took me a little while in my life to get past it. I can’t even say that I’m completely past it. There are times when you just have to convince yourself—you can say things you won’t necessarily believe, I think there’s a difference there. Knowing and believing are different. I had to learn and discipline myself that it’s OK to not be OK. It doesn’t have to be this beautiful grandiose thing that you have to feel and go through. Sometimes it can just be that you’re depressed and you feel like shit. That was a way of me preventing the spiral from going on like, “You’re depressed. Now give yourself a hard time for feeling bad. Why do you feel this way? You shouldn’t feel this way.” It’s important to interrupt those moments if you can.

Me: I appreciate that. I’ve mentioned that dating has been a pain at times. And love. And I had this idea of what it all should look like. Even when I was conscious that I didn’t have a vision of what it should look like and it will simply look like what it looks like, I did have a vision of what it should look like. 

Brian: Exactly.

Me: It stunts your growth because you live in this sort of fantasy. Even if it’s not fantastical. But those feelings come up like, “I should love her all the time.” That’s not really how it works.

Brian: Exactly. It’s like sitcom romance or movie romance, “It’s just the way that things are supposed to be.” The thing with movies or TV is that it’s never going to show the events that are not eventful. And that’s most of what relationships are. We’re always held up to this standard that reality is never going to live up to. 

Me: When you have those moments of, “Can you enjoy yourself with this person when there’s nothing to do?” When you’re running errands or when you’re figuring out what to have for dinner. That shit. Or you’re doing the laundry or she left the seat down or whatever. If you can dig ‘em at that point, you’re onto something.

Brian: It reminds me of Best in Show, and I can’t remember who’s answering the question. Oh it’s the woman who’s married to the super rich old guy, she’s talking about why she likes him and she’s like, “We can talk or not talk.” Even though that’s kind of a joke at the moment, there’s a truth to that. There’s something that’s super important. That’s a tough thing for relationships. Everybody wants to be on their best behavior. I’ve always tried to convince the people I’ve been with that it’s OK to feel like shit. It’s OK to not even feel like you’re connecting right now. You don’t have to live up to that. That can either mean we don’t hang out tonight or we hang out and we’re just not that great. But don’t expect it to be this thing we ourselves, even when we’re not around other people, we can’t even live up to.

What's your greatest fear?

Since we’re talking about relationships, it’s probably not being understood. Going through life and feeling like you have all these feelings and thoughts that you can’t connect with anyone. Not the idea that they have to know completely what it is, but maybe they can’t even have empathy for what you’re going through. Feelings and thoughts are like language. It’s radically indeterminate. Nobody can ever completely understand, but it’s feeling like you’ll always be around people where you won’t feel as if you’re understood. 

Me: Have you had those moments in your life?

Brian: For sure. I feel like in every relationship that I’ve had that’s dissipated has gone away partly because of that. I’ve been divorced twice. For different reasons, but there are commonalities in all of them. That is something that’s fundamental in all relationships. Everybody wants to feel as if what it is that they’re thinking or what it is that they’re feeling is at the very least acknowledged in a way where somebody appreciates what they’re thinking. They may not agree with it. But they can appreciate that you experience it. So yeah, of course.

Even anybody that’s had a job. Anybody that’s been in a huge metropolitan city. You walk around, you’re on the L, you’re surrounded by millions of people and you’re not connected to them in any way.

There’s a movie where this woman is working in a bookstore—it’s a Hal Hartley movie, I can’t remember the name—she’s just standing in the middle near these stairs and she keeps saying, “Does anyone need any help? Does anyone need any help?” And of course no one even acknowledges her. It’s universal. Disconnection is built into this society. In good ways and bad ways. 

How do you deal with loneliness?

Shit. [Laughter]

All right. Well, I’m going to be a Repeat Pete, but I don’t care. 

For starters, you have to realize that it’s OK to be lonely. You can’t fight it. It’s important to acknowledge it and not diminish it or to pretend it’s not there. It is something that I’ve had to deal with. I don’t know if it’s conditioning from my childhood or what, but in times of discomfort or trouble, I’ve always had this mentality of, “If I could just be alone, I can nurse my wounds. I can heal myself and prepare myself for the rest of the world.” I’ve had to retrain myself and work on it. It’s still an ongoing process. But it’s like, “No. Go out. Have stupid conversations with people. Find good friends to hang out with. Find things that make you laugh. Try to—and this is a huge thing for me—losing a sense of wonder is a big deal. For me loneliness is tied up in that. It’s like you don’t feel you’re connected to anybody, but you also feel a disconnection with yourself. I can do things like put on some old DATs of mine and listen to my old music, and maybe be surprised by something I made five years ago. That’s a way of reconnecting. It all sounds like Pop Psychology 101, but I don’t care. It’s what I do. 

Trying to find connections. Pushing yourself into those connections and resisting the urge to think you can do it all on your own. 

Music helps a lot, I’m not going to lie. 

Me: As a musician, as a fan, both?

Brian: Yeah, but definitely as a musician, working through things. It’s never really explicit or overt. It’s never really like, “This song is about my divorce.” It’s really just pouring yourself into something and trying to be surprised and cultivate that sense of wonder. It is a way of recharging yourself and reminding yourself that you aren’t lonely. 

There’s a different self from a previous part of your life or there’s a self you know that you still find enjoyable to hang out with. Sometimes it works. Not going to lie, it doesn’t always work. It used to work more earlier in life and now I have to push it a little bit more to work.

Me: Really?

Brian: Yeah, well, it’s a solution that’s been tried a bunch, so it’s not as automatic as it used to be. In my 20s I was able to turn on the 4-track and just get lost in it. And now it takes a little bit of prodding like, “Come on! Now. Do it. Pick up your guitar. Hook some shit up. Let’s go!” It’s fun.

Me: Those days are fun. I’ve had those lonely moments in my old apartment. It’d be a Friday night and I’d just be like, “I’m not doing anything.” I’d get a bottle of wine and set up my amp, my pedals, and my guitar and just make noise for an hour and a half. 

Brian: I love those moments. 

Me: It’s fucking amazing. And by the end I’d go, “Oh. Oh yeah. I remember.” You get in touch with a part of yourself as you said. Whether it exists now or then, it doesn’t matter, it’s still a part of you. 

Brian: Yes. You’re reminded of another part of yourself that’s always there, but you’ve been overwhelmed by these shitty feelings.

I’ve got no problem being by myself. I can be kind of a hermit at times. There have been times where I’ve gone up to Idyllwild, just rent a cabin. After my father passed away… He was a huge classical music collector. Growing up in my adolescence, I had no clue that classical music was influencing me. I didn’t really care for it at all. I had a couple of Brian Eno records, even in my early teens, but didn’t realize the connection or anything like that. But there was something to listening to all of his records seep into the walls of my room. I’m sure there’s a Wes Anderson movie that relates to all of these experiences. So I’d go to Idyllwild and take all these records and make a weekend out of it. Or I’d bring my guitar and some pedals and make noise.

Me: If you don’t mind my asking, when did he pass?

Brian: Three years ago. 

Me: I’m sorry.

Brian: It’s OK. We were not really close. We hadn’t been close in a long time. We had a very good relationship in my early life, but he was somebody who did feel misunderstood and felt a sense of failure all the time. He felt judgment and couldn’t get past that.

He separated from my mom before my senior year in high school and times were really tough. There’s a lot of other stuff, but I don’t really want to air that. 

Me: Sure.

Brian: Cultivating or trying to hold on to good memories is incredibly important in regards to other people and ourselves. I don’t think there’s any difference. 

How do you define failure?

I believe in failing better. I try to take it as a learning lesson. I give myself the ability to mess up. I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to define. At its most basic, you’re not achieving something according to what your expectations were. But it’s what you do with it that counts. Which is why I say it’s more of a learning lesson. There used to be a time in my life when I did hold onto all of those failures. And those were signs of “you failed” and “you’re failing” as opposed to the fact that something good could come out of them.

Even some of my own records. There are songs that I listen to and I think, “That’s atrocious.”

Me: I’m not going to ask which ones.

Brian: There’s something that I’ve come to appreciate about that. I know with Stars of the Lid, there’s an awkwardness that I bring to it. Or a human kind of weird quality. Adam [Wiltzie]’s stuff is very defined. Very controlled. Which I think is a good combination. So I’ve learned to not give failure as much negative importance, but it’s still an ongoing thing.

What will you miss the most when you’re gone?

Nothing because I’ll be gone. [Laughter]

Surprises. Maybe you’re in a matter of fact mood, you’re driving home from doing a bunch of errands, you see somebody walking their dog, and the cat has gone on the walk with dog and the owner, and she’s running past them, showing off, scratching the trees. And you suddenly take delight in that. The weird appreciation for the mundane or the banal. That’s what I’ll miss the most. The times when you can surprise yourself and notice things that seem quite matter of fact but are actually quite beautiful depending on how you look at it.

Me: I have a bonus question. 

Brian: A bonus?

Me: This is brand new! You’ve mentioned surprises a couple times.

What is your greatest surprise?

Well, I’ve been in two really bad car accidents. One in ’95, a person lost their life. We were driving home from a debate tournament. The person who was driving the van fell asleep at the wheel, I dislocated my hip, one person shattered their femur, one person was paralyzed from the waist down. And the second car accident was maybe five years ago, and I was on a third date with a woman. It was right around here. We were coming over the top of a hill and there was a car completely in our lane right as we got to the top of the hill. They hit us straight on. Luckily the airbags came out. Luckily we both had our seat belts on. I lost consciousness. She didn’t. Of course the person that hit us drove away. Which is not the surprise I want to talk about. The idea that you could potentially kill someone and drive away. So she’s slapping me and telling me jokes to get me to come to. [Laughter] It was amazing. I love that part of it. 

But the surprise, or the profound moment, was once we had come back from the hospital that night, we were at my house, and the connection that the two of us had was way more intense than anything that I’d felt in a long time. It was almost as if we had never been in an accident. It was almost ineffable in some ways. But that time, that hour, before we went to sleep was just something that if you could capture in a bottle, I would probably lose everything I own to recreate that feeling again. A closeness, a connection, a remembrance of life, I don’t know.

A bunch of these things sound sort of cheesy, but it’s—and maybe that’s all it was. Maybe it was just an appreciation that we made through that night. But it was more than that. It was two people going through something. It harkens back to feeling as if you’re being understood and sharing a moment that profoundly impacted me; one of the most joyous moments that I’ve ever had.

But it could have done the exact opposite. It could’ve brought me back to the previous car accident. I could’ve been stuck on the fact that we were just hit by someone and they drove away. But that wasn’t even a glimmer. Sometimes the way that I describe thoughts in my brain is like a ticker tape. I don’t necessarily hold on to certain thoughts, but they breeze by. And those thoughts didn’t even show up once. A wonderful moment that I’ll cherish despite what brought us there.