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Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and director Neil LaBute thrills DJ Gary Calamar with tales of songs that have influenced his controversial writing. He admits it’s a “bit of a boys club,” furthering the myth of him being misogynistic but he goes with the greats. Find out which Beatles track he calls a “complete package of chaos,” the artist he calls the “one man Beatles” with stinging stories and the Chicago bands he holds close to his heart.
Neil most recently directed his play Some Girls for an extended run at the Geffen Playhouse. Hear about it on KCRW's The Treatment, and keep an eye out for his new film Lakeview Terrance in Fall.
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1. Frank Sinatra "Glad To Be Unhappy"
, Sinatra Swings (Mbopglobal-Delta)
2. The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows", Revolver3. Elvis Costello "Lover's Walk"
, Trust (Hip-O Records)4. The Smashing Pumpkins "Cherub Rock"
, Siamese Dream (Virgin Records)5. Wilco "At least that's what you said", A ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Gary Calamar: Hi, this is Gary Calamar from KCRW, and I am very happy to be here with playwright, screenwriter, film director Neil LaBute. Neil, thanks very much for coming down today.
Neil LaBute: Thank you for having me.
Gary Calamar: So we’re going to talk about the music today. Give us an idea of what songs have inspired you over the years and what songs you want to play for us today.
Neil LaBute: Well, it’s a little bit of a boy’s club I realize, unfortunately, which furthers the myth of me being a misogynist. But I actually had a little thematic idea in terms of picking songs that were one from each decade that I’d been alive and then one for the ages I guess; one to grow on. There’s a Sinatra tune in there, who obviously was around when I was born, but certainly this comes from before that.
Gary Calamar: So as far as the Sinatra, is that something you heard growing up, or is that something you picked up?
Neil LaBute: That was probably one of the ten or so albums that we had in the house. Actually, it was probably the album cover. I’ve always been someone who likes graphic design, and it was a fantastic cover: a drawing of Sinatra on this very eerie street. Very Hopper-like, actually. And this was just one of these songs that always struck me and the title was great. Just everything about it, I thought it was a fantastic song.
Gary Calamar: Let’s check it out: “Glad to be Unhappy” by Frank Sinatra
Song: “Glad to be Unhappy” by Frank Sinatra
Gary Calamar: What else do you have to play for us?
Neil LaBute: If you have to make a shift, you might as well, you know, it’s at least a sideways jump to the Beatles. Off the Revolver album, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This song that today, I think, would still feel like, ahead of it’s time. It’s a song that every time I listen to it, I pick up something new. It’s just pretty, not just masterfully done -- when you’re able to think what about what George Martin was able to do in the studio at the time -- but just lyrics, music it’s just a complete package of chaos.
Gary Calamar: It is an amazing one.
Song: The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Gary Calamar: I’m Gary Calamar over here at KCRW.com talking with director, screenwriter, playwright Neil Labute about some of his favorite songs that have inspired him over the years. Next up, Mr. Costello.
Neil LaBute: Not much needs to be said. I mean, it’s an easy bridge for me from the Beatles to Costello. And this is a one man Beatles. You know, this guy has … it’s an amazing road of music that he’s already left behind. But I took something from the ‘80s; The Trust album. And partially because it was a piece that influenced me in a lot of ways. I really just love his music and I love the tightness of his little stinging stories. But, that ended up being a piece of music that when I was trying to create music for the first film I did “In The Company of Men” -- I had so little money, I was working with some Canadian composers and I couldn’t meet them. It was all over the phone. And so I would call them up and I would play a little bit. And this happened to be one of the songs that I played. I was like, listen to this Elvis Costello track, listen to the drums at the beginning of that. And ultimately we ended up with the little, sharp bits of music that we have. And it ended up being I used exclusively Elvis Costello music in a film that I did called “The Shape of Things.” So it’s a guy who influenced me certainly just as a listener and then, as an artist, I’ve had a chance to use his music and maybe create with him. So he’s had a large influence on me.
Song: “Lover’s Walk” from Elvis Costello
Neil LaBute: Well, I mentioned Elvis and his contribution to “The Shape of Things” soundtrack. Contribution being exclusive with him throughout that film. And I chose him because his songs are so sharp and immediately recognizable. These kind of wonderful catch phrases or moments that you just immediately can latch on to his songs and find them toe tap-able. Sort of the opposite of that -- the Smashing Pumpkins -- where often their songs take several minutes to build up in complexity and absolute, just, sonic chaos.
They were the band that I used exclusively when “The Shape of Things” was starting out as a play. I spent a lot of time in Chicago, I sort of started out as a Chicago theater person and I always found them influential. You know, I was in college when “Siamese Dream” first came out. And I just thought that they were a band who spoke to that generation. And just, kind of in terms of grafting that rock and, again, going back even to someone like Zeppelin, a kind of dream-like quality into their work. “Cherub Rock” is one of those songs, that you can kind of go, I remember where I was when I first heard that song. So that was the song. That was also the first song that began the show in London when we first did “The Shape of Things” and so I have a particular feeling every time I hear it now. I think of the lights going down and off we go on another two hour journey. So that was a very good, artistic time for me and so it’s gone from just being a song that I like, to a song that means something else in terms of my career as well.
Break to song “Cherub Rock” by The Smashing Pumpkins
Gary Calamar: Got another track from Chicago, it looks like.
Neil LaBute: It’s Wilco, who I’ve been a fan of for some time now. And I think they have done kind of an amazing thing in terms of their career, shifting from real rootsy, you know, almost country rock, to— I don’t know how to describe it — you know, some seismic blend of sound and guitars, and they’ve managed to keep that folky edge. Jeff Tweedy is one of the masterful songwriters, I think, out there right now. And this is a song of off “A Ghost Is Born.” And this is the first track, called “At Least That’s What You Said.” And I just, I continue to admire them, and my son and I follow them around, and we end up at his solo shows and at Wilco shows, and they’re just a band that I admire artistically across the board.
Break to song: “At Least That’s What You Said” by Wilco
Gary Calamar: Very cool. I think, you know, hearing some of your favorite music helps gives us another perspective on your work, perhaps.
Neil LaBute: I hope, if you can find any perspective, that’s excellent to know.
Gary Calamar: Well, Neil LaBute, than you so much for joining us on KCRW.com today, and keep listening to that great music.
Neil LaBute: I will do it. I’ll even throw a few ladies in there.
End with: “At Least That’s What You Said” by Wilco
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