East River Pipe
East River Pipe is not a band, in the strict sense of the word. East River Pipe is a one-man operation. At its center is F.M. Cornog. From a small apartment in Astoria, Queens, NYC, Mr. Cornog has been crafting bittersweet, somber pop music for a couple of years now. With his 8-track cassette machine, he layers up guitars, keyboards, and drum machine tracks with his lonely voice at the center. When you hear his music for the first time, it is hard to believe it is just one guy behind at all, and it was all recorded in an apartment. This guy certainly is not travelling down the road tread by the countless one-man band basement-tapers that came from the home taping/port-a-studio boom in the 80's. You will not find massive amounts of tape hiss, nor the sort of wretching exercises that plague countless home-taped releases. East River Pipe is truly mining some serious song-craft. But, there is a deeper side.
Interview by Chris Plummer (August 1997)
For a period of time, he went through some rough times that led him to sleeping in the subways of New York City. Eventually, he took the bad hand that life dealt him, and put a voice to it in his songs. The hours and hours of nothing to do but stare at passing people, or stare into the bottom of a Tall-boy. The characters of street-life show up in his songs from time to time- songs such as 'Prettiest Whore,' 'Time Square Go-Go Boy,' 'Road To Nowhere,' paint a bleak, lonely life of societies outcasts who are innocent victims. Cornog's songs also show the frail side of humanity. Songs such as 'Metal Detector,' 'Put Down,' 'Spotlight,' and 'Here We Go' show a side of the unarmored, frail human spirit that is fighting all the time for love, attention, and security.
Cornog's songs came to the attention of a lady named Barbara Powers who took in Cornog and became his producer. After a few self-financed singles, and appearances on the Sarah record label, East River Pipe started releasing CD's on the Merge record label, run by Matt McCaughlin, leader of Superchunk, and also himself a one-man band, Portastatic. His CD releases so far have been 1994's Shining Hours In A Can, 1995's Poor Fricky, and 1996's Mel.
Perfect Sound Forever: What is a typical day in the life of Mr. F.M. Cornog like? (the everyday things you do...)
East River Pipe/F.M. Cornog: My life is just as mundane as everybody else's life. I get up, take a shower, make the bed, eat some cereal, drink some coffee, take a crap, wash the clothes, pay a bill, go to the supermarket, etc... Yeah, I write songs too, but hell, I don't look at writing songs as being something "special" or"above the fray". I'm just like a plumber, or a sanitation worker, or a salesman. I'm just doing my job... trying to get by.
PSF- Is songwriting for you an artistic process, or a therapeutic process?
ERP- Well, each song starts as a purely artistic thing... usually, an impulse to make something that sounds really beautiful, or to bring something out of the shadows and into the light. But after I've finished a song, and I'm sitting there alone listening to it, it does seem to have some kind of healing, therapeutic value for me too. By writing a song, you've given shape and form and a voice to something that was previously formless and mute. This usually makes me feel less hopeless, less out of control.
PSF- Do you write a song with a specific theme/music, or do you jam stuff out until something comes together?
ERP- ...Kind of in the middle of those two things. I usually start out with a ball park idea of what I want to do, but I've learned over the years that you must be very flexible. Writing songs is like sculpting from stone. You might look at a stone and say, "I'm going to make a beautiful, sad woman out of that stone." So, you start out to make just that... Chip, chip, chip... But as you continue, you realize that the stone has other ideas... the stone has a mind of its own!... And this stone don't want no "beautiful, sad woman" shit! This stone wants to be something else. So, you just go with it. You don't force it. You let it ride. What the fuck! That's pretty much how I write a song. Go with the flow.
PSF- Do you program your drum tracks, or do you manually play them? What is the general setup of your studio, and the instruments you use?
ERP- I program the drum tracks, and sometimes I manually play them too. Sometimes, a combination of both. My general setup is very simple. I record all my albums in my apartment in Queens. I record everything on a Tascam 388 mini-studio. The machine has 8 tracks, and it's really easy to use, so I like it. I play the 388 through my stereo amp. I mix down to DAT or cassette. Instrument wise, I've got an ESP Telecaster, a Guild acoustic, an old Gibson bass, a cheapo synthesizer, a drum machine, a couple of drums and some percussion things. I don't have any expensive effects boxes or anything, just 5 or 6 cheap guitar pedals.
PSF- Do you work slowly, or do you have mad-rushes of songs pouring out at once?
ERP- Well, some songs go from start to finish in an hour or two, recording and everything! Songs like "Firing Room", "Ah Dictaphone", "Life Is Born Today", "Miracleland" and "Put-Down" were fast and easy. But other songs are more complex and temperamental... "New York Crown" is only a 3-chord song, but it took weeks! "40 Miles" went very slowly too. They'll all different.
PSF- To me, your albums always have that one song that TOTALLY sticks out, and pays for the price of admission.. Shining Hours had "Times Square Go-Go Boy", Poor Fricky had "Here We Go", and Mel had "Prettiest Whore." Do you see an album's contents the same ith certain songs reigning over the rest of the album or do you view all the songs as the same in regards to artistic merit?
ERP- Well, I don't think that any of my songs "reign" over the other songs on my albums. I always set out to make excellent ALBUMS... NOT just 1 or 2 good songs surrounded by 10 other crappy songs. It's ENORMOUSLY important to me that ALL the songs be excellent and work together. That's what I try to do.
PSF- For a home recordist, you seem to spend a lot of time crafting your songs and with production. How long have you been recording? Did you read books, have people shown you stuff while you were learning your equipment?
ERP- I've been recording now for about 15 years. When I was a kid, I used to make really primitive recordings using two cheap Panasonic cassette players. I'd bounce the sound back and forth, adding an instrument each time I bounced. Anyway, when Tascam and Fostex started putting out those little 4-track cassette mini-studios, I went right out and bought one. I started out on a Tascam Porta One in 1984, and just started recording. I didn't even read the friggin' owner's manual. Then, in 1989 I bought the machine I'm using now, a Tascam 388. And no, I've never read any books, and nobody ever showed me anything, but I DID listen to a LOT of records! I still DO! I think that's where my education in production has come from... Just listening to tons and tons of records, and mimicking my favorite ones.
PSF- When did you first get into music?
ERP- During the 1970's... I constantly listened to an AM radio station out of New York City called WABC. That's the music I cut my teeth on... Top 40 hits during the 1970's. All kinds of stuff, good and bad. Elton John, Marvin Gaye, solo Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Wings, Fleetwood Mac, Al Green, The Staple Singers, The Eagles, Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire, The Edgar Winter Group, Harry Nilsson, Bread, The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, The Bee Gees, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Three Dog Night, The Carpenters, The O'Jays, Grand Funk, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Barry White, Barry Manilow. Like I said, good and bad! So, for better or for worse, that's what I grew up listening to.
PSF- What made you get involved in playing music? How old were you? Did you have the usual string of high school bands and garage jamming?
ERP- When I was a kid, I'd put on my brother's headphones and listen to my favorite albums OVER and OVER and OVER. THAT'S what made me want to play music! Listening to and looking at the albums I loved! I'd stare at the cover art, the lyrics, the album credits, and memorize EVERYTHING. Ever since I was 15 years old, making records is all I've ever wanted to do (besides drink). And no, I never did jam much with people. I've only been in ONE band my whole life. It was called The Tom Manley Band. I was in high school. Tom Manley was the big rock guitar player in the town where I grew up in Summit, New Jersey. He was really handsome, and all the girls loved him. I was the piano player in his band. I eventually got kicked out of the band because Tom wanted somebody who could play piano like Rick Wakeman, and I play piano like Neil Young.
PSF- Who were some of your early music heroes?
ERP- My earlier (pre-1985) musical heroes would be The Beatles, solo Lennon, early-era Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Lou Reed, Television, David Bowie, Springsteen, Philip Glass, Robert Fripp during his "Frippertronics" period, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Laurie Anderson, Todd Rundgren, Bob Marley, and early R.E.M..
PSF- So what about today? What is getting frequent play in Hell Gate studio's CD player??
ERP- Lambchop is my favorite group. I also like Drink Me, Bjork, Sea & Cake, Pet Shop Boys, and Fun Lovin' Criminals. Lately, I've been playing some old Miles Davis stuff too.
PSF- How long were you homeless? Did you do music while you were homeless? How did you continue to do music?
ERP- Well, there was a real shitty period there, that lasted about 2 years, where ALL I did was drink. I kind of stumbled from place to place, and then I just ended up sleeping in the Hoboken Train Station. No, I didn't do much music during that time, 'cuz I was too fucked-up all the time. It's a TOTAL bullshit rock & roll LIE that a person can be a COMPLETE wasto/alky/drug addict and still be a creative, productive artist. It's BULLSHIT. During that time in my life, I only had time for 2 things... (1)getting fucked-up, and (2) getting more money so I could get fucked-up again.
PSF- How far down did you reach while you were homeless? Were you totally penniless and have nothing to your name, or did you maintain some help and possessions in the care of others?
ERP- How far down? Well, eventually, I didn't have anything... nothing. No money, no friends, nothing. Just a crazy fuckin' drunk, sitting alone in a train station. But that's OK, ya know, cuz I had to LEARN. I'm kinda stupid. I had to LEARN. Bob Dylan said this thing a few years ago. He said, "It's possible to be so defiled in this world that even your mother and father won't know you. But God will always believe in your ability to mend your own ways."
PSF- You did manage to get off the street. Did someone step in to give you help?
ERP- I got off the streets when I met Barbara Powers. Barbara heard a very early tape of mine, through a mutual friend, and eventually we got to know each other. She took me in, gave me a place to live, a place to feel safe. I wouldn't even be alive today if it wasn't for Barbara. She really saved my ass.
PSF- Do you have a job to pay the bills? Do you put yourself on a schedule for doing your music, or is it when ever the mood hits you?
ERP- A job to pay the bills? Yeah, well, since I don't make a lot of money from music, I supplement my income by pimping on the weekends, usually underneath the 59th Street Bridge, near the Silvercup Building. Just kidding! I do all kinds of odd-jobs and shit to pay the rent... along with music. A schedule for doing music? No, I never have a schedule. I never sit down and tell myself, "OK, today you're going to write a song." I know a lot of people are very disciplined about their songwriting, but I'm not. I only release an album when it "makes sense" to me musically and artistically. Sometimes that process takes a year, sometimes more. Whenever I try to "force" something, the results usually suck. So, I just kind of go with the flow. I go by the music's schedule, not mine.
PSF- I understand you play live very rarely. What could someone expect when they go to a East River Pipe show?
ERP- Well, I hardly ever play live. It's just too nerve-racking for a person like me. The shows I've played in the past were always just spur-of-the-moment things, here in New York City... very, very low-key gigs. Hmmmm... if I ever do start playing out live again, my "dream backup band" would be Lambchop! They are amazing.
PSF- Do you ever get fan letters from distant countries??
ERP- Yes, I get letters from all kinds of distant places, and it always amazes me that people have even HEARD of me! I often think to myself, "Jeeeez... A few years ago I was sleeping in a damn train station, and now I'm getting these nice letters from people all over the world." I feel very grateful and blessed.
PSF- If you were on your death bed, and the Grim Reaper asked you what you wanted for your last meal, what would it be?
ERP- I'd tell the Grim Reaper to put me in a wheelchair and push me up the street to my favorite Irish bar, The Spinning Wheel. First, I'd buy a round for everybody there. Then I'd drink a few pints of Guinness on tap, and invite the Grim Reaper to join me. If a few pints of Guinness don't make the Reaper smile, nothing will.
For more information on East River Pipe, write to F.M., the man himself! He can be reached at:
East River Pipe/Hell Gate
P.O. Box 6053
Astoria, NY 11106 USA
East River Pipe site: http://www.loop.com/~bilner/erp.html
Official Merge Records' East River Pipe Bio: http://www.mrg2000.com/merge/bio.erp.html
Complete East River Pipe discography: http://ww.mrg2000.com/merge/disc.erp.html
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