Here it is, the very first Q&A session with myself that I’ve ever hosted. Hahaha. If that seems a bit whack to you, well, imagine how I feel. However, I’m really happy that I did it because I wanted to celebrate three years of Thunder Pie (!!!) in a new way. So, I thought opening up the floor to readers who might have a question (or 10) for me might actually be fun.
What I surely didn’t anticipate was that I would receive as many questions as I did. That is a very cool problem to have, don’t get me wrong, but there was just a lot more than I was prepared for. So, I am making this Part 1; I had to; I simply ran out of time trying to answer everyone’s questions thoughtfully and truthfully.
There will be a Part 2.
Maybe next week. Having some bona fide interaction between me and you feels nice for a change. It’s not as cool as a Thunder Pie Writer’s Retreat Weekend or a Thunder Pie River Cruise or whatever, but whatever.
It’s a start, you know?
When and where do you write most frequently?
I do almost all of my writing in my bedroom at a small army-issue desk. An old friend gave it to me long ago and it just kind of became what I use. I do my writing in my bedroom because it’s a room with some real vibe and one of the only spaces in this house we live in where kids haven’t left their territorial pissings and messes and all. I mostly write on Tuesday or Wednesday and then add photos and ‘What I Liked This Week’ and any other notes at the end on Thursday after work. Big shout out to Arle Bielanko for really shining as my editor. If I had to do that as well, none of this would work.
As a musician-on-somewhat-indefinite-hiatus myself, my question is: do you miss making music? Not the band necessarily, but that particular creative process; songwriting; sitting with a guitar and just strumming some favorite tunes (and it’s obviously an assumption that you don’t pick up the guitar based on your weekly communiques). I also know that as a creative individual with a life outside your art that you’ve only got so much to give to your art and need to be a bit choosy about where those energies go. I don’t do my music much at all anymore, my energy going into theater and film stuff.
Curious to hear your thoughts,
Awesome question and a very fair one for any artist to ask another. The short answer is yes. And no. Ha. I miss the electrified feeling of standing in the middle of a jet engine and having Friday night blowing through you on the stage/ covered in sweat/ a hundred good people staring at you/ feeling your vibe/ giving you theirs. I guess I miss the collective intensity of our actual live music going down in a club sometimes. But I don’t miss the individual elements of making music all that much. I think that I realized I was done with writing songs because I stopped writing them. Simple as that, really. I didn’t do it consciously. It just happened.
I dig your line about your energy going into theater and film now instead of music. I get that so much. I really understand it. It seems very okay to me. It seems healthy to move into other artistic realms later in life. I’m so glad I was able to find writing the way I did.
I really think you have a very unique way of seeing the world and I have been wondering where you get your inspiration. I know this is a lame question but what kind stuff makes you tick?
This is a very nice thing for you to say and I’m flattered as fuck. Thank you! Of course, I have no real idea how to answer such an insightful question. The most I can offer is this. I don’t enjoy things that feel fabricated or false or inauthentic. I like soul and raw emotion and I like fearlessness in ways that push humanity a little bit further in the right direction… away from the hordes of sheep-y assholes born to bring you down. To me: there is nothing better than real laughter/ red wine/ one vital person in your world/ kids playing in a summer creek/ and old-school jazz playing in the kitchen. I tick the most when I’m by myself or with Arle. I’m not a big community/friends guy. Both are truly important to a wonderful life, but not necessarily for me. Old things inspire me. Unique original art makes me happy. Love is everything. Hurting people on purpose is a sign you are broken bad inside.
Did you ever consider writing a novel?
Not really. I love novels more than any other art form. The best long fiction, I hold it in the highest possible regard. It doesn’t seem possible for me to operate in that arena. I’ve never written much fiction outside of songs, so I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But thanks for asking that. It’s a worthwhile question and one I wish I could just answer yes to.
Pineapple on pizza, yay or nay?
Serge -your writing – it really feels like a gift and I am forever grateful to have found you. You produce the feels – All the time and your words & what you do with them remind me of a Dylan song. Keep on keeping on
Gena, thank you so much. People who send small-time artists (like me) messages like this: I hope you someday know just how uplifting and powerful it is to read the words of a stranger saying wonderful things (or even slightly nice things) about your work. I am always radically grateful for every single person who has written me across the years about Marah, or Babble, or old Thunder Pie, or this new Thunder Pie. It is just everything to know that someone cares about your art. It is priceless. It feels like eternal life for, like, a whole day after you read it. Thank you, Gena. Thank you everyone who has ever written to me to say you dig something I created.
How many subscribers do you have now? Or is that too personal to ask?
Hmmm. Well, I suppose a bit of mystery adds to the allure. But at the same time I’m not pretending that I’ve got big numbers by any stretch. What I have found that I have is a steadily growing group of smart, curious people who seem to come from various backgrounds and places, but who all know me either from my time in the band or from stumbling into my writing somehow. And that is so deeply satisfying to me: that I could start this Substack and have a good number of both paid and free subscribers. As of today: I have about 700 total subscribers. I have more free ones than paid, obviously, but I’m optimistic that I can keep growing both camps as long as I write my ass off. Fingers crossed.
How the hell do you carve out time to write with five kids in the house? It’s impressive and cool that you’re able to get in the headspace to be creative, I can’t seem to do it with just one. It’s awesome you prioritize that. Give us advice on how to steal our time back!
Ooooh. This is a good one. And a really difficult one to explain. For me personally, I hit a bad mental health wall three/ four years ago. Depression and anxiety were destroying my head and my heart. I went through a lot of personal shit and was feeling extremely disowned in ways I never thought possible. The writing, the idea of writing again and doing it in a way that would hold me responsible to people because they were paying me to write, that was the leap of faith I had to take. But I also knew at the time that it very well might not work. Like almost all artists who aren’t born with a trust fund, I have known a lot of years/decades of making art with all of my heart while barely making any money at all. In the end, my gamble paid off enough for me to have the people I needed to hold my creative feet to the fire. I write now because I NEED to for my mental health and I HAVE to in order to fulfill the obligations I have to a bunch of folks who kindly pay me for each week’s work. And that has become a major part of my survival (and my family’s survival).
So I can’t say meh. I can’t skip it. And in a weird way, not having that option with art makes me want to do it better than I did last week. I’m hungrier, maybe, because there’s more at stake than ever before and it’s all on my shoulders and no one elses.
That said, I have to write when the kids are at school. It is the only possible way!
Why did you withdraw from Marah? I realize that there must certainly be a financial element to it, perhaps the realization that you were never going to get farther up the ladder of success than you’d already gotten, there would never be anything like financial stability. But I’ve gotten the sense that there’s a lot more to it, issues perhaps revolving around your relationship with your brother. Maybe this is not anything you want to write about and put out there in the public domain, in which case just put this question in the shitcan. But you asked if I have any questions, and this is the question I have.
Fair question, especially since I know that there are so many folks who support Thunder Pie who also remain interested in the music we made and what the future of the band is. Here are my thoughts in a nutshell, which is the only way I can imagine presenting them other than a full-blown series of essays or maybe even a book or maybe even a Hollywood film starring Ray Winstone as Serge Bielanko.
I withdrew from being in the band because it was the right thing for me to do. The time was right for me to move on, to experience a life that wasn’t super-enmeshed in other people’s lives via the band or even surrounding the band at an uncomfortable proximity. Truth is: I never ever imagined that I would be a musician forever because I never wanted to be that. I never dreamed of that. Some people may think that being in a rock/roll band is a dream come true, and it is in so many ways/ don’t get me wrong. But it is also a very treacherous wilderness where you end up either eating the people you were laughing with yesterday or you hurl yourself into the jaws of a starving grizzly just to relieve yourself of the burden of being strapped to something bad for you that was once good for you.
To me: the band I was in when I was in my 20s and 30s… that was the band I wanted to be in in this life. But growing older didn’t seem to fit that band. Not the way I saw it anyway. And I still feel strongly about that.
My memories of playing in Marah are mostly spectacular, especially as time seems to dull away the realities of harder moments. But still, my memories aren’t all great ones by any stretch. And I’d be lying if I said that everything is magical when you’re in a hungry unknown band far from home with no money in your wallet and you’re getting older. Because that isn’t magical to me anymore. It’s a recipe for mental health disaster. So, yeah. I walked away because I wanted a new life. And I got it. I have no regrets about the past. But I know I made the right choice for me.
How does the song writing process differ from writing longer form non-fiction?
Well, I’d say that the biggest difference is that with songs you are writing two separate things: the music and the lyrics. Whereas with Thunder Pie, I am writing words that have music/tempo/tone/melody baked in. It all happens at once without having to match anything up. I really love that about writing as opposed to songwriting. I really love the feeling of the total sense of uninterrupted immersion I get from the freedom of just swimming in one stream as opposed to swimming in two.
Say, so a lot of times I don’t have time to read your entire piece right away. Are they meant to be read all at once or in bits and pieces?
Also, how are you doing w the depression? Let’s just say I do NOT like January.
Brilliant question. I think from a writer’s standpoint I’d say that I hope you can read what I’ve written all in one sitting or whatever. But I also understand (from my own experience) that life is mad busy and reading takes a deep backseat to skimming and scrolling. So I’m all for you reading me however it works best for you. My stuff isn’t super comprehensive or anything. You can come and go as you deem fit.
This winter has sucked for me because I got sick with bronchitis around Christmas for all of January. I hear you on letting that month go to hell. Especially this last one. Thank you for asking about the depression. I take meds for it and I really practise mindfulness in a lot of my lanes. I have a wonderful therapist now for almost three years and she has helped me so much. But the blues are the blues and once you have them you will always have them, I think. I just try to be better at recognizing when they are rising up, you know? I hope you’re doing OK. I understand how much it sucks when we’re not.
Is there a topic that you would like to write about but feel like you are not there yet (I mean, you are not ready to write about it because of some reason)?
Oh yeah. I think there are a bunch of things that I might like to write about someday but haven’t felt comfortable (or inclined) to pull up to yet. Here is where I suppose I could tell you what they are, huh?! Haha. I think I won’t though. I think I will save them in my Pouch of Secret Topics until the time is right.
I know you may get this one often- but do you ever have any communication still with Bruce? Thank you, Serge, for being a true-blue rock n’ roller- in every way. I am rooting for you and your family. You deserve all the happiness that we can get while we are on this Earth.
Thanks for the kind words. The answer to your question is: “Not really, no.” I was able to get backstage and introduce my wife Arle, who is also a mega-Bruce fan, to him after one of the Broadway shows a few years back. That was the last time I got to speak with him. The thing is though, I love him so fucking much. He truly gave me some sort of strange mystical power to survive and thrive long ago through the extreme kindness him and Patti showed me and our band. It literally was life-changing just in the fact that it has allowed me, for many moons now, to feel validated as an artist and a human being by someone I have held in the highest regard since I was a punk-ass kid growing up in Conshohocken, PA.
I may never hear from Bruce again.
But also: I hear from him every 10 minutes or so/ every day of my life/ forever.
To read the rest of this essay and more from Serge Bielanko, subscribe to his Substack feed HERE.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin.