Irrelevant Topics: Beck Hansen x Demetri Martin: Pt. 1
This is the first part of a conversation with comedian/actor Demetri Martin that took place last year. Subjects covered include music for water, the nature of wood and the Olympics of mustaches.
DM: I was thinking how strange it is that water is one of the best, simplest things on this planet, and still with a simple glass of water you can neutralize so many of the greatest technological advances that we provide. Like with my blackberry, I can get in touch with so many people, but if I dip it in a small glass of water I’m completely disconnected.
BH: It’s like the five elements are still the ultimate technology. Water is mysterious. I remember this little Japanese restaurant in Los Feliz I used to go to owned by this older gentleman named Shinichi who only spoke a little bit of English and he would sometimes come and talk to us. One day he ran over excitedly and handed us this book in Japanese about a Japanese scientist who did all this research on water and water molecules. Did you ever see this? He studied water crystals and the effect music had on the molecules, how they would change character…
DM: Yeah there’d be some irregularity…
BH: Yeah, sometimes some of the water molecules would look pristine and crystalline– other times like shattered glass. I don’t know what it was or who the scientist was, but there were pictures of giant speakers playing Chopin or Heavy Metal for a glass jar of water.
DM: Wow! It would be funny to write a song about water. It would just be in the shape of a question mark.
BH: Yeah or you could play it music about itself. Well, there was this other thing in this book where he was showing that the scientist had written messages and spoken to the water. He also had two jars of white rice, and on one bowl he taped the words “I Love You” and on the other he taped “I Hate You” and then left them sitting out for a month. The one that said “I Love You” was perfectly preserved. The other one had black mold all over it. It was completely rotten. The owner of the restaurant went back to the kitchen and brought out two jars of rice, his own version of the experiment. One jar was preserved and one was rotten.
DM: You know, have you ever heard of Richard Feynman?
BH: No, who is he?
DM: He was this physicist who was at Cal Tech for a long time, he passed away in the 80’s. He won the Nobel prize for something in like quantum electric dynamics. I’ve read books that talk about that for a lay person and you’d be reading a paragraph and you go oh, ok I get it. And then you get to the bottom of the paragraph and you go ok. I’m lost. Let me go back I’m going to get this. I read it again and its just a humbling feeling of like, alright, I don’t have a brain that can do that. I saw this thing on Youtube that was really cool. It was him talking about fire. And he talks about how fire works and he uses an example. He says, you know, take a log. Ok, if we have a log, before we talk about that let’s talk about where the log came from and then he talks about how it came from a tree, and what wood is. He goes, people think it comes from the ground and it does, but mostly from the sky. Wood has a lot of oxygen in it. You know, it’s a mix of how much from the earth and water from the sky and then what kind of makes it all work is sunshine. It absorbs sunlight essentially, this whole thing goes on, photosynthesis, or whatever, and it becomes wood. Well, he kind of gives that introduction, its just him sitting in a chair explaining that, and then he said, OK now let’s talk about burning the log. He says, you apply heat, it kind of shakes these atoms and they get really excited until finally they break apart, and all the stuff that was in the log that kind of came from the atmosphere is released, and he said, the more excited it gets the more until it causes a common bond to break. That causes the chain reaction. The chaotic chain reaction that happens to the wood, that’s fire. And the color of the fire, in a sense, is the sunlight coming out of the log. It was so cool the way he said it. He sounded so poetic. You just kind of get mesmerized by his almost child like description of this basic thing most people know about. But it was so cool, it sounded like magic when he said, “it’s just sunlight coming out of this piece of wood.” I was like, man, that is so cool.
BH: It’s been dormant and is waiting to be released…that there’s sunlight dormant in an inanimate object, does that make sense?
BH: I wonder what dormant elements we are?
DM: I guess you just have to take so many things for granted. You would go crazy if you were walking around just trying to understand molecularly how the stuff works. “Think I’m just gonna get lunch and worry about how much sunlight there is in the log later… I was told about the June Gloom when I first got out here. When I first got here [Los Angeles], it was like every day was kinda grey, and then by the middle of the day it became sunnier.
BH: I think when you’re from here, a vacation is getting to go to northern Scotland where it’s going to rain for a couple of weeks.
DM: Have you done shows in Edinburgh or around there?
BH: I was in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, I opened for Radiohead and Deerhoof. It was the middle of summer but cold. I’m half Scottish so it felt good to me.
DM: I’m pretty much all Greek I think. I asked my grandmother once, what’s our deal? What’s our lineage? And it turns out that after doing the research its all farmers. I think on both sides, oh actually, I think on both sides, oh actually on my dads side there’s somebody from Crete, which is a little different, I don’t know what they did down there.
BH: When I was flying back from Japan, they had a BBC show about the oldest people on the planet. The people who lived the longest and were the healthiest were people in Okinawa or Crete.
DM: There’s this thing in Crete, I don’t know why, but Cretans like having guns and they have mustaches. It’s like a Cretan thing. Everyone likes to shoot guns.
BH: That’s what they are known as? Cretans?
DM: I think so yeah.
BH: I never put those two together.
DM: Yeah, I had the revelation–this is also kind of non-sequitur–but remember that show, Just Shoot Me?
BH: I don’t know if I’ve seen that.
DM: There was a TV show called “Just Shoot Me” that was in the late 90s or something and it was a fashion magazine, and I never really watched the show or anything but I was aware of it and it was several years into the shows existence, when I was walking down the street and I realized “Oh! Just Shoot Me!” like a double meaning. Just take my picture, it was such an unsatisfying revelation.
BH: Speaking of non-sequitur, you were mentioning mustaches, and I think for the first time in maybe 10 years I currently have a mustache.
DM: Do you?
BH: Yeah, just today!
BH: I was shaving and my son walked in and said “stop, its perfect.” I hadn’t shaved the mustache part yet, just the beard. He said don’t shave any more, just leave it like that. He was very emphatic about it. I said ok, but I actually had a little bit on the chin, which technically was a soul patch, so I got rid of that. But I do have a mustache as we speak.
DM: Does it go pretty far out? Like hanging down on the sides?
BH: No, it kind of looks like my grandfather’s mustache. My grandfather had a big thick mustache throughout my childhood. But it was weird, because my father can’t grow a mustache at all. I wonder if it skipped a generation?
DM: Yeah, so you got the big bristly kind?
BH: Yeah, it’s the big bristly kind.
DM: That’s great.
BH: Magnum P.I.
DM: Yeah, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to have that genetic configuration. I noticed today, because I wore a t-shirt that’s a little looser, that I’m not that hairy for a Greek guy…
BH: Maybe it’s the Crete.
DM: The Crete part of me–the longevity. I’ll have a really late puberty then. I had a mustache twice. And both times it was similar thing where the act of omission left me a mustache by not shaving that part.
BH: Yeah, you didn’t technically grow a mustache.
DM: Right, I just removed the surrounding area. I don’t know how many times you’ve had a mustache, but for me, you know I’ve said ok, I can see this is not a good look for me. But I figured, well, let me just see if I can go a week, and then I’ll shave it off. At least kind of undertake this exercise and see how secure I am in myself that I can have this mustache but not have to reference it every time I see someone I know. If I can show up and just have the mustache and not have to say something like, “Hey check out the mustache.” or make a joke about it.
BH: Yeah, I think this is the first era in history where mustaches can be ironic.
DM: Right, that’s true! That’s true. ‘He’s got an ironic mustache!’
BH: It’s interesting because I think at the turn of the last century, mustaches were expected. A man was naked without one. What was in the culture–what was in the air–that made having a mustache a given? There were these tremendous, prodigous mustaches that flowed down the faces of prominent figures, leaders of nations, captains of industry. Now people wouldn’t be allowed to hold positions of power and influence with mustaches like that. You would be automatically disqualified or marginalized if you had one of those kinds of mustaches. Before, it was required. One wasn’t allowed into certain echelons of power with out the accompanying mustache. There’s a mustache competition currently, I believe in Germany or Austria. I stumbled on it on a website. It has some incredible photos.
DM: I was going to say that the entries must be really impressive.
BH: Really impressive. Some of these actually, I think, take a special diet to grow. Special things you need to have in your diet like certain strains of fermented sauerkraut and deer antlers. When I first saw pictures of the competition 10 years ago it was legitimate Bavarian woodsmen. I checked it out a year ago and it was riddled with people with ironic mustaches.
DM: Sometimes when I see photos of those guys, those old photos, that have just crazy facial hair, I wish I could see the photo right after that with their wife. This surly lady who hates her husband’s facial hair shot.
BH: If the mustache competition world went mainstream, it would be something akin to body building. Who has the best mustaches, just off the top of your head?
DM: I think, well, Tom Selleck, is an obvious first answer. I do think Tom Selleck pulls it off real well.
BH: I wonder if he knew what he was getting into? I wonder if he knew how emblematic that mustache would be?
DM: Yeah, cause you’re locked in. I think Peter Sellers pulled off the mustache really well.
BH: I think of Yanni, but he shaved his mustache.
BH: One of the next record clubs is going to be Yanni Live at the Acropolis. Maybe I’m unconsciously preparing for it, you know? That was one of those albums where I just decided we should do this record and then after I decided and was telling every body we needed to do it, I realized that I’d never heard it.
DM: Oh man!
BH: And what it was in my mind was far greater than what it could ever be in real life. It was really just music for gymnastics.
DM: I’d like to look at a diagram of his following and your fan base and there would be a very tiny overlap.
BH: Does anybody even in America own a Yanni record as well as one of mine?
DM: And if they had seen one other live act. What is it, what’s the missing piece of that puzzle?
BH: Well then that brings up another question of what lies between oneself and Yanni? What bridges those worlds? Maybe we should ask Malcolm Gladwell? You could always make it only a matter of mustaches. You know? I think if you’ve given up a mustache, then by a law of physics it has to appear somewhere else.
DM: It’s like a law of conservation of mustache.
BH: As if his mustache still exists in me. He shaved his so mine could exist.
DM: Like it some how just got transferred, the mustache never goes away. It just appears somewhere else. Hey, listen, I have a question, I think I have the answer but I don’t know specifically what happened when Paul, in the Beatles grew a mustache around, I guess around Sgt Pepper’s when they all had mustaches. Had he gotten into a car accident or motorcycle accident or something?
BH: I don’t know?
DM: I think I remember reading something like he had some sort of accident so he grew a mustache over it and the other guys were like, “hey! That looks cool.”
BH: That’s cool, we’re going to do the same thing…
DM: Yeah, but I saw this great American Bandstand clip, did you ever see this one where, the Beatles had recorded a little video for Strawberry Fields?
BH: Yeah, I’ve seen that with the piano?
DM: Yeah, and I saw it’s black and white its Dick Clark sitting in a studio with all these kids, these American kids, and they all look pretty clean cut, but some of them kind of have their mop top hair cuts coming in and Dick Clarks introducing, sitting amongst the kids on these bleachers, these kids, says “Ok, Here’s the latest from the Beatles the film” you know whatever he calls it “ Strawberry Fields Forever” and then you see it, and of course its so great and trippy yeah and that weird piano that’s hooked up to a tree and everyone had mustaches and everything. And then this clip comes back to the studio after you’ve seen the video and Dick Clark gets all the kids reactions and they all seem freaked out saying things like “I thought it was weird”, “they look funny, why do they have mustaches?”
BH: Yeah, I know, they had mustaches for probably 15 years after that.
BH: I know, its funny and when you think that only three years before that they had the mop tops and the black outfits and the pointy shoes. It’s a pretty sudden change.
DM: Quick turn around.
BH: I think they were only putting out albums for like six or seven years, I mean now, the amount of ground they covered, if you transpose it to now, you know, to this decade, it would be like if they came out this decade Meet the Beatles would have come out in 2004 and Abbey Road would have come out last summer. That would be…
BH: Yeah, that would be insane. Like what the hell just happened? You know, if you transpose it to this time, it would be too much for people to digest in 6 years.
DM: Yeah, it’s strange to think about it because–
BH: –it’s so condensed.
DM: I always forget that and also the guys were so young, to be like 30 years old and have be done with that.
BH: I don’t think they were even 30 yet when they broke up.
DM: Unbelievable. One time I walked the museum of television and radio when I was in NY a bunch of times over the years, and there’s this place you can go where they have these little booths and they have a library that you can search around the computer and you pick different clips to watch and you go and write down on a piece of paper the number then you go say, I wanna see this please And they go pull it up on the computer and then they call your name or number or whatever and then they tell you to go to like viewing booth 25 and you go sit there and then you can watch these old television shows with headphones on and there are a bunch of these little booths in this room. And so I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan once, but they had the whole episode. So you get to watch the Beatles but you can scroll back and forth through the whole Ed Sullivan episode that night. And its so funny, there was this comedian on that night, I can’t remember his name, but there’s a guy who was on the same night as the Beatles like debut in America. Its just the whole area thing to think of for a comedian, to just think about, you know, the comedian’s manager, saying I have good news and bad news, you got Ed Sullivan but you’re on with the Beatles.
BH: Yeah, when you see the context of what was happening around the thing then it really makes it stranger.
DM: Yeah, it’s like its hovering above stuff that’s right next to it.
BH: I had some bootleg of Sly and the Family Stone playing on a TV show for a studio audience in the mid 60s and…Growing up with those records, I always had an image that people would be hearing that music and would be unable to contain themselves. Some of the most infectious music ever made, right? When I got this bootleg, the audience, they’re not moving at all, they’re not reacting. They’re completely stone faced and for the whole concert they just stand still and the band is, you know, dressed in full regalia, with this galvanizing sound.
DM: Like they’re from another planet?
BH: Yeah, I mean, there’s just this explosion of sound and visual happening and uh, no reaction.
DM: I saw something similar with Zeppelin, like on a German television show or something and you say, oh my god! There’s Led Zeppelin, and then they cut to the crowd and there’s a lady with a pocket book on her lap just looking at them like, what the hell is this? You’re like, YOU got to see Led Zeppelin?!
BH: I’ve sometimes wondered if music changes when the perception of it changes. I don’t know if that sounds too metaphysical or abstract, but a few times I’ve heard things before they came out and thought, “that’s a good song,” and then it becomes a massive hit and eventually becomes considered one of the greatest songs of all time and it doesn’t sound like the first time you heard it anymore. It’s suddenly has this weight or quality it didn’t have– it’s a different song.