Musicians And Their Favorite Books: PJ Sauerteig (Slow Dakota) – Leaves Of Grass


(photo: PJ Sauerteig)

Welcome to Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month a musician writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work.

PJ Sauerteig is a recent graduate of Columbia University, and a classically trained pianist from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Aside from his work as Slow Dakota, he also manages the boutique label, Massif Records, split between New York and Indiana. This past June, PopMatters argued that Bürstner and the Baby was the best concept album of this decade so far. Slow Dakota’s new double LP is due out Spring 2016.

The following piece is in PJ’s own words.

“Leaves Of Grass” – Walt Whitman

I bought Whitman’s Leaves of Grass my freshman year of college, but didn’t end up opening it until the beginning of senior year. The poetry is so divine, so transformative, that I remember feeling like the first 21 years of my life had been wasted; for to see the world without Whitman’s clarity seems a blundering, pointless affair. It is that moving. And there is no other book I know (besides The Holy Bible, perhaps) that makes me feel like a more complete and compassionate person every time I pick it up.


Leaves of Grass is effectively Whitman’s life’s work – a massive volume of poems spanning the years of Whitman’s life. Inside, one finds poetry of all shapes and sizes: tiny little whispers nestle up against massive works like “Song of Myself” – perhaps the most famous of Whitman’s poems. A collection so sprawling cannot be summed up; it is, like The Holy Bible, about simply everything. One page shows brotherly love, while another depicts The Civil War; one depicts lilacs in bloom, the next: slaves at auction. Science, religion, the stars, the sea, the trees, death, eternity, and the sweetness of touch; America’s greatest poet leaves no leaf unturned.

If there is a nucleus to Whitman’s magnum opus, it is the divinity of mankind – a devout reverence for the limitless power and beauty of the human race. Indeed, Whitman seems to ache with love for his fellow man – to the point that it nearly overwhelms him. More specifically, Leaves of Grass spells out a throbbing and moving image of the American Spirit: the eternal vigor of farmers, of blacksmiths and laborers along the frontier; nascent democracy; New York; and the unspoiled fields through which Whitman walks with his friends and lovers. But he turns his eyes also to firemen, and grief, and the smoke flickering after a great battle. To read Leaves of Grass is to peer into our history when it was still budding and incomprehensible.

“If Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy.”

Whitman’s life and persona are just as fascinating; on paper he is larger than life – a magnanimous bonfire of charisma and affection (both platonic and erotic) for everyone around him. All-seeing, all-understanding, and full of both ego and grace: Whitman often seems almost Christ-like in his magnitude. (In one poem, Whitman even speaks to Christ with an intimacy that only comrades share: “My spirit to yours, dear brother/… We few, equals.”) For, as a poet, Whitman understood that myth supersedes fact. In his personal life, he would write anonymous reviews of his own work, and submit them to be published in different newspaper and journals. An iconic photograph of Whitman shows a butterfly perched on his outstretched finger, signifying his deep communion with the natural world. The butterfly, it turns out, was fake, and made of cardboard. What’s even more curious is the amount of Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote from the confines of New York City.

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 8.45.19 PM(Photo: Jaq King)

Given that this is a music blog, after all, I’ll briefly mention how Whitman has shaped the way I write song lyrics. Slow Dakota’s first three records came out before I’d read any Whitman, but Whitman plays a central role in our upcoming double LP, The Ascension of Slow Dakota. And I mean that quite literally; the album’s final song is an imaginary conversation with Walt Whitman on an airplane. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln) is also a tremendous influence on the album; and lilacs pop up in several songs as a symbol of both grief and new life. The Ascension also aims to be expansive (at around 15 songs), and to cover a grand host of themes and topics – taking an obvious cue from the size and scope of Whitman’s masterpiece.

And finally, if Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy. No, no: Whitman shows us that great poetry can boil over with unrestrained joy and celebration – miles away from anything like The Wasteland. In this way, his work defies our cultural archetype of the suffering genius, the hopeless poet. And so, he urges me to not rely on darkness as a necessary tool, and that profundity doesn’t have to be so damn gloomy. Most of all, I read Whitman to be reminded that kindness – and affection – have a great wisdom all their own.


You can find Slow Dakota via:



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Watch This Pakistani Orchestra Cover Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”

Pakistan’s Sachal Studios Orchestra, an orchestra based in Lahore, Pakistan, does this wonderful and essential cover of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”, the jazz standard made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on the essential Time Out (1959). It’s one of those songs that you’ve already heard a million times, yet it sounds so fresh in a different context that it’s like you’re hearing this music for the first time again.

Supposedly Brubeck was a fan of this cover and called it the most interesting version of “Take Five” that he had ever heard.

This orchestra also does equally great covers of R.E.M. and The Beatles.

Thanks Open Culture for this story.

Listen to Brubeck’s original “Take Five” below:

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Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Woman Who Won This Year’s Polaris Music Prize


The annual Polaris Music Prize goes to the Canadian artist who made the best album of the year, and this year it went to Buffy Sainte-Marie for her 2015 record Power in the Blood.

Truth be told I never heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie before this week, yet I recognized every other act who was also nominated for this year’s prize (Drake, Tobias Jesso Jr., The New Pornographers, BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah, Caribou, and the soon-to-be-renamed Viet Cong). I decided to do some research on her, since Polaris has a pretty great track record of nominations, and I’m sad to report that I’ve been missing out on such a talented artist who has been making great music for 50+ years. But I’m also happy, because now I have a few new albums to check out.


Buffy Sainte-Marie is an electro-acoustic folk musician in the vain of Björk or Kate Bush trying to be more like Bob Dylan, and she was an innovative figure in early psychedelic folk. She does everything from protest anthems, to heart-on-your-sleeve love songs, and to straight up jams with a full band. She is also a visual artist and an activist who focuses on the rights of Native Americans (she herself is a Cree). She also appeared as a musical guest on “Sesame Street” from 1976-81.

Power in the Blood is both a celebration of an influential career and another milestone for an artist who has always gone her own way, and it’s worthy of Canadian music’s highest honor.

Check out “It’s My Way” and her revision version that opens up Power in the Blood below.

“It’s My Way” (1964)

“It’s My Way” (2015 reversion via Power in the Blood)

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The Poetry of Ryan Adams


(Photo by Neal Casal)

Ryan Adams is the greatest artist of all time an artist known for his idiosyncratic interpretation of several different musical styles. His favorite music is metal and/or punk rock, but he’s written some of the best Americana music of the past 20 years. He also wrote the best album not made by The Smiths, produced a Fall Out Boy EP, and is about to release his Taylor Swift cover album. And there’s that GAP commercial he did with Willie Nelson. The point is that he can do it all.

His ability to maneuver through various styles is a testament to his skill as a writer, especially with his lyrics. Even in his early days pinned as the next Gram Parsons, his way with words added depth to his deceivingly simple arrangements (“I was born into an abundance of inherited sadness”, “I’m as calm as a fruit stand in New York and maybe as strange”, etc). And even when he moved beyond Americana, Adams’ lyrics didn’t lose any of its potency or imagery but simply adaptive to its surroundings. I don’t always know what he’s singing about (bullets from a candy gun?), but very few writers can express themselves so well in a furious punk jam, a soft acoustic ballad, or anything in-between.

So how does Adams sound when you only have his words and no music? You get Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine, his two poetry books that showcase a writing totally unhinged, unfiltered, and (mostly) unedited.


“my money goes to old fucking men in chair uptown / married for twenty years / who lie to me / and say, / ‘one day you will laugh'”

“SOS Searchlights”

Infinity Blues, published in 2009 by Akashic Books, feels like something Adams has been wanting to release for several years, a sort of build up of lyrical prose that probably didn’t match well with any of his music. There are 144 poems, though a poem can be a free verse spanning many pages, a short story told in essay-form, or just three lines (“don’t just stand there / say something / say something” – Say Something). There’s no sense of filter or form for Adams’ writing, and maybe that’s the point – to express what he couldn’t express on his records.

“Hollywood / I could go there / because it kills everyone equally”

– “Annihilator”

Like a lot of his music, the poems here are various shades of melancholy, from the angry and spiteful to the lonesome and wishful. One minute he’s talking about his father the drunk, the next he’s comparing a girl to a lighthouse, and so on. Many of the poems are about very abstract visualizations, but the highlights here are the most direct and personal. Sometimes he’s addressing his critics head on like in “Joy”:

“I am trying to show you something

about yourself

not me

that a person can do anything


that is what hope is


with all due respect,

fuck you if you dismiss this”

And sometimes it feels like he’s just talking to us, like in “c’mon, let’s go”:

“so go outside and watch the stars come up

don’t get caught up in way that it’s designed

it isn’t for us

to analyze

it’s up there for us to feel”

Though for all its melancholy, there’s plenty of humor to lighten up the mood. The titles of his poems sound like inside jokes or fake names for the metal bands he’s always wanted to start. The first line of “I Refuse” reads, “I refuse to edit*”, and the * refers to a note from the editor saying that the poem was originally 32 pages long. You’ll either laugh or roll your eyes, depending on whether you’re a fan or not. None of these poems will probably change your mind about his music, so this collection is very much for the fans.

“what’s more important – / first kiss or last?”

 – “Blue Wars”

But as much of a fan I am, I’ll admit that there were times when I thought the poems were too long and weren’t actually saying much. This quote from John Ciardi, one of the many translators of Dante’s Inferno, does a good job confronting this issue:

“Poetry is not made of words but of word-complexes, elaborate structures involving, among other things, denotations, connotations, rhythms, puns, juxtapositions, and echoes of the tradition in which the poet is writing. It is difficult in prose and impossible in poetry to juggle such a complex intact across the barrier of language. What must be saved, even at the expense of making four strings do for eighty-eight keys, is the total feeling of the complex, its gestalt.”

Adams is saying a lot in his poems, and a lot of it feels like too much, but he’s painting a picture using the same word-complexes that makes his music so great. He is a master of creating an overall mood, which is made clear in these poems.


“i don’t go to bars / my body is a prison already / why drown it”


Hello Sunshine, also published in 2009, is a shorter and less demanding read that generally follows the same mood as Infinity Blues. Since this collection is a quicker read, I recommend reading these books together to get the full experience.

Here are a few of my favorite poems from Infinity Blues:

For My Father, the Drunk

When I shave I save the mustache

for last

it reminds me of my dad

and I wish I had a dagger

I would put it in my chest

this is the place

he would not feel it best

for my heart

it is his

as he held me back

when my mother’s hand broke the glass

through the door

to grab my shirt

and try and kill me some more

when I moan about things I cannot change

and all that money

that I could have saved

but spend

killing her pain

THAT is my mother’s wish

I tuck myself into bed


I will never rest

she turned me into a shark

maybe from the poison

and roaches

that crawled over my brother’s face

in housing

unfit for children

where someone got raped


and beaten

black and so blue

no love even now at 33 will ever get through

with the words as a shield

and a metal vest

this is the place where I feel best


and hopeless

I take my pills for days

I take my pills for days

I was a nightmare dreams could never save

poor girls who tried

became saints in a book I bind with my veins

one sunday

this will pass

but not go away

screaming my way out from the ass-end of bars

I was back then nothing but scars

but for my father,

the drunk,

who married a stripper when I was five

I hope you close your eyes peacefully

and die


pa-paw special

the truth is

i am always

getting my

feelings hurt

because they

are bigger

than me or

my hands

and i have

my grandfather’s


capable and daring



far from




out of nothings

being a believer

these were things

he liked

and pranks

he loved them

i miss him every day

i miss his laughter

and his football commentary

and eating t.v. tray dinners

with him

and his war stories

and how

he loved my grandmother so


so much

he had a hat

he had a cane

he had an overcoat

and a suit for when


and he fought in two wars

and cried cried sometimes


as i sat beside him

both of us looking

out into the light

shifting through

the spaces in the

leaves of the

magnolia tree

in front of the


where i really

grew up

he couldn’t stand

Dave Letterman though

the way i can’t stand

Carson Daly

so there was that


easily forgivable

for the man who

said to me once,

“Ryan, you are not like other children

you are special and it will be tough

but just never forget this

if you never forget anything in your life…





my grandfather

That is who i would like to be

when i never grow up

for growing in.


The Statue of Liberty Is French, Asshole

Shock sets in

the blast of the hot air touches her face

like a lover might have

with hot electric sand mouth

and cabinets inside her

made of grot

from over the ocean

a witty french girl with spikes

almost mossy

a shade of green

sick tone

the statue of liberty

is on the outs tonight

for a hot bang

in the

stinking piles

of garbage in Brooklyn

Oh, you know

roof parties


and sensible girl gives it up

one night a week

i mean

one night a year

in that same


same dress



they to know that


easy boys all of them those easy boys





fuck you

says the Statue of Liberty

to Brooklyn




ocean of





when a woman leaves

she leaves

and leaves

with scents

and all the smells

of the house

when a house is calm




she takes with her the essence

of a place

painting the insides invisibly

while you were not looking

or shall i say, i


when a woman leaves

her smalls

are small


each much nastier than a sting

burned into your bed

in a fiery ring

and with her went the candles too

white ones, delightful ones

lit from time to time


when she left she took the pictures


no diety confusion

or something

either way my retinas are masked with shadows of lines of the burn mark of her face inside

tonight i missed

that scent

that smell

which is why i sleep with her sweater

it is still there

fading in the rest of a wooden ship

with a white flag

and battered sail

from storms passed

where calm is now

a lighthouse is a lighthouse with or without

a light


And here is my favorite poem from Hello Sunshine:


So Moon…

you seem distant

dull even



so much projection around you

so much projected onto you

the sun, for one

all up in your business at night

it is so hard for you to hide


you wallflower satellite

so many sing songs for you

in your name

you are unmoved

you neither like

nor dislike


the attraction

you feel distant and you hover in place

if this were the prom

you would be back arched onto the gymnasium wall

watching the others dance


but you also feel no pressure

even though

the sea it relies on you to know when to give and take

itself to the land

its tide entirely up to you

you don’t remember how

you don’t remember when

the sea gave you that power

you don’t care

back up against the wall

band playing a slow dance number

lipstick smeared on every other shoulder



they love you down here


you don’t care

you’re so cool


so cool


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13 Random Velvet Underground Covers To Prove That Yes, They Really Were That Influential


I usually try to stay away from listicles, but this one was way too much fun to make.


David Bowie – “I’m Waiting For The Man”

R.E.M. – “Femme Fatale”

Joseph Arthur – “Heroin”

Note: Joseph Arthur recorded an entire Lou Reed acoustic tribute album that you can find on Spotify.

Bryan Ferry – “What Goes On”

Galaxie 500 – “Here She Comes Now”

Nirvana – “Here She Comes Now”

Joy Division – “Sister Ray”

Swervedriver – “Jesus”

Cowboy Junkies – “Sweet Jane”

Phish – “Cool It Down”

Note: Phish covered all of ‘Loaded’ live. It’s also on Spotify and it’s pretty great.

Cat Power – “I Found A Reason”

The Decemberists – “I’m Sticking With You”

U2 – “Satellite of Love”

Note: I know this was officially released as a Lou Reed solo song, but this song was written while Reed was in VU. You can hear a rough demo here.


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An Incomplete and Bias list of 20 Music Websites That You Should Follow


The Internet is a big place. Most of the time it seems like a cruel and unusual vacuum that sucks away all your free time, but sometimes you find a place where you discover something great.

My job is to find great music and to share it with you while giving my personal spin in my presentation. Sometimes I need help finding those great tunes, and that’s when I turn to my fellow writers and editors who are also passionate about sharing new music. These are some of the music websites that I like to visit whenever I want to hear something new. Some of these websites you may already follow, but I think each of these websites are worth checking out for various reasons.

A note about myself: I love rock, indie, and alternative artists, and that’s my bread and butter when it comes to discovering new music. I also enjoy rap, hip-hop, jazz, and country, but I don’t usually go out of my way to find hidden gems in those genres. I’d like to think that these websites cover a good base, but all these websites are skewed towards my own personal taste, so take this list with a grain of salt. I also know that I’m leaving out a lot of great blogs – please forgive me that I didn’t include [your favorite blog].

I also tried to stay away from some obvious picks (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound, Brooklyn Vegan, Pigeons & Planes, etc).

This list is also alphabetically ordered and not ordered by “greatness”.


Austin Town Hall

The Deli (Philly)

Note: Each major city has their own Deli, but the Philly one is the most updated and it usually has the best music.



The Grey Estates


Indie Music Filter

Indie Shuffle

The Line of Best Fit

My Old Kentucky Blog

Quick Before it Melts

The Quietus

Rare Candy

Raven Sings The Blues

Silent Shout

Songlines Magazine

Sound Of Boston

Tiny Mix tapes


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Gabor Szabo – ‘Bacchanal’


A friend of mine recently introduced me to Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo and his 1968 album Bacchanal, and now it’s the only thing that I can listen to. This album’s mix of jazz, pop-rock, and Hungarian style is an interesting blend of many influences, but what’s amazing is how seamlessly he combines everything. You can tell that Szabo is a master of several different styles when he makes it sound this easy.

Szabo was a huge influence on Carlos Santana (apparently he ripped off his “Gypsy Queen” for the second part of “Black Magic Woman”) and he was well respected among international jazz elites. Though his career was influential, Szabo’s personal life took an interesting turn later when his involvement with the church of Scientology derailed his music career. He would eventually sue the church for corrupting and try to get back into music, but the damage was already done and his music would never be the same. He died already known to many people as a man from past. But what a past.

This album’s tracklist is fascinating to me: two of the songs were written by Donovan, one by Burt Bacharach, and a piece by André Previn “Theme from Valley of the Dolls”, a cult classic that inspired Roger Ebert to co-write a parody. There’s no singing on the album, but Szabo’s guitar playing should be enough for anyone.

Tonight put aside some time to listen to this album all the way through (it’s on Spotify) and I guarantee you’ll have a good night.

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Musicians And Their Favorite Books: Jonathan Ben-Menachem (Whitewash) – Gravity’s Rainbow


Welcome to the first installment of Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month I feature a NYC musician who writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work. I also take a photo of the artist with their own copy of the book.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is the bass player of Whitewash, whose latest album Shibboleth is out now on Sad Cactus Records. He is also the mastermind behind No Smoking Media. The following piece is in his own words.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

I first came into contact with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in my senior year of high school. My AP English Lit teacher had a tradition where the seniors would read Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s other great encyclopedic work of fiction, but since he was retiring that year he decided to screw with us and give us a much weirder/more difficult read.

It’s hard to introduce this work in only a few words – if I had to compare it to something else, it would most likely be Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which roughly translates to “total work of art.” Gravity’s Rainbow is not merely a work of fiction: it also exists as a volume of page-by-page illustrations which act as a companion to reading (actually all drawn by a pornstar – buy it here), and it includes intertextual references to things which aren’t really traditional ‘texts’ at all (early 1900s films, statistical formulas, cultural tropes, limericks, and so on).


The plot centers around the creation and use of the German V2 rocket (which led to space travel) and the Battle of Britain. The main character, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, is a victim of infantile psychological experimentation who finds himself used by various nationalistic and scientific entities over the course of his life. Basically, as an infant, he’s conditioned to be sexually stimulated by certain materials which are later involved in the construction of V2 rockets, and when he matures, his penis is intrinsically linked to the V2 rocket impacts (the ‘hook’ of the novel is that he keeps track of his sexual exploits with a date-and-time map that has the exact same statistical distribution as every single V2 rocket impact – so, does his dick call the rockets, or are the rockets making him aroused?).

The entirety of the 800-page plot is also based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, matching the elevation and eventual impact of the spiritual (literally God-like, worshipped) “00000” V2 rocket – the myriad of plot arcs and intertextualities makes Gravity’s Rainbow more than just a novel, a work that can probably never be fully understood.

In any case, this relates to Whitewash because we actually got our band name (in part) from flipping through the pages of the book. It’s included in a small lyric poem that a military official sings to himself (“whiter than the whitewash on the wall”) as he psychologically prepares himself to be sexually dominated by another military hiree.

I’m actually the only guy in the band who’s read the book (Sam Thornton [lead guitarist] found “whitewash” at random flipping through its pages), but I’m qualified to say that the intertextuality and reluctance to stay in just one artistic medium match our style pretty poignantly. It also incorporates our knack for choosing nontraditional references in music – it’s not too revolutionary to choose literary or theoretical song titles (the meaninglessness of “Logocenter,” the existential affirmation of “Saudade”), but many of our references span the weird boundary between personal experience and the stuff we think relates to our personal experience. You’ve only seen a little bit of this if you’re familiar with our work to date (see: “Reagan’s Death Star“), but our upcoming album(s) will feature a lot more obscure sample work and sound collaging that matches the sort of cinematic-yet-referential tone of Gravity’s Rainbow.

A point of difference, perhaps, is that we all find Wagner pretty effin’ dumb as far as the Gesamtkunstwerk is concerned, and we want to incorporate more contemporary hip-hop culture / less dead white male references.


Gravity’s Rainbow is important to me as an artist because it’s always a humbling re-read. I read (most of) it on a yearly basis, and every time it’s revisited I become aware of how much I have (or haven’t) learned that year. That’s right – one book is an effective litmus test of my artistic knowledge, just because it has THAT MANY references and high-falutin’ theoretical goodness. I want to make art that does the same thing – maybe not ‘complete work of art opus magnum’ levels of intensity, but at least a work that people will want to revisit when it’s not ‘hip and trendy.’ The music industry is full of buzz bands who will be forgotten in six months – I don’t want Whitewash to be that. I would rather have fewer fans who are truly hardcore than ten times as many fans who just like our singles and not our deep cuts.

Gravity’s Rainbow is so rich in meanings (there’s a real excess of significance) that an artist was able to illustrate each and every page and have that be an independent work which makes sense even without the novel as a companion read. I want people to be able to make individual art pieces that correlate with our work just as much (or more) as I want them to sing along to our hooky choruses. Maybe that’s a lot to ask without being signed to like Sub Pop, though…

please enjoy this humorous Matt Groening reference.

(Pynchon is a hermit 8~) )


You can find Whitewash via:





Upcoming Whitewash NYC shows:

9/5 Elvis Guesthouse (Raccoon Fighter, Shana Falana)

9/15 Baby’s All Right (Diane Coffee, the Lemon Twigs)

9/25 Don Pedro’s (God Tiny, Living Hour, Frog)

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What Musicians Can Learn From Pixar President Ed Catmull


This past week I read Creativity, Inc. (Random House), the critically-acclaimed book written by Pixar and Disney President Ed Catmull (with help from Amy Wallace) on how to be creative when you’re faced with forces, both familiar and unseen, keeping you from optimizing your business.

Catmull uses his own story of co-founding Pixar and applies it to the roller-coaster ride that is starting and running a business, using both his successes and failures as teaching points on how to create smart goals and actually achieve them, how to get great ideas out of your employees, and how to properly learn from costly mistakes.

I was worried at first that Catmull’s advice would be as safe and kid-friendly as his Pixar creations – I cannot stand another successful person telling me that all I have to do is follow my dreams and I’ll be ok (it’s like a person who has never had to worry about money telling me that money doesn’t matter). What I discovered however was that Catmull was not interested in making Pixar out to be the perfect company. Instead Catmull is able to talk about Pixar in terms that everyone can understand and appreciate. He knows that he had a lot of luck and good timing on his side, and he also knows that most people can’t (or don’t want to) start a company like Pixar but are still interested in doing work that they enjoy.


Though the book is meant more for business and manager types, I learned a lot of lessons that musicians, writers, and other creative people can apply to their own work. Most of us probably won’t start a company like Pixar, but we can all learn something from a man who has worked through the high and lows of running a creative enterprise.

Below are a few of the highlights. Though he’s talking about business, I’ve tried to spin these tips for how you can use it in music, writing, or any sort of creative field:

Hire people who are smarter than you

“I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am. The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company – and, by extension, you – look good. But there is another, less obvious, payoff that only occurred to me in retrospect. By ignoring my fear, I learned that the fear was groundless. I had taken a risk, and that risk yielded the highest reward – a brilliant, committed teammate.”

Catmull is a genius for two reasons: he’s an actual genius when it comes to computers and animation, and he also understands that putting your ego aside to work with people who are smarter than you will actually improve your work. This applies with working in a band – work and learn from people who are smarter than you and you will become smarter. Catmull goes on to make another point that if someone can do a better job than you, let that person do the better job and let everyone benefit.

Hire people who are smarter than you, and let them do the smarter job.

“Story Is King”

“Two defining creative principles emerged in the wake of Toy Story. The first principle  was “Story Is King,” by which we meant that we would let nothing – not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities – get in the way of our story. We took pride in the fact that reviewers talked mainly about the way Toy Story made them feel and not about the computer wizardry that enabled us to get it up on the screen. We believed that this was the direct result of our always keeping story as our guiding light.”

Toy Story received universal acclaim when it was released in 1995, which Catmull was hoping for since it was the first feature-length computer-animated film and that it took an incredible amount of work to make. However when he talked to people who saw the movie they all commented not only on the animation, though that was impressive too, but also on the story. The movie was engaging, the characters where fun to root for but they also had depth, and so on. Toy Story would have been a landmark achievement no matter what, but the fact that it had a great story made it even more memorable and it’s the reason why we all still love Woody and Buzz Lightyear twenty years later.

A lot of the reasons why we love music and art is the story behind it. Even if your art doesn’t have a particular story, people want to hear about the story of how it was made.

Want people to care about your work? Make sure there’s a good story behind it.

A good team is more important than a group of smart people who don’t work well together

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

“The takeaway here is worth repeating: getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it.”

One of my favorite creative stories comes from the Exile On Main St. 33 1/3 by Bill Janovitz, another book that I recommend checking out. In it there’s a bit about Mick Taylor describing what it was like for him to play and record with the Rolling Stones, which of course sounds like a dream come true for any musician. However Taylor mostly commented on the band’s lack of individual skill; he said that most of time these guys weren’t that great to play with one on one. They were sloppy, usually too drunk or high to play, and didn’t show much musical skill on their own. However what he said next was the key takeaway; he said that, though they were lackluster on their own, when the entire band came together there was this unexplainable energy and unity, and when the band was “on it” they were the best band in the world.

So put a group of talented musicians together and you might get a wide variety of outcomes, but put together a group of musicians who work well together and you got a great band. The Stones, the Beatles, and the Replacements, none of them were really flashy musicians, but the sum of their wholes was better than anything a group of egotist musicians could do.

“Early on, all our movies suck”

“Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so – to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not suck.’ This idea – that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible – is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”

According to Catmull, every Pixar movie starts out as a failure. You have an idea, and it might be a great idea, but you see all the hard work ahead and you’re overwhelmed with all the work and all the potential opportunities for failure. No matter how many movies Pixar has made, every movie starts out as a failure.

Your next song, your next article, or your next novel is going to suck at first. The trick is to put in the hard work to make it, as Catmull says, un-suck.

You are not your ideas

“Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece but because of the way the Braintrust [Pixar’s idea generator] is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself – not the filmmaker – is under the microscope. The principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your ideas, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.”

This was my biggest takeaway from this book. One of the best abilities that an artist can have is the ability to step back from their work and be able to judge it on its own merit without any hard feelings. Any attack on the art is not on the creator but on the work itself, and that’s a distinction that I don’t think gets noticed a lot.

You are not your ideas. You are not your work.

Failure is not a necessary evil. It is the inevitable consequence of doing something new

“I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.”

Not much more to add to this; creating something new is a messy business, but that should be expected going into your project. You’re going to go down a windy twisted road to get to your end destination, but you’ll eventually get to where you want to go if you stick it out and keep working.

Our ideas are ugly babies

“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘ugly babies.’ They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing – in the form of time and patience – in order to grow…Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is the protect the new.

“Before I go on, I want to say something about the word protection. I worry that because it has such a positive connotation, by implication anything being protected seems, ipso facto. worth protecting. But that’s not always the case…when I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Think of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly – it only survives because it is encased in a cocoon. It survives, in other words, because it is protected from that which would damage it.”

This isn’t really a tip as it is an interesting perspective on creative work.

“There is no movie”

“When we are making a movie, the movie doesn’t exist yet. We are not uncovering it or discovering it; it’s not as if it resides somewhere and is just waiting to be found. There is no movie. We are making decisions, one by one, to create it. In a fundamental way, the movie is hidden from us. I know this can feel overwhelming. There is a reason that writers talk about the terror of the blank page and painters shudder at the sight of an empty canvas. It’s extremely difficult to create something out of nothing, especially when you consider that much of what you’re trying to realize is hidden, at least at first.”

I like this because it puts the emphasis on work. You create something, step by step.


Pick up a copy of the book for more insight into Pixar’s history and creative advice. As a reward, here’s a video explaining that Pixar theory you’ve probably heard of.

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Alex Cuba


From: Canada via Cuba

Sounds Like: Jason Mraz

Alex Cuba is a Latin-Grammy winning singer-songwriter who has traveled throughout the world, yet Cuba will always be his home. His mix of light Afro-Latin rhythms and easy-going singing will take you to sunny Cuba with an old-fashion sound that still sounds infectious in 2015.

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