SOF BOY In The Guardian UK!
Updated January 18, 2005
Guardian Friday Pages
Friday Review: THE BOY WONDER: If you want to understand Wilderness, Archer Prewitt's foreboding, emotional new CD, you need to understand his cartoon alter-ego. David Peschek met them both
14 January 2005
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Archer Prewitt seems too gentle, self-effacing and democratic a man to be the author of a cult comic or (even if only broadly speaking) a rock musician. He isn't nerdy, but he is repelled by what he feels is the machismo of current music. At heart, his work is simple and deeply felt, yet wrapped in revealing contradictions. Although he lives in Chicago, the capital of noodling post-rock, his new record, Wilderness, has a pastoral, acoustic sound that harks back to the warmth of English folk. The occasional comic he produces, meanwhile, is urban and contemporary in setting. Its anti-hero is Sof'Boy, a white Morph-like creature who endures numbing boredom, the indifference of those around him, and appalling violence. Both are works of meticulous detail and in each, there are powerful depictions of innocence under threat.
The first Sof'Boy comic appeared in 1997, the second a year later, but it has taken until now to produce "the dreaded third issue". In between, Prewitt has also released three solo albums and an EP, as well as touring and playing as part of the Sea and Cake, the Chicago-based group who occasionally count John McEntire of Tortoise as a member, and who released three albums of their own in the same period.
"It became quite an albatross," Prewitt says. "There were a lot of things outside of it, making it difficult for me to ever sit down and work on comics. I can always think of something else I gotta be doing." Those things included: "Falling out of a tricky, odd relationship that somehow started up again, and finding if it didn't work the first time it wasn't gonna work the second time"; meeting the woman who is now his wife, which "happily took up a lot of time, getting to know her, then moving with her, and that was complete tumult". Then, after an illness, his father died: "June 3, 2003 - it's easy to remember because it's the day after his birthday."
In his quiet, undemonstrative way, Prewitt explains that they were "close without really being . . . that close. We were reserved but there'd be passionate outbursts. He more than I, perhaps because of his predilection for the drink. My dad being a bit of a weekend dad, I don't think he really knew how to relate to kids so well. But my mom was great, so I never felt like I wasn't loved.
"I've also realised as I get older that I think he did the best he could. I would send him CDs of my music or a comic book, and they'd end up as drink coasters or he'd pass them off to friends. When he passed away I was able to go deeper into what I wanted to say about our relationship. Maybe it's not readily apparent - I keep lyrics fairly opaque."
Opaque it may be, but Wilderness is luminous with feeling, and certainly represents Prewitt's most direct, emotional work. From its tremulous opening lines - "Lie low my sweet one/Hold still until they pass by/ No, don't let them see us/They'll take what's left of our love" - Wilderness conjures and sustains an atmosphere of foreboding that is frequently overwhelming. "That's great. I'm glad," Prewitt laughs. "And I'm always pleased when people tell me how upset they get when they look at Sof'Boy.
"I don't mind it being a quick read, and quick, fun slapstick," he continues. "It doesn't have to have great depth for everyone. But through the time that it takes, maybe things come out in the details. People respond to it in a strong, visceral way, and feel that it's disturbing, they can't read it, it makes them cry - they're looking at it for the third or fourth time and thinking, 'This is demented, this is very dark.'"
Prewitt moved from Kansas at the beginning of the 1990s with his band the Coctails, who recently reformed to support the also recently reformed Pixies. Big Monty Python fans who met while at Kansas City Art Institute - "We weren't writing the Lumberjack song but pretty close" - the band skipped from humorous instrumentals through garage jazz to artful pop before fragmenting.
At art school, Prewitt "gravitated towards printmaking and bookmaking and the idea of things outside of galleries, and mass production. [Comics] are a comfortable media to work with, and I guess I've always wanted to tell a story. It's an interesting, affordable art form. You can create little worlds. I don't get really precious about it."
He first started making his own comics after being asked to "peripherally be a part of this comic art show at this small gallery". Actually he was being invited to serve wine - but, he says, "I thought next to the cups I could have a little comic book. I wanted it to be like the comics I grew up loving - Hot Stuff, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, just kiddie stuff. Later, I got into more teenage stuff, but not so much the superheroes, it was always grounded in reality." Unexpectedly, he found himself courted by one of his favourite publishers, Drawn & Quarterly.
Sof'Boy himself has numerous forebears: the Pillsbury Doughboy and Caspar, but also former Coctails bassist Mark Greenberg, whose indefatigable humour lightened the "very dark period" after the band moved from Kansas to Chicago. "He's still an inspiration to me as far as keeping a positive perspective and not wallowing in self doubt and self pity, which I'm prone to do."
There is a little of Prewitt himself in the character, too. "He's sort of a wide-eyed, altruistic guy who always gets a beat-down. That's how I feel a lot of the time. I guess it's coming from a small town, growing up you could walk down the street and say hello to everyone and that doesn't happen in life any more . . . I hold on to those ideals. Civility."
Prewitt drew his own artwork for the sleeve of Wilderness. It shows a half-naked girl, both vulnerable and strong. She does not survive the song of which she is the heroine. Is she like a distaff Sof'Boy?
Prewitt's answer proves unexpected. "Something really horrible happened to my wife when we were still dating. I worry about her because she's very beautiful and very open-hearted and friendly to people. I worry she's gonna attract somebody who's gonna hurt her. But I also started thinking because of her big heart and her beauty that she sort of had this protective field around her, she could never be taken or destroyed. She was tied up and face down on the floor in the back of a shop being threatened by a man with a 12in blade. He had tied up her friend and her and was putting on rubber gloves when someone walked in the shop and . . . changed everything. And I've been held up at gunpoint - crazy people kinda gravitate to me, that's a way I guess I'm like Sof'Boy. I think that's half the reason I have to create Sof'Boy, to process brutal actions."
Wilderness is released on Thrill Jockey on January 24.