Chris Kluwe: The Rhapsody Interview
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- authors, actors, athletes, political wonks, etc. -- about their relationship with music. This time, we've got Minnesota Vikings punter and fledgling political columnist Chris Kluwe. Listen along with the NFL star's specially made Rhapsody playlist, which he's titled "Pandemonium." Enjoy.
We talked to Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe a little over a month ago, just a few weeks into the California native's eighth NFL season. He'd recently become famous off the field, too. It began when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly voiced his support for gay marriage; in response, in late August, Maryland Assembly Delegate Emmett C. Burns wrote a well-publicized letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, urging him to "inhibit such expressions from your employee."
Incensed, Kluwe crafted an equally well-publicized response to Burns. His letter, published by the sports site Deadspin (to which I frequently contribute), used colorful, at times profane language in portraying Burns' behavior as both anti-First Amendment and "mind-boggingly [sic] stupid." (T-shirts bearing two Kluwe phrases from that letter – "Lustful C*ckmonster" and "Sparklepony" -- are now for sale, with proceeds going to Minnesotans for Equality and Kluwe's Kick for Kids charity, which assists children with muscular dystrophy.) Since that letter and our interview, Kluwe has been profiled by The New York Times, Out magazine and Southern California's OC Weekly, which ran a cover story describing the heterosexual, married father of two as "the unlikely face of marriage equality."
But not all the attention has been positive. Following two sub-par performances in late-October games, ESPN blogger Kevin Seifert delivered a rather passive-aggressive Halloween punch with his article "Chris Kluwe Is a Fortunate NFL Employee." However, Kluwe, a video-game enthusiast (Twitter handle: @ChrisWarcraft) who also plays bass for the prog-rock four-piece Tripping Icarus, rebounded with a much better start to November: a 48-yard punting average in the Vikings' first game of the month, which allowed him to better enjoy recent electoral marriage-equality victories in Maine, Maryland and his adopted state of Minnesota. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
If you had to guess, which album or CD have you listened to more than any other over the course of your lifetime?
I would actually go with Weird Al [laughs]. The one that had "Dare to Be Stupid" and "Eat It" on it.
Is that also the first record or cassette or CD that you bought with your own money?
No, my parents bought it for me. I think the first one I got with my own money was the first System of a Down CD.
Which is a little closer to your Rhapsody playlist than Weird Al.
Yeah [laughs]. I didn't really listen to music a whole lot growing up, but once I heard Weird Al I was instantly hooked.
What's the trigger? When you say, "I didn't listen to music a whole lot growing up," and now you're a bass player in a band, something's got to flip at some point.
Well, growing up I played a lot of sports, and I also played violin. So I had a musical background in terms of playing, but I just never really got into actually listening to music until we were driving home one day, and the Dr. Demento Show was on. And, you know, they played a song by Weird Al. I was like, "Oh, that song's really cool! I want to listen to that!" I think it was "Yoda." And so I started listening to Weird Al. And then I started listening to more and more music, you know, classic rock stations and then KROQ, in Southern California, which is, you know, one of the best, I guess, alternative rock stations out there. And yeah, just kept listening and playing, and now I'm in a band [laughs].
You played violin and now you're a bass player. How good are you?
I'm pretty good. If I had stuck with violin instead of athletics ... I know my music teacher said I probably could have played in concert halls and, like, been a violin player. So I've always had a pretty good ear for music. Bass, I'm still kind of learning, since I've only been doing it for about four and a half years now. I've got the muscle memory down. Now it's more just kind of figuring out how I want to progress from one chord to another, stuff like that. So I'm getting better. I'd rate myself maybe 75, 80 percent right now.
So you're an NFL punter, you play in a band, and obviously video games are important to you given your Twitter handle. But if every job in the world paid the exact same salary, what would you do for a living?
[Laughs] I think I would probably be a writer. Maybe a video-game reviewer. I really enjoy playing video games and I enjoy writing, so that would probably be it. I do enjoy playing football, but, you know, it's more kind of to pay the bills and to satisfy my competitive urges. Actually, I think I would also like to throw in being a bass player in a band, too, because it is a lot of fun playing on stage. To come up with music with other guys and then play it live in front of people, that is a lot of fun.
And that has a good chance of continuing after football's over, whenever that is.
Yeah, that's definitely my plan. Hopefully once I'm done playing football we can tour and see if the band can make it as a band, because right now we are fairly limited in what we can do because of my schedule. So I feel like I owe it to the other guys to see if we can reach our potential.
Your football career has held back your music career.
Yes, it's terrible, isn't it? [Laughs]
Yes, that's just awful. Thank goodness football hasn't gotten in the way of video games yet.
Your playlist is called "Pandemonium," and we start with kind of alt metal or prog metal, and then we segue into some trip-hop material, and then we end up with classical. But most of the music, until we get to the last two or three songs, is much closer to a kind of "get fired up" genre. Are you the most aggressive punter that you know?
[Laughs] No, no, no. I'm not the most aggressive punter I know. Basically the messages in the songs are messages that I really like. It's a lot about personal responsibility and freedom and stuff like that, so it really kind of appeals to me. And at the same time I really like the music parts of them, too.
It's almost like you're the exact opposite of Paul Ryan, who said that he listens to Rage Against the Machine because he loves the music, but he doesn't listen to the lyrics.
[Laughs] Exactly, which kind of defeats the whole point.
You like the music and you like the message. But most of the early songs in the playlist would not be great choices to play as lullabies to get your kids to go to sleep at night.
But the last song actually is a lullaby. When are you most likely to listen to songs from the playlist?
Oh, whenever. I mean, for me, a good song is a song that I can listen to no matter what the circumstance. And all those songs I can listen to no matter what I'm doing. I've never felt that the music is defined by who the artist is or what the genre is. It's what the song itself says to you. And to me, all those songs are songs I can listen to over and over again without getting tired of them. And that's kind of how I define a good song. On the 10th play-through, on the 15th play-through, does it still hit me the same as the way the first time I listened to it? And pretty much all the songs I listen to are songs that do that.
You mentioned Dr. Demento and Weird Al earlier, but I'm not sure I see the straight line from Dr. Demento and Weird Al to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down.
Well, for me, a lot of it started with Weird Al. Because of his songs, I was exposed to a very broad range of genres. You know, he parodies a lot of different types of music, and I was unwittingly exposed to a whole bunch of different types of songs and styles. And I think that's kind of where I got my ideas of, you know, it doesn't matter what the genre is or who the artist is. What matters is, what does the music sound like? And so once I got into middle school and high school, my friends had told me about KROQ, which was the local rock station, so I started listening to that. That's where a lot of, like, Rage and Tool comes from, because, obviously, during the '90s they were pretty big bands. And ever since then I just flip through the radio, I'll kind of look online, and if I hear something good, or someone mentions something good, I'll listen to it, and if I like it I'll keep it.
What's the Vikings locker room policy regarding music? Is there music playing for everyone or is it every man on his own set of headphones?
We have a kind of "treat other people the way you'd want to be treated" policy, in that if you want to listen to music, use headphones, because what you're listening to may not necessarily be what everyone else wants to listen to. As veterans, we tend to enforce that [laughs]. Otherwise, you start running into musical anarchy, and it's just a mishmash of sound everywhere. So that's the case in the locker room. Then in the weight room we have scheduled days, so every odd day is like hip-hop, R&B, and then every even day is like country, rock 'n' roll [laughs]. We kind of alternate days.
You make a well-intentioned effort to ensure that nothing offensive is played, but doesn't that open the door for a lot of really weak, inoffensive music? I think that's how "Dust in the Wind" has been played so many times on album rock stations. Does it work out that way, or am I putting too much thought into this?
Well, when it comes to the weight room and the music played there, there's also a strict no-swearing policy that kind of limits what stations can be played. And so, yeah, you tend to hear a lot of the same songs over and over and over again [laughs]. Which is why I generally either bring headphones or, if I'm the one person there working that day, I'll switch it to something completely different, just to have a change-up. Yeah, if you're in any professional locker room and you want to listen to more cutting-edge music, you have to definitely bring headphones.
If certain songs are played over and over again, is there a song or songs that you've heard in either the weight room or the locker room that you don't need to hear again for as long as you live?
Anything with Auto-Tune. And I have made my views very clear on that in the weight room and locker room [laughs]. I cannot stand Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune is kind of my personal devil.
You've recently become one of the most well-known punters in the league. You play in a league that is fairly famous for drawing certain boundaries around its players. Does the fact that you're a specialist, with singular skills, give you leeway to be outspoken, to voice your own opinion? Does it come from being a veteran? Does it come from having a long-term contract? Or is this just Chris and you've always been like this?
I'd say this is pretty much just who I am. I've always made my views known. Generally not as widely as this [laughs], but I've never been shy about sharing who I am. I've done a lot of local stories about my interests and hobbies and, you know, this time it just happened to go national with the letter I wrote. I think one of the reasons you don't see a lot of guys talking out is because it's so hard to make it in the league, and then you can't afford to have many distractions, because if it affects your performance they're going to cut you and find someone else. It's definitely a risk to make yourself, you know, known. I mean, all you have to do is look at T.O. [Terrell Owens] or [Chad] Ochocinco for that [laughs]. For me personally, this was an issue where I felt, "Okay, I feel like I need to make a stand on this." This is something that I feel is worth fighting for.
And we're talking specifically about the marriage equality issue.
Yeah. And mainly the free speech part of that, because when the lawmaker Emmett Burns tried to stifle Brendon's speech, that really kind of hit a nerve with me, because that's basically totally against the First Amendment. But it dovetails quite neatly into the marriage equality thing, which I'm helping support here in Minnesota. And it gave me a platform where I was able to speak up on it, and hopefully show some people that it won't turn you into a lustful c*ckmonster [laughs]. It's a matter of human rights. It's a matter of civil rights.
Your performance hasn't suffered, but we also know that the NFL doesn't like its boat being rocked. Has your outspokenness affected your employment at all? Has anyone said, "Chris, if you could just turn it down to, like, seven, maybe that would be better"?
Well, you know, there's always that concern within any organization -- that if you start bringing media attention that is going to cause a distraction, not just for you, but for other guys as well. And it is a risk to have something like that happen, but at the end of the day, like I said, I feel this is important enough to take a stand on. And, you know, the organization's been supportive of me being able to speak out, and if I perform poorly they're going to cut me anyway [laughs], so I just have to go out and play well.