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Interview: Noah Lekas

14 May 2021

Noah Lekas is a poet, a writer, a music journalist (he interviewed Kilo Bravo for and a musician (playing guitar for The Silent Comedy). Most of the time, he’s working for someone else but in 2019, Lekas released his first book of poetry, Saturday Night Sage, featuring cover art by poster artist and painter Alan Forbes who has also done work for The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and Faith No More.

Interested in seeing how these poems would jump off the page, Lekas recorded five poems as spoken word tracks, sharing them with musician friends from Howlin Rain, Mrs. Henry and The Silent Comedy and asking them to write and record accompanying music. Those five songs were released digitally and as a limited edition vinyl EP, Sounds From The Shadow Factory, earlier this year through Lekas’s Bandcamp page.

Once the music was done, Lekas shared the tracks with five independent filmmakers and asked them to make short films that represented their visions of the songs. Lekas tells me he didn’t offer any creative input nor did he provide any feedback because, as he says, the films weren’t his.

A month ago, after Lekas got home from his writing day job, we hopped on a Zoom call and had an hour-and-a-half conversation. An excerpt of that follows.

For me, Poetry was a class I took in high school because I had to, that’s about as far as I took it. Did your interest in poetry start when you were in school and what made you decide that this is something you’re interested in?

NOAH: I started liking it in high school but it kind of happened through music. Music was the first love and that connected me to poetry. A lot of the early stuff you read – if you read Dylan Thomas or you read things like this, they are very rhythmic, they are very musical. I remember getting a Langston Hughes book in high school, those are one step shy of a song, those poem, and just growing up with a deep love of blues music and folk music. I’m also an ’80s kid, so the popular music of my day was pretty introspective, there was a lot of poetry to that, whether it’s Kurt Cobain working with William Burroughs or some of the post-hardcore, post-punk bands like Fugazi, there was certainly poetry to the lyrics. I think the table was set that way.

I gravitated towards the musicality of it, I gravitated towards the fact that you needed nobody or nothing to do it. You didn’t need gear, you didn’t need a team, you didn’t need friends, you didn’t need fans, you didn’t need approval. With relatively meager tools, you could create a poem and I thought that was pretty awesome, kind of the same reason I loved punk rock but even a step further because you didn’t even need an instrument.

I certainly wasn’t 14 and reading Dylan Thomas and thinking, “In 20 years I’m going to publish a book just like this.” It was just something that I enjoyed, it was a type of writing that I enjoyed reading the same way that some kids like to read The Boxcar Children.

Are your parents creative? Are they writers, artists or musicians?

NOAH: Yeah, my dad’s a lifelong musician, it’s been his profession. My mom is what I could call a seeker. She’s always looking for connections and spiritual truths, she’s very geared that way, always learning about something new and perspective on things. She was also a huge Bob Dylan fan, a huge Neil Young fan, so very writerly musicians. My dad was more a blues guy and pre-classic rock, more like ’50s and ’60s R&B, soul, Motown. The Blues Brothers a big things in my household. There was definitely a lot of art, my mom had a great bookshelf that had Plato’s Crito and Black Elk Speaks, just all kinds of books you could dig into and start to explore that sort of philosophical world. I was raised around pretty open ideas and a pretty big palate to choose from.

My parents didn’t have a big record collection and I didn’t have older siblings to teach me what was good so I relied on the radio, then MTV, then Rolling Stone as I grew up. It wasn’t until college that I ventured beyond what was being fed to me.

NOAH: Depending on the years, MTV and Rolling Stone wasn’t always a bad place to find stuff.

I saw Bret Michaels of Poison do a solo show at a half-filled 1,800-seat venue on a Tuesday night and then, a few nights later, saw Nirvana very early in the Nevermind tour play a packed club that held maybe 200 people. It changed my life. Nirvana opened my eyes and it no longer had to be about big hair, leather pants and makeup. It was more real, more stuff that I could relate to as a college student.

NOAH: It’s all real. Poison was a real band that wrote real songs that people really bought. It’s like when you go on vacation and then head back home, it’s like “back to reality.” Well, the beach was real too. It’s all real.

With the music I was exposed to, hair metal and sort of thing was not existent in my world whatsoever. I remember going to a friend’s house when I was maybe 6 or 7 and he had Metallica’s Ride the Lightning on tape and he had Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II, I had never heard anything like that before. I was like, “What is going here?” and thought it was great.

And then, a couple years later it happened again when I went to a new school and having a friend who had an older brother. All of a sudden, cruising through the neighborhood on a bike with pegs, with a Walkman blaring Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and that was a whole new thing, “What is this?”

And then the year after that, I switched schools again and I made friends with somebody whose older brother literally handed me a stack of CDs, it was the classic “friend’s older brother” schtick, but he handed me Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, and some of the emo-type stuff that was coming out at the time, Sunny Day Real Estate and some of the SubPop stuff. He had all of it and he handed me a stack. I went home and that was the first time I heard Fugazi and Jawbreaker and Jawbox. As a writer who comes in contact with that sort of post-punk world a lot, a band like Jawbreaker is a very poetic band. That’s a band with a great lyricist. There’s this band in Champaign, Braid, and that guy, Bob Nanna, he’s a great lyricist. I don’t know if people understand that, they just hear a post-punk band. And he’s a really nice dude, I’ve met him a bunch of times.

So having those experiences when you’re 15 or 16, maybe that’s why, back to your first question, I got into poetry. When you’re in a world where you can go to a concert at the Fireside Bowl or at The Globe in Milwaukee, you can stand there and watch a band that blows your mind, talk to them, buy their 7” for $3, it has the lyrics in it, the lyrics are great. You have the experience of sitting there reading the lyrics, listening to the music, resonating with it, going to the show next time; same thing, new record. That creates a bond with writing that standing in the front row of a Ratt concert just wouldn’t do.

That post-punk world has a lot to do with how I got into poetry and how I got into writing in general. There was a ‘zine in Milwaukee called Milk, I used to grab that thing. That and the Shepherd Express, those were the two music publications that every time I saw them, you picked it up and you read the whole thing.

Did you decide to become a rock journalist when you were going to those show?

NOAH: No, that was much later. In high school, I wrote a coupe of things for the school paper. But, in college, I didn’t write for the school paper, I just wasn’t interested at the time. Part way through college, I got a job writing music reviews for a weekly paper, the entertainment section. I did that for a while, I wrote 3 music reviews a week. Ultimately I stopped because I didn’t like reviewing, and I was young, I hadn’t even finished college so I didn’t understand the opportunity it was to grow. I just felt like I didn’t like criticizing stuff so I’ll probably do something else. I’m not an art critic on any level. I’m happy to privately discuss what I think about certain pieces of art but I’m never going to write the takedown piece, it’s just never going to happen. I don’t like shitting on people’s work even if it is objectively terrible. I think a lot of terrible bands become great but it’s better to wait and see than be the first one to have a hot take on stuff. So I got a taste for writing doing that.

As the years went on, and I was playing in bands and doing stuff, friends would be like, “Could you write a bio for us?” Or, they would like the bio I wrote for my own band and they’d ask if I could help them with a website. I started amassing a portfolio based on being asked to write stuff. But I was not proactive about writing at the beginning. It wasn’t until about 8 years ago that I flipped the switch again and said, “It’s time to concentrate on this again.” I was really burned out from college, college really burned me out of writing. I was not interested at all. I had read too many books, I had written too many useless papers.

You’ve seemingly lived in all four corners of the United States. Is there a story behind that? Was it that you wanted to have different experiences and see the country or was it more logical, like you moved because of family or a job?

NOAH: I didn’t have any goal of being the wistful student of America who understood life from all sides. It just so happened that I grew up in a shell of a factory town that had a lot of access to Chicago and Milwaukee and all the good and bad that comes with that. I grew up in a family that had a very wide religious breadth, there was different religions in the household and around. My family had immigrated fairly recently, not me personally but my grandparents, so the world was bigger because in my house it was bigger. There wasn’t just one perspective in the household. When you have that, there’s just open doors that you start going through if you’re into that sort of thing. You explore and different things pop up different places.

I used to jokingly say that people who are really successful don’t move all the time. My family moved a lot, I moved a lot as a kid before I ever had a say in it. It wasn’t like I started moving a lot, it was like I kept moving a lot. I hope to move less, I hope to be done moving. I don’t really have any ambitions to go live anywhere else. Everyone you know has certain opportunities that came and went that they could have went somewhere else, I just typically said yes a lot more than some people do, I guess.

I don’t read poetry so help me out. Do you read poetry books from cover to cover? Do you read a few at a time? Do you randomly flip open a page and start reading there?

NOAH: I would never put myself through reading a book of poetry from start to finish. Honestly, I think it’s contemplative act. There’s certain types of music that is good background music but there’s certain types of music that is contemplative. Maybe a Coltrane record would be a contemplative activity, I would put on Blue Train and then I would sit there and let the music inspire thought in my brain. That’s how I would read poetry. That’s not how everyone reads poetry but that’s how I read poetry. I spend less time trying to figure it out and I spend more time trying to let it spark thought in my brain.

When an artist puts together an album, sequencing can be very important. As a poetry writer, when you put a book together, is there a flow to it?

NOAH: With this one (Saturday Night Sage), there is. But there are poetry collections, anthologies that are like a band’s greatest hits record. It’s sequenced, but it’s usually sequenced by importance, it’s not sequenced for an experience. My book was certainly sequenced to unfold in a linear way but that doesn’t mean you have to read it like that. You can just grab a page and read it if you should so desire. I try not to labor it too much, but we certainly spent a few days with all the poems laid out on the floor, moving them around and what felt right.

Your poems have a gritty realism to them. Are they all at least partially based on things that you’ve experienced, places you’ve lived, things that have really happened to you or do you make up fantasy characters and fantasy locations and fantasy situations?

NOAH: I had a few beers one time with Jimbo from the Reverend Horton Heat and he said, “There’s a little bit of truth in every Reverend Horton Heat song.” So, I interviewed Reverend Horton Heat, Jim Heath, not too long after that and I said, “I’ve heard there’s a little bit of truth to every song.” So I asked him about this one song where he runs into a bush drunk and he gets a big sore on his lip and he confirmed that he did have that happen to him once.

I think part of having perspective in life is putting yourself in stuff, so there’s a little bit of you in all of it. Sometimes it’s more obscure, sometimes it’s something really small that’s not the focus of it but it’s the part of you that sparked the idea or concept. And there’s other times where it’s really you. I think it was Kurt Cobain that talked about writing something really sincere and then you make fun of it in the next line to help pad it. I think there’s a part of that in poetry and song lyrics. If you have any perspective, then you have some of you in it. There’s definitely poems in the book, like I never road in from Maya able to roll a cigarette in one hand. That never happened.

I experienced a version of everything. The sage character is not supposed to be me, it’s a character that’s the manifestation of two warring ideas that I’ve wrestled with in my lifetime. I don’t think everything everyone writes has to be as personal as it is, but you’re sitting there writing it so your DNA is in it.

I can tell you about ones like, “We Got a Problem with Groundwater.” That’s one where I did live in Ohio for a couple of months and I lived near Chillicothe where there is a paper mill and it smelled. Seeing a city in the environmental throes of an active industry and the juxtaposition of growing up in a town where there was a lot of dormant industries, things were closing or had already been closed. Racine had been a powerhouse industry town, Lake Michigan was a shipping hub. Stuff that just feels a million miles away. That juxtaposition of you want jobs to come back but the reality of the infrastructure of some of these jobs is felt,. That was real, that was something I experienced. That poem is lumping the human and the environmental cost of industry into a shared experience; rather than parsing them out, like “using up land is bad,” it’s talking about using up people and using up land. Human beings are worth more than they can produce and so is land. The land is worth more than the resources that you find on it or in it. So that’s what the poem is about. I didn’t experience that in Ohio, I experienced the setting that sparked the idea. I don’t think somebody else would have wrote that exactly like that. Also, I never knew anyone who fell into a woodchipper but it makes the point.

As a companion to the book, you’ve released an EP where you’re reading poems while there are bands playing along. Is this common in the poetry world, mixing spoken word with music or are you breaking ground?

NOAH: I wouldn’t say I’m breaking ground. There’s great videos of Kerouac reading with piano and there’s recordings of John Sinclair and even Patti Smith, there’s a historic thing to it. And, really, hip-hop. This is the post-hip-hop world. If you’re alive right now and you’re under the age of 60, punk rock and hip-hop have shaped some part of your life. In both of those things, there’s a lot of poetry and music. If it’s doing anything interesting or unique, it’s just trying to use mixed media to pull some attention onto writing. To sit down and read the poem “Saturday Night Sage” requires a different amount of attention than to listen to the 5-minute track on whatever your streaming platform of choice is.

As much as I love writing and reading, I don’t read as much as I wish I did. I have a full-time job and I have responsibilities and after a long day of writing stuff for people, sitting down to read abstract poetry and decipher it is not always what I have the attention span for. But to listen to a track? Sure. I can sit back and close my eyes and listen to that.

It was more about trying to open up the story and the writing in a modern way that would create new opportunities and ways to experience it. It was not strategic in the sense that “no one’s down this.” And I think it’s been done plenty. I just don’t think it’s a particularly easy way to record stuff and make stuff fit together. It’s a lot of effort for a really hyper niche audience. You can say that you recorded a track and say that it’s kind of spoken word and people will check it out but if you say that you recorded a spoken word track, people will say “turn it off.”

Did you record your part and hand it off to the musicians and let them do what they wanted with the music?

NOAH: When I partnered with people on it, I purposely told them that I wasn’t going to direct them. I focused on writing the piece and I will read the piece, but I want their music interpretation of the piece and then when I handed that off to the film persons, I said the same thing. I said, “I’m not going to tell you want to put in the film. You make the film based on this audio track and then just send it to me when it’s done.” I gave no feedback to anyone on anything.

Really what I wanted was everybody who worked on it to feel ownership of their piece. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were working for me on my project. Shelby, who did the “Groundwater” video, he drew all those pictures, he did the audio score, he got the voiceover read, he came up with the concept. Then when it was done, he took it to three festivals and he won an award for it. It’s his film, it’s just my poem and my narration. That’s what I wanted. I wanted that to be the case, I didn’t want a bunch of hired guns in to execute things. I wanted people who felt excited about the material. That’s the one thing that was important to me.

When Alan Forbes did the cover, he was excited. He was excited to draw it, that’s his concept. I didn’t tell him what to do. And then my wife laid out the book. She’s a great designer so she took that artwork and put it into a layout and design. I gave each person room. I worked with the people I wanted to work with and I tried not to get in their way.

Is there live element to what you do? Any plans to read these poems in a live setting with a backing band?

NOAH: No, god, I hope not. I play guitar for some bands and I do some stuff that way, so the writing, as a performative thing, I don’t really have much ambition there. There’s certainly been discussion of doing things from time to time but it would really have to be a very specific opportunity with a controlled environment to even try it. Just the logistics of trying to perform poems is a lot, that’s a lot to deal with. And I play music, so I’m not really jonesing for the stage time or for the public interaction that way. I would love to do more readings, more in-store book readings and things that are geared around the writing, I don’t have too much ambition to consistently blur the line. I tend to enjoy being the writer or being the musician. Trying to bridge that gap in a live setting is a bit much. But, I never say never. If it was something cool, like if Patti Smith reads this and she wants me to come open a show, I’m not going to say no.