On Calamity Song and DFW
Armageddon in the rain
Thought I’d share this article from the Washington Post today; I’m in it briefly, talking about the making of the video for “The Calamity Song.” It’s a good read, all about supposedly “unfilmable” books and the challenges facing directors and writers as they try to recreate what makes a thing good in a different medium.
I don’t particularly like making music videos; for some reason, it’s an aspect of the whole promotion machinery I never quite gelled with. Music video budgets are often very scant and watched over by marketing teams that, more and more, are chiefly concerned about a project’s potential to go viral. Ideas I’d have for videos were often frowned on as being too left of center or too ambitious; if we did manage to convince the label to foot the bill, it was often done so reluctantly.
And videos can get expensive very quickly — particularly if you’re keen on making sure the filmmakers and crew get paid what they’re worth. It gives me a stomach ache just thinking about it, tbh.
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The video for “The Calamity Song” was a nice bit of kismet, though. The song was slated to be the second “single” from The King Is Dead; “Down By The Water” was the first. The video for “Down By The Water” had been a minimalist affair. It was more a promotion for the record than an actual video per se (though, I suppose, that argument could be made for *all* videos). You can see it here, if you’re inclined. I had an idea for “The Calamity Song,” though. I’d read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest during the summer of 2009 — this was the summer I was writing a lot of the songs that would end up on The King Is Dead. That book really consumes you as you read it — and a lot of the elements of the book found their way into the songs. None more so than “The Calamity Song,” which owes a lot to Infinite Jest.
I pitched to our management a video based on the “eschaton” chapter of IJ — probably the most readable and accessible chapter of the book, it describes the scene where the Enfield Tennis Academy plays out a simulated global nuclear Armageddon — with tennis balls and rackets. It’s hilarious, it’s gripping, it’s weird. And it stands apart from the rest of the book as a scene that kind of stands on its own. What better material, then, for adaptation as a music video?
I thought it was a no-brainer — a match made in heaven. A song that needed a video, a song that referenced a book, a scene from that book that was tailor made for adaptation. But management and the label demurred. Finding a director who was interested — much less invested — in the material would be next to impossible, they said. After a few conference calls, I figured the video idea was dead in the water.
Then came Mike Schur; I honestly can’t recall how we came into his orbit or he into ours.1 There was a phone call, a call with good news: they’d found a director who not only was into the idea, but was a fan of the band and actually owned the rights to the film adaptation of the book. Mike had been sitting on the rights for a bit, trying to figure out how he was ever going to make a movie or TV series of this unfathomable novel — making a music video from the most accessible chapter seemed like a good way to get his feet wet, apparently.
So there we were, July of 2011, on a tennis court at Grant High School with Mike Schur, the Parks and Rec crew, and a handful of students from the high school tennis club. We had a day to film it; of course, it rained.
Watching it now, twelve years on, I still think it was a worthy pursuit. Did it make sense to the casual viewer? Probably not. But I think you’d get the gist. And if you’d read the book, then you probably thought it was a funny, if somewhat ill-fated, experiment. Of course, we’d always wondered if David Foster Wallace would’ve approved of our experiment, and there’s no real telling — though the evidence suggests he would’ve been on board. I never met the man, but all accounts suggest he was an affable guy. He was an R.E.M. fan; this song is nothing if not a homage to them. And I expect he would’ve been a fan of Mike Schur’s work.
One upside: I’m the owner of both a Enfield Tennis Academy hat and a 5 megaton tennis ball — oh, the kick backs of the biz.
I’ve been reminded; our manager asked his brother for suggestions, his brother went to school with Mike and knew he was a DFW fan. These things can be circuitous, can’t they. For the record, our amiable and tireless manager Jason Colton often goes to no end to get these fool-hardy ideas out into the world.