Episode 313: Zola Jesus, Stanley Kubrick, Adrian Tomine

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova) on stage at Dour Festival 2011
Image: Kmeron via flickr  CC 2.0

Wisconsin singer/songwriter Zola Jesus talks about finding new ways for musicians to make a living. Author David Mikics on one of the greatest filmmakers ever, Stanley Kubrick. And “New Yorker” cover artist Adrian Tomine opens up about his graphic memoir.

Featured in this Show

  • Zola Jesus Wants To Build Community Around Music, Not Just Make It Onto Streaming Playlists

    In May, when Zola Jesus released a new live album, music venues across the nation had been shut down for a matter of weeks. Months later, many of them still haven’t reopened, and the album, “Live at Roadburn 2018,” stirs emotions even apart from its stark, dramatic gothic pop songs.

    I didn’t realize, and I think a lot of musicians didn’t realize, how much touring and performing nourished our souls.” Listening to it today still brings “a lot of grief and sadness, because I miss it,” Nika Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Danilova has spent the pandemic at home in rural Merrill, Wisconsin, where she’s written and recorded songs, played video games and thought a lot about the way the music industry’s economics are tilted toward large corporations and away from the musicians.

    It’s been a dark year, she said — challenging financially, creatively and emotionally. In some ways, those emotions can fuel her art, she said, “because great work comes from destruction.”

    “But at the same time, if there’s not enough of a vision of the future … it just feels very empty,” Danilova said.

    At the same time, though, she said she’s finding hope in seeking new ways to connect with her audience, and building a community online.

    As Zola Jesus, Danilova has built a national following with a series of dark, soaring and noisy albums. In 2017, her album “Okovi” made critics’ lists of best albums of the year. Her training in opera shows in her powerful vocals and the life-and-death stakes of her songs. She’s performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and outside in a snowstorm.

    But she has also always felt like an outsider. Not long after she had success as an indie artist, she left Los Angeles where she had been working to move to Vashon Island on Puget Sound, outside of Seattle. A few years later, she moved back to Wisconsin, where she spent much of her childhood.

    “Being in the woods definitely feeds my soul,” she said.

    Her mother’s family is Slovenian and her father’s family is of Russian descent from Ukraine. When she got older and traveled to Eastern Europe, she said, “it just felt like home.”

    “Eastern Europe feels to me like being in Wisconsin,” she said. “It has the same spirit, the same smells. … There’s this feeling of connection to that part of the world.”

    She’s also, she said, drawn to the folk culture of Eastern Europe. This month, she released a version of the Armenian folk song “Krunk,” donating proceeds to the Armenia Fund to support those affected by the war with Azerbaijan.

    She’s used the isolation of the pandemic to try to reimagine what the music business could look like.

    Prolific on Twitter, Danilova has shared her discontent with Spotify and other big streaming services, which pay artists fractions of a cent per stream. In an essay she published July 31, she wrote that “as a musician I have not met a single peer that is satisfied with the income they get from streaming.”

    Her case against Spotify, Apple Music and others goes deeper than a debate about royalties. She sees the streaming services as middle-men that stand between artists and their audiences — giving listeners algorithm-approved playlists that may capture a vibe, but don’t give people a chance to connect with artists in a way that feels personal or unmediated.

    Danilova has promoted Bandcamp, an online music marketplace that gives artists and labels more control over their products. And in October, she launched a Patreon page, through which she said she hopes to form a more personal, more direct relationship with her audience. Patreon is a website that allows people to support artists with direct donations.

    “I have a fantasy of being able to work together to subvert the reptilian overlords trying to take control of independent art and give that power back to us,” she writes in the introduction to her Patreon page, through which she’s sold music and incense, and read tarot cards for fans. She promises a Patreon-exclusive album if she reaches 1,000 patrons. She has 692, as of Dec. 7.

    The experience of interacting with people through the direct-support site, she said, has felt genuinely like building a community.

    Musicians, she said, “have been stuck in this transactional capitalist model for so long that it’s going to be hard to reroute our brains to think that this is OK,” she said.

    She added that interacting with her fans “completely deepens my connection to my work and to my fans. … It just totally changed my entire mindset.”

    The pandemic may have lasting effects on the music business. Venues are closing all over the country, and Danilova fears the companies most likely to weather 2020 and its aftermath are large corporate entities like Live Nation, not independent venues.

    “We’re losing places that are our culture creators,” she said.

    But Danilova has hope that people’s relationship to music — as a coping mechanism in hard times, as a way of connecting with others at a distance — may have grown closer in the pandemic.

    “That could be a positive change, in terms of really recognizing the power of art and music, finding solace in it, finding healing and comfort,” she said.

  • Iconic Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's Path Of Glory

    Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was born in 1928 and raised in a Jewish home in the Bronx. As he grew up, Stanley became obsessed with photography, chess, and more than anything else — movies.

    Kubrick is responsible for so many memorable and iconoclastic films, including seminal works like “The Shining,” “Spartacus” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” and “A Clockwork Orange.”

    He perceived his Jewishness made him an outsider. This could be the reason why his films stand apart from mainstream Hollywood fare and exist in their own decidedly Kubrickian cinematic world.

    Kubrick discovered his eye for being a director while working as a staff photographer for Look magazine in 1945 at just 17 years old.

    David Mikics is the author of the propulsive biography “Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker” where he explores the personal side of Kubrick’s films. Long thought to be as cold and intense as the films he made, Mikics finds a much warmer impression of the man.

    Mikics tells WPR’s “BETA” he sought to answer some enigmatic questions lingering in Kubrick’s works, including outlining a grand unified theory of control.

    The worlds of Kubrick’s movies are about control. For example, you have — even early in his career — ‘Paths of Glory’ from 1957 about World War I. You have the generals in that movie who are manipulating, moving around the soldiers, forcing them to go into the trenches and to die en masse for seemingly absurd reasons. In ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ you have the quite crazy idea of controlling the world, subjecting the world to a nuclear holocaust,” explained Mikics.

    “In ‘The Shining,’ you have the hotel that controls Jack and his family. In ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ you have the basic training segment at the beginning of that movie in which the raw recruits are reshaped into Marines through the most brutal kind of controlling process,” he continued. “So I do think control is one of the one of the basic aspects of these films.”

    So much of this theory leads right back to the control sought out by Kubrick himself. Mikics said even early in his career, Kubrick made sure his vision would be contractually obligated.

    “He was making some comments on a movie contract early in his career in the 1960s, and he said, ‘I must have total, final, complete annihilating control over the picture,’” said Mikics. “He was able to have the kind of control over his movies that very few filmmakers have accomplished in a Hollywood setting.”

    That confidence is on full display in what many consider Kubrick’s magnus opus, 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For Mikics himself, it’s a personal favorite and he argues the best science fiction film of all time. He highlights how groundbreaking the film was not only in terms of a cinematic experience, but how it left audiences with more questions than conclusions, which was rare for films of the era.

    “It was really the first Hollywood movie that forced the audience to speculate,” Mikics said. “There is so much wonder in it. There are so many unanswered questions. The end of ‘2001’ is something that no one will ever solve. People always ask, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ But it’s utterly ambiguous. It is chilling, but it is also inspiring or thrilling.”

    Kubrick is responsible for one of the most popular and enduring horror films of all time with the 1980 Stephen King adaptation, “The Shining.” In fact, Kubrick’s suspenseful tale about a family trio trapped in a hotel through a winter inspired the full-length documentary, “Room 237,” in 2012 about all the fan theories surrounding it.

    “The Shining” also highlights another through line in Kubrick’s work, Mikics said. He argues that in addition to featuring elements of control, many of Kubrick’s films are meditations on marriage. Kubrick wove both of those philosophies together in “The Shining” when he infamously frustrated King by altering or removing much of his novel’s source material.

    “Kubrick changed a lot of things in the book, but I think what he was looking for was something that is about the theme of family and about the theme of marriage,” Mikics said. “People don’t often think of Kubrick as a filmmaker focused on marriage, but he really is. You look at some of his key movies — ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), ‘The Shining,’ ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — all of those films are about marriage.”

    Kubrick, who was very deliberate in releasing his films, would wait seven years after “The Shining” to release his Vietnam epic “Full Metal Jacket” in 1987. Kubrick had long wanted to make a film about Vietnam. Adapting Gus Hasford’s book “The Short-Timers”, Kubrick set out to structure the film in two halves.

    The first would focus on the Marines’ basic training and was cemented into pop culture lexicon through the breakthrough performance of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The second half placed those same Marines in Vietnam where they discovered the horrors of battle.

    Notably, Kubrick’s film would arrive shortly after Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986) based on Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam. Mikics argues that while “Platoon” is more of a conventional film about the heroism of war, “Full Metal Jacket” better conveyed the confusing experience of Vietnam to the viewer.

    “‘Full Metal Jacket’ really sort of disorients you. It brutalizes you first and then it disorients you. And that, I think, corresponds to the experience of Vietnam much more than Stone’s,” Mikics said.

    “The soldiers go to Vietnam, and they get caught up in the Tet Offensive and nobody knows quite what is happening. This was one of the basic experiences in Vietnam,” Mikics continued. “You didn’t know what to do or where you were really. You didn’t even know what the point of a war was often. So Kubrick is trying to convey all that and the remainder of the movie. He’s really trying to get that across. And I think he does so very effectively.”

    Kubrick waited another long interval between “Full Metal Jacket” and what would ultimately be his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” (1999) starring then husband and wife, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Again returning to this concept of marriage and control, the film is inspired by the Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, “Traumnovelle” and its reckonings with jealousy and sexual fantasy in marriage.

    Kubrick waited nearly 40 years before adapting Schnitzler’s work. He wanted to wait until his (and his wife, Christiane’s) apprehension about the novella’s source material subsided. The couple feared tackling this subject matter so early in their own marriage could be problematic.

    “I think it’s a very personal movie, perhaps the most personal of all of Kubrick’s movies. It’s about marriage and it’s about a marriage that is finally happy,” said Mikics.

    Kubrick died shortly after filming and editing “Eyes Wide Shut” and ahead of its release. At the time, there was critical and commercial confusion with his swan song, but Mikics believes it has aged well and is a fitting final note for Kubrick.

    “The last moments of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — that’s exactly what he wanted to do in his final film,” said Mikics. “He was actually sleeping with an oxygen tank in his bedroom as he finished the movie. So he knew it would be his last, and I do think he got what he wanted. And it’s magnificent.”

  • Cartoonist Adrian Tomine Explores His Life In Graphic Memoir

    Cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine allows us exclusive total access into the way his mind works in his graphic memoir, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.”

    The New York Times included Tomine’s book in its “100 Notable Books of 2020″ feature, describing it as “a book that lets vent the rage and fragility that are always just beneath the surface of his pristine drawings.”

    Tomine started publishing his work as a teenager. He’s probably best known for his “Optic Nerve” comic book series and his visually alluring covers for The New Yorker. As best-selling, award-winning author Zadie Smith has written about his work: “Adrian Tomine can draw, think, write and feel. He sees everything, he knows everything; he’s in your apartment, he’s on the subway, he’s in your dreams … He has more ideas in twenty panels than novelists have in a lifetime.”

    Tomine told WPR’s “BETA” that the idea for this memoir was on his mind for several years because of the long tradition of the confessional, autobiographical graphic novel in the indie comic world. “And that’s something that’s been going on since probably before I was born,” he said. “And it’s loomed very large over me as one of these hurdles that maybe I would try and leap when I felt I could handle it.”

    He also admitted that another reason for creating this book is that he lives with a perpetual fear of losing his audience, of people thinking that every subsequent book he releases only offers more of the same. “And so within my limited abilities, what I’ve tried to do is with each book, try and do something that is at least not a repetition of the previous book.”

    Tomine came up with idea to publish “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist” in the form of a Moleskine notebook with graph paper pages. “I sort of had the idea of the form of the book at the same time as I had the idea of the content of the book. I felt an increasing desire, or maybe even an obligation, to try and create books that offer something different than the digital experience.”

    a page from Adrian Tomine's graphic memoir,
    A page from Adrian Tomine’s graphic memoir, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.” Adrian Tomine

    The art in “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist” is realistic, as his drawings usually are, but Tomine has stripped the details down to simplify it. One of the reasons he made the change is because his previous book, “Killing and Dying,” took him seven years to complete, and the book before that, “Shortcomings” took five years to finish.

    “I didn’t want to spend seven years working seven days a week on something,” he said. “And so it was a conscious effort to develop a style that could move along quicker. And so to give you an example, like a page from the book ‘Killing and Dying,’ an average page took me about a week to complete, five days or so. And with this new book, ‘The Loneliness of the long-Distance Cartoonist,’ at my best, I was doing a page a day, which felt like a whole new world to me. And it really put me in a good mood. My wife noticed the difference immediately.”

    “I really look back to things like Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ as an inspiration for drawing simply and still conveying a lot of humanity and a lot of emotion. And of course, I will always aspire to his level, but it was definitely an inspiration,” Tomine said.

    Throughout “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist,” Tomine does not shy away from sharing the thoughts that swirl throughout his brain — both the positive and the negative. Why was he so willing to share his inner life with his readers?

    “Well, it doesn’t come naturally, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “So I appreciate you noticing that. But it was something, again, that I felt a bit of an obligation to, which is that if I was going to ask the readers to follow along a sort of quotidian autobiographical story, there’s a real risk of self-indulgence, of narcissism, of being the guy at the party who’s talking about himself for too long.”

    “And so, I thought, if I’m going to ask readers to follow me along on this story for however many pages, that I at least owe it to them to be interesting and funny and revealing. And what I did was essentially trick myself into thinking that this material might not be published,” Tomine said.

    “And it gave me a great freedom that the knowledge that no one was expecting it, no one had paid for it, and I could easily just throw it in the trash and start something else without any repercussions. … And once I got in that zone, it became more comfortable for me. So even after the point at which it became a real project and my publisher knew about it, I situated myself into that mindset and was able to continue with it.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Rob Mentzer Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Nika R. Danilova Guest
  • David Mikics Guest
  • Adrian Tomine Guest

Related Stories