Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Apart from our mutual love of SFF and things fannish, Tom Smith and I both have roots in Michigan (I escaped as an infant, but he’s still serving his sentence). However, I don’t we’ve ever met in the flesh, even though I suspect we’ve been at a few of the same conventions.
The first I heard of him was when an old girlfriend fired up a cassette named Who Let Him in Here? While she meant to turn me on to Tom’s Elvis/Tolkien parody “The Return of the King,” I became a devoted fan early in the very first track, “I Want To Be Peter Lorre.” Tom’s Elvis is good, but his Peter Lorre is tremendous. I wore out that cassette years ago and have since replaced it from his Bandcamp page.
Like all the best filkers, Tom is a talented musician, an incorrigible punster, and a comic with precision timing. As for the word “filk” and exactly what it means, I’ll leave that for the master to explain.
1. For the uninitiated, would you explain what filk is? How did you first get involved? What are the unique challenges to crafting a great filk song?
Filk is a genre of music—the music of science fiction and fantasy fandom. It encompasses basically anything we want to play, although it tends to be SF or fantasy in nature. But it also includes songs with computers, cats, puns, political statements, recycled old jokes, ecological themes, toys, comic books, whatever.
It’s also an offshoot of an existing song. It can be a verb, something you do to a song, as in Weird Al’s parody “Yoda” filks “Lola” by The Kinks, or a noun, referring to the song itself, as in Peter Schelling’s “Major Tom” is a filk of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
And, it’s the community of those who write, perform, and enjoy such music. We have conventions. They’re like big ol’ family reunions, only with lots more guitars.
I first got involved back in 1985. I knew some filkers, and I knew some cute fannish ladies whom I wanted to impress, and I’d always wanted to play a musical instrument, so I picked up a cheap guitar and a couple of Mel Bay books and pretty much taught myself. I first performed at a con in March 1985. I was good enough to get a concert by fall 1988, and I hope someday soon to be halfway decent.
There are no “unique” challenges to writing a “great” filk song. No one sets out for greatness. I want it to be solid lyrically—to not cheat (too much) on rhyme or scansion, to make sense as a short story, to have a catchy tune. Basically, anything you’ve ever heard about songwriting combined with anything you’ve ever heard about writing short SF.
2. Hilarious impersonations are one of your hallmarks. Do you find yourself as influenced by actors as by writers? Where do you find there’s good and bad friction between composition and performance?
Thanks kindly. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, and especially Mel Blanc. And of course I am influenced by actors. I used to be a D&D and RuneQuest GM, where you have to basically perform the world. I launch into soliloquies for fun. One of my faves is the Reviews riff in “The Goodbye Girl.”
Hee—every single line is a potential source of friction between composition and performance. Part of the game of songwriting (and it is a game, a puzzle, even as it’s a challenge) is coming up with a combination of words and music that not only makes sense, but is sing-able and understandable. Check out Steve Goodie’s “Dumbledore,” or my own “Dead Again” or “Five Years.”
3. Many filk songs require the audience to know the source material. What kind of thought do you have to put into considering how much of the audience will “get” your references, and how much explanation do you then put into the song itself?
Some songs are very specific. For those, I mention that, if you don’t know the source material, it’ll make no sense. However, I tend to put explanations into the songs themselves (e.g., “Hellraiser,” “PQR”). And I try not to riff on anything too obscure.
4. Parody artists like Weird Al and satirists like Tom Lehrer seem a lot like filkers to me. Do you hold them up as idols, inspirations, rivals, or something else?
Absolutely, inspiration. To an extent, rivals—or, not so much rivals as gold standards to achieve and ideally surpass. Weird Al and Jonathan Coulton have specifically said they are NOT doing filk—I believe it’s from a combination of the somewhat negative connotation of the word (as some filkers are, frankly, not very skilled musically) and being unwilling or unable to be part of the community. Nobody holds it against them, and any day either of them showed up at a filk circle, they would be met by a sustained standing ovation.
5. Political events inspire some of your lyrics, so I imagine your reading the news and turning with a passion to the guitar. Where else do you turn for inspiration?
Sometimes I’m inspired by politics. These days it’s tricky—your audience can become physically hostile if you ain’t careful. I love working in SF/F because that’s where my head and heart are at.
My love of music is as old as I am. My mom was a nightclub singer, my dad a dancer, my grandmother had Broadway and comedy albums. My love of folk and classic rock—50s, 60s, 70s, MY music when I was growing up—led to my love of filk. I also love classical, soundtracks, show tunes, blues, some ambient, barbershop quartet, some modern pop, big band, and some ballads. I’m as much a fan of Barry Manilow as I am of Meat Loaf, I (the atheist) belt out the tunes from Godspell and Pippin, and I can listen to Billy Joel, Christine Lavin, Uncle Bonsai, or The Beatles all day long.