Interview with Alison Mosshart of Discount conducted by Greg Svitil by phone between Florida and Colorado in the fall of 1996.
Greg: My first question has to do with how Discount really seem to be taking off right now in terms of popularity. I’m wondering if you’re noticing a difference in the number of people at your shows and the general interest in your band?
Alison: I think that, basically, the number of people is kind of the same, except when we play shows with big bands. Like when we played with Less Than Jake, millions of people show up. But I think it’s almost the same. I don’t talk to a lot of people usually, so I don’t know.
Greg: Is it kind of weird to be in a band that’s putting out lots of seven-inches and records and getting a lot of recognition while you’re still in high school?
Alison: No, it’s just busy. There’s no time for anything. Well, I don’t know. It’s really busy. It’s not weird, though.
Greg: So you must be a senior now.
Greg: Are you planning on going to school after you graduate?
Alison: Yeah, we’re gonna move to Gainesville at the end of the year. Bill and James and Ryan are gonna get a house, and I’m gonna live at school. I’m hoping that we’ll only have to stay for a year and then we caqn move to somewhere else, like California or something. I don’t want to stay here. Just need a year to get things in order maybe.
Greg: Do you feel like talking about the full-length?
Alison: Sure, I don’t care.
Greg: How did you come up with the title (Ataxia’s Alright Tonight)?
Alison: At the beginning, it was a different picture. It was this lady, and basically she jumped out of a building, but you don’t really know that. She’s laying on top of a car, and she’s dead. It’s kind of gruesome. But anyway, we had that picture. And “ataxia” means “confusion,” and it also means “a muscle disorder.” We’re just trying to pretend that it doesn’t, that is only means “confusion.” The title was about her more. And, to end that, we changed the picture so now it makes no sense at all.
Greg: I was looking at the lyrics to “Waiting by the Wayside,” and thought that it was a really unique way to kick off the record lyrically, because it seemed maybe a little less personal and a little more political than a lot of the other stuff.
Alison: Well, it wasn’t my choice to do that one first. That was Ryan and Bill. “Her Last Day” I think was originally first.
Greg: Do you want to talk anything about the lyrics to “Waiting by the Wayside”?
Alison: That’s basically just about the world blowing up. It’s pretty simple, I think. It’s not supposed to be sad. It’s just supposed to be honest.
Greg: I noticed that Ryan wrote the words to one song, “No Surprise,” and was wondering if he did much writing aside from that and if you think that he’ll have future lyrical contributions.
Alison: A lot of times he has plans, big plans. But he’s a pretty busy guy, too. He just got a job so he can pay things off because he’s way in debt. He wrote that song and he wrote words to it, and he also wrote “On the Tracks.” I think we all have our little jobs, and when he gets his cravings to do that sort of stuff, he does it. When he does it, it’s nice, but he doesn’t do it a lot. He doesn’t have any big plans or anything.
Greg: What do you do aside from the band, as far as jobs and school go?
Alison: I go to school, that’s all I do. I go to school, and I just wander around. Everyone else works. Bill works; he goes to community college part of the day and then he goes to Do-It-Yourself Pest Control the other part; he’s a pest control guy. Ryan just started bagging groceries, and actually James doesn’t have a job, James just surfs. He’s a surfer kid. So that pretty much consumes him, and we can never find him anywhere.
Greg: Is your high school cool?
Alison: What high school is cool?
Greg: I don’t know, do you have cool teachers and courses and stuff, or does it pretty much suck?
Alison: I like my English teacher, and I think the rest of my classes stink. I like my Graphic Design class, but that’s it. We have three classes a day, and they’re really long classes, so it’s kind of bad because I have some really bad teachers, and it’s hard to spend that much time a day. I mean, I have an English teacher who doesn’t teach English but she’s an English major, and she says she hates to read and has no vocabulary, so that class really works well. But, I mean it’s just sort of crummy. High school’s not fun. It’ll be over with soon enough.
Greg: So you think you’re probably going to go into English in college?
Alison: I don’t know, I like English a lot, I like writing a lot, but there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t like about it, there’s just a lot of crap, dumb crap, like love stories I have to read for school really make me sick. I really hate that stuff, and it’s just sort of boring. I don’t know what I want to do. I think I want to just major in every single thing there is. Every subject would be fun, then I wouldn’t just get bored with everything.
Greg: You could get a ‘universal degree.’
Alison: Yeah, that’s what I’m searching for. I don’t know, I’m so undecided about that. I honestly want to know something about everything. I can’t decide. I’m not worried about it.
Greg: You have some songs with people’s names in them, like ‘Millie’ or ‘Malorie’s Mission.’ Are they real people?
Alison: Well, sometimes they’re real people, but I don’t like to use real names usually, unless I don’t know the person at all. If I don’t know the person at all, and that person doesn’t know me, I’ll use real names. But if I do, then I just change the names around. All those little stories are about people I knew, and things that they almost did or thought about doing or whatever. It’s kind of like that, just where everyone’s story starts. It usually drifts away from there.
Greg: How did the idea come about to do “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?
Alison: Bill. He’s a big R.E.M. fan. I listened to them a little bit when I was younger, but not much. We just decided to do that one. He made us pick a song, so that one looked like fun. And I’d honestly never heard it until we did it.
Alison: (laughs) Yeah, I know, because it’s this big huge song that everyone in the world knows. No one knows any of the real words to it, but everyone knows it. But it was really fun to do. And the thing is, when we first got it, it was so fast and I’m like “there’s no way I’m ever gonna be able to do that,” and then we ended up recording it four times faster than it really is on accident. So I guess it worked out.
Greg: The lyrics in general for Discount, to me they’re really nice because they seem almost like a little bit of Jawbreaker, a little bit of the Cometbus zine, and Kerouac, and I was curious, who would you consider lyrical influences?
Alison: I don’t know, I read so much all the time. I read Cometbus, I read every single issue. I read everything, I read all the lyrics inside everything I listen to, so I don’t know what really rubs off in the end. I guess whatever I like kind of sticks to me. I’m really not sure. I feel like every single time I write something, a lot of times it’s not different to anyone else but it’s a lot different to me, so I don’t really know where the heck I get any of it. It just winds up.
Greg: How would you describe your personal writing process?
Alison: Sometimes I’m in the mood and sometimes I’m not. I have my off weeks. We just played four shows with J Church, and seriously, they’re my favorite band in the entire world. And after seeing them four times in a row, that just motivates me so much. I just have to do something all the time, and we haven’t practiced, and I sat down and I wrote like eight songs, without music or anything, and who knows if it will ever fit to anything. And now I probably won’t be able to write words for two months.
Greg: What are some of the potential new songs about?
Alison: One of them is about my best friend and how she moved away and turned into this person who’s just nuts. And one of them’s about her family, which is just nuts. One of them’s about a dream I had the other day. A person I knew, I had a dream he was sleeping next to…I don’t know, I was stuck inside a washing machine. It’s kind of weird.
Greg: Do you keep track of your dreams?
Alison: No, but I like them so much I get excited about going to bed. Just so I can dream. I’ve had the best dreams these past few days in a row, I remember them perfectly.
Greg: Do you want to talk about any of them?
Alison: The first one was that washing machine dream, which is still really weird and I don’t understand. The second was about one of these friends that I have. He just wouldn’t stop talking to me, and I woke up trying to make him shut up. And the one that I had last night, our friends have a band called Slacker, they live in Pennsylvania, and we were touring and they were touring, and we didn’t know it, but we ended up at the same club and we were coming in different doors, loading in equipment, and I ran into him and I dropped all my stuff I was so excited to see him. So that was a good dream.
Greg: I’ve been getting into dreams lately for some reason, because I never used to keep track of dreams, but now I’ve got this book where I wrote down all my dreams when I wake up.
Alison: That’s awesome.
Greg: And, it’s like, I live in Boulder now, and there’s all these people here who are these Jungian analysts and they analyze my dreams and I’m like ‘wow, that’s kind of cool.’
Alison: No one’s ever analyzed my dreams before. You can’t remember them unless you wake up right during them. You have millions of dreams all the time, but you don’t remember them except for the last one. That’s what everyone tells me. It could be a lie, I don’t know. You can ask your friends (we both laugh).
Greg: So do you think that dreams have any sort of meaning at all, or do you think that they’re just random things that your brain does when you’re sleeping?
Alison: I don’t know. Sometimes I hope they do. Sometimes I hope half that stuff will happen. But I don’t know if it really means anything. Beats me.
Greg: I understand that you did the cover art for Wonder Pulled Me Under.
Alison: Just a little drawing (we both laugh).
Greg: Is it about anything?
Alison: Well, our warehouse is right next to train tracks, and it’s our favorite place to go to. It’s really awesome. It’s right down the street, and you can hear the trains from where we practice, and we run and we go hang out there, and it’s really nice, and it’s away from any big roads and cars and stuff. I think that’s where the train tracks came form. And that guy; somebody needed to be there.
Greg: Is that artwork best…what’s the word I’m looking for…’portrayed’? Is that the word? Best ‘portrayed’ by the words to “On the Tracks”?
Alison: Yeah, I guess it is. I think that artwork came before “On the Tracks.” But that song’s about the same place.
Greg: Do you do a lot of art, painting and drawing?
Alison: I don’t paint. I’m kind of scared of painting. I don’t know why. I’m seriously scared of it. I tried to paint one time and it was a horrible disaster. But I like drawing, I draw all the time. And I like copy-machine art, just copying all kinds of crazy stuff and cutting and pasting and all that, it’s so much fun. I don’t know if you’ve seen the My Pal Trigger / Discount split.
Alison: That’s a whole big copy machine thing. That was really fun.
Greg: I was looking at the All Too Often seven-inch, and I was wonderful what that character is on the girls’ arm.
Alison: There’s three of them, actually. One of them means “love.” I think there’s three…one of them means “freedom,” one of them means “peace,” I think. I don’t really remember, that was so long ago. It came along like a year before that record. I just had that picture sitting in my room. We ended up trying to make shirts with it one time, but it didn’t work. I think James just took one of the symbols off her arm and actually got it tattooed on his arm.
(Now we start talking about tattoos and local scenes)
Alison: Well, yeah, Ryan likes to travel just like I like to travel. We all like to travel, I think James is probably the most homebound kind of kid. The beach needs to be where he is (laughs). We want out. I want out, anyway. I’m a little antsy kid, I need outta here.
Greg: You guys are heading out to Europe next year, right?
Alison: I hope so. Bill approached me with the whole thing today in his driveway, about “why don’t you take off your first semester of college and go to Europe and Japan and Hawaii and everything,” and I’m like “that sounds great, but I don’t know how my parents will like that.” So it would be nice, you know, to put college off for a little while. But I don’t know how good of an idea it is. And then he said “J Church,” and I just get way excited about that band, and they might be there.
Greg: So your band is pretty much all vegetarian.
Alison: All of us but Bill are vegan. He’s vegetarian. He’s got this big cheese fetish, he can’t stop (laughs). He’s going too far.
Greg: When did you turn vegan?
Alison: The beginning of 9th grade.
Greg: What drove you to do that?
Alison: Just reading. You read stuff that makes you absolutely ill, and you’re like “okay, forget this crap,” and then that’s it. It’s just learning. You find out about all that kind of stuff. For me it’s just too much to not be that way. I can’t imagine.
Greg: Since three of your band members are vegan, and the other is vegetarian, does that ever come up in the lyrics?
Alison: Not really. Not yet anyway. I haven’t really written songs about eating. Maybe subtle clues, but no big political songs about it.
Greg: I’ve also been told that a lot of your band doesn’t drink.
Alison: No, none of us do, except for Bill. Bill: wine and cheese (we both laugh).
Greg: Because, when you guys came to Boulder, you can get free beer at the wonderfully generous local venue, Club 156.
(More talk about Boulder here. She says that their Boulder show this past summer was probably the best of the tour.
Greg: Thanks very much for doing this interview.
Alison: You’re welcome.
Greg: Is there anything else that you want to say?
Alison: Not really (we both laugh). You can stick their address on there and the kids can write us if they like. Do you know it?
Greg: Yeah, I’ve got the whole big promo thing from Liquid Meat. Bill says that you’re coming back to Boulder, probably in June.
Alison: I don’t know. We don’t discuss these things right away, probably not until June, then I’ll find out. I’ll be nice.