Dave and I went to high school together and though we were two years apart and didn’t know one another, we had the same inspiring English teacher, Peter Ferry, and both worked on the school literary magazine. When I read his novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius it was all the more affecting as that was my universe growing up. I’ve been following his career ever since with admiration and respect. We finally met two years ago and have had some good talks. Here’s one of them.

We just released the song “Bloodless” on November 2, and that’s always been the template for the rest of the album.

That’s interesting, that one song sets the tone for the rest.

I wrote “Bloodless” after the 2016 election. I’m sure you feel this way, when anyone says you have a duty to do something, you bristle a little bit at the idea. And you hear a lot of people saying we all need to speak out. And, of course, that makes a lot of sense, but it took me a while to step back and say, “What can I say that’s going to be helpful?” And I feel like if I’m going to contribute to anything, it should be coming from some perspective that we haven’t thought about. And that’s where “Bloodless” came from.

Well, the idea of dichotomies and civil wars and houses divided against themselves, whether it’s politically or interpersonally, it’s a common theme throughout the album, isn’t it? And it transcends this particular political moment.

I’m interested in the idea that our enemies are what make us whole. That’s what I’m trying to look at. And how we’ve gotten to this point and how we could, through awareness of it, maybe pull ourselves out of it. And that’s the thing I keep coming back to in several songs. I think “Fallorun” and “Archipelago” are touching on that. And, yeah, it doesn’t have to be political, it could be, say, the indie rock scene in Chicago in the ’90s. Sometimes the harder the band was to get to appreciate — and sometimes they were just straight up terrible — but sometimes the harder people had to work through that dissonance, the more passionate they became about that band. Like, “I did my penance for this band and now they’re mine, and I just pity you, because you just don’t get it.”

Were you raised Catholic?

I was raised Catholic. We went to St. Mary’s in Lake Forest.

That was my church, too. What are the odds? Actually, I think there was only one Catholic church in
our hometown, so I guess the odds were pretty good.

We went for a while, and I did Sunday school until I was effectively kicked out of Sunday school for mocking God.

You know, when you think about the things that will get you kicked out of Sunday school, mocking God has to be up there.

But I was just misunderstood, I think. I wasn’t a troublemaker, just a daydreamer.

I would have bet these lyrics were written by a lapsed Catholic. I would’ve bet my life on it.

Yeah? That’s interesting.

It’s in the way you describe things. There are Biblical rhythms here and there, and there are references to the Psalms obviously. But there’s also a certain heightened sense of light and dark and good and evil that we get as Catholics, and it’s just burnt into every sermon and every homily. This is a banal question, but what comes first for you? Lyrics or music?

I’ve never been one to fill notebooks full of ideas and poetry and then show up to band rehearsal and intone them over three chords. That’s one way to go about it, but I almost always start with the melody, or some motif that’s gotten under my skin. Then I take the things that I’m thinking about, that I care about, and I whittle them until they fi t the shape of the melody. Or I run the ideas over the grooves of the melody and see what falls into the slots of the melody.

The music on this album is beautiful of course, even though so many of the themes in your lyrics are about division and dichotomies. Do you see the act of making a song beautiful as an act of defiant optimism at this blighted political moment? It’s been so hard for a lot of people, a lot of artists I know, to make beauty in these last few years, in part because it seems so useless and superfluous. But then again, I think that great art, even if it’s beautiful, it has a certain outrage underpinning it. It emerges from hard times.

The one part of Christianity that made sense to me was the Holy Spirit idea — the ecstatic — that finding of some kind of human sound or rhythm that consumes you or makes you feel like you’re almost possessed. And after spending 20-some years on stage, I try to write music that I know is going to get me there to that place.

That’s interesting, that you picture yourself playing it live and maybe make adjustments for that. Do you have to picture playing the song five and 10 years from now?

Yeah, and I’ve got enough of a back catalog that I do see which ones can get there every night, so I try to make sure I write those songs. There’s one song I’ve been doing for 16 or 17 years now, almost every show. It’s called “Why,” and it’s a conversation between two people — an argument, if you will — and in it, I’m mostly playing the role of the other person in the relationship that I find myself in, a person that’s frustrated with my passiveness. So, in the whole song, I’m getting mad at myself, and I’m playing myself as well. It’s mostly the voice of the pissed off person that’s like, “Why don’t you show more passion? Why don’t you get mad?” And I get really mad, every night, and it never fails. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song where I get so much satisfaction over berating myself, or my former self.

At this point you know that it has therapeutic or cathartic value. There’s something about it that you need.

Yeah, for sure, but there’s really not much to it. It’s just a 32-bar jazz ballad form and nothing groundbreaking chord-wise. But it’s a tune I started doing solo where I would make a loop of the verse, of the chords, and since there’s no other musician to answer to, I would go farther and farther back on the beat until I was on the beat before it and the beat before that, and it becomes just comical how out of time the whole thing becomes, turning inward. I don’t know, I think of that song and I think of “Sisyphus,” which is about being addicted to your own suffering, I guess.

What does “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god” mean to you?

Well, Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for trying to outsmart the gods and cheat death. He was sentenced to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down every time he reached the top. The first Catholic, right?

The best kind of Catholic.

I’m happiest when I’m struggling up a literal or figurative hill. Sometimes I stop and say, “What’s the collateral damage of this inclination? And the moral consequences of abandoning this eternal task? Maybe the rock’s going to roll down and hurt somebody.”

Who’s at risk of being crushed by the rock?

In that lyric, “to fail like a mortal” is to give up on immortality in favor of friends and family community. Harmony and happiness instead of tortured godliness.

“Fallorun” has some of the darkest lyrics imaginable, but the song is the most upbeat tune on the album.

In that song, I’m imagining Trump and asking, “What if he wasn’t human? What if he was just this algorithm? What if he was just an amalgam of classic American impulses toward enterprise and aggressiveness? What if he’s just the id of America all encapsulated into one magnetic algorithm?”

That pretty much sums it up.

And when people approach that algorithm, whether it’s with resistance or with praise, both of them just feed the algorithm. He’s found some way to feed off all energy. It’s like that trope in superhero comic books of that mysterious evil monster that just feeds on everyone’s hate and grows more powerful.

In the song, you’re condemning those who would just give up and flee. You’re saying we have an obligation to stay for the fight.

You probably heard this too just in casual conversation, like, “Man, things are getting pretty ugly out there. It’s time to move to New Zealand or Sweden.” And that underlies the problem with the left, or whatever you want to call it. It’s that selfish, individualist, looking-out-for-myself kind of thing. I mean, really, I was going through six different possible choruses for that song. I felt like the verses were really strong and then the chorus is supposed to wrap up everything I’ve been trying to get at, and then it turns out there’s just no word in the English language for what I’ve been trying to get at, so I just make up options.

I kept thinking the word “Fallorun” was the name of a Scottish waterfall.

My wife heard me singing and she thought I said “fall or run.” And then I was recently talking to this interviewer with PBS who was Irish, and he said, “Did you mean fal-der-one,” which is this sing-song word for a ruckus of some sort. I used to be into Anglo-Irish folk music, and I remember liking one song that had these lyrics, “Fal-der on, falder all day,” and I was playing with the phonetics. I ended up settling on “Fallorrun,” an accidental combination of words into one word. So, there’s an explanation of how arbitrary the songwriting process can be.

It’s always fascinating to me to hear how often a songwriter’s word choices are that random. Non-musicians like me always assume that the words come first and everything is bent to fit them.

Writing is a fairly involuntary act. Melodies just happen while you’re doing the dishes. It’s usually not with an instrument in hand, it’s usually when you’re otherwise occupied. Manual labor is good, or when you’re just walking in an unfamiliar place with no agenda. Then melodies just come like crazy, like there’s a radio station playing all the time in your head and the good stuff sticks and the rest just continues on its way.
Are there settings or even music that you know will be conducive—

Can I deliberately stimulate certain things?

Deliberately stimulate, or at least have a better chance at stimulating it. The easy answer, usually, is where you have to set aside time and you have to get off your schedule. Then your mind relaxes a bit and that allows room for new thoughts, unexpected combinations. That said, most of what I do I do in my garage, working more or less 9 to 5.

Yeah, I’m envious of writers, novelists, that have office hours and say, “Oh, I write between 7 in the morning and 2,” or something like that, that kind of discipline and just setting down at your desk and getting to work. I do find getting on airplanes, going across the jetbridge, and going somewhere else instigates a lot of ideas. Like the precipice between when you cross a threshold into another space, how you cross from one state to the next and you feel like an imaginary shudder.

You’re freeing your mind from your pedestrian concerns or the everyday trappings of your life.

Maybe it’s just pure, utter exhaustion. Months and months of night after night of sitting on the couch after the family’s asleep and just whacking away at these 10, 12 songs.

How did the editing happen for this album? But was there a sense of urgency to record this now and finish it as a time capsule? Before some of the political content that fueled much of it dissipated?

There was no firm deadline, but I feel, after I’ve written about 12 songs, that I need to lay them down in order to move on. I’m just carrying around the same patterns and obsessing over these same passages and it’s time. I get very anxious and very urgent, like, “This has to happen now!” And with this record, that was as strong as ever. And I met with Paul Butler, the producer, and talked to him for a half an hour and said, “Okay. You’re hired. Can you start on Monday?” And we threw it all together really fast. That’s the way I like to do it.

After 15 albums, what have you learned about putting a record together? I sometimes think I know a lot more about finishing a book than I did 18 years ago, and then with the next book I’ll be utterly lost again and I won’t finish it, or it’ll have an incredibly hard birth.

I haven’t found that balance between the premeditated and the spontaneous in the studio. The goal with this one was recording the band live — live vocals, no headphones, no separation. We were trying to get all the instruments to bleed into each other’s mics in a pleasing way as opposed to a messy way. Because when you do it this way, live in a room, if you then say, “Okay, this sounds good. We got the energy of the song and the arrangements right. The performance is great,” and then, “Ah, but I wish I could change the tone of the voice” — well, you can’t. If you change the tone of the voice, you change the drum sound.

This was recorded live?

It was.

Jesus, I wouldn’t have guessed. I don’t know anything about anything, but it’s so precise and so delicate. You’re good at that of course and are known for your musicianship and finesse, but it will surprise, I think, ignorant people like me that it was recorded live.

Well, we took a lot of pains to get it to sound right before we really started recording, because you’re really mixing by where you’re standing in relation to the other musicians and not all in post. And that’s how this period of recording that I especially love, the early ’60s jazz records — Rudy Van Gelder produced Miles Davis, Coltrane, Lester Young, all these great jazz records — it was that room sound. Or the sound of a Nina Simone performance with the band, and you can hear, spatially, that the drums are sitting back here. If you do it right, it won’t sound like anything else that’s being produced today. If you do it wrong, it’s just a mess.

What kind of room did you look for for this?

Well, I looked at a bunch of different studios and I went with this place called Barefoot on Vine and Santa Monica. It was Stevie Wonder’s place in the ’70s. He did Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life there, and then it was Slash’s place in the ’80s. It’s pretty grungy, but it’s a really high-ceilinged, classic recording studio that had enough space to do what we were going to do. And it had Stevie’s piano from that period. I wanted to do a piano record. There’s been keys in my records, but not acoustic piano so much, and that also goes back to that early ’60s — just pre-Beatles, groovy jazz. From Ramsey Lewis to Herbie Hancock. I just love that piano sound. Or in gospel music or Nina Simone. That gospel to pop jazz thing is such a beautiful thing. You always go in with some sort of reference point like that and then see where it takes you.

And these are the songs, I assume, that you gravitate to when you play live — that mix of the spiritual and some kind of thematic flexibility.

The songs that I never stop playing share a certain lyrical ambiguity and musical elasticity. So I can project whatever I’m feeling that day or year into the song. And on the listener side, it’s the same. They can project the narrative that works for them.

Do you find that your audiences are hungrier for some kind of communal feeling during times like this? I can’t imagine anything more cathartic or healing than to play music to hundreds of people — that energy in a room, I would think, is rebalancing.

Playing live and meeting folks after the shows does more to set my mind right and reinforce my faith in humanity than anything else I could possibly do. Get off your news feed and gather in a dark room with strangers for something that doesn’t involve acrimony. It’s that simple.

For more information, please contact Krista Williams or Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.