The project in question is As Smart As We Are, the fifth album from the band, and what made Atlantic and a host of other labels uneasy in the end is the list of songwriters. The lyrics are provided by such contemporary authors as Paul Auster, Daniel Handler (the man behind Lemony Snicket), Denis Johnson and Jonathan Lethem. Even if Green Day made the music, who is going to dance or rock out to words by Margaret Atwood?
"She was so much fun to hang out with," Hearst says. The Canadian author contributed "Frankenstein Monster Song," which recasts Mary Shelley's monster as simply lovelorn, begging Frankenstein, "Sew me a lady."
"We played in Toronto and managed to get Margaret to get onstage with us. She actually played theremin on her song and it was a blast."
As Smart As We Are is the culmination of three years' work, only part of that time spent trying to find someone -- eventually Soft Skull Press -- to release it. "It's not exactly the easiest task to get 17 authors to write you lyrics," says Hearst, who has family in New Orleans. The project began when the duo, then the house band for literary readings at McSweeney's in New York City, was asked by Rick Moody to improvise behind him while he read the first chapter of Purple America.
It went so well, Moody asked them to do an album with him. "That's when Joshua and I decided we were more interested in doing songs with lyrics versus being Rick's accompanying band," Hearst says. "I think he envisioned this Captain Beefheart thing where he would have us making crazy noises that fit while he read. It's fun and I love doing that stuff, but Joshua and I were like, 'Let's get him to write us some lyrics.'"
The results are surprisingly straightforward and more lighthearted than the CD's literary origins might suggest. Paul Auster's "Natty Man Blues" moans, "There ain't no sin in Cincinnati," and Clay McLeod Chapman's ode to hermaphroditism, "Half and Half" features the line, "Hell, sometimes I get fresh with me." Then again, Denis Johnson's "Blessing" is studded with fascinating bits of language -- "jazz like a rivulet of codeine" and "Christ by the dumpster peeling and tossing" -- that stay with you, whether their meaning is clear or not.
The broken-down carnival feel of the tracks recall Tom Waits for many, a reference Hearst says is both right and wrong. On one hand, the two did record their first tracks demonstrating what a claviola sounded like for Waits when they worked at the Hohner warehouse in their native Richmond, Va.
Still, Hearst points out, he didn't actually listen to Waits' music until critics compared the band to him.
"Now I would say he's an influence and I listen to his stuff non-stop. We get compared to Tom Waits and Danny Elfman sometimes, but I think the bigger influence for all of us is Kurt Weill and Nino Rota -- early stuff that inspired all this music."
"It's the best prize in television. It's a rock 'n' roll dream come true for somebody," David Goffin says. Goffin is the supervising producer of Rock Star, the reality show charged with finding a new lead singer for Australian band INXS. The winner will become a member of the band, writing, recording an album and touring with the popular '80s group that spawned such hits as "The One Thing," "Need You Tonight" and "What You Need." After front man Michael Hutchence died in 1997 at age 37, the band performed with singer Jon Stevens, but was unable to achieve the success it previously had.
The show was initiated by INXS approaching Mark Burnett, the executive producer of Survivor. A number of people had approached Burnett about doing a reality show along the lines of American Idol, but he was resistant until approached by the band. "INXS was the final catalyst," Goffin says.
Auditions for possible singers are going on in 26 cities around the world, including one in New Orleans at Tipitina's on Monday, Feb. 14, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. While members of the band will attend some of the auditions, they'll be in Stockholm on Valentine's Day. Audition details are available at www.inxsrockstar.com.
For a transcript of the interview with Michael Hearst and reviews of reissues of CDs by the Drive-By Truckers, Richard Pryor and the Slits, see "Opening Act" online.