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Happy Birthday, Third Man Books
The Legendary Interviews the Reigning Rock Star of Poetry

by John Hancock and Katie Moore


On March 11th we got as Gonzo as two people with full-time mundane jobs and kids can manage. We're the kind of weirdos that have camped in the parking lot for Record Store Day at Third Man Records (also referred to herein as TMR) in Nashville, and we aren't ashamed to admit it. We're fans, but not the screaming and fainting kind.


Third Man Records, founded by Jack White, has consistently delighted our ears with fantastic new music and our eyes with the truly awesome design and packaging of each record and piece of memorabilia. Then, a year ago, Third Man sunk their claws deeper into our collective psyche by starting Third Man Books (also referred to herein as TMB). Were they reading our minds? Had they been tapping our phones?


We were over the moon to learn that Third Man Books operated with the same attention to quality, both of content and presentation, and even more excited to see how committed they are to the appreciation of poetry. As we all know, poetry can be a hard product to hawk in these days of memes and grammar confusion. TMB is not only making it work, they're doing it their way and succeeding.


Quickly we expanded our Third Man collection to include as many of the books as we could realistically afford.


When the announcement was made that Third Man Books would be celebrating its first birthday in The Blue Room (famed performance venue at the Nashville Third Man location), we ditched all responsibilities, juiced up on coffee and road snacks, checked into this weird aqua-colored hotel where the front desk man looked like a roadie for Kings of Leon, and settled in for a few hours of kick ass performance poetry from Sampson Starkweather, Ana Božičević, and Adia Victoria. Also on the menu, a groundbreaking independent short by award-winning and Memphis connected film maker Robert Gordon, and music by the multi-talented Jack Lawrence. In a true stroke of luck, we managed to score an interview for The Legendary with Third Man Books Editor in Chief, Chet Weise (pronounced Why-Z, get it right).


Besides being the former driving force behind the bands The Immortal Lee County Killers and The Quadrajets, Mr. Weise is the man bringing the books. Like us, Chet has that new-south punk attitude and Memphis in his blood.


Chet, a man whose presence is much larger than his person, buzzes with that adrenaline fueled energy of a man doing what he loves. His passion for words and performance, as well as music and art, is written on his face and permeated each word he spoke to us. We found our conversation to be humbling, inspiring, and informative. It is our hope that you enjoy this interview as much as we have, it has been edited only for continuity.


(After the interview addendum appears...after the interview.)


So, do you miss Memphis?


Absolutely, I love Memphis. Love Memphis with everything I've got. And the reason I left Memphis is that I felt, when I was 18, that if I stayed there that the city would probably take me over, for better or for worse. And I felt like I needed to get out and go do things, and I have always planned on moving back to Memphis, but you know, I've got this here now.


It's no coincidence that Robert Gordon is here tonight, it's no coincidence that we're distributing SUN records. There's definitely a heavy Memphis connection. Like a third of the people here are from Detroit, a third from Memphis, and a third are from Nashville. And, of course, a few scattered from here and there.


We have to ask, What's Jack like?


Oh, he's great!


Yeah?


Yeah, absolutely. I go out of my way to remind people that I saw the White Stripes and played with the White Stripes when they were playing in front of 20 people, when they were the band that was on the ropes we were the band on the ropes. We were in a van carrying our own stuff. It's crazy. It wasn't really that long ago, and it's crazy that people forget.


It has been a whirlwind, I mean if you really think about the period of time. I mean, it's all been within our lifetime, so I guess it's easy for us to think about it.


And here's a guy who, you know, he wrote great songs, things worked out for him, he made it. And what did he do? He built this fucking place and we're here talking about poetry and stuff, and we've even got film. It's not like he went out and bought twenty yachts and lived that bohemian Rock Star life, he's kept with the arts forever.


He's building a monolith to art of all different shapes and sizes.


When he interviewed me he said, “We are interested in making objects of beauty”. And I was like yeah, perfect.


Did you always want to be an editor?


No.


What did you want to be?


I wanted to be a Rock Star. For awhile I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot. I did get my pilot license. I did fly planes for a little while. But, I actually was poet laureate of Briarcrest Baptist High School, when it was Baptist. So I was always into it, but I guess I never thought that it could ever amount to anything because that's what people were always telling me.


It's funny, I was probably, in the social mind, more responsible when I was younger, trying to be a pilot, and I studied economics in college. Then when I realized that wasn't working out for me, I started doing what I loved and that was playing Rock 'n' Roll. And then when the Rock 'n' Roll days ended I was like, you know, fuck it, I'm gonna go back to writing.


I got my MFA, started writing poems, started a series here called Poetry Sucks. There were a lot of great people who came and read. And I thought, hey, we could probably do an anthology. And I talked to Ben Swank. And I asked Swank to be involved, not thinking about Third Man, but because Swank is an avid reader and he's good at marketing, I mean, obviously. So I asked him, do you want to be involved with this, and I think we can do it. And I was absolutely ready to do the punk rock thing and put it all on my credit card. And then he approached me one day and said hey we've kinda started a Third Man Books.


They did two books before I ever came here and they were both photography books, about the White Stripes, and Alison Mosshart did a book. And he said I think we wanna expand on it, would you be interested in doing this. And he was so funny because he was like "do you think" "would you" and I was like are you kidding, of course! So, we ended up doing Language Lessons.


Which is fantastic, by the way, the whole presentation is just amazing.


I was very happy with how it turned out and the fact that people were into it, bought it, said good things about it. That was kinda what, I feel, made folks here decide, “We're gonna do this full time and do you want to be part of it?” And, man, I had a job interview. I mean, I was in that office and all the managers here were asking me questions and I had the most grueling job interview I've ever had.


So it wasn't all about the socks?


No, and I was also extremely under dressed. We talked about what I wanted to do, what they wanted to do and it all jived and here we are.


But, no, I never thought I was going to be an editor. For the love of God, I have dyslexia. What's a dyslexic motherfucker doing being an editor? In all seriousness, I think having that actually makes you have to be a good editor because you have to read, reedit yourself. You're always in that mindset.


It also must give you a really great attitude towards mistakes and typos, etc.


It's a part of life.


So what would you say are the best and worst parts of working for Third Man?


The best part is that I can put out books I like. I mean, good God, how many people get to do that?


{Angelina (One of the Goddesses who work for Third Man): The worst part is that we have to work with Chet!}


Quote her!


The worst part is probably that I went from being in a Rock 'n' Roll band and a college teacher which have their own schedules, schedules that you can shape. When I came to work here, man, it's a 9 to 5 job. I have responsibilities. I went from being a guy who went to bed at 4am and woke up at 11 to a guy who falls asleep at 10:30 and wakes up at 7. So I don't know if that's necessarily worse but that's probably the most challenging thing.


You know, calling home and telling my folks after all of these decades that I had a 9 to 5 job and was wearing a tie was a shock to all of us. Now, when I told them it was a yellow tie and I was working for a Rock 'n' Roll label putting out books of poetry and fiction then they understood.


Earlier tonight you mentioned putting out some Science Fiction Is there more fiction in the works from Third Man Books?


Yes. Absolutely. I think the reason why we started with poetry, it was a happy accident, is because I'm a poet. So I just drew that scene. But I grew up on Science Fiction. Absolutely, only thing I read for ever and ever and ever. Love Science Fiction. I'm writing a Science Fiction story right now. Fuckin' love it. And I think that science fiction and poetry are very related, the fact that it's imagination, metaphor...


And imagery is so important for creating a picture of something that doesn't exist...


I think Salvador Dali had a great quote about surrealism that will apply to science fiction, it's that surrealism was not about necessarily dreams per se but it was about extra reality, it's honing in on one thing about reality and explaining it in a way that language doesn't give you as just base language, that you have to make up words to explain what's happening around you. And I think science fiction absolutely does that.


There also seems to be a huge connection between music and poetry, because both also rely on imagery and metaphor.


And I think there's no coincidence that I've been into poetry and music my whole life.


I was on an airplane, bound for Nashville, of course surrounded by musicians, and we just all started talking on the plane and I said, you know I'm the luckiest guy in the world because now I don't have to carry a Marshall or a bunch of pedals I just have a pen and a piece of paper and that's all I need to do to make music.


Now, I miss a lot of stuff about rock and roll, but..


You're the Rock Star of Poetry.


I'll take that.


You guys are one of the few publishing houses that really focuses on the multimedia approach of poetry. It can be a piece of art you hang on the wall, it can be something you listen to, it can be someone you watch or read on the page. And there are maybe a handful of others doing that and just beginning to do it but you guys are doing it with the most success. Is that something that is integral to the process of Third Man Books?


Uh, yes. All of those things, including success.


I think that anyone who's into music and poetry realizes that they were like this (crosses fingers) forever and then something happened and they kinda went like that (uncrosses fingers) not really, but it wasn't as evident. I think now, and it's not just us, I mean Pitchfork is doing a journal now and having a writing tent, I mean there's all kinds of stuff that's bringing those things back together. But, also, Third Man and Jack doesn't ask for a lot, like, we don't have to sell a million books, but we have to do stuff that people appreciate and want. It's not something we're doing to be in a void.


We want to do stuff that people like, now we're not doing stuff necessarily for the masses. We keep talking about poetry. People don't connect that with the masses, they should, but they don't. So I think what we have a leg up maybe on other folks is that we have an infrastructure we have people who are into Third Man, we have people who trust us as curators, we have people who know about marketing and publicity.


You know, one of the reason Third Man Books came about, beyond an artistic principle or motivation, is that we were well positioned to be the people who blew the trumpet to say hey you guys need to remember and reconnect with this.


Thank you guys for that.


And I will absolutely stand up and say that I am lucky in that respect, and that we have that and it's not something that everyone has. But we're trying to use it as a force for good.


One thing we were talking about earlier is the artists that you guys choose, not just the writers, but the production value of everything you put out is very high and to us, that's part of making a real book. I mean, you can put words together and slap them together but the way it feels, the way it looks, the size, the graphics, the weight of the paper.


I judge a book by a cover and I think everyone else should too. Because if folks aren't into making the cover good and the book look good, then well, you know...


How do you select authors to add to the TMB catalog?


Word of mouth mainly. I also make sure to see them live. I do think that language is music and music should be heard and performed live. That’s only my opinion. Certainly there’s room for writing to stay in the bedroom or living room; it’s okay for a tree to exist in the forest and to be just a tree. Still, I prefer bands to deliver on record and live. Same with writing.


If you could publish anyone, living or not, who would it be?


The aliens found at Roswell or Catherine Blake (William Blake’s wife). I bet she has a story. I bet she could teach us everything.


Are you accepting unsolicited submissions or queries?


Not at this time. We’re booked (pun intended) through 2018. When we do take unsolicited submissions, we’ll post via http://thirdmanbooks.com and elsewhere.


Would you describe the process of publishing a new TMB title, from start to bookshelf?


It’s an extensive, thorough, detailed wandering of improvisation, patient planning, love, sweat, and fearless fuck ups that always end absolutely perfectly perfect…and then the next book begins. In other words, we go for it. And we have faith.


Your production value is possibly the best in the business. How integral is your art/marketing department to your process?


Extremely. The author, myself, the art department, and Ben Swank all work together on our books. The aesthetic is very very important to TMR/TMB.


Are there any other Vault releases coming up that include TMB titles?


A few ideas but no solid plans. TMB has been existing as its own thing, although we do many times give vault members first dibs on some of our releases.


How does it feel to have the most gorgeous madwoman drummer girlfriend ever?


Haha. Poni is amazing. I’m definitely dating up. She has an eye for art and life that I wish I shared.


Your previous bands are fantastic, do you have any plans to release any more of your own music in addition to running TMB?


Poni and I play together on occasion. We’re both busy with our own endeavors. I’m a writer/poet first now. A few of my poems and short stories are out there. I need to share more. And Poni has an incredible clothing line called Black by Maria Silver that she both designs and makes. We both love playing music, but we did that for a long, long time. Both of us have more to say and in different ways.


So where do you see Third Man Books in five or ten years?


I think we'll have a best seller. I think we'll keep doing it according to our rules, but sensitive to the people who are into us. I think we'll still be here. And I think 5 years from now we'll be doing it even better. I look at Language Lessons now and there's some beautiful things about it that came from our naivety. When it came out I thought it was a perfect book now I look at it and I see all the warts, which are all great. But I think we'll just get better and better.


As the interview comes to an end, Chet's parting words to us are, “We're all in it together”. For once, we feel that might actually be true.


After the Interview


The next morning, we went out for brunch before heading back to Legendary HQ. Brunch isn't a meal we set out to eat, we just can't wake up early enough for anything that would be chronologically considered breakfast.


Nashville, a famously foodie city, really loves brunch. We drove around from one well-reviewed eatery to another, encountering lines wrapped around city blocks. We are not patient people. Eventually we found the perfect place, no line.


In a moment of odd serendipity we realized that at the table right next to us sat the amazingly gracious and talented Third Man Records artist Margo Price and the equally talented Jeremy Ivey. Realizing we had no paper (great job writers!) but of course a sharpie, Katie gathered the courage John could not find, struck up a conversation and asked for an autograph on a napkin. Yes, the napkin was clean.


On Record Store Day 2015, Margo recorded in the Third Man studios as part of the festivities surrounding a release of Elvis' first recording (Katie and John also recorded poetry in the studios that day, you can find the link here) on 4/9/16 she was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, her new album Midwest Farmer's Daughter is a perfect record even if you wouldn't normally consider yourself a “country fan”. Trust us.


We talked for about fifteen minutes about where she'd booked shows, what it was like as a Nashville artist, the recent renovations to Sam Phillips Studios, and more informatively about being part of the Third Man family. They'd spent the night previous with the poets and performers from the party, and the sincere bond with the publishing and music sides of the umbrella were very clear. She seemed to feel the same way about how genuine Chet is, and how he, Jack White, Ben Swank, and every contributor of art and labor for Third Man is living by that motto of “making something beautiful”.


***Photos courtesy of the art, skill, and hard work of Angelina Castillo for Third Man Records***


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