Only assholes cook for themselves by Stephen Tanner of Music Blues

Stephen Tanner

Stephen Tanner was once in the band Harvey Milk. Lately, he performs as Music Blues. When he’s not doing that, he’s putting his Georgia-raised mind to good use by cooking Southern fare at the Commodore in Brooklyn. His essay is collection of thoughts on being a musician, a cook, and how trends may come and go, but being damn good at feeding people’s needs will never go out of style.

All Photos by John Fell

My Mom was a good cook, my dad was a good cook, and my grandmother was a good cook. I think my oldest memory is that for breakfast I would watch my mom or my dad make scrambled eggs… I was like fuckin’ five or six or some shit and I was like man, I could do this for myself. In the 70s they came out with these electric ranges that were really popular. I remember getting up one morning while they were sleeping and I said “I’m gonna make myself some scrambled eggs,” but I was really mindful of not burning the house down or anything like that. So I remember putting the electric range on like the lowest setting and whisking out the eggs, putting the butter in the pan and putting the eggs in. I probably stirred them for 20 minutes because it was so low but when they turned into scrambled eggs I was so blown away. There is a science to that kind of shit.

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I was never one of those kids who came home from school or who woke up in the morning and expected my mom to make me something to eat if I was hungry. I would do it myself and as I got older, or more specifically, during puberty, I was always on punishment and constantly in trouble because I didn’t give a fuck about school and I didn’t give a fuck about getting caught. I’m kind of the same way now, I just don’t care. I remember one night my dad on a Friday night went to pick up Chinese food from this place called House Of China. He came home, put the food down on the table and he goes “I got you a job at the House of China, you start tomorrow, you ain’t gonna sit on your ass anymore.” And I was like, “Alright cool.” It was a lot better than being on punishment. I was like maybe 13 or something. But the guys at the Chinese restaurant didn’t give a fuck didn’t give a fuck if I drank beers, or ate food. They would show me how to make stuff and that was really fun. Any time I tried any other type of job, I just didn’t like it. Working in kitchens is fun! You meet so many different people. You make friends. I know it sounds corny or whatever but I don’t know… it doesn’t feel like work to me. I mean, it’s hard and it’s hot and all that. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever liked.

You make food for people to make them happy, unless you’re a fucking asshole and you only care about making money or whatever. Most people that I know who enjoy it and love it do it to make people happy. Music is the same way. I said this to the guy during a recent BBC interview because we ended up talking about food. Some people say “Oh I only make music for myself” and that’s fucking jive. I mean, I don’t know how to write a pop hit that will touch the entire world, but there is a small amount of people that I think get a kick out of the music I make. Food is a bit more broad. I feed shit­loads of people every day and I take it seriously. You wanna make them happy! It’s the same thing with music. I want people to like it and I know everybody’s not going to, but I try hard. I don’t want to do anything to alienate people.

Lets say you love The Melvins. The Melvins aren’t the biggest band on the planet but they fucking rule. Now, the taco shop down the street from your house fucking rules and you love it! Then you have Katy Perry. Whatever, it’s not for me, it sucks. But a katrillion people like it. A katrillion people like Applebees too. It’s like you get what you pay for.

There’s quality and there’s shit and there are a lot of stupid people. To me it’s like “Oh, I came up with this riff, this is going to blow someone’s mind, I can’t wait!” It’s not like, “Oh this blows my mind.” I want it to blow someone else’s mind. Same thing with the food, it’s like “Oh I made this dish, this is going to be fucking awesome!”

But music’s a little tricky because its’s a real specific thing. It’s something that goes into your ears as opposed to eating food. You might like spicy food, while someone else completely different from you might like spicy food. That’s a lot different than saying “I like rap” or “I like heavy metal.” I just know that every once in a while someone will turn me onto something that is really great but they will just kind of stay at that small level. Like bands on Thrill Jockey. You know, for the life of me I can’t understand why Arbouretum isn’t the biggest band in the country. It doesn’t make sense to me.

I also live in New York where every six months there’s a new something. But if you stick to what you think is good and you put your heart and love and stuff like that into it there’s a place for people. I think it’s the same with really good music, though I’m not saying my music is good. Goddammit, I remember in the 80s; Cajun cuisine, like New Orleans style.

That was the biggest thing on earth and I can’t believe that hasn’t come back, it just got buried. Here in New York, and this has been going on forever, but even more now everything is “farm to table,” “locally sourced” and all of this shit. “Cheese plates and meat plates.” The New York press, they have to have something to write about. They will celebrate anything. The concept of a chef as a celeberty is fucking so stupid and I cant believe it really exists. But the shittiest trend now is white people saying like “ Oh I’m a farmer now,” or “I’m a butcher,” and they get celebrated for doing this shit that’s been around for years. I mean the farming thing is more fucked because you’re talking about generations and generations of families being ruined and fucked by the government. But some fucking asshole here takes a course on butchering and then opens a butcher shop and has a bunch of dingbats come around and he shows you how to break down a fucking animal. People have been doing that forever, man. I know fucking eight year old Mexican kids who can do that. They are born with it. They learn how to do that shit. But that’s a trend that really bothers me and I would never ever ever fucking put that out there. Like well we get our seeds for our fucking herbs from the fucking magic fairy of home schooled bullshit land.

For me really, all I can say is I enjoy cooking and I enjoy making music. Those are probably the only things I enjoy doing besides like watching movies. But I’ve never played in a widely successful group. The music has always appealed to a small group of people.

The food stuff appeals to more people, but I never really see myself becoming wildly famous. I’ve been offered to write cook books, and I won’t do it because I know it’s jive, and they would get an editor and it won’t be in my voice or anything like that. It’s the same reason that if there was a major label that wanted to put out my bullshit, there would be issues. I’m gonna make a record and there’ll be few people that like it, and that’s awesome! If I go play and they come, I’m gonna shoot the shit with them forever and have fun. It’s the same with cooking. I’m going to keep it the way it is. Bigger ain’t always better, you know?

Music Blues’ Things Haven’t Gone Well is out August 26 on Thrill Jockey.

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