How did you spend most of your time growing up?
I grew up in Connecticut, and in many ways I was the quintessential latchkey kid. I was an only child raised by a single parent, and almost every day after school, I’d spend the afternoon in front of the TV. Cartoons, and then Channel 7 would have—what was it called?—the four o’clock movie. And it was always themed: sci-fi week or monster week. They would have Godzilla week, and as sad as it might sound, it would have been the highlight of my life.
What was the creative atmosphere in your family?
My mother was a painter, and she also played piano; my uncle was a photographer, and he also played guitar; my other uncle was a sculptor and potter; my great-grandmother had taught classical composition; my grandmother was a watercolor painter. So everyone did something. When I was 14 or 15, I discovered the joys of punk rock. I spent a few years trying to unlearn everything I’d learned in terms of music theory, much to the chagrin of my music teacher. When he found out that instead of playing Bach, I was playing the Clash and the Sex Pistols, he was really bummed out. He thought he’d lost me to the dark side.
Did you read as a kid?
My criterion was, how cool did the title sound? I read Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. When you’re 10 years old, of course you’re going to pick up a book called A Season in Hell. And I read a lot of Faulkner because of the titles—Intruder in the Dust, and As I Lay Dying—how can you not? And my mom introduced me to the books of Charles Bukowski when I was 9 years old.
That’s heavy stuff even now. And it was definitely heavy then, too. I guess had Child Services known that a woman was giving her son Arthur Rimbaud and Bukowski at 9 or 10 years old, they might have intervened.
Was there any book that particularly affected you?
Yes, a book that I first read when I was 9 or 10 years old: The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. It sounds really dumb. It’s a retelling of the legend of King Arthur, but it’s so lighthearted and the characters are dealt with so compassionately.
And you’ve gone back to it?
Oh, yeah, lots of times. Growing up, I also really loved a lot of southern-Gothic literature. If Flannery O’Connor had been 20 when I was 20, I probably would have proposed to her.
Was there a particular record or musician you remember hearing and thinking, “I can do this”?
My two heroes growing up were Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, and John Lydon, from the Sex Pistols and Public Image. I liked the Sex Pistols, but Public Image spoke to me more. And then when I got into high school, I started dressing like my heroes, which was really weird—1981 or ’82 in Darien, Connecticut, going to school with leopard spots in your hair and earrings . . .
So at what point did you make the shift to more electronic stuff?
When I was 14 or 15, I started going out to nightclubs in New York: the old Ritz and the Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria. Me and my little punk-rock friends would go to see the Circle Jerks, but then you’d wander around and it would be punk rock on the ground floor and reggae in the basement, and then there’d be a New Wave video lounge and a gay disco on the fourth floor and hip-hop on the fifth. The eclecticism just seemed de rigueur.
Do you own any art?
All the art I like I could never afford. I’d love to have a big collection of Edward Hoppers. I’d love to own some figurative Arshile Gorky paintings, an early Rothko. But I’m not really up to spending $2 million on a painting. I know this may make me sound like a philistine, but I do to some extent understand Bill Gates’s building his virtual museum in his house, where he has these plasma screens of whatever work he wants.
Speaking of screens, how do your movie tastes run?
I like movies. Though in the hierarchy of art forms, it would be near the bottom. I like books a lot more. I like painting more, photography more. Having said that, I love Takeshi Kitano. If there’s any director I could work with, it’d be him. But what you haven’t asked me about is architecture: If I weren’t a musician, I’d want to be an architect. In fact, before the album Play came out, I was convinced it was going to be a failure. And I sat down in the park between Chrystie and Forsyth and thought, Well, okay, what else could I do? Maybe I’ll go back to school and be an architect. It’s almost like the reverence I had for musicians growing up, I now have for architects. My favorite architect of all time is Eero Saarinen. He did the TWA International Terminal, the St. Louis Arch, and Dulles Airport. He’s really playful but sort of sublime at the same time. And another sort of obvious choice is a Japanese architect named Tadao Ondo, an amazing autodidact. He can create something really poetic out of harsh materials.
Is there anything I’ve missed?
We could do philosophy. I was a philosophy student in school, but I never quite graduated. One of my philosophical heroes was Bertrand Russell, because he was a really cool guy. He was an antiwar protester, and he wrote a paper advocating having brothels at universities, and his reason was that students spend the majority of their time trying to get laid, so why not just have brothels on campus and that way everyone can focus on their studies?
Which kind of makes sense. It’s a very utilitarian approach.
Do you still read philosophy?
No. I hate reading philosophy. I love talking about philosophy and writing about philosophy. I love reading philosophical fiction—you know, like Camus. But then when you get into Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, there’s no one who would want to read that.