Tyler Burba’s Visit brings Pynchon’s lyrics to life

Tyler Burba talked to Why I Cried a little bit ago about his band, Visit. With the urging of a Pynchon scholar friend, Burba and his band recorded an album of songs written by the reclusive author. Pynchon’s wiley lyrics are scattered across the chapters of his dense, ridiculous and awe-inspiring novels. No one has ever brought these songs to life quite like Burba.

Because of Burba’s efforts, Pynchon obsessives can hear approximations of the songs they’ve been vaguely humming for years.

After engaging in some obligatory small talk, Burba and I got down to business.

WIC:

Okay, let’s talk about your music. When did you first start reading Pynchon?

TB:

I have a friend who’s a Pynchon scholar. His name is Christian Hänggi. I met him in college. I did my masters and PhD in a little college in the Swiss Alps, which is very unimaginably titled the European Graduate School. That’s where I met Christian and we kept in touch over the years. He would come to New York and visit occasionally. He did a PhD at European Graduate School, but then he did a second PhD. So he’s now a doctor-doctor. It’s ridiculous.

His second PhD was in American literature and he wrote his dissertation on music and Pynchon novels. And so he would come to town and give talks.

This project was born out of these talks that he would give, because he said, “There’s all these lyrics in Pynchon novels, which are really wonderful, but nobody knows how they’re supposed to sound.”

And so he asked me to start writing music for these lyrics. He gave me 10 to start with. He came to town like three or four times, and he gave these lectures. Each time, I would perform four or five Pynchon songs. After a while we had an album’s worth, and that’s why we decided to record a whole album of it.

I had read Crying of Lot 49 at that point, but I hadn’t read much Pynchon beyond that. So I’m by no means a Pynchon scholar. I’m slowly working through his catalog. You know, it’s so dense that I’m taking my time.

WIC:

Yeah, I have to say I was kind of scared to interview you because I assumed you were a Pynchon scholar and I am decidedly… not. I’ve read Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and parts of Gravity’s Rainbow. Was it intimidating for you when you were composing the music? Like, did you feel a certain responsibility to understand Pynchon, or was it just a fun project for ya?

TB:

It was kind of better that I hadn’t read a lot of Pynchon when I started it because I probably would have been very intimidated by it. Because it was just something I was doing for a friend as a favor, I started out doing it all just for fun. He produced the album, so he made sure there wasn’t anything out of the time period and that the songs matched the aesthetic of what was going on in the novel.

Now that I’ve read a lot more when I — if I — do it again, it’s going to be different. It probably will be a little bit more intimidating of a process. It helped to have like a scholar to take all that weight off of me because, you know, he’s the expert. That’s why we made him produce. Just so that he could tell me, “Ooh, this has to be in this style. Or, you know, it doesn’t make sense for us to have an electric guitar in the song because it’s set in the 18th century.”

WIC:

The thing that drew me to Pynchon was how it seemed like he had access to knowledge that I will never have, like he knows calculus and astrophysics shit. But he’s also obsessed with cartoons and TV and rock and roll. What drew you to him, what made you connect with him?

TB:

I can relate to what you said because — right before I read Gravity’s Rainbow — I read Ulysses by Joyce. That being in such an Irish lineage, with all these references and allusions to Irish literature and Irish history, it was a little bit alienating for me to read it. I still loved Ulysses and really got a lot out of it. But reading Gravity’s Rainbow — with his background at Boeing — you can tell Pynchon knows a lot about the ins and outs of rocket science, history and all that.

But the fact that he writes with so much humor and that fact that he really grounds all this heaviness… You can get very cerebral with it, but he grounds it in something that’s really kind of human. That human emotion comes through. That’s why I love his writing so much. You are stimulated intellectually, but there’s also some heart to it. Sometimes the descriptions are visceral, and sometimes it’s disgusting. But it’s not just a head trip. I like high surrealism and stuff like that. But if it gets too abstract and I just get totally lost, I just kind of start daydreaming. You know, he goes into these very cerebral worlds, which are super surreal at times, and super detailed, but there’s also like a commonplace, basic human level of experience in his novels. You can access it no matter how geeked out you want to get on it.

WIC:

What you just said reminded me of how Michael Judge analyzes Pynchon on Death is Just Around the Corner. He’s so good at picking apart these particular strains of American neuroses. We met because we were both fans of Judge’s podcast, particularly his analysis of Pynchon and his series on the JFK assassination. When did you start listening?

TB:

I was just turned on to it. About a month ago. I’ve been really enjoying his takes on all these different topics. He’s really got a great mind for these things and he’s very, very, very perceptive. He really picks up on angles to things in ways I hadn’t thought about.

WIC:

Did you listen to his series about the JFK assassination?

TB:

I haven’t gotten to that yet. I just love that someone who has that depth of knowledge about conspiracy theories and American history is analyzing Pynchon because that’s perfectly aligned with what Pynchon’s novels are all about.

WIC:

Do you tend to gravitate towards that stuff? Conspiracies? ’Cause I definitely do. I have several books about the CIA and Charles Manson sitting on my bedside table right now.

TB:

You know, I’m working on a dissertation right now, so I’m pretty busy. I easily fall into studying those things and really love to go into depth about different so-called conspiracies. But I haven’t had the time in the last couple of years to do that. Have you read the book about Manson, The Family?

WIC:

No, I haven’t. I have Helter Skelter right now.

TB:

So me and Christian, my friend, who is the producer of the Pynchon album… He had a conference called “The Death of the Hippie” the fall before the pandemic hit. He invited Ed Sanders [author of The Family].

Sanders was the first one to really write about Manson and the Family.

We asked him about it, but he was so disturbed about his experience with the Family that he, you know, he would only talk about it for a couple of minutes. He basically said he was investigating it because he thought it was, you know, just the cops and the establishment harassing some nice hippies until he went to live with them. He said that was the first time he’d ever really experienced evil, what it’s really like as a force in the world.

WIC:

Charles Manson and the Family as an embodiment of all the evil in the world… That’s an idea that fascinates me.

TB:

Do you know about the event, “The Death of the Hippie”? It was in San Francisco. It was actually a ceremony that the community put on because they realized that the hippie had become a symbol. It was basically being co-opted into the capitalist system. And not only as a target for the establishment, or a symbol to be hated by working class Americans or conservatives.

It was also just this ready-made identity that could be sold, you know, by corporations to the youth of America as this kind of pseudo-revolution. And yeah, I grew up thinking that these were the most radical and the most liberated people, but after reading a lot about that time period, I realized it was just another thing that could be bought and sold.

Rock and roll was really the invention of the adolescent as a demographic. And they sell it to you. It’s really disturbing because this is the whole birth of my identity. Like when you think about the things you consume as a teenager… It becomes such a big part of your identity.

We think we have some kind of agency in it, but it’s basically like we’re a demographic for the advertising agencies. They broke it down into these five types of adolescents. They figured out ways to market to them, to basically sell them their own identity back to them, regurgitate it to them and make millions of dollars. I saw it firsthand living in Washington, where I grew up with the grunge movement. After like a couple of weeks, the grunge movement was taken over by corporate America.

WIC:

I mean, I’m young, I’m in the demographic that these people would be marketing to right now. And all the radical language that I’ve heard about trans liberation and prison abolition, stuff like that… It’s been so easily co-opted, especially the LGBTQ stuff.

Like, you can have a pride parade sponsored by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Bank of America. I think that’s the form it’s taking right now. ’Cause I either get those ads, or I get ads for online gambling. That’s it.

TB:

Yeah. It’s disgusting. It’s just too bad because a lot of it is really supposed to be liberatory. People who imitate these things can be really transgressive. But they get used. The language gets used. It gets co-opted so quickly.

WIC:

Kind of related, and I’m interested because it’s the only other Pynchon adaptation I know of besides your music. Have you seen Inherent Vice, the movie?

TB:

I actually really liked it. I enjoyed it as a movie. I haven’t read the novel yet, so I can’t say how I would compare the two, but I actually really enjoyed it as a movie, as a piece of cinema. Yeah. You read the book, how did you feel about the adaptation?

WIC:

I thought the adaptation was actually great. The movie gets it. Reading the book after watching the movie was nice. It was like getting to see more of the movie. The director did such a good job translating Pynchon’s dialogue and general sense of paranoia to the screen.

TB:

I think that it’s rare that a book translates well into a film, especially books like Pynchon’s. You have all these crazy things happening. But I thought it was really well cast and the acting was great and yeah, the dialogue was amazing.

WIC:

Yeah, I was reminded of the movie when we were talking about radical language entering the mainstream. There’s a scene where Doc is watching Bigfoot, Josh Brolin’s character, acting in a commercial on TV. He’s dressed up as a hippie with an Afro wig, spouting all the cool jive lingo, but he’s really just there to sell real estate.

TB:

Pynchon seems to really have really tapped into that. He saw how any subversive movement could be turned into a caricature. He lets you see the workings of the underlying system. How this system makes everything happen. Like, Slothrop from Gravity’s Rainbow gets an erection and then the bomb hits the ground. Is it coincidental? You can identify with him, but his agency is put into question. He’s a part of the system.

Listen to Tyler Burba’s music on http://www.existentialhymns.net/

You won’t be disappointed.