Prairie Pop: Wonderlickin' Good

Tim Quirk was the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Too Much Joy, a poppy, punky band whose career spanned the 1980s and ’90s. His old band is probably better known for getting in trouble than for their music. Over the course of a decade, Too Much Joy was arrested for performing obscene 2 Live Crew songs in Broward County, Florida; Tim was detained by the Secret Service after drunkenly joking onstage about strangling Bill Clinton when Chelsea Clinton was in the audience; and the band received a cease and desist letter from Bozo the Clown (an incident that inspired the subtitle of my last book Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity).

WonderlickHe’s also a major label survivor (Too Much Joy is still in the hole $395,277.18 to Warner Music, among other things). I’ve heard him tell dozens of absurd war stories, such as the time when he got into a drunken debate with the Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth at an industry event. They were arguing about the merits of sampling—she thought it was wrong, and Tim didn’t—and she exclaimed that he wasn’t a real artist. Tim recalls, “Later on she apologized by hugging me for an uncomfortably long time, and whispered the following in my ear—and I’m not making this up—‘You are an artist. And you know what it’s like on a major label. It’s like they stick an umbrella up your ass. And then they open it. And you just have to walk down the street like nothing’s wrong.’” He adds that Chris Frantz, Tina’s husband and Talking Heads drummer, just stood there smiling.

When I first met Tim in 2003, he was happily married, a proud father, and had somehow spun his love of music into a respectable career in the music industry—in the form of a nine-to-five job as VP, Programming of Rhapsody, one of the companies to get in early on the legal music download business. Quirk’s latest group, Wonderlick—which also includes Too Much Joy alum Jay Blumenfield—just released their second album, Topless at the Arco Arena, a concept album that dives headfirst into the timeless art versus commerce debates. Here’s an edited version of a conversation I had with Tim Quirk over email (you can read the full exchange on

Prairie Pop: Do you think of this as a concept album, a la Roger Waters’ Radio KAOS?

Tim Quirk: Yes, proudly. If you’re going to bother making an album in 2009, it damn well better have a reason for existing as a particular collection of songs in a specific order. Really.

PP: More seriously, can you tell me in your own words what prompted this thematic record?

TQ: A friend of mine named Eric Weisbard encouraged me to write an essay about my misadventures in corporate America during the dotcom boom and bust for a conference he was putting on. I called it Topless at the Arco Arena, because I’d recently watched a woman yank off her blouse at an AC/DC concert. I wanted to believe her gesture was an honest expression of overwhelming joy, a moment when what was happening in the stands became the show rather than what was happening on stage, but it sort of felt expected, you know? Manipulated.

So I wanted to figure out how the moment could be something spontaneous and beautiful for the woman while simultaneously being something planned for and exploited by the band, especially since that’s exactly what the dotcom boom was suddenly looking like for giddy dorks like me who hadn’t really been sucked into the capital markets before. When I got to the end of the paper [later published in the Harvard University Press collection This Is Pop! and included in the album’s liner notes], I didn’t feel like I was finished exploring the subject, so the next batch of songs Wonderlick wrote tried digging a little deeper into the same thing. I’d been going back and forth between thinking of my music as art and treating it like a commodity; the record ultimately arrives at the conclusion that it’s never just one thing, so you might as well rejoice in that fact rather than bemoan it.

PP: What is different about making records for Warner Music versus what you’ve been doing with Wonderlick in the 2000s?

TQ: The biggest difference is how we measure success. On Warner, the goal was to get airplay and sell lots of records. I’m not knocking Warner by saying that—they’re a business, not a charity. But it’s insidious the way their goals quickly become yours, and it definitely changes the way you create. Because we stopped asking what made us happy, and started worrying too much about what would make an imaginary listener happy. I certainly hope Lick gets lots of airplay and sells lots of records, but that’s not why we’re doing this. We just want to make music we like. If other people do, too, hooray—but if they don’t, I won’t feel like a failure, and unfortunately when you’re on a major label it’s very easy to feel like one if you don’t chart.

PP: You and Jay live in different cities; what is your work process and how is it enabled by digital technologies?

TQ: We create in fits and starts, because we don’t do anything unless we’re physically in the same room and months can go by before that can be arranged, but ProTools has completely changed the way we write and record. In the old days, writing and recording were two separate endeavors—because studio time was so expensive, we wouldn’t walk into one until a song was completely written and well rehearsed. Now that all you need is a laptop and a stellar microphone, there’s no distinction at all for us between writing and recording. We tape as we write and we write as we tape.

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PP: Has your experience at your day job given you ideas about how to expose your music to people, or is it the other way around?

TQ: Probably, but it’s been more valuable in a different way. You ever read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? The way they punish criminals in that book is they stick them in this machine that shows them just how massively gigantic the entire universe is, and THEN the machine shows them just how insignificantly tiny THEY are in the face of all that (the knowledge of which is supposed to incapacitate them forever).

Well, working at Rhapsody is like living inside that machine. I know exactly where TMJ and Wonderlick stand in the musical cosmos. I know who’s one rank above me, and one rank below. I know exactly which songs people listen to, and how many of those people there are. At first it’s humbling, but then it becomes wildly liberating. Like I said before, I certainly hope people like what we do. But I’ve been cleansed of any illusions that how many people like it is a measurement of its worth, so I don’t waste too much time dreaming up ways to make more of them.