Interview: Nate Powell Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

Swallow Me Whole caught me off-guard. I was largely unfamiliar with Nate Powell’s work when I first picked up the Top Shelf book, and as such, didn’t have particularly high hopes, beyond his very clear talents as an artist.

More than just a standard tale of a brother and sister growing up in a southern town, the work skillfully weaves between the real and fantastic with little effort, whilst tackling the touchy subject of childhood schizophrenia in an uncharacteristically frank manner. The book also demonstrates Powell’s understated gift from graphic storytelling, effortlessly blending elements across panels and pages. It adds up to one of the most thoughtful and engrossing books that 2008 has offered up, thus far.

Powell, a Little Rock native and current resident of Bloomington, Indiana, wears a number of other hats, as a record label-owner, punk vocalist, and occasional, a hip-hop emcee. He also holds down a job working with developmentally disabled adults.

Clearly this is a man just begging to be interviewed.

How long have you lived in Bloomington?

I’ve been here for a little over four-and-a-half years. It’s a fine place. I used to move all of the damned time. Like every three to six months, I’d move to a new town. Part of it is I got burned out a bit, part of it is that I just got tired of the act of moving, and part of it is that I just got to a phase in my life where I’m really ready to focus on things. Sometimes I get bored living here, but really, it’s an awesome, awesome place.

Why were you moving so much, initially?

I went to school in New York City. I graduated when I was 22. Often times, from 1997 to about 2006—or maybe even last year—I was in two bands that would go out on tour three times a year. When I was 22 to 25, I’d move to a place that seemed exciting, and I would work real hard and draw a comic, and when it was time to go back to Arkansas and tour, I would just quit my job and move out of the place. We’d go on tour for a month or two months, or whatever, and then I say, “I want to move to Kansas City!” and I would just move there for three months or five months, and then it would be time to go on tour.

A lot of it is that my life is more structured around time spent with my friends in my band. And a lot if it was that I didn’t have any attachment to anything and I didn’t really need a lot of money. I only needed like a couple thousand dollars a year. I really scraped by. In a way, even though I didn’t have a life that was thickly-packed with personal connections in town and a home that feels like a home, I was, in fact, more free at the time, with a different home every couple of months. It has its tradeoffs.

So why was Bloomington where you finally opted to settle down?

One thing was that, before I moved here, I lived in Providence, RI, and a lot of my best friends from Arkansas, Florida, and elsewhere already lived up there, so it was a very comfortable place, people-wise, but it was a very, very stressful, toxic environment. I developed all kinds of ways of not dealing with problems and bad habits. My brain just got wrecked. I kind of lost track of who I was. I knew that I had to get out of there. I also wanted to get closer to Arkansas, because my grandparents were pretty much all about to die, and my older brother has autism and other developmental disabilities and he got moved into an assisted living situation, so I wanted to move closer to Arkansas to be around the family more.

Also, I knew a lot of people who were in bands that my band toured with and my very best friend in the world lives here—actually, she just moved back here, which is nice. Bloomington just seemed like the right place. Bloomington, in a lot of ways, I perceived as being antithetical to Providence, at the time. It’s everything that Providence was not. People complain about how people in Bloomington are too nice—that people in Bloomington are too nice, and it’s annoying.

If Bloomington and Providence are opposite ends of the spectrum, where does Little Rock fit in?

Little Rock fits in a really weird spot, and there are two reasons why. One is because it’s my hometown and number two, because it’s a place where I and many people have exiled themselves from. Arkansas is still my absolute state in the United States, for a number of reasons, and Little Rock is a fine city, and the climate is great. I vastly prefer the South to the northern-Midwest. As far as the underground punk community and the artists and everything, there are always just enough people to keep something good that everyone has to participate to keep everything going.

Even as far as music goes, you’d have these shows with punk bands and hip-hop bands and metal bands and weird bands all playing together, because, if you cooperated, you’d have these huge shows where two or three hundred people would show up, and, if not, you’d have these sad little stinkers. It’s a place that’s dried up enough and lame enough that, if you’re trying to make something cool happen, it’s a place like no other. And in the 1990s, the punk scene in Little Rock was generally considered the best in the United States. Kids were a very, very special breed there.

A lot of people moved away, and there was a loss of ways of doing things. It’s an overtold story from many different towns, where you end up having to hang out in bars, even if you don’t drink, to see your friends. It was a loss of resources that put a considerable damper on things. People still try really hard to make magic happen, and I will admit that it really is a different place now.

Of all the places you’ve lived in your life, is there a reason why Swallow Me Whole had to take place in Arkansas?

Well, actually I did see in a review a while ago where somebody—actually, I guess it does take place in Arkansas, because otherwise there’s an Arkansas Razorbacks comment that wouldn’t make sense. I dreamed up Swallow Me Whole almost in its entirety in one night in October 2001. At the time I was living in rural western Massachusetts. In my brain, I always thought of Swallow Me Whole taking place in Virginia, but it’s something that I was never very serious about, number one because I didn’t think it mattered. Number two, I really wanted to include a couple of Arkansas references, so I just thought I’d keep it vague. And number three, even though it’ll be kind of awkward to have it in print, I actually had a bizarre relationship with the movie Donnie Darko. When I dreamed Swallow Me Whole, it was before Donnie Darko had it’s initial debut. I think it came out, and it went away, and it sort of came out again, a year later.

They did a Director’s Cut.

Yeah, and I didn’t get a chance to see it, until January 2003, and when I saw it, my initial version of Swallow Me Whole was about 70-80-percent similar to Donnie Darko. It scared the shit out of me! I just wrote Donnie Darko. Over the years, I decided that I needed to take notes. Even if we were tapping into some collective unconscious of a particular era’s creators and storytellers, I want to make sure that Swallow Me Whole is Swallow Me Whole. And one thing is that Donnie Darko takes place in Virginia. Again, it never says it, but you can see it on the license plates. Once I saw the Virgina plates, it was like, “shit! They’re even secretly in Virginia.” So basically I sealed up Virginia and just let Arkansas have it.

I know there’s some debate over whether or not Virginia is technically the South, but do you think it’s important that the story more or less takes place in the South?

Yes, absolutely. I mean, besides the fact that a lot of important parts of my own life took place there. I think that there is something special about life in the American South, especially growing up in a Protestant middle class white Southern existence. A lot of the missed communication or lack of communication, a lot of the avoiding of confrontation, and, particularly, I find that with middle class Southern white existence, when there’s so much stigma that goes with any type of disorder or behavioral problem, or even any kind of cultural discretion, depending on the respectability of the person, when middle class white southern Americans are talking about, say, someone who is an alcoholic, there’s still a myth, which I think is greatly perpetuated by a lot of folks.

People think that alcoholics have to be hoboes or live in a garbage can. There’s a lot of euphemistic language that happens with disorders. People who like to drink a lot or people who are bi-polar, it’s like they’re a cannibal or something. I’ve seen it inside my family and outside my family. If someone has bi-polar disorder, it’s almost like when people whisper the word “gay,” which still happens a lot in the South. I think the avoidance of the issues which need to be addressed before this can be dealt with, in any sort of way, is very specific—to me—to the South. I think there’s something interwoven into the culture that provides for that unspeaking.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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