"having a boss is such an ugly idea," letts, lead singer of the band written house, tells me over coffee at insomnia on beverly blvd. due to ingenuity, dedication and good connections he's managed to avoid said ugliness for most of his life. i knew i wanted to interview letts, who is also good friends with my brother, because every time i heard about him he was always doing something both off-the-wall and totally different than what i had heard about before. i was lucky enough to get two interviews out of this meeting as his girlfriend, jan alquist,-just back from england the night before- joined us despite jet lag. i learned much about what the process of making it has meant for both of them.
letts and jan. photo: flo kohl
letts gives good interview. there is a reason he can command the attention a lead singer needs to: he's a great storyteller. and as ian always points out- he gives great hugs. here's what he, jan and i came up with over a couple of coffees:
sidestepping the usual began with letts''s first job at 17. on the way to apply for a secretarial position, he opted to drop into a dance studio and became a ballroom dance teacher. the child of dancers, this idea was not totally foreign and lead to training and competition in swing dance.
since that first job, thompson has worked in production for most of the reality shows that litter our tv schedules the past few years, started a successful clothing line, and most recently, a band. he also paints and has studied etching, a printmaking process that orginated in the 1400's. as i tried to find the link between all of these varied pursuits, we got to his early education.
letts points out that a lot of ideas about work get embedded by family attitudes. "i know people who have jobs they hate because their family thinks you need to work all the time, even if you hate it versus having the idea of trying something and seeing if you like it." he puts his parents in the latter category and tells me about growing up in los angeles- a rare native- and going to school at the children's community school in van nuys. it is certainly nothing like the private girls' school i went to k-12.
"it's essentially in the barrio," he says and goes on to tell me about the field trips to drug busts he took with his small class. these unusual encounters involved meeting the just-busted and receiving inspirational pep talks -prompted by the arresting officers-from the busted. "they would tell us they had just been caught with 2 kilos of cocaine and that we shouldn't use drugs." this is where the ninja stars came in. " there were always ninja stars. i have no idea why, but someone always found one and when we would go out, you'd always hope that you'd be the one to find the ninja star for that field trip."
while he admits to not loving school, even without grades at children's community, thompson does appreciate the independent thinking it encouraged. he says that not everyone from his class is working in the arts now, but does say that no matter what field they are in, each one approaches that field from an experimental outside-the-box approach.
this approach seems to have worked for letts in giving him the freedom to move from one project to another. in each case, small, clear ideas have ballooned into something much more substantial: a hope to avoid secretarial work became swing competition; a quest for the perfect t-shirt became a fashion line sold in high end stores like barney's and fred segal; and a gig booked before a complete group existed became a band, written house, with plans to put out a seven song album and two music videos in early 2007.
in order to start written house, letts told his first band mate that they had four weeks to find the rest of the band members before they had to play a gig he had just booked. after getting over the shock of this announcement, his bandmate rose to the challenge and they pulled together a group. this configuration played for six months before two members pursued projects elsewhere and the current bassist and drummer joined. "now we have the right team," letts says. "it's really like a group of people dating or like a family."
but how to make it all work? the ideas seem to come and materialize easily for letts, but what about survival? after teaching, the fashion line was sucessful enough to be profitable and when written house took off and thompson wanted to focus on music full time, he sold off his interest in the line. but for the more nitty gritty day-to-day i am reminded about one of the reasons l.a. works better for many artists. picking up a number of days working as a grip or a pa is enough to live on. "if i can pay the bills gaffing ten days a month and the d.p. is a friend of mine, why would i ever sit in some office?" at 28, christian finally did give office work a try. he and jan wanted to make some extra cash and took temp jobs for a few months. i don't suspect either will hurry back to a desk anytime soon.
jan points out that it was a bit easier for her as she had done office work before, knew it was temporary and was willing to make the sacrifice. still, she was unhappy with the feeling of complacency in the place. "i have no problem with hard work," she says. "i just can't stand the feeling of repetetive motion with nothing really coming out of it." letts, on the other hand, was shocked how much more exhausted he was working 8 hrs a day at an office versus thirteen or more on shoots. "but i was doing data entry for the emmys and i hate tv. i had to type up scenarios of shows- like what happened in every episode of dog the bounty hunter and whenever i got to a show i actually liked i would pass it off to someone else so i wouldn't know what happened," he laughs. after seven or eight weeks they were each able to find other work that suited them better.
what i got most clearly from both jan and letts was the importance of choice and dedication, while at the same time letting go of control. jan just returned from england after deciding not to complete a phd in history at oxford. "when i applied i was at a different place and now i realize i have other things in my life i want to focus on here . . . i love studying and history, but as a professor said, oxford isn't going anywhere." she feels better about living life here now and keeping the option open to go back when it feels like the right time. jan and i both come from academic-oriented families and i can appreciate how tough it is to make choices to delay or turn down education for other opportunities.
for letts, making it work is about being hungry and eager to succeed. he sees that in the band and it has been reflected in their decisions about who they want to work with. "our lawyer is young- like 25-26- but he is the right choice for us because he wants it so badly, too. when that happens you don't get lost in the shuffle." and l.a. can be a place where getting lost happens. but even so, thompson thinks l.a. works well for artists or creative types looking to make it. people are excited and talking about ideas, and as he says, there is a lot of weird shit around to inspire and provoke new thinking. he is also huge on the power of networking and the fact that talking about ideas often results in someone wanting to participate and make it real. another gift of l.a., he says, is that seeing other people succeed with their ideas can spur you on and it seems more normal to make a career this way. "i can see why it might be hard somewhere else like the midwest where you might feel too weird."
in terms of his own creative process, thompson reveals a change happening for him: letting go of goals. while this might seem strange for someone who has executed big projects, his secret to writing songs he is pleased with is to work on a much smaller scale. "if you set out to write a song about something specific you can end up with something cheesy." to counteract this, he only writes songs two lines at a time. "the mind makes the connection and theme out of lines," and he gets lucky with songs he likes through this principle. he also stressed the importance of having a living situation he feels something about. in a dull situation he says he didn't really write or paint for almost 2 years but in a place he hated he had such an intense reaction that he was incredibly productive. "and now i'm with someone i'm incredibly happy with and so i get to write from that place." this freedom seems to work for him. he's dropped the need for something perfect as well. while he used to strive for control in grafitti art- another previous pursuit- now he's ok with mistakes. "i'm ok with fucking up. and usually the fuck-up is good."
in short: what letts and jan taught me:
1) talk about ideas- this will get them closer to happening and you might...
2) get help or be able to trade with someone for services/support.
3) explore something new- don't be afraid to try because you can always decide...
4) not to do it OR wait and do it at a better time.
5) don't get hung up trying to make anything perfect.
6) find ways to connect with or read about people doing what you want to do. understanding their success can give you ideas for your own, or at least make you feel less weird for trying. for those outside l.a. or other experimental cities, google your goal and see what you come up with.
7) know your limits. if you hate office work, don't make that your day job. find something related to your art or that is more active or takes place in a more appealing setting. figure out your budget and get creative about ways to fufill it.
8) be clear about what you want and go after it. as i told letts and jan, i once read that norman mailer's teacher said he was not the best writer in his class, just the most driven. drive can take you far and if you haven't got it, it will be hard for people to find out about your talent. as letts says, be hungry.
9)think outside the box. while most of us didn't grow up without grades at an experimental school like letts, none of us is getting graded now on our creative endeavors. feel free to try something without feeling like you have to strive for an 'a.'
check out more about written house and see when and where you can see them play...it's a show you won't want to miss.