Tripping on the Trebuchet: An Interview with George Hrab
Musician and skeptic George Hrab recently sat down with Skeptical Briefs to discuss his latest album, Trebuchet, his Geologic Show at Dragon*Con, and why bald guys are just plain smarter than everyone else.
Skeptical Briefs: So why Trebuchet? What attracted you to this particular siege weapon from the Middle Ages?
George Hrab: I knew that this album was going to have songs that were about being thrown into situations (or throwing things into situations) or being flung (or being the flinger). Flight, air, movement, attack, a siege, and storming the battlements all played a metaphorical role in most of the songs, so I thought that a catapult would be a great symbol to connect them all. That being said, Catapult is a horrible title, [and] Trebuchet seemed way cooler. Plus, a trebuchet is something that is powered by principles as opposed to potential kinetic energy. I like that a “cocked and loaded” trebuchet is actually much safer but way more deadly and accurate than a “cocked and loaded” catapult. That’s a great concept that brings much nerd joy to my DNA.
SB: Let’s say you just bought a full-scale trebuchet from the Acme Corporation—maybe it was returned by Wile E. Coyote or something—and a really, really, big yard. You open it up and want to test it to make sure it works. What three test objects would you use, and how far would they fly?
Hrab: 1. [Rush drummer] Neil Peart’s drum set. [It wouldn’t be] a very far flyer but a wondrous clang would ensue.
2. Glenn Beck. [He wouldn’t be] a very far flyer but a wondrous clang would ensue.
3. I would love to launch a smaller trebuchet just for the pure Magrittian joy.
SB: You, like Phil [Plait] and Richard [Wiseman] and [Ben Radford], are a prominent, bald, bespectacled skeptic. To what do you attribute this curious phenomenon?
Hrab: Isn’t it obvious? Brilliant thinking causes poor vision and hair loss. Duh.
SB: What did you think of Phil’s famous TAM “Don’t Be a Dick” speech? Some people thought it was brilliant (“Restore respect and courtesy to skepticism!”), while to others thought it seemed like a straw man argument (“Who is saying you should be a dick?”). What’s your take?
Hrab: I thought that Phil’s talk was excellent. (His vision and hair were really affected that day.) His argument that being nasty will seldom convince anyone of a proposition, especially when it’s a hard sell like rationality, made complete sense to me. I don’t think that it was a straw man argument because there are times when you should be a dick. One’s “dickishness” should be reserved for appropriate occasions, much like thermonuclear weapons—or live renditions of “Freebird.” I think that being nasty in order to score self-satisfying points in an argument is an understandable urge, but we need to be bigger than that. It’s tough, but all things worthwhile are tough. Like knitting a macramé house.
SB: I attended your Geologic Show at Dragon*Con, and it was great. I do have to ask, however: Are there any puns or double entendres that you especially regret? Maybe they were just really awful when performed, or caused some disease?
Hrab: I regret nothing. The pope’s wife is not “The Holy C,” and attractive nuns are still hard to come by.
SB: I see from your awesome new CD that at least two of the song titles are actually book titles. What was it about those books that inspired the songwriter in you?
Hrab: Ideas are always the hardest thing for me to come up with. Once I have a concept, be it for a song, sketch, or interpretive dance involving feather boas, the rest is just details. I love working on the details, but hate coming up with the concept. So if some writer has taken the time to come up with a brilliant title and subject, I figure an “ode” to that book saves me the trouble of being creative on my own. Steal from the best, right? Plus Death from the Skies and God Is Not Great are just phenomenal books. I guess that plays into it too.
SB: Why do you think it is that people get all weird when you suddenly bring up masturbation?
Hrab: Not as weird as when you bring up male ass play. Right? Am I right? Hello?
SB: Two of my favorite songs are “Far” and “When I Was Your Age.” Any particular things inspire those songs?
Hrab: Both of those songs were written in a very brief amount of time, and initially for other people. “Far” was commissioned by the fine folks over at the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. They asked me to write a theme that “didn’t sound like Enya.” Luckily, I minored in Not Sounding Like Enya, so that worked out ok. “When I Was Your Age” was written for the incredible guys in Beatnik Turtle, who were writing and recording an entire album in twenty-eight days. They called and asked if I’d write something for them, so thirty hours later I sent them a demo of “When I was Your Age.” They recorded their version, and I subsequently recorded mine. There must be something to this working on a deadline thing. . . .
SB: As you know, one of the things that skeptics and scientists often battle is misinformation. Yet you have repeatedly been seen in public associating with a certain Ms. Information. How do you explain this contradiction?
Hrab: There is little to no misinformation in Ms. Information, just as every adult is not a dolt.
SB: As you know, there are many famous musical rivalries—Neil Young and Lynryrd Skynyrd, Biggee and Tupac, Pavarotti and Lady Gaga. Many of your fans may not realize that you have also been engaged in a similar musical smackdown of your own. I am of course referring to George Harb, a musician who, according to his website, “can only be described as unique, talented, helpful, and caring.” Yet Harb was quoted as calling you “a punk” who is “pasty and hairless as a newborn camel’s testicles.” [Editor’s note: We were unable to verify the source or accuracy of this quote. It may have come from Harb himself, or been paraphrased by one of his fans, or we may have just made it up.] George, I don’t want to fuel any trash-talking, but do you have an answer for your fans? And can you address the rumors of reconciliation and an upcoming Hrab/Harb “Find the Typo” national tour?
Hrab: Mr. Harb has not responded to numerous attempts at contact and is apparently going on tour with both Lady Goo Goo and Stang. All three artists are touring under the moniker “Vowel Movement” and I am deeply disappointed that I was not asked to open. Or at least help move gear.
SB: You mentioned that songs like “Far” and “When I Was Your Age” [WIWYA] were written for other people. Do you often write songs for others, and is the writing process any different than when you’re writing for yourself?
Hrab: “Far” and WIWYA were unique in that they were commissioned, but the writing process is pretty much the same as when I’m writing for myself. If anything, it tends to be more efficient because there’s usually a deadline involved, and I absolutely stink at motivating myself. Ultimately though, since I figure that someone is hiring me to write the thing, I would guess they want the piece to be “somewhat Geoish”—which might be the title of my next album by the way.
SB: Who do you consider to be the top five living songwriters today and why?
Hrab: Lists are tough, and there are always weird caveats. For example, I think Stevie Wonder is an absolute genius and he’s written enough incredible material to last ten lifetimes but really hasn’t done anything to ring my bell in two decades. But he’s still alive—so do we count him? Same with Sting. Someone like Elvis Costello has pounded out amazing songs, and continues to do so, and is always trying out different styles and sounds and textures, so he’s absolutely on the list. Alf Clausen, who writes music for The Simpsons, is an absolutely brilliant writer/parody/homage/soundtrack composer, but [he] isn’t necessarily seen as a “songwriter” [even though he] has more skill than most of the artists on billboard. Eminem has such a distinct style and approach and is instantly recognizable, but traditional folks would be cautious in calling him a “songwriter.” I love most everything that Sheryl Crow has done—and Peter Gabriel, the Beastie Boys, Paul McCartney, and the boys in Rush are all still technically “alive” so. . .
SB: I’ve had a longstanding debate about meaning in song lyrics. When I was a teenager and in my twenties I hated songs that were catchy but had no discernable meaning. I dismissed songs that were merely catchy riffs, and appreciated narrative songs that spoke to coherent and profound themes. Yet as I have matured as a music listener (if in no other way), I have found myself really enjoying songs whose meanings I can’t decipher—a lot of classic Bob Dylan and the Beatles come to mind. Your music tends to have meaning and message, but where do you stand on this as a songwriter? Do inscrutable lyrics belong in music?
Hrab: There are entire genres and complete catalogs of certain artists where the “words” are essentially nice sounding pitched mouth noises. I love that. There are entire swaths of Yes and Duran Duran that are really cool sounding words put together. I mean, what the hell is a Siberian Khatru? Is The Reflex a lonely child? Really? OK, whatever. . . . Often the guys in the band don’t even know what the songs are about. There are punk and metal acts that pride themselves on the lyrics not only being indecipherable, but unintelligible.
It comes down to using the human voice as a timbral instrument and not necessarily a delivery of “meaning.” That being said, I tend to favor writing songs that have a meaning, and [I] have tried to write nice sounding indecipherable words but somehow my analytic brain won’t let me do that. There is absolutely a point to writing music without words, so conversely there is a point to writing songs with words that are un-understandable. If that’s even a word. . . .
SB: Some musicians, such as Tom Waits, have experimented with non-traditional instruments such as the theremin, pot-and-pan percussion, and so on. How far have you gone in that direction?
Hrab: While recording with the incredible Slau of BeSharp studios, we have experimented a bit with creating interesting sounds through non-traditional ways. We like to manipulate the human voice a lot, and that tends to create some neat otherworldly sounds. The background ghost hum in “Stigmata” from the album Minutiae, and the “Jerrymin” solo on “Hai Yookito ’Ya” from Trebuchet are prime examples of that.
SB: Though you are best known for your musical oeuvre, you have expanded to other areas, including publishing the now-infamous Non-Coloring Book in 2007—which featured drawings of Elvis, the Pope, and Batman in identical poses on the cover. Have you considered expanding into visual media, such as oil painting or performance art?
Hrab: I’ve always dug working in multiple media, and I think I might try to get more into doing some video production. I have a backlog of songs and ideas that just need a commitment of time. In a weird way (that totally sounds pretentious I realize—sorry) I consider most of my performances a weird kind of performance art to begin with. Especially the solo shows. There is a bit of a persona that I adopt to answer audience questions, and I do like the semi-Dada nature of many of my gigs. I hope to work on another book too. It all comes down to time management.
SB: In Terry Zwigoff’s fascinating 1994 documentary film Crumb about legendary underground comix artist Robert Crumb, we learn among other things that Robert is a compulsive masturbator. Are you a fan of documentaries, and if someone were to make a documentary about your life, what are two or three interesting, private facts that the public would learn about you?
Hrab: That’s interesting. I enjoyed masturbating while watching Crumb. Go figure. Anyway. . . I think if someone were to make a documentary of me, folks would be most surprised to learn how lazy and short I am. I think they would also be surprised to see how much of my time is spent alone. That and of course the Crumb masturbation thing. . .
SB: What’s a curious question you have asked a celebrity?
Hrab: I asked Levar Burton what it was like to work with Tim and Eric [of Cartoon Network’s Awesome Show, Great Job!]. This was a question I was very proud of. It took unimaginable amounts of self control to not ask why power from the front array isn’t automatically diverted to the shields in a Red Alert combat situation seeing as that is almost always the primary command directed by the First Officer.