“My songs are an extension of my personality. They seem to underline and italicize things that I’m already semi-aware of.”—F.M. Cornog

East River Pipe – “Cold Ground”

His is a story of a once homeless, drug-addicted musician who buried himself in a deep black hole. But it’s also of a man who found love, overcame the darkness, and learned to appreciate the simple life.

Since the early ’90s, F.M. Cornog aka East River Pipe has been one of the pure American songwriters. Undoubtedly coming from a place that has felt, experienced, observed, his songs have a genuine quality. Often portraying darker themes, Cornog continuously presents them with a very particular beauty. The recordings are simple, self-produced by Cornog with a Korg mini-studio [he used to use a Tascam 388]. East River Pipe is in essence the product of a man coming to terms with life. Often a self-reflective journey that many of us cannot help but identify with.

He’s signed to major indie label Merge Records and David Byrne, The Mountain Goats and Okkervil River have all covered his songs, yet for 40 hours a week you can find Cornog at Home Depot working the same blue collar job he’s had for the last 11 years. When he returns home, he’s a family man with a wife and an eight year old daughter. Critical acclaim and a cult following have not given him the option of supporting himself via music, and he seems very content with that. This is the life he wanted. Even when struggling with addiction he longed for normalcy.

For all the normalcy he has found in his daily life, his songwriting talent is anything but normal. It’s hard to explain why We Live in Rented Rooms, East River Pipe’s first record since 2006, is so exceptional—it just is. In no way is it a groundbreaking achievement, but rather a testament to the effectiveness of great songwriting. New sounds grow dated, but a well-written song lives on forever. All ten songs on We Live in Rented Rooms have a sense of purpose. They need to exist, not only for Cornog but for the lives that it will eventually shed light upon. With each listen a greater sense of attachment forms.

Few albums have touched me on the level that We Live in Rented Rooms has. The album hasn’t even officially been released yet (Feb. 15th) but it’s already etched a permanent place in my music-loving heart.

And so I’m honored to say that the following is an interview I just did with F.M. Cornog aka East River Pipe.

It’s been 5 years since What Are You On?, what have you been up to?

Well, I work forty hours a week at The Home Depot. I’ve worked at Home Depot for 11 years now. Also, my wife and I have an eight year old daughter, and my daughter likes it when her daddy is around. Plus I have a deaf Dalmatian that likes my company. I haven’t quite mastered the juggling of these roles… husband, father, Home Depot employee, dog owner, and musician. Usually music gets bumped down to the bottom of the list, even below the dog. I mean, when I come home from work I can’t just blow off everybody and bolt upstairs to write and record songs. “See ya later. Daddy’s gotta record!” That wouldn’t be right. So anyway, it takes a longer time to finish up an album these days. But that’s OK. One has to make choices in life.

How many songs would you say you’ve written that will never be released to the public?

Oh, lots…at least a hundred, probably more. My wife, Barbara Powers, has told me over and over that I should release more songs and more albums, but that’s against my nature. I really admire people like Robert Pollard who have a very Dionysian approach, but I’m more Apollonian.

You can tell a lot about the personality of an artist by their work. Things seem to surface subconsciously. In all your years as a musician, what have you learned about yourself through your own music?

Not much. My songs are an extension of my personality. They seem to underline and italicize things that I’m already semi-aware of. I don’t believe that I have a vast pool of subconscious muck in my brain. Past circumstances have forced me to wade into those areas and inspect them. I think that the learning happens before you write the song. The preparation is life itself.

Out of everything on We Live in Rented Rooms, “Conman” has hit me the deepest. Can you elaborate on what this song means to you?

Well, like most of my songs, it’s made up from little “slipping glimpses”, as de Kooning might say. Lyrically, it’s written in a kind of personal code that I often use. If I were to flop down on a Freudian shrink’s couch and analyze that song, I’d say…Well, my father would be the “salesman”. He worked for Colgate Palmolive for 30 years. He was a very confused and bitter man. The “priest” would be my religious upbringing. My parents forced me to go to church every week until I was seventeen. The “killer” would be death. And I would be the “conman”, because every alcoholic/drug addict is a conman. The conman is pleading guilty, but he’s also begging for a little lenience, by saying he was mind-fucked from day one. “Death” is just hanging around, smoking a cigarette in the park across from the courthouse. Death knows he’ll ultimately win, one way or the other.

…Kind of a cross between Kafka and Max Beckmann.

Are you still using the same Tascam 388 that you’ve been recording on since the 90s? Have you had any scares with it breaking?

No. I’ve been phasing out that old Tascam 388 over the last three records. It was a great machine, but it became a total pain in the ass to maintain. It had 8 tracks, all on ¼” tape. The tape alignment was always screwing up, tracks were constantly dropping out. I took the 388 in for repairs a few times, but it couldn’t be helped. I even bought another used one, but psychologically I had already moved on. Nowadays I use a little Korg mini-studio. All the buttons work, and the tracks don’t drop out, which is nice. People tell me that I should learn Pro Tools or some other semi-complex system, but hell, I don’t have the time or the money for that shit. I just like to press a simple ‘record’ button and go. No gadgets,
no auto-tune, no nothing.

Have you ever been tempted to do a more elaborate studio album?

No, not really. I’m kind of like one of those self-taught, “outsider artists” from down South. I just do what I do. I’m fine the way I am. I guess doing an album in a real recording studio with a real producer would make my stuff more sonically palatable, and thus more commercial, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It would be kind of like fattening up a pig before you bring it to the marketplace. It’s just that I’m not very interested in the marketplace. I feel just fine out here on the fringes of town with my skinny, little piggies.

It’s hard to ignore your past struggles with drinking, drugs and homelessness. Looking back, would you say it gave you a deeper appreciation for the little things in life that you may have otherwise not appreciated so much?

I guess above all it’s made me appreciate normality. Meaning, just leading a somewhat normal, humble life. When Barbara and I were first together, we used to live in her small apartment in Astoria, Queens, a block away from the East River. Back then, I was totally fucked-up most of the time, or I was planning my next binge. Anyway, I used to see these guys walking home from a metal galvanizing factory that was down the street. And I remember wishing that I could be one of those guys…Just a normal guy, with a normal job, with a reasonably normal life, getting a paycheck every two weeks. Back then, I was afraid that I would never be able to join the normal world again. I thought that I would always be staggering around in my own private hell, going from one binge to the next binge, until I finally conked out. So, nowadays, this little life that my wife and my daughter and my dog and I share together, it’s a total blessing. I’m very grateful.

As much as artists are the creators of their work, there’s always an underlying presence that seems to effect the end results. Have you surprised yourself with a song that you’ve written?

Hmmm…The thing that surprises me over and over is how a song mutates from its initial point of conception to where it’s a finished recorded song. In my case at least, the process of recording a song actually changes the song, sometimes slightly or sometimes radically. When I’m fleshing out a song by adding drums or bass or some droning guitar thing, it often makes me change direction. I might even have to toss out what I initially thought was the best part of the song, and just proceed on the faith that something else good will eventually happen. My favorite painters do this all the time. They paint over what they initially painted. It’s no different with music. The process of doing, executing the idea and
making it real, changes your perspective.

You rarely play live. Is there any chance that you’ll do any shows in support of We Live in Rented Rooms?

No. I don’t like being the center of attention. I have the worst kind of personality for the music biz. I’m a record label’s nightmare come alive!

If you could only have one song represent you/your career, which would it be? Why?

That’s for other people to decide.

Go to Mergerecords.com to stream and order East River Pipe’s We Live in Rented Rooms