Total Ghost's Randy Washington on living in Japan, Haruki Murakami and SNL
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Randy Washington may be more commonly know as Chön, the frontman of German pop sensation group Total Ghost, whose latest album, Electrosexual, was released on September 13. Total Ghost has a busy schedule ahead, performing at Park House with Chella Negro and the Charm at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 26 and at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6 for the Greater Than Social Club. Since it would be against character for Chön to read, Westword caught up with Washington to discuss our shared loved for Haruki Murakami, living in Japan and the internecine squabbles at Saturday Night Live.
Randy Washington: You want to just jump right into it?
Westword: Yeah, we just talk about the books that were important to you in your formative years.
All right. I've gotta say even though I think it might be kind of a cliché but one of the most moving books for me was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
I don't know how cliché that is, necessarily. I'm pretty sure that this is the first time anybody has mentioned Haruki Murakami in these interviews, which kind of surprises me.
I feel like whenever I say, "Oh, I really like Murakami books," people think that I'm only talking about the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but I like his entire body of work. It'd be like saying, "I like Robert Zemeckis" -- people recognize the name, they know Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future, but they don't recognize how the same craft in those movies is present in everything he does. I feel like in the literary world, Murakami's a bit like that. I enjoy their whole body of work, but they only get credit for the classics, even though they bring the same skills and unique perspective to their whole body of work.
Even The Polar Express?
That's the one where I really locked in on that theory. I dug my heels into Zemeckis.
I like Murakami, but I actually haven't read the Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
Oh, man, you're getting it backwards!
I know. I started out with Norwegian Wood, which is not really representative of his other books.
No, it's not at all.
The first really characteristic Murakami book I read, with all the metaphysical motherfuckery he's famous for, was Kafka on the Shore, which really blew my mind.
You jumped into Murakami a bit later then, huh? Because I don't think that Kafka on the Shore came out until like '04. In English, at least.
Yeah, I'm a real Johnny-come-lately. Where were you at in your life when you came across Wind-up Bird Chronicle?
It was was around 2001 or so, right when I was eighteen. It just really sunk in.
That's a perfect time to get really into a writer. So you're a total completist, huh? Even geniuses have missteps. I thought that South of the Border, West of the Sun was super-boring, for example.
Everything. One of his least popular books is my one of my favorites. It's a book called After Dark, and the vintage paperback printing has this huge typeface, huge letters spread apart across the page, so you're just tearing through it when you read. It's one of the few books set in contemporary Japan about young people.
I'll defend that one, too. I love the parts of that book that are narrated by this kind of weird, disembodied camera.
Yes! That's so weird! It's narrated like the way a movie would think. It took a while for that part to become interesting because I wanted to see what the cute girl with glasses, reading in a Shibuya Denny's, is up to. I want to hang out with her. Then you figure out what he's doing and you're like, "Oh shit!" It may just be because it's such a fast read, but I've read that book three times.
I haven't read 1Q84 yet, but I've heard a lot of people didn't like it.
A lot of people are idiots.
Are you interested in Japanese culture in general? Do you read a lot of manga or other translated writers?
Not really. I wish I'd read more manga. I'm the worst Japanophile ever. I used to live in Tokyo, but I don't have Hello Kitty tattoos or anything. Whenever I mention that I used to live there, people start asking me about anime. That's like saying, "You must be super into classic rock and roll because you lived in Cleveland."
Was it a study-abroad scenario?
Kind of. I went over there and taught English without school help.
My little brother David (who, not incidentally, introduced me to Murakami) taught English in Japan but then had to evacuate because of the earthquake.
Word? Was he in Tokyo?
No, he was further north somewhere, closer to the epicenter and to the Fukushima plant. He made it home safely and he's been back since then. He's a total Japanophile, so I got a lot of second-hand access to cool video games and manga through him. How long were you there?
A little less than a year. I ran out of money and had to come home. It was a bummer. I was blowing through so much money just getting around the city.
Are you reading anything right now?
Not right, right now, but I've been hinting to my girlfriend that as a present, I'd like to get this book called Slimed: The Golden Years of Nickelodeon. It's like a behind-the-scenes account of all my favorite shows growing up. Did you ever read Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live?
Yeah, that's like required reading for comedy nerds.
I love reading like that, just blocks of quotes from all these famous names, with some of them contradicting each other. Like how in Janeane Garafalo's account, she talks about feeling like everyone at SNL hated her for no reason from when she walked in, that it was just a boy's club. Then every other actor and writer, even the more level-headed ones, will say, "No, she was just terrible in every sketch." I just flow through books like that. Non-fiction is easier to read sometimes. I have to be in a certain mindset to start reading fiction, to commit to finishing a story. But I can read non-fiction in bite-sized chunks across a period of eight months. I like reading books about how media works.
How the sausage gets made? I think it's interesting that the early SNL stars all just hated each other.
Yeah, Chevy Chase was a huge dick. Then I'll read something Dan Harmon wrote about how Chevy Chase was a dick on the set of Community, and I can realize, "Wow, Chevy Chase has a forty-year legacy of being a total dick."
In addition to his Total Ghost frontman duties, Randy Washington serves as the co-host and musical accompaniment for Delusions of Randeur, a monthly comedy showcase hosted by Kristin Rand at Beauty Bar. At 8 p.m. on November 20t, Rand and Washington will be celebrating at a one-year anniversary special with headliner Adam Cayton Holland.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.