An Extended Interview with a Rockstar

Stephen: My next guest tonight is a noted musician and author. Please welcome to the show, Thomas Black!

Thomas: Hi Stephen!

Stephen: Hi there! It is a pleasure to have you on the show.

Thomas: Pleasure to be here.

Stephen: Now, you’re primarily known for your work with your Grammy Award-winning band The Lloyds, but you’ve also delved into writing novels.

Thomas: This is true.

Stephen: And your most recent book Angels of Bouquet has been a bit of a hit.

Thomas: Yeah, and I’m a little self-conscious about it.

Stephen: Why is that?

Thomas: I mean, I didn’t think people still read books, and I poured a lot into this one. Not that my thoughts weren’t present in my music, but there is something different about writing novels where actually seeing the words on the page makes it feel more real, more bare.

Stephen: Your book has been called “philosophical.”

Thomas: That’s such a scary word.

Stephen: Why is that a scary word?

Thomas: It feels so pretentious. (laughs)

Stephen: But you tackle a lot of heavy ideas in it. I’ve read the book, and I enjoyed it, but I certainly left it emotionally and intellectually exhausted.

Thomas: Is that a good thing?

Stephen: I think it reflects the fact you have a lot to say, and you’ve always seemed like somebody with a lot to say.

Thomas: It’s weird because I didn’t really go into the story with specific ideas regarding a message or anything. I had the characters, and once I figured out their dynamic, I just started writing what I thought they would do and think.

Stephen: Do you think it’s subconscious what ideas end up making it into the story?

Thomas: Most of the time it feels like an accident. I think that’s part of the vulnerability of writing. Whatever comes out comes out, but it’s still you. But at the same time, I can’t really control how other people read into it… I don’t know. I have a weird relationship with it.

Stephen: What do you think the novel is about?

Thomas: I’m going to keep my answer vague because I don’t want to ruin the fun, but I think reading the story after I’d finished it, I began to realize how much of it was a matter of me coming to grips with my anxiety.

Stephen: You talk about your anxiety disorder a lot through your music and in the book. Do you mind if we dive into that for a second?

Thomas: No, by all means.

Stephen: How do you think the disorder has affected your work?

Thomas: That’s a really good question… For one thing, I think it’s forced me to be productive. I get anxious if I’m not doing things; I get restless easily. I think it’s been a motivator in that by creating, I keep myself from getting too anxious. It wards off anxiety in some ways… But I think what you’re asking more has to do with why it’s a recurring theme, and I think it’s because it’s what I know best. At this point in my life, I’m fairly intimately accustomed with anxiety, so words for it come naturally since I’ve spent so much time trying to verbalize it.

Stephen: It’s a very difficult thing to talk about.

Thomas: It certainly is! I still don’t feel like I’ve cracked it. It’s almost like you have to talk around it; you have to structure your language in such a way that it all points towards this fundamental anxiety, but you’ll never catch it. As front and center as it is in my mind, I’ll never really be able to write it. But I can show it. And I think that’s the sort of subconscious thing happening in the novel… How could I not write that into my characters to the extent they’re an extension of myself, you know? I show it through them, or through metaphor in my songs, and that’s as good as I can do, and it never quite feels good enough. I feel this weird obligation to do justice to this thing I can’t talk about, and it makes me more anxious… I feel like I’m rambling at this point.

Stephen: That’s a really interesting point though. It seems like to an extent all art is this sort of trying to do justice to something you couldn’t express through words alone.

Thomas: But that’s the tricky thing, especially in writing. You’re still using words. I guess it’s just a matter of how you’re using them? Because writing a novel definitely feels different than trying to have a conversation about it. I guess it is that showing versus saying.

Stephen: There are things you can show through a story that you couldn’t just say in conversation.

Thomas: Exactly.

Stephen: Do you think everybody’s anxious?

Thomas: What do you mean?

Stephen: A lot of times, in your songs especially, you seem to hint at this idea that anxiety is a fundamental part of the human experience, and that sounds kind of pessimistic to me.

Thomas: I don’t think I mean for it to be pessimistic.

Stephen: But you have to admit it’s a fairly negative worldview, or at least could easily be construed that way.

Thomas: Oh, I don’t mean to be negative!

Stephen: How would you describe your philosophy then?

Thomas: We’re back to that word “philosophy.” Look. I don’t think anxiety in and of itself is a bad thing. Well, I guess first I’ll clarify that I’m not talking about my disorder. I mean anxiety in general is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of times it reflects the fact that you care about something enough to be anxious about it which I think can be a really productive means of framing anxiety.

Stephen: But there you’re talking about an anxiety with an object, and I’m not sure that’s the type you tend to explore in your work.

Thomas: Yeah, you’re right. I guess what I’m more concerned with is a more universal anxiety. I’m not sure if it’s without an object though. Maybe it’s an anxiety about existing?

Stephen: How universal are you talking? I’m not anxious about existing.

Thomas: That may be a problem with existential philosophy. It tends to focus on this fundamental anxiety towards Being that exists in all people, that when you start to reflect on the fact you exist and that your existence precedes your essence, you can’t help but be anxious. It’s a scary thing to come to grips with, and you can’t really talk about it… But most people don’t think about that, so it seems kind of naïve of existentialists to assume all people are as preoccupied with Being and meaning and… those sorts of things as we are.

Stephen: You consider yourself an existentialist?

Thomas: I guess so. The fact I’m as anxious as I am probably reflects that. (laughs)

Stephen: Not just that you have a disorder?

Thomas: Well, both come into play. I guess it depends on what I’m anxious about. I remember back when I was first diagnosed, one of the things I talked about a lot was how when I would walk outside alone, I’d assume that everyone that walked by wanted to kill me. That sort of anxiety contains a paranoia that feels disconnected from reality enough to be a problem, and it’s an anxiety that at times kept me from leaving the house. The fact it was that paralyzing probably points toward the fact it had more to do with the disorder than this other form of anxiety I’m talking about that feels more warranted… Did that make sense?

Stephen: Yeah. You’re making a distinction between that sort of paranoid anxiety with an irrational object and the sort of existential anxiety you feel that feels justified in some way.

Thomas: Because it seems reasonable to me to feel anxious about existence. Isn’t it weird that we exist?

Stephen: I think I’m comfortable with accepting that fact and moving on.

Thomas: That just feels so dissatisfying to me.

Stephen: But why? At least then you don’t have to feel anxious about everything.

Thomas: Maybe I like feeling anxious about everything!

Stephen: Why?

Thomas: It’s productive! Or at least it feels productive. It motivates me to address issues that seem important. Don’t you want to know how and why you exist? The fact I’m anxious about it makes me want to dive into it more and more and try to figure things out which I think is beautiful and fun and interesting… It energizes me! Yes, it makes me anxious. It makes me cripplingly anxious at times, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was worth it.

Stephen: But you said something that helped you distinguish between this anxiety and the anxiety disorder is that this anxiety didn’t get in the way of you doing things, but you just used the word “crippling.”

Thomas: Yes. I did… Sh*t. (laughs)

Stephen: Do you think the fact that you were already anxious affected your adopting a philosophy that revolves around anxiety?

Thomas: Probably… It certainly makes me feel validated in my anxiety.

Stephen: Is it then fair to project that onto others?

Thomas: I don’t think I’m projecting it onto others.

Stephen: So, not everyone is anxious.

Thomas: No… they are… Everyone should be anxious if they think hard enough about existence.

Stephen: Your use of the word “should” almost makes it sound ethical.

Thomas: That doesn’t feel right though.

Stephen: I’d agree. Why should somebody choose to adopt a mindset that will make them anxious?

Thomas: It would certainly be easier not to, but I don’t think its being easier makes it more true.

Stephen: But in my experience, I’m not really that anxious when I think about existence, so already it seems like your point that people should be anxious when they think about it isn’t true.

Thomas: I don’t think that’s the case. Just because you don’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Stephen: Then why don’t I?

Thomas: Maybe you just haven’t read enough?

Stephen: Or I read things that aren’t depressing!

Thomas: But things are depressing!

Stephen: What things?

Thomas: All things! Do you not feel like it’s the case that all things are always falling apart?

Stephen: I mean, I watch the news.

Thomas: (laughs) Yeah, and it’s depressing as hell! I feel like the sort of philosophy I’m advocating for is more accurate to how things are in its being “negative,” but I still don’t think it’s negative.

Stephen: But you just admitted it’s depressing!

Thomas: Yeah, sometimes the truth is depressing. But getting closer to the truth of things is a net positive.

Stephen: Do you honestly feel like you’ve gotten closer to the truth?

Thomas: (pauses) No, not really. And that makes me even more anxious.

Stephen: It seems like existentialism invents an anxiety that it then exacerbates by promising it’s doing something it isn’t.

Thomas: (pauses) Yikes. (laughs)

Stephen: (pauses) Wouldn’t you rather not be anxious?

Thomas: (pauses) I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t anxious.

Stephen: But you’ve sought out help for it?

Thomas: Of course.

Stephen: So, there’s some desire to be less anxious.

Thomas: But again, there are different anxieties I’m trying to sort through, some that CBT can help with, and some that exist at a more fundamental level that I don’t think I can undo considering things I’ve read and resonated with.

Stephen: Do you regret having studied philosophy? Considering what it seems to have done to you?

Thomas: Oh no. Not in the slightest. I think it’s done a lot of good things to me.

Stephen: Do you think it’s responsible to subjugate other people to this sort of thinking?

Thomas: I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe it was somehow helping people.

Stephen: And how is it helping people?

Thomas: Because in your existence preceding your essence… One of the main things you’re anxious about in existentialism is the fact this means you have a say in deciding what you want your essence to be. There’s some degree of freedom there if essence isn’t determined. And I think there’s a lot of good that can come from acknowledging that fact and taking advantage of it. I think that’s the positive spin on this whole thing.

Stephen: I like that idea.

Thomas: I think it’s comforting. Freedom is scary, but it means your actions have meaning.

Stephen: That’s one thing I’ll grant existentialism. It seems like some of the more basic questions it asks about meaning in general are fairly universal.

Thomas: People love to ask about the “meaning of life” as if that’s what I spent four years studying.

Stephen: You studied philosophy in college, correct?

Thomas: Yeah. Nobody understood what it was then, and people still don’t understand what it is.

Stephen: Well, what is it?

Thomas: F*ck if I know. (laughs)

Stephen: It isn’t sitting around discussing the meaning of life?

Thomas: Not in the slightest, or at least I don’t think having that conversation with a bunch of philosophy students would result in the sort of answer that would be satisfying for a non-philosopher.

Stephen: Because there is no meaning?

Thomas: A lot of the time I think it’s the opposite problem: there’s too much meaning. Anything can mean anything. Which maybe is the same as nothing meaning anything.

Stephen: Is that a good thing?

Thomas: Maybe? I certainly think it’s a good thing that we can make things meaningful, life especially.

Stephen: It’s a matter of making life meaningful versus looking for a meaning to life.

Thomas: Yeah, I like that. I like how that makes it an active thing. I mean, I guess looking is also an action, but that seems to take less intellectual work than having to decide for yourself. I don’t even know if that’s fair, actually. It’s maybe less that you’re deciding what life means than it is that in making decisions and living your life the way you live it, those actions are reflecting whatever meaning you’ve cultivated for yourself. Or the acting is the cultivating of a meaning whether you’re aware you’re doing it or not. It seems to be the case that the way you act more so reflects what you think the point of all this is than what you say you think it is. You can call yourself a Christian and say the meaning of life is to help others, but if you aren’t actually doing that, you clearly don’t mean it. And to tie it back to anxiety, I think a lot of anxiety comes from the acknowledgement that your actions aren’t aligning with what you say your beliefs are.

Stephen: But it’s hard to come to a place where you can acknowledge that if it is the case.

Thomas: Oh yeah. It wouldn’t be easy. Some of the times I’ve been most anxious are when I came to that conclusion. And that seems like a warranted anxiety. And an existential one.

Stephen: At least it’s one you can do something about.

Thomas: I sure hope so. (laughs)

Stephen: Certainly, you can change your habits if you try!

Thomas: No, I absolutely agree. And we should always be trying to change our habits to reflect how we’d like to be living.

Stephen: One thing that amazes me, and this will be my last question because we are way over the allotted time for this interview… One thing that amazes me is how despite the things you believe, you still manage to maintain the demeanor you do. You’re always smiling, you’re always laughing, and I just find that interesting because I think if I honestly believed the things you do, I would be sad all the time. (laughs) How does that work?

Thomas: I’m not sure I could tell you… At some point I decided to not let it make me sad… A lot of it has to do with how you frame it. I’m thinking about the “too much meaning” thing again. Yeah, there’s a version of that where you say, “Screw it. What’s the point of giving anything meaning if it’s ultimately arbitrary?” But I think there’s another version of it where you say, “There’s an abundance of possible meanings which is completely absurd, yes, but at least it’s an absurdity that allows for the possibility of connecting with things in meaningful, wholly personal ways.” Again, I think it’s incredibly liberating that we get to determine the essence of things. It opens new worlds of possibility. Things are so much more flexible. I get to have a say in how my world is, which I get can also be dangerous… There still has to be a correspondence of my version of things with how things “actually are,” but I don’t know what “actually” means… I don’t know how that criteria would be formed… Sorry, what was the question?

Stephen: Basically, how can you be a happy existentialist?

Thomas: Yes! Right. Framing. Meaning… Actually, a lot of the time I think it means forgetting. Forgetting how things are, how I really feel. Willful forgetfulness seems like a weird answer, but I still have to exist in the world as a functioning human. It’s really easy to walk into a Target and get overwhelmed by the absurdity of the whole thing, but I still have to buy toothpaste… Or it means making a conscious effort to find humor in the absurdity. Yeah, I think a lot of it has to do with laughing at the utter ridiculousness of everything. If I can find joy in that, it makes things a hell of a lot easier. A lot of the time it’s funny how and to what extent people make things meaningful. I think the Super Bowl is hilarious.

Stephen: Isn’t that a little harsh to laugh at things that are truly meaningful to other people?

Thomas: Probably. But I’m obviously not laughing at them. Or I’m not meaning to. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. We all have our ways of coping… Can this be the part you edit out of the show? I feel like an asshole.

Stephen: You can’t choose what’s edited out of the show! (laughs)

Thomas: (laughs) Sometimes I want to die.

Stephen: The book is called Angels of Bouquet, and you can get it almost anywhere books are sold. Thomas Black, everyone!


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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.