Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn’s Newest Literary Rock Star
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Inside every celebrated Brooklyn novelist is a songwriter struggling to break free. At least, it seems that way. Paul Auster has written songs with the band One Ring Zero, which has backed up his daughter Sophie’s performances of them. Rick Moody plays in the quirky art-folk outfit the Wingdale Community Singers. Now, Jonathan Lethem, author of “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Fortress of Solitude,” has a new musical side project.
“You Are All My People,” which comes out today on Bloodshot Records, is the first album by I’m Not Jim, a collaboration featuring the vocals and guitar of Walter Salas-Humara, more widely known as the front man of the Silos, a highly literate and slyly humorous rock act that also happens to be a favorite of Mr. Lethem. The writer penned most of the lyrics for the unusual assortment of songs and spoken-word interludes that appear on the new record, but he doesn’t actually sing or otherwise perform — unlike some of his peers.
“Rick [Moody] is a musician; he can play,” Mr. Lethem, sitting at a table in a coffee shop around the corner from his Boerum Hill home, said recently. “I’m at pains to make it clear that I’m not pretending to be that.”
It also took several years for Messrs. Salas-Humara and Lethem to get their heads together. They first met around 2004 or 2005 when the writer happened upon a Silos gig at a bar in New Orleans. A longtime fan of the band, Mr. Lethem decided to introduce himself and later mailed Mr. Salas-Humara copies of his books, by way of thanks. The guitarist became an instant enthusiast.
“‘Fortress of Solitude’ just blew me away,” Mr. Salas-Humara said, speaking by phone from Austin, Texas. “It was just such a cool combination of coming-of-age story and fantasy stuff. The prose is just so beautiful.”
The men, who will appear together Thursday for a free performance at Housing Works Bookstore and Café in SoHo, gradually began talking about working together.
“I thought I’d throw him a few lyrics and if he liked them enough he’d turn them into a Silos song,” Mr. Lethem said.
But his collaborator had something else in mind. “I wanted the whole thing stringed together with a single narrator, like a one-man show,” Mr. Salas-Humara said. “But Jonathan wasn’t into that. He thought it would be too easy to target.”
The album does have narration, delivered in a suspenseful, after-hours radio voice by Mr. Salas-Humara. Likewise, the individual songs are held together by some running themes.
“There’s something on [the album’s] mind, something to do with cars that won’t start and women who run away in airplanes,” Mr. Lethem said. For his part, the novelist wasn’t interested in crafting a more explicit structure. “I get to do that in my regular work,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to work in a more termite-like sense. We just let ourselves fool around with our notions and sensibilities until something amused us.”
The songs came together over two days spent at Mr. Lethem’s house in Maine. Mr. Salas-Humara was knocked out by how quickly his partner typed up lyrics.
“He’s a genius. I’ve never seen anything like it,” the guitarist, who composed music on the spot and recorded vocals into his laptop, said. The demos were later worked over by the remix team the Elegant Two, who gave the pieces a deliberately lo-fi electronic feel that makes the music sound like a nocturnal transmission over an abandoned boom box.
“We tried to come up with this deadpan, existential, Steven Wright sort of person,” Mr. Salas-Humara said. “I don’t know if that’s really how it feels.”
Songs like “Towtruck” advance a gin-soaked philosophical view of the world with an edge of damaged romantic heroism. “And if you get the car stuck / You can call my tow truck,” Mr. Salas-Humara sings. It could be a declaration of love, although it also strangely evokes Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6,” in which the singer needs a dump truck to unload his head and a steam shovel to keep away the dead. The automotive theme continues on “Meter Running in a Crashed Cab,” a litany of feckless occasions set to a syncopated funk strut redolent of the Meters. “Drink ‘Till I’m Sober” is mostly self-explanatory, as Mr. Salas-Humara promises to commit all kinds of felonies and misdemeanors — “I’m gonna torch the family farm / I’m gonna chew on my right arm” — over the grungy psychedelia of squalling and squelching guitars.
“It was by far the most productive writing experience I ever had,” Mr. Salas-Humara said. “We’d write three or four songs in a couple of hours, then go for a long walk. Have lunch. Come back and write three or four more songs. At night, we’d just watch the Mets.”
I’m Not Jim performs Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Housing Works Bookstore Café (126 Crosby St., between Houston and Prince streets, 212-334-3324).