Chapter 24: Chicago (Jason Molina)
My introduction to Jason Molina’s musical output was late, a bit backwards, and came entirely by chance. In the Spring of my junior year of college I was having problems sleeping. That is to say, I couldn’t sleep. I attempted cutting down on caffeine, doing exercises to tire myself, writing lists of things I needed to accomplish for the rest of the week, and cracking the unbroken spines of schoolbooks in the hopes that they’d bore me to sleep. One evening, as I was driving to pick up a movie for a film criticism class at Blockbuster Video in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, I got desperate. I pulled into Rite Aid and spent about thirty minutes looking through all the over-the-counter medicines that didn’t say non-drowsy. I ended up spending much more money than I should, on Bayer PM, Nyquil, Simply Sleep and Benadryl.
On the drive back to campus, I tuned into WMUH — the campus radio station — and picked up a female student’s indie-rock radio program. At the conclusion of one particularly boring song, she introduced the next as a new Songs: Ohia tune. The name rung a bell, as I’d heard a song or two on WRUV during my brief tenure at the University Of Vermont. I remember being dismissive at the time, and noting that I thought it was a stupid band name. A year or two later, my tastes had changed. I took instantly to both the music and the voice. The song I heard driving back to campus that evening was called “Farewell Transmission.”
When I got back to my dorm room, I watched the movie (La Grande illusion, if my memory serves me correctly) while my computer sat idle, downloading a Songs: Ohia album called Ghost Tropic. After the conclusion of the film, I popped a bunch of pills, put on the album, and slept without cessation through the night.
Given the opportunity to listen to Ghost Tropic again (in a more alert state) I became enamored of it. I went out and bought The Lionness, Ghost Tropic and Didn’t It Rain within the next few weeks, and Songs: Ohia became–pretty much exclusively–all I listened to for an extended period of time. I often described Jason Molina’s music to friends as, “What my music would sound like, if I had talent.” His Codeine-slow, minimalist structures, unique guitar tunings, and brutally honest lyrics were what I craved from a songwriter.
Last summer I e-mailed a press-link of mine at Secretly Canadian asking for Jason’s contact information. I sent my usual sales pitch to the provided address, but received nary a response. When I was in Chicago, I watched Magnolia Electric Co.’s set at the Intonation Festival with great pleasure. Jason even dedicated “Riding With the Ghost” to Chicago’s “three lost soldiers,” and I wondered how many people in the audience were aware of to whom he was dedicating the song.
It took a random encounter — a smoke break after a Magnolia Electric Co. set — for me to meet Jason for the first time. I approached him, offered a cordial, “Hey Jason, great show,” and five minutes later, I had my interview.
From the driver’s seat of the red Volvo, with the car idled, I called Jason.
“This is Jason,” He answered.
“Hi, Jason?” I asked, like a moron. “This is Evan, from New Jersey?”
“Oh hey Evan, how are you?” He asked. We made small talk about my travels, and he asked if I wanted to get together sooner, rather than later. I asked if he had any places in mind.
“There’s a small lounge called Fireside near where I live. That would be good. The problem is,” Jason said, “A lot of places I like to go, I get noticed? I’m really uncomfortable when people come up to me. It’s not that I hate it…it’s just gross. There are real rockstars in this city,” he chuckled. I asked for the address and he looked it up for me and spelled out the street name (Ravenswood). I told him I was leaving now, and I arrived there a few minutes before him. I sat outside the bar on a stoop until I saw him round the corner. I stood to greet him, and we walked inside.
Fireside was nearly empty this time of day. The wooden floors were freshly waxed and the sun shone brightly through the large windows at the front of the building. We made a b-line for the bar, where a few stragglers sat watching ESPN. Jason pointed to table in the front corner of the room, and we plopped down. He removed his sweater and I fished through my backpack for my tape recorder. A waitress came by to take our drink orders. He asked for a Duvel, and I a Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. The jukebox was playing, but no one was paying attention. Our drinks arrived quickly, just as Jason was reaching across the table to test the microphone on the tape recorder.
“Testing…I’m sure it works fine. I know this baby,” he jokes. He looks up at me in anticipation of the first question.
“You recently moved back to Chicago from Indiana?” I start.
“Right,” he informs me. “I lived in Indianapolis for just a little while. But I’ve been back and forth between southern Indiana and Chicago for the last…well, since I did Ghost Tropic. I was…Didn’t It Rain and Ghost Tropic, I had written while I was still basically living here. A lot of the material on Ghost Tropic were things that I was working on, and then I finished those records basically in the studios…so, I’ve been back and forth, but I’m here now.”
“What was the original reason for your moving out of Chicago?” I ask. Behind the bar, the phone rings loudly, and we both turn to see how long it’s going to take someone to answer it.
“It got to be real expensive, and it still is,”Jason admits. “It’s just that–at the time–to maintain a full time band, a practice space, and an apartment, and full-time touring, meant that there was just something that had to give, and for me it was not going to be the music. Like, I wasn’t going to go back to doing another forty-hour a week job, which just basically shuts down all my touring opportunities. So, I moved back to Indiana for a little while, and we actually were able to…we recorded a few records back and forth between having part of the band living in Chicago, part of the band living in Indiana, and me living in Chicago. It’s really not like a traditional rehearsing-on-a-weekly-schedule kind of band. Mostly, I present the songs to the band, and then we work them up for the tour.”
At this point, Depeche Mode’s “Barrel of a Gun” suddenly starts to blare from the bar’s speakers, as if there should have been one hundred more people here than there were. The music remains at varying degrees of loud for the remainder of our chat.
“How’d you get together with the Coke Dares,” I inquire, still working my way up to Chicago-related questions.
“Well, I had known the guys in the Coke Dares…I’d known Jason, Pete, and Mark individually from around Indiana. I had seen their different bands before. I heard Pete in Panoply Academy, I had seen Jason in his band, called Cadmium Orange. They were just people that I saw. I worked in a guitar store called Roadworthy–it’s like a used gear store–so I would see them coming in and out all the time.”
“Long before all that movement between Indiana and Illinois, you grew up in Ohio…what was your childhood like? Was it musical?”
“No. I didn’t play a lot,” Jason admits. “I didn’t play music and people in my family didn’t really play music, but–it’s not a cop-out but it’s true–I think I learned how to play music from just listening to my parent’s record collection. My parents had an amazing record collection for the time–for the late sixties, early-to-mid seventies stuff. It was really wide ranging, so I had a lot of experience listening to,” he chuckles, “like, everything from Eno to Patti Smith, and then a whole bunch of songwriters. Joni Mitchell, I remember listening to a lot when I was younger, just because it was on around the house.”
“How old were you when you started writing your own songs?” I ask. As Jason starts to answer–maybe three words into his answer–a train rushes by on an elevated track that is located between Ravenswood and the huge cemetery that dominates the landscape of this neighborhood.
“I’d say by the time I was ten for sure I already had written a lot of songs, I was making little…My parents had, you know, the classic old beat-up old guitar at the house that nobody could really play, and I sort of taught myself how to play a little bit on it. I was making cassette recordings on that by the time I was ten–only for myself–and I think my brother and sister might have been the only people who ever heard that stuff.” As he continues his story, Depeche Mode’s “The Love Thieves” begins to play. “Eventually, I remember that I would be at school–I was in the school band in about Junior High–and I can remember actually being in band practice, and when practice was done, having a guitar and having a tape recorder, and recording in the band room because I thought it sounded good. I remember writing songs like that, just by myself, so by the time I was in High School I was already in a working band called Spine Riders.”
He laughs as he says it.
“Spine Riders!?” I exclaim. Each time we say it–he first and then I–we absurdly laugh and embellish the long “i” sound in “spine.”
“I mean, we listened to a ton of those Touch & Go bands,” Jason says. “Other guys in the band listened to a lot of, like, Circle Jerks. We listened to a lot of classic rock stuff. I liked Butthole Surfers.”
“In what town was this?” I ask.
“Part of this would have been in Lorain, Ohio, near where my family moved to after living in West Virgina,” he says. “So, this band, the Spine Riders, went on until I went to college. I was the youngest guy in the band–I think we got together when I was about twelve or thirteen–and those guys were all quite a bit older than me. I was probably a freshman in high school when some of them were getting ready to split for college and move out of town. But, you know, that was just sort-of a traditional band, I wrote a lot of songs, I wrote a lot of lyrics, everyone had established roles to play in the band, so it took a long time before I was fully singing and writing the songs that I had worked on myself.”
“You’re also a fine artist–when did that start?” I wonder.
“Yeah,” Jason responds, “Well, I mean, I guess so,” he laughs. “Yeah, I’ve always sort of–equally with music–been a scribbler and a painter. But um,” he pauses and takes a sip from the Duvel-filled tulip glass in front of him, “you know, I made it barely through college with any sort of focus outside of music. I did study art–I didn’t study any music in school–I studied everything that I could get my hands on. I was into religion, and I was into writing; I was into just…history. I tried everything. I loved a lot of the subjects but I could never see myself going into any one real direction other than just doing music. I remember the day that I graduated I had my cap and gown and I threw them in the back of a truck and started a tour playing music that would be Songs: Ohia or Jason Molina stuff. And I never stopped from then on.”
“What school was this?” I ask Jason.
“I went to Oberlin,” he says.
“Oh, okay,” I nod. “My cousin went there.”
“It’s a great school for different things,” Jason concedes, “but, having spent a lot of time growing up in the area, I think that part of why so many musicians come out of there–some people I went to school with there are still making records–is just because it’s a really gray and a severe weather place. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. It’s not close enough to Cleveland that you would go there regularly, and, you’re just sort of locked in there. People can become really dedicated to their art there. So, I think that’s why I was in three bands at any one different time at school; different projects, and maybe not with any goal to record anything. That’s another thing–a lot of the people that ended up coming to school around the time I did were already in established bands, or bands that were serious, so they weren’t going to sit at school and wait until they got back during Spring Break to put the band back together. I think the goal at Oberlin was just to make as much music as possible, and that’s really held on.”
“As far as the city of Chicago is concerned,” I begin, “how do you think that living here has influenced your art?”
“Well, having grown up always within a not-too-far drive–especially around the time of like…” he looks down at the wooden tabletop and then regains his focus. “See, in Cleveland, there were no age restrictions to go and see shows, as far as I can recall. I remember from the time I was eleven or twelve, going to see shows. And it was nothing for us to come out to Chicago from Cleveland. I had friends who were old enough to drive. I was just tagging along, but it was nothing for us to ritualistically get a hold of what bands were playing in the region and then go there…” Our waitresses cell phone rings and we again glance over to see how many rings it will take for her to answer. “…So, I had the chance to see a lot of bands who are now either in moth balls or not ever going to play again for different reasons. A lot of the Touch and Go bands were important to me–especially later on in college. I got to work with Palace, and that’s when I got educated on Silver Jews, Smog, and Royal Trux. That was really important to me, because I saw that they were really good songwriters with a lot of character, and I learned that in Chicago there were labels that were dedicated enough to put out that kind of music. It made the idea of releasing your own music attainable to me.”
“You’ve had the ability to tour through a lot of cities due to you prolific output,” I state. “Do you think that Chicago is an epicenter, as far as independent labels in the US are concerned?”
“Well, because I didn’t grow up here, and I don’t have a very solid grasp on the whole history of the music in the region other than my own experience starting in the very late eighties, I would say it is, but it’s also geographically a hub. I mean, I love it here for that reason, but also, it just attracts musician. Professional musicians–who are likely candidates for moving around a lot–invariably spend some time here, and that’s when I get to see them play in these really small places, or out of the context of their original bands. And, similarly, bands that don’t get out much still make sure that Chicago is a stop.”
“Who would you consider to be local peers of yours?” I ask.
“Oh, well…it’s…I mean,” Jason reaches for his beer before continuing, “because I’m younger–by quite a lot–than most of the musicians that are putting out stuff on Drag City and Touch & Go, there are musicians that I see that I think I have things in common with. I wouldn’t call them peers. It’s hard for me to put my name in the same sentence because I’m able to see Robbie Fulchs play, or Sally Timms, or Jon Langford, or the rare times you can see Shellac, or any of the members of The Cocktails, or the Tortoise guys, or any of the Wilco people’s side projects–I’m always really interested to get out there and see what they’re really working on. It’s a good proving ground, Chicago is. They have a very critical audience here.”
The Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” starts playing and we both instinctively reach for our drinks. “What about your favorite club in Chicago?” I ask.
“I’ve always loved like–I can remember–Lounge Ax. Lounge Ax holds a dear place in my heart because on one of the very first times that I ever put myself out there on tour under my own name, without even a record, I was given really good spots to play; opening with really quality touring bands. I wasn’t just thrown in there on the worst night possible at the worst slot possible. Also, I don’t feel like I was ever molested there. A typical way of abusing a young band or a young songwriter is to dangle a really interesting show in front of them and say, ‘There are these musicians that I’m sure you’d like to play with,’ and then you find out that the reality of the situation is–that band is getting off the stage at 9:30, and you’re playing at the end of a late show. You’re not on stage until 1:30 in the morning, and the whole audience that came to see the original band is long gone. Lounge Ax was always really respectful in that way. I think the Empty Bottle has done really well by me over the years. They’ve put me on really good bills. I’ve had some great opening slots there. The Double Door is a nice venue. Schuba’s has always treated me fantastically–very accommodating and really–Schuba’s is the club that’s over here,” he says, pointing out the window “…on Southport and Belmont. Actually, in February, every Monday night I curated a show and played a solo show there. So they host a series like that, which is really fantastic, because you get to try out new material and people who never get to see you will come from far away. They can plan and say, ‘Look, he’s going to be doing stuff that he doesn’t normally play.’ I remember this group of people who drove all the way from Detroit down here to see me just because they knew it was a rare time to see me play solo and new songs.”
“And which acts did you ask to play when you were curating?” I want to know.
“Well, I had a lot of local bands. I had a really good band called Bosco and Jorge, Slow Planet–Jon Langford filled in for me. On one of the Mondays I had a family emergency, so–through someone else-s request–I got him to play that night. I had Andrew Bird, Pete Schreiner–who plays bass in the Magnolia Electric and has a solo project called Thousand Arrows–came out and played. I had Winter Blanket–from Duluth. It was a handful, you know? Every night I tried to keep it to three bands.”
“Did you pick those area bands due to them having a similar sound, or a shared ideology, or just because you enjoy their music?” I ask, drinking from my pint glass.
“It’s hard for me to see [a shared ideology] because I don’t have a local club that I frequently find myself going to. I tour so much that when I’m home I try to get out to see bands in different contexts, or I try to see the strangest musical project possible. Maybe the side-project of a band I would normally get to see on tour. I’d say that the thing I’ve learned about [an ideology]–since I’ve been here–is that it’s work, work, work, work. The musicians tend to really support each other–even if it’s, stylistically, an earth-and-moon difference. I’ve seen hardcore avant-garde guys at my shows and I’ve been at their shows. And it’s not to pat each other on the back, it gets more to be like, everyone is genuinely interested in what everyone else is doing.”
The Nickelback song “Too Bad” comes on the stereo and we both innately begin to speak louder–I think–in an attempt to drown it out.
“When I spoke to Tim Midgett and Jeff Mueller, they both mentioned that–Chicago being a very blue-collar town–everybody is really out to see as much as they can and then help each other and support each other.”
“Right on,” he agrees, “and those are two absolute warriors when it comes to playing a lot and–I’m sure–seeing a lot. I-ve seen them both out at a lot of different shows that’s music that isn’t necessarily what you would expect them to, but that’s the thing, it defeats the purpose to have expectations about what really creative musicians are going to be interested in. They’re interested in everything, and that doesn’t mean they’re not critical. When it’s bad, it’s truly bad, and they know that, and they’re happy to share that with each other.”
“So then you would say that musicians or artists in Chicago are not cliquish or anything?” I summarize.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say so,” Jason concurs. “I wouldn’t say that just from the point of view of having never felt excluded in this town. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not in a traditional band where I’m usually surrounded by the same people or a certain kind of music–I find myself at a club watching old fifties and sixties blues cats, or jazz guys, or I’m seeing really young jazz projects, or seeing crazy freak-out music, seeing really spastic bands, I tend to see the same kinds of people at all these shows. I’m thinking, ‘Hey I just saw that group of people and I don’t know who the hell they are, but I saw them at the Old Town School watching a country band.’ It’s an accessible city. It’s really not that hard to get to a lot of these venues, the venues have such personality too. Each venue tends to have it’s own character. Sometimes it’s sleezy, and scummy, and the typical things you’d expect, but some are really classy, and smart, and managed and operated in a way that makes you feel comfortable as just a music lover–not even as a musician.”
“You also said you were never ‘molested’ by Lounge Ax. Would you expand that to say most Chicago venues are accommodating for local as well as touring acts”
“Absolutely, yes,” he agrees. “I think that’s a strong point that I a lot of times I forget, because I always count myself as just a touring musician. I do notice that it’s really easy to find a bill where you have a local band and you have two touring bands. The thing is, the quality of the local bands is so high that–in general–I’ll see that they already have two records out, or they’ve just maybe toured once or twice, or these are bands that are likely to be on tour next summer, and from then on you’ll never see them again in Chicago…not as a local band.” He pours the last of his Duvel out of the glass bottle and expertly down the side of his glass.
“I think Chicago has more young bands that find their way to my ears than any other city,” I admit, “and I think bands like Pinebender, Bear Claw, Quatre Tete–I don’t want to say they’re beyond–but they’re much more developed and interesting than what I’m used to on the east coast.”
“And it has a lot to do with–like I said, you can actually physically watch a lot of different kinds of music here. It’s not the same as going home and amassing a great collection of contemporary music, studying it with your ears, and adapting it to your own playing, or absorbing or synthesizing it. I think–at least from a songwriter’s point of view–it comes right to your gut a lot faster when you’re standing there in the room and you get the sense of it. I mean, it’s…it’s just like any music city–you just get a heck of a lot more opportunity to see things here. For eight dollars you can see a great touring band here. Still.”
The familiar opening of “Losing My Religion” arises from the lounge’s sound system and I start to wonder who, if anyone, is manipulating the jukebox.
“What are your perceptions of the local government and regular old Chicagoans? Have politics or policy ever affected your choice to stay-in or leave Chicago?”
“Well, it’s just–I still don’t own a house in Chicago. A lot of my musician friends who are a little bit older than me actually own property here. I bounce around the city depending on what I can afford and what’s in closer proximity to my wife’s commute–those are my main factors. The Aldermen have a lot to do with preserving the character of a neighborhood where musicians or artists flock. I’ve seen a lot of success in Chicago bands that don’t necessarily all live in or congregate in one neighborhood. So long as you can find rehearsal space, which I think is not entirely a thing of the past in Chicago. In New York, I know from experience and a lot of friends there how difficult it is to find safe rehearsal space. Or, you know, you might be talking about something that’s such a far commute from where you actually live, that it makes practicing an ordeal. In Chicago I think that there’s more opportunity to find non-residential rehearsal space. It may be something that you really have to be pioneering in, like, adapting into a workable rehearsal space. As long as Alderman and–as you say…regular old Chicagoans–aren’t that interested in turning neighborhoods over, and maximizing how much retail and parking and residential space we can turn it into, there are musicians who–for the most part, I think–contribute something really fantastic to the face of a neighborhood. They come into a neighborhood and they work late hours, they have to eat, they have to basically not burn the place down every night, or else they’re going to be out of there as soon as possible. So, as long as they have a hardworking attitude, they’re a great benefit to whatever neighborhood they’re in. I can’t speak from experience from having lived in a neighborhood where it’s all those bands congregating…the minute that I hear about that I want to get away from that area.”
“You mentioned ‘bouncing around…’ I think it was Jeff Mueller who mentioned something about rent control in Chicago being fickle. Is that true in your experience, and if so, does it make it easier to ‘bounce around’?”
“Well yeah,” Jason agrees, “you’re almost forced…actually, the first place that we moved out of, the place here in Chicago that convinced us to move to southern Indiana–which we had already lived in so it was already a known place–was just because of how insane the rent got in just a short time. It’s actually happening to me right now…so…you know, you hope that at some point the formula matches up so that you have the ability to be somewhere a little more permanently. Just because the way I plan my projects means–if I’m home for one month, that’s got to be a very productive writing or recording time, because the rest of the time I’m sporadically through the months on tour, or just straight on through, week-after-week on tour. I want to be able to plan on coming home to my rehearsal space, my practice space, and working. The rent does get crazy. It will push you out and–in my case–it could really hamper recording. I need to live somewhere. I need to know where I’m going to be living.”
“Have you seen much political changeover in your time here?” I wonder.
Jason shakes his head and wipes his hair back from his forehead. “I’m still under the same mayor, of course.” He laughs loudly. “The dynasty that never ends–it’s truly a dynasty! But citywide, I just have a hard time locating myself right now because I’ve changed neighborhoods so much, although, it is walking distance from neighborhood to neighborhood for me. It’s just…the neighborhoods here have such a different face on them. I’m talking about on a street-level government. Then, statewide, Illinois is a hilarious state governmentally, because you have this metropolis up on the lake and then your governor lives in rural, rural, rural, rural America. I think that that’s just…all of the problems that could maybe come with that are inherent in the kind of scandals and corruptions that play out.”
“You’ve kind of hinted that you haven’t seen much socio-economic change either.”
“I definitely do see that,” Jason corrects me. “I’m saying that I have seen instances where you have Aldermen and street-level government and neighborhood organizations that are interested in preserving the entire character of their neighborhood. And, that seriously means that those two vacant lots, or those two sort-of run-down buildings in the middle of the block–that doesn’t mean that’s an opportunity to just stick up a really stupid, two-million-dollar townhouse. Depending on where it’s located, in different neighborhoods, if it gets a corner spot, that’s the way that they start going. It’s just like Pacman, watching him eat up the block. That I’ve actually seen within a really short time period. It changes the character of the neighborhood therefore it changes the character of the city. The end.”
“You said before you’re home for a month writing or record and then the rest of the time you’re touring? As such a well-traveled person, how would you compare Chicago to all those other places in the US and outside the US that you’ve seen?”
“I think every city has it’s own character,” Jason says, expectedly. “I love and hate a lot of cities, including Chicago, for different things.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Well, I love Chicago because it’s easy to maneuver for someone who is not from here. Whereas, getting in and out of New York, a young band that maybe has never been out there on the east coast…the difficulties of operating the highway system from–nowadays it seems like, from Delaware to North Carolina on the east coast, if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, no amount of planning is going to really save your butt. You’re not going to get there in time for your soundcheck. You’re probably going to get there really late, feel a lot more frustrated, and out of money. I’d say Chicago is easy to navigate. The west coast has it’s own problems like that to, too. I’m just speaking from about ten or twelve years ago…getting in the van and just taking your band on tour to the east and west coast was very difficult, and before I even lived in Chicago I was able to manage Chicago and Detroit. But, you do three or four tours and you get used to it. You know what to expect. As far as the people’s response to shows, the treatment of bands…I think it’s basically the same as anywhere in the US. Europe is totally a different monster, because each country–depending on how much government subsidization they have or local subsidizing they have–you can walk away from a show in, like…a pizza place, and get paid ten times what you would ever get paid in the US. Just because it’s all local money given for an entertainment budget. There are so many differences, and I’ve toured Europe extensively–there’s a different reason, and a different love for each individual region, but there’s no way to lump Europe into the sort of category that I feel more comfortable lumping all of the US in. I know, having been all over the country…the different between Arizona and North Dakota is like, the difference between Southern Spain and Scandinavia. But also, I think it’s incumbent upon bands to get out there and still play those places where bands just don’t go. Start by doing that in the US. You don’t have to gauge your success by how many times you’ve played in Europe. Certainly don’t do that, because it’s not the same beast by any stretch. It’s actually much more difficult for a band–from my experience–to tour eight days in Texas than it is to a country in western Europe.”
“And the audience response is a whole different story as well,” I state. “Fans speak their minds more freely, and they’re much more interested in the way the music affects them than, say, going to a show in the states where people just kind of stand around and nod their heads.”
“Well, there is a novelty factor in having a band, and it’s not novelty in what I think of as a pejorative way. It’s that, this band rarely gets to be in–for instance, last week I was in Seville–and I never played Seville solo, so I do think that there is an element of people that are like, ‘Wow! Not only is it rare to get him over here with the band, it’s insanely rare to see him solo.’ It makes people come. Yeah, I have noticed that they’ll speak their mind in a critical way that seems very aggressive.”
“Jefre Cantu and Jim Redd from Tarentel say that in Europe and Asia they can be approached after a show by someone who will literally state that they don’t get what the band is doing…but it’s really just inquiring minds wanting to know what drives the musicians they’re seeing,” I comment.
“Yeah,” Jason consents. “I think it’s a much harder question for any musician to actually answer. If you ask a band of five musicians, you’re going to get five different answers. I think if you get the same answer that’s a sign of a really shitty band. I don’t think that kind of audience response is any different from a stone-faced audience in anywhere, USA, that’s sort of like…you can’t tell if they’ve liked it or not, because there’s no real interaction. You walk off that stage not knowing if you pulled off anything, you know? But then you find out everyone loves it. Some places they sit there politely, some people stand like statues, and some people just get totally wild. In Jackson, Mississippi it’s, like, the biggest band in the world reunited just to see some touring band. That place stands out in my mind just because it’s, like, wow, those people come out to shows in places where bands often skip, and they really put everything into it”
“How many times have you played Jackson, Mississippi?” I ask.
“Not a lot. Under a dozen.”
“And they give you a wild response?”
“Well, not just for me, I’ve actually watched other bands play there. I’ve seen some New York bands playing to those audiences or some Pittsburgh bands.”
“It’s No Good” by Depeche Mode is playing when I ask Jason, “As far as the local press is concerned, what’s your general impression of their contribution to Chicago’s music scene?”
“I think it’s supportive, but not in a sycophantic way. I’m definitely happy to get listed here and there as, you know, an important or worthwhile Chicago songwriter to come out and see. One of the local weeklies does, like, an annual thing…like the forty-five or fifty important Chicago musicians.”
“Which weekly?” I inquire.
“That’s The New City. They listed Magnolia [Electric Co.] as one of those bands this year. And it was interesting to see because a lot of the time we actually lived here, we never made anybody’s list. Then I spent two years away, and suddenly the minute that I come back it seems interesting to mention now that we’re Chicagoan again.”
“Do you read the city papers regularly?”
“I love the articles,” he admits. “I breeze through the music sections. I’m not much for the critical stuff. I like the news, you know? Chicago is like…you have to read five different news sources to really get a handle on anything, down to your most local, weekly, Xeroxed handbill that the people on your block put out about the neighborhood crime watch that’s not being reported in the main papers. Musically, I don’t look to these papers for great critical music writing, because it’s…so many bands come, I think their strong point right now is featuring upcoming bands. They balance that fairly well with local and international touring bands. When they get down and dirty and serious, and want to write a ten-page music article, it tends to be worth me time to sit down and read it.”
At this point, our waitress tentatively approaches us and asks if we would like another round of drinks. Jason consents, and she takes our empty bottles away, leaving his tulip glass and my pint glass.
“Music is the only work for you?” I wonder.
“Music is work for me.” He states.
“What are your plans for the future?”
“Right now we have a big tour coming up that starts at the end of July, and in May and June I’m doing some sporadic solo dates. I’m coming to New York to play for this Alan Lomax show, which coincides with this photo exhibition or art exhibition of music related things that Alan Lomax’s people have put together. I’ll be playing some solo shows in the Midwest on my way out there just to get to New York. I’ll probably stop over in Philly…” As he talks, his expression hints that he’s still mapping out the details in his head. His brow is furrowed and his eyes wander. “In June I’m just going just try to synthesize a bunch of the writing I’ve been doing, and from July until about October we’ll be on the road, and I want to just see what I can put together for the new record. I have a lot of ideas.”
“I heard something about a few new records from Secretly Canadian? One solo, one full band?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he concurs. “There’s a solo one that’s going to come out in June or July, called Let Me Go. Then I have the project that I’ve been working on with David Lowery for the last few months. It’s only actually five days of recording, but it’s already a full-length. I just want to edit it down…and I may or may not have some more things to add to that, but that’s with David Lowery and members of Sparklehorse. That’s a really interesting project because I’m not playing with the guys who have been on the last two Magnolia records. Then we have the last new record [Fading Trails] that we recorded with Albini right here at Electrical. That’s going to be twelve songs. It’s a full-length. We actually re-visited a couple songs that I’ve done in the past, just because the band’s arrangements of them over touring has changed the character of them so much, and there was enough interest from fans in releasing those songs. I really felt like, lyrically they did fit, and I didn’t feel like I cheapened them somehow by having put them out on a single like two years ago or anything. I have one song that was on an obscure single I put out like two years ago…so I’m really happy with [Fading Trails] and I’m really happy with the solo record…which I’m glad is actually finished,” he says, nervously.
“Is that going to be like Pyramid Electric Co.?”
“It is.” He states. “It’s really similar, just the instrumentation is a lot different and it’s recorded differently,” we both laugh. “Mike Mogis did the engineering for Pyramid, and Let Me Go is a collaboration of me and another engineer just basically leaving one recording setup, and I just moved microphones around during the day while he would be at work. I would just hit record–it was that easy. He set up a monitoring system for me to listen back to it. I didn’t really have to know anything technical, I could actually just listen to playback and say it’s garbage or not garbage and move a microphone on my own without knowing anything other than what my ears wanted to hear. So, landscape wise–sonically–it’s actually really interesting, whereas Pyramid is a little bit more consistent because it was done in a much more technically advised way. Let Me Go is just gut instinct.”
As the waitress sets the second round of drinks on the table, I ask, “What do you think about recording with Albini here in Chicago?”
“I love it. I’ve recorded…I think this is our fourth or fifth project. It’s for sure our third full-length Magnolia record. I did a full-length solo session there with just me and baritone guitar, and some other singles, and I’ve played on a few other sessions there, so I’ve been in and out of that studio for a long time. For what I want to achieve making a record–a start-to-finish record–it’s an ideal match, because I want to go into a room and record live. I want a document of those human beings that I’m playing that music with, and I learn a lot each time I’m there. That studio, and Steve, utterly respects the musicians… intentions. He’s just there to put it onto the tape for you. I’ve had that approach with every record. I’d go in, I’d want to record them live–”
“Vocals too, right?” I interject.
“Yeah, all the records’ vocals are live. I mean, there’s been times when it’s been a really good take overall, but the vocals were shaky in a place or two. If I think the character of the song or what I was really going for was most closely achieved–even with a shaky vocal take–I have no problem leaving the shaky vocals. I think that working that way…it’s so hard to find a studio that feels comfortable recording that way. People want to really isolate the hell out of the vocals or totally do them separately. I get really excited about recording at Electrical.”
“Which studio to you use when you go there, A or B or both?”
“Both. I love B. I think it’s a fantastic studio. I think architecturally, it’s fantastic. It’s the only time I’ve been in a studio that was built from the ground-up as a studio. We just recorded a couple weeks ago at Sun in Memphis. That’s in a really small room, from that doorway across to the wall here,” he says, pointing over our shoulders, “and that’s the entire recording room. It was, you know, all the Johnny Cash records were done in there, all the Elvis and–everything up until ’55 or something. It’s just plain acoustical tiles, a low ceiling, a linoleum floor…there’s absolutely nothing fancy about the place. It still has a character, but I appreciate the character of a room. Sometimes that could be a hindrance for musicians, but…” he shakes his head to refocus his thoughts. “Anyway, at least recording at Electrical…those are rooms that we eat and sleep and live in when we’re there for the three or four days that we’re making a record. I think that it’s a special place, because it has the space for me to actually work there. I actually get a lot of writing done there. I get up in the super-early morning hours and I’ll just go down to the studio and work out ideas before anybody else is even up and running. The studio is big enough for me to do that. For a lot of reasons–the integrity of the studio, and the accessibility of the studio, and everyone who works there–if you’re serious about making a record, they’re serious about it too. The band gives the direction and the final product, really, is on the band. It’s not on the studio and it’s not on the microphones and it’s not on the engineer.”
“You said you recorded…five albums there?”
“The first Magnolia record, What Comes After the Blues and [Fading Trails] and then the solo thing I haven’t released yet. I’ve released a few songs from that, but…that was a really strange session because I’d written all these songs to do on baritone. It was around the time of Ghost Tropic, which is all just baritone guitar and…”
“…And sounds amazing,” I finish his thought for him.
“Thanks,” he laughs, “it was really difficult to switch from tenor guitar to baritone. It was hell on earth to actually physically change–within four months–to somehow be able to put together something that sounded like I could actually play this machine. I think it’s beautiful, but at the time that I actually got the recording time at Electrical,” he pauses to sip his beer, “I had pneumonia. I was extremely sick, and there was no way I was going to pass that up because I had worked so hard on getting the songs and the sound down and being able to play that baritone guitar. So the session is actually quite interesting because it sounds really…it doesn’t sound like I’m ill, it just sounds like my voice is really raspy. That’s another thing–that was a challenge from the musician’s side that was worth overcoming, just because to get more familiar with the studio and a room–that’s worth a fortune to me.”
“It’s pretty well documented that Didn’t It Rain was supposed to be recorded at Electrical,” I state.
“That’s right. Didn’t it Rain is…” he pauses again to drink, “…similar to Ghost Tropic. On Ghost Tropic I hadn’t recorded with the musicians I was going to record with. I’d never met Shane before, and Ali [Alasdair Roberts] I had played with in Scotland. When I got there, I realized I had this whole batch of material I wanted to do instead of what I had written. Didn’t It Rain was similar. I had a whole batch of songs I wanted to do with my Chicago team and none of them could make it. Steve had a huge schedule change, and in order for me to get songs done before I had to go back on tour, I had to get into a studio. I had an offer to go to Philly and do it, which meant an entirely new band that I picked up on the first day, who I presented entirely new music to. I’m really happy about the way that turned out. I can’t cry about what would have been, I think the risky business of actually changing directions in the middle was really helpful.”
“Do you often find yourself stopping in a studio while you’re on tour to get some songs down on tape?” I inquire.
“Yeah, as much as humanly possible.”
“Is that something you try to generate a schedule for before you leave, or is it just haphazard and random?”
“It has to really be random,” he says, “because, after four or five weeks, maybe you’re totally dead tired, and on that one day off you may have a ten-hour drive. It doesn’t mean that it’s a day off, just a ten-hour drive and no show. I find that sometimes a show gets out at like, 10:30 and there will be an engineer there that says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a studio, why don’t you come by and jam?’ In Philly one time I ended up doing my song for…” he drops his head to his hands, trying to think of the exact details, “…it was done because an engineer came to a show and said, ‘I can just take you over to my studio, why don’t you check it out?’ It was that simple. There was no-one booked, it was like, ‘Why don’t we just run some tape and learn a song or two.’ That’s how we ended up doing some songs–and that’s how I’ve done a lot of recording, or gotten a lot of really great ideas for songs–and maybe the physical recording never turned into anything. One of my favorites was, we were in D.C., and I went to school with Phil from Trans Am and The Fucking Champs, and Trans Am has a really nice studio. So we played in D.C., and they offered to let us stay over there.” Jason stops mid-story for more Duvel. “We got over there, and we just set up everything and we ended up with recording where it was like, my full band and Trans Am and some other guys that were there. It was this chaotic, two-hour space jam that sounded more like Hawkwind than anything, but out of that came ideas for a couple of really good songs that later ended up on records. So, sometimes it doesn’t turn into something worth giving to anybody else’s ears. Taking other musicians out of the context of their safe band and regular recording style has really lead to some great moments on finished tape for me.”
“What’s your set-up at home?” I ask.
“I have a four-track and one microphone…just as simple as possible. I actually have a two-track at home, I have two four-tracks sitting in my closet, but I only use the two-track because I don’t ever need overdubs anyway. I mostly record in mono, just acoustic guitar and voice, that’s how I do most of the demos.” He reaches for his glass again and drinks. Another Depeche Mode song, “Useless,” comes on, and I suggest that someone’s just put on the entire Ultra album.
“Going back to the topic of Chicago,” I begin, “how would you gauge your happiness as a Chicagoan? Are you proud you live here? Do you want to stay here?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Jason states. “I’ve never pretended that I grew up here, because I moved around a lot growing up, but from the time that I made the leap to become a full-time professional musician…See,” he continues, changing gears, “I’ve always felt that that’s one of the most important things that younger bands don’t understand. They’ll ask me a lot of times, ‘What do you do?’ Or, ‘What’s your day job?’ And it’s, like, I had no money. I got no money from my family, I had no money from any other mystery source, I just worked crappy jobs like everybody I knew, and at one point, without any money, I had to choose either, ‘Okay, I can go on tour for six weeks,’ or ‘I can work and try and get two weeks off here and there,’ and I just took the leap to go on tour. And that meant–for me, and for a lot of musicians I know–quite a long time of sheer uncertainty and being absolutely broke. It’s really hard to find yourself thirty-years old, living again like a college student because you made the choice years ago to be a full-time touring musician. In the eyes of some people, you are utterly successful. I think that they sometimes equate positive critical acknowledgement with financial gain. I haven’t seen that. Really. Some of my favorite bands that are still around here in Chicago understand that going on tour is a labor of love, and it’s also a labor of losing money. Touring is expensive, and dirty, and hard, and money comes in so sporadically…especially when you’re on an independent label. My relationship with Secretly Canadian is, it’s a fifty-fifty deal. No money comes in if there’s no record out. I would like to see a lot more young bands take that leap as early as possible, because you’re not going to fail if you’re still writing music. I mean, if you’re setting out to make a certain amount of money, you’ll never even start the ignition. We’ve toured through gas crises. We toured in England during the huge gas crisis where they had the striking truckers, and they set all the refineries on fire, and gas was, like, twenty dollars a gallon. It went up to the point where you basically had to bribe people at a gas station to get any gas. Of course, we didn’t set out to do that, but we did it, and we survived, and we came home, and everybody was still here and our lives were still in tact.”
“As incredible as that is,” I state, “what you’re saying maybe goes against the common belief that for independent bands, the money is made on the road and not through record sales.”
“Yeah,” he nods, “and the balance is not easy to figure out. Touring more does not translate into more record sales, and more records you release or sell doesn’t necessarily translate into more people coming to see a show. It’s a really stupid game, the business part of it, because you can say, ‘Where normally we would play to three-hundred people, now we can play to six-hundred people,’ but maybe it’s at a ticket price that’s so hard for our fans to come up with, that we actually get less people to come to bigger venues.”
“What about those people who come out to shows? Do you think they proud to boast the names of bands that reside in Chicago? And, are the non-music fans cognizant of the art that comes out of the city?”
“Oh, I think so,” Jason agrees. “Yeah. I’d say that from playing at least that one-month of shows here every Monday, the people here–even if they’re just passing through for a season or working here temporarily–they’re fiercely loyal to their little ‘scene’. People who can walk over to the Double Door, they love that place. It’s like that little hometown bar for them even though they’re from Wisconsin…even if they come down from Madison to work or something.”
“Sister of Night” starts playing. At least the album is almost over…
“I was thinking, you’re a good…well, I don’t want to say a case study…but your story is fascinating, because, hearing about the ease in which one can move into and then around a city like Chicago shows me that packing up and moving out on a whim is very possible.”
“Well yeah, I don’t have to drive…I can take the bus or train anywhere I want to go. I could live easily without a car. I happen to have one because in an emergency situation, a car for me means I can do a show six hours away. And from Chicago that means a lot. From Chicago I can do…” he trails off.
“Saint Louis, Milwaukee, Louisville…” I name the big cities.
“Madison, Bloomington, Cleveland, Toledo…” He takes care of the smaller cities. “Even some smaller places, too. And then you start thinking of and listing all the little colleges I can play at. And another amazing thing about Chicago is that one whole side of the city is the lake. That’s really a nice part of living here. You get like, wicked changes, what is it…nine months of winter, basically? You still get wicked changes. I thought it could’ve snowed about three days ago, and now it’s seventy-two degrees outside.”
“What about life in Indiana, what was that like?” I ask.
“In southern Indiana especially, people will come up from Louisville or Lexington, and people will come down from Indianapolis to see basement shows in Bloomington. People will drive quite a distance to see shows. Even the basement shows were huge. I played a basement show in Bloomington–famous Bloomington shows are, like, Bright Eyes opening for me in a now defunct record store that I worked in called Roscoes. I’ve played with Mountain Goats, The Get Up Kids, Simon Joyner…and these were all basement shows. And because there are so many bands in Bloomington, it’s sort of similar to Chicago. There are a lot of bands and it’s okay to share bass players. I never liked that idea of exclusively playing with one band. Can’t you only expand your brain and your outlook by reading more than one kind of book? I bet you might be a pretty devastating bass player if you only read romance novels…I don’t know how that works,” we laugh loudly, drawing a confused look or two from the bar.
“What, as a final point about the region, would you consider some places of interest that have influenced you personally as far as your life and your music are concerned?”
“Well, outside of Chicago, there’s the entire industrial coast of the great lakes. That’ll be my last fleeting image from this earth. It’s burned into my eyeballs. Burning smoke stacks, and steal mills, and that acrid sulfur smell of the industry. I mean, that’s what was on my horizon growing up, metaphorically but also literally. That was my future, working at U.S. Steel or working at Ford. It’s one thing to get to tour around the country in a Chevy and it’s another thing to spend my while life riveting a bolt into the chassis of one. I’d say I wouldn’t avoid that stuff, and I don’t romanticize it either, but it’s real. Of course, the east coast is full of it too, but notice how the highways are routed around the worst of it. The first time you find yourself lost in parts of New Jersey, you realize what really feeds the machine out there. That’s another thing. The highway. Getting on the road and having nowhere to go, and not being worried about it. That’s where some pretty nice creative stuff happens. Getting purposely lost. A lot of my songwriting is basically…imaging purposely going to a country where you don’t know the language and then getting lost, and then refusing to ask for help,” he laughs. “That’s another thing, don’t ask for any help. The physical places in Chicago are too numerous, the whole city is still great for me for getting to see people and be around real people. Anywhere where there’s no tourists, man.”
We’re making small talk, working our way through this round of drinks when Jason says, “You really do see thirty good, solid years of music walking down the streets here. You really can see The Mekons, you can see a lot of Touch & Go bands, tons of Drag City bands, and with those labels being here, even bands that have moved away or were never from Chicago, when they’re in town you see them. It’s not like…the only time you get recognized here is by someone who’s not from here. That happens to me, which is so funny, because I’m like, ‘Who in the world would recognize me?’ It’s people from another city who have seen me on tour, and usually recently…like someone who saw me a few months ago in Boston, or someone who saw me a few weeks ago in Madison. They don’t realize that I just live here and I’m not really visiting, I’m just walking around…I’m going to the library or the post-office or something. I’ll actually see other people, I’ll be in the line at the post office with someone whose records I bought ten years ago and I’m like…it’s pretty great to see that, and I know that there’s no wall here. And if it is, it’s just…please leave me alone. It’s not from a rock star point of view. David Bowie was sitting in this little, the smallest most unknown coffee in the world, a little place that’s been there since the forties, this old school diner. Of course, he was playing in town and wandering around looking for somewhere to go, and he comes into this place where I’m at all the time. I mean, what in the hell? You would maybe expect that if you’re on like a major strip or a hugely populated, glitzy area, but this was in a little, tiny neighborhood in Chicago. I still think that that’s pretty wonderful.” He pours more Duvel and says, “By the way, when you leave here, you should go through the cemetery,” he says, pointing out the window. “You have no idea how big it is until you’re lost in it.”
A few minutes later, after the final notes of Depeche Mode’s Ultra fade, our conversation shifts to Jason’s previous work and his relationship with Secretly Canadian. I ask, “Was there anything in particular that attracted you to your record label?”
“Well, this is my ten-year anniversary of working with Secretly Canadian. At the time that I started working with them, it wasn’t a label, it was a concept. It was two brothers and a friend of theirs, and a concept and a letter that they wrote to me. It said, ‘We are interested in starting up a new label, is Drag City going to put out your next record?’ I hadn’t even considered putting out another record. I put out my first seven-inch, Nor Cease Thou Never Now, with Palace–that was just a Will Oldham imprint distributed and manufactured by Drag City–anyway, from that session I had fourteen or fifteen songs done, and I had a ton of other songs, so it was not out of the question to do a whole record. I was really excited about doing a record and having something to hold in my hand, and say ‘Wow!’ At the time I didn’t have a concept of putting out records on a label or choosing between labels or anything. The dedication and the interest of this group of people who set in stone right away that ‘We want to put out records that the bands or the artists have one-hundred percent control of artistically, right down to the paper that you print the thing on’ was wonderful. You just hand it to them and it’s done. And then, ultimately, their goal was to have their musicians and artists become self-sufficient. They would do whatever they could with integrity to make sure that they put that record out there to enough people and got you on tour or did whatever they could do for you to make it that so you didn’t have to spend half of your year working in a shitty job and not making music. They have a belief that if an artist has a safe and comfortable place to grow, they probably won’t take that down the wrong path…they’ll use that to a positive advantage. And I’ve actually seen that happen with most of the artists that they’ve signed. People that have stuck with them have made some really interesting music, have gone on to collaborate with a lot of interesting musicians to the point where now they’re a label that…somehow, having to listen to five-hundred demos a month of very mediocre and usually just worse than mediocre bands, has been cut down to really prime stuff. People know that this label is going to put out decent stuff and sometimes amazing stuff. The submissions they get are amazing, and if Secretly Canadian can’t do something with it, now they know enough people to just hand it to another label that’s really glad to work with them.”
“Would that be like Jagjaguwar?” I ask. “What’s the connection there?”
“They share a couple of partners and they were independent labels–independent independently–one was a Virginia label and one was an Indiana label, and they merged sometime when I still lived in Indiana…to the benefit of both labels, actually. Then they turned into this third entity, which is their manufacturing and production facility. Most of the way that labels probably stay afloat in the worst of times is the fact that they’re manufacturing and distributing records that other people won’t touch. Other people don’t want to manufacture a really expensive, insanely packaged record by an obscure band, but they took it upon themselves to try it out and I’ve seen great success with them. I’m really excited to see what the press does with them, because, the press is not the place that writes about record labels, really. You might get a little feature in a music magazine, but…Touch & Go’s twenty-fifth birthday is this year and Secretly Canadian was one-hundred percent modeled on the way that Touch & Go was conceived as a business entity back when Chris and Ben and Jonathan started the label. So, it’ll be interesting to see, because Touch & Go got all these bands to reunite, and Secretly Canadian is a young label, but they’ve made it ten years, so they don’t having to worry about bands reuniting. It’s a scary thought to think in ten or fifteen more years, some of these bands that Secretly Canadian has worked with all this time might have to get back together for their reunion show.”
“Someone mentioned,” I begin to say, not sure where this is going, “I think it might have been Tim Midgett–a band’s relationship with Touch and Go doesn’t include formal contracts, it’s basically a handshake deal.”
“Same thing with Secretly Canadian. It’s always been exactly like that, and modeled on the Touch & Go system. The one time we flirted with actually doing a contract, we actually drew up a rudimentary contract. This was at a time when I was spread very thin. I had, actually–Secretly Canadian has always given me the freedom to record on other labels if I want to, no problem at all. So I love doing singles, EPs, compilation tracks, weird projects, things for movies, because I need to be able to know that I can just go after that and worry about it on my own terms, and it’s no problem. There was a time a few years ago when I was selling a significant amount of records relative to what I was selling, and I think it was just sort of common knowledge that I would–for no money–do whatever you asked, as long as I had some sort of finger in the quality control. If you showed me a list of bands for a compilation you wanted to make, I was like, ‘All these people have to be confirmed, and if they’re not and you lie to me, I’m not doing it.’ And that’s one step. ‘Oh, can I be in charge of the artwork for your split seven-inch?’ All of those little things…if I found that it was easy to work with independent labels, I would go for it. I think it became apparent that, if I wasn’t careful in planning on doing another record, and just flat out just saying, ‘I’m going to do another record with this label,’ that I could have easily done a couple records in one year for three different labels. So I remember we tore up the contract the time we made it, and it’s funny that we even did it, but it wasn’t out of the fear of something negative happening other than something’s not going to be handled right when you think of the context. I have eight records with this one label, a lot of seven-inches and things, and Secretly Canadian has always been really good about promising to do their best to keep my catalogue together. I think that’s amazing. So, I don’t have to worry about them one day just putting out all my demos. I mean, they have a full closet of demos, literally hundreds and hundreds of outtakes, demos…shit I can’t even remember what it is. And I don’t have to worry about them putting that stuff out without me being involved in it. I think that kind of trust with a label only comes from having worked with someone for a long time. I think if someone promised you all of these things right out front, like a label like Touch & Go would, or Secretly Canadian would, most bands would say no. But if you learn that from experience and from what other bands tell you when they say, ‘Yeah I’ve been with Touch and Go for seventeen years and here’s all the amazing things that have happened to us, and here are all the shitty horror stories that have happened to all of my friends,’ you start to see how those labels survive even when record sales aren’t at their best. Both of those labels–especially Secretly Canadian–don’t sign bands to make money. That’s just suicide. What if you have seventy releases on your label, showing the taste of your label, and then this new band comes out that’s really popular and you nab them just because you have the money to get them? Right away they don’t have a family, and then the family that’s already been there through all of these releases gets smaller and smaller and smaller and more isolated as the label has to focus on this band–which is the anomaly–and you can lose a whole roster of really good bands that way.”
“Amalgamated Sons of Rest was one of those other-label projects?” I wonder.
“That was Galaxia, a west coast label. That was the only thing we ever did with them. I totally forgot about them…and then the My Morning Jacket record, that was Jade Tree.”
“How did those come about?”
“That was at the time when anybody could’ve asked me to do anything and I was going to. Now I just keep all that stuff for myself and try to scope out entire projects. And they may never be released, but at least a start-to-finish record instead of giving up songs or valuable recording time or valuable touring time to doing a project that I really don’t know much about. Of course, working with My Morning Jacket, that was a total possibility. Both bands were unknown, they were a regional band who we knew and had seen and played shows with. Now it would be utterly impossible to do that split.”
“I’m guessing Amalgamated Sons of Rest something you had thought of doing after your early work with Will Oldham and then later with Alasdair?”
“Yeah, well, we had done shows and we had always talked about it–the three of us–about getting together and recording. At that time, it was just an absolute miracle of finding the right time when we all could do it. Ali had agreed to come over to the US, which is unusual because he tours very rarely in the US, so to come over from Scotland was great. It was all worked out that somehow–I don’t even know who paid for Ali to come over–I think I offered to actually pay for him to come over, and I think maybe Galaxia did it. He got over here somehow. I don’t know, maybe Will paid for him. It was absolutely no stress when we got together. We did it in Shelbyville, Kentucky. That’s where Jim [James, My Morning Jacket]’s from I think, or that’s where their studio is. I think we’ll do another one. We actually had another one planned, scheduled–this is about two, three years ago, probably–and we were going to do it in Paris. Will and I were going to go to Paris and meet up with Ali, and one of them had a schedule conflict so…It’s actually my turn now to have the schedule conflict trying to get it all set up,” he laughs. “Collaborating with David Lowery, the Sparklehorse guys, really, I don’t look at collaborating with those musicians who are well-known as anything different than collaborating with unknown musicians who I just see one time and say, ‘Man that’s a really great bass player, let’s get together and record a seven-inch!”
A Death Cab For Cutie album starts playing on the lounge’s sound system, and for the remainder of the interview, Jason sporadically begins humming counter-melodies or tapping beats with his feet under our table. Jason looks up from his drink and says, “Doing the Amalgamated Sons of Rest was interesting because…I have a love for traditional music, but I don’t have really any working knowledge of it. I know a lot of traditional songs, from melodies I heard living in West Virginia, from things my grandmother would sing–or were in her record collection–or old gospel music. Will and Ali had an insanely able-bodied approach to doing traditional music. You know, Ali knows these ballads with, like, fifty verses. He just whips ’em out. He knows the stuff. I really never learned covers. I was the one kid in high school who couldn’t play the AC/DC song–unless I was in an AC/DC cover band–I just didn’t have that kind of knowledge of the stuff, and [Will and Ali] were comfortable working that way, and wanted to do those kinds of traditional songs. I didn’t really have anything to offer. I had some original songs, which–in those arrangements–we were really comfortable with because they sound more like traditional songs. Working on What Comes After the Blues was memorable. I’ve worked with Jennie Benford a lot, who is a hardcore straight bluegrass musician and beautiful songwriter with a beautiful voice.”
“She wrote the second song on the album, right?” I ask.
“Yes. That song was something she was working on as a bluegrass song. She did this arrangement of it with us during sound-check one day, just playing along and learning it, and I said, ‘You have to do that song in this version, even if no one hears it, you still have to do it because it’s so beautiful.’ The sound man was sitting there going, ‘Whose song is this?’ and we said, ‘We’re just making it up, Jennie wrote it.’ She had been touring with us, so she knew what she could get away with as far as saying, ‘Why don’t you play it like this?’ Just to watch that–her being comfortable working within the band was really inspiring–and it translated into the recording of that record, to the point where we did three more songs even after part of the band had already left. Jennie was waiting for a cab, and Mike Brenner the steel player was also ready to go to the airport. I remember Jennie had her coat on because it was wintertime, and she had her hat on and gloves on and everything, waiting for the cab, and the cab didn’t have to be there for twenty more minutes. I remember her coming down and Steve having everything still set up, and we recorded probably one of my favorite songs we ever did…which are those last three songs from What Comes After the Blues.”
“By the way,” I suggest, “Mike the steel player should come on every tour with you. When I see him I can’t force myself away from what he was contributing to your set.”
“He tours when he wants to and when he can. He’s got his solo project called Slow Mo. He’s just been doing shows with Medeski, Martin and Wood, I think. He tours a lot with other bands. I don’t have any claim to him, but I think it’s a very special part of the band, so he’s always welcome to come as he wants. But he’s a full-time Philly badass. It’s amazing. With all those guys, I don’t try to push that country, southern-rock thing. If it happens, it happens. But, when you’re doing steel–to be as original as he is and to be able to step outside of the obvious southern-rock riffs–it’s a real jewel to be able to play with musicians like that. When we were in Memphis, we tried to do real…circa-nineteen-sixty-one soul session playing, and I think the band pulled that off, also.”
“I also saw the Coke Dares in New York many months ago, and the sound of that band versus their sound with you is frighteningly different.”
“Sure. That’s like…that’s a band that I would’ve loved to see open for the Minutemen. I would go see that band when I was working in Indiana and I just knew that…I don’t know if my songwriting would in any kind of way be part of that, but that’s a band that I just felt like I had to get up there and play with them. I don’t even think I could’ve offered anything, and instead what happened was, they approached me–not as a whole, but one of those guys–wanting to play some stuff, and I was like, ‘Why not make this a rhythm section?’ I love this band, and it-s just as important to me to play with bands who can play other kinds of music as it is to be able to play along with a band that has a sound. I never want to sit down and have a sound. These guys really do have a sound, though, I mean, these last three records that I-ve done with them are distinctive. I think that they really add a lot to the songwriting.”
“Do you foresee yourself staying with the lineup for an extended period of time?”
“There’s never been a rule, there’s never been a meeting. As long as they can stand playing with me, as long as they can stand the strange way that I do business–and I really have an uncompromising approach to doing business–which is, I don’t care to lose money if it means that the record gets done in the right way. That’s hard to do if you’re trying to operate in a traditional band form. The way I do it is, I don’t sit down and have an equation of: this much input means this much possible financial return. When you’re thinking about it–and some of those guys still have day jobs and other obligations that make it so they can’t just pick up and do shows whenever they want–I could see where it’s really difficult. But this way that we’ve been going these past few years has worked out okay. I’m not going to drag us through tours anymore as a whole band with this lineup, I’m not going to do these long stretches of tours which I know aren’t going to make any money, because it’s really disheartening to come back after eight weeks or nine weeks of being on tour and having no money at all. I sort of knew I was getting into that. So now if it’s just like, more sporadic–three weeks, just focus on the northeast coast–it’s okay.” He finishes his Duvel and hums the melody to the second track on the Death Cab album.
“You also have the ability to then–after you put out a solo album–tour on that and not have to worry about taking them out of their element.”
“That’s right, that’s exactly right–and one of the amazing things about having to always just be a failed member of a rock band, you know? I was the bass player, and I thought that the band was going to be huge! This is back when I’m like…thirteen? And I’m having ideas of being on stage with the band for forty years or something? That’s what made me realize I had to write my own songs, because… bands break up. It was one of the better decisions I made in my life. It’s not like we don’t love touring. We’re beasts. Like I said, we’ve already toured through the worst gas crises I could imagine. I can’t imagine making this one of your earliest tours for bands that doesn’t really have a record out. People aren’t probably going to come and they’re just playing for a door deal…they might or might not get ten bucks tonight and it might cost one-hundred bucks to get to that show. So, we’re fortunate. We have a good, cool label and cool fans.”
“Do you see yourself continually living this life of picking up and moving? Or, is there a point where you want to–”
“I want to live in Chicago as long as I can,” Jason interjects. “I want to live in the country, not within one-hundred miles of a single soul…and I also want to live right here in Chicago. My wife knows those are my loves…they’re that extreme. I love the wilderness, and I love the country and the prairie and mountains…and I love the city. I do all of my living by working hard on the music right now. It’s a really sad when I think about it, but it’s like…that’s really been my home since I was a kid. Whenever anything goes wrong, whenever anything goes right, whenever I’m really inspired, whenever I’m just in total despair, I just turn that into music in some way. That’s what I think I’m going to be doing right now because I really do work hard on it. My loose schedule–and I’ve only been home a little while, is–I always get up early, but…four to noon has just been hardcore writing lyrics, and then from noon to three do music. Today’s my day of not having to live up to that.”
“I can absolutely understand the struggle between wanting the city and wanting the wilderness and being away. Over the summer when I was going around solo to all these different cities–of course, you can only go so far before you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes those areas where…there isn’t that impending, dominating city skyline looming above you seem like the most serene, perfect places on Earth.”
“For sure. Whether or not artistically I would recommend to anyone to move to a place just for hopefully channeling artistic creativity is probably one of the stupidest things you can do. You might as well commit suicide, because if you want to want to channel something really intense…you might as well kill yourself, or be totally alone, but you never know at the moment where you need to be to be really creative. Being creative is just part of work. I don’t think it really hits you like lightning. You do labor at it all the time. And the thing is, I don’t want to cheapen anything. I don’t want to be like, ‘Man, that’s something I could turn into a song,’ because that could be really cheap. I haven’t proved already that it’s a good song. I might have to make a really good song out of something that’s really tragic. And I only really can speak from my point of view, which is…you get all that symbolism. There’s way more animals in my songs than people.”
“Have you ever tried to classify the art you create?”
“Oh, I don’t know…I’m really the worst person to answer that. It’s always going to be different, I can tell you that. I’m always trying to succeed at making the next thing better by my own criteria than the last thing I did. And variety. It’s still always just going to be me up there singing as much as I know, and it’s going to be me writing arrangements and coming up with concepts to do a song or a record. I do think that it’s…it’s hard for even critics. I don’t want to be the one to lead them on, actually. It’d be interesting to see how Tim Midgett would answer that, or Mueller. Mueller has been a victim of being called just about all that stuff. Right down to being called a weird artsy, folk-y kind of guy. There’s so much more to music than just the music…” He pauses. “…Well, that’s a good one to end with.” With that, he looks up and I stop the recorder. We both laugh, and study our empty glasses.
Jason asks what my plans are, and I mention how, after I find my way out of the cemetery, I’m going to explore Chicago a bit more until my interview with Steve tomorrow at Electrical. The waitress notices us fidgeting in our seats and rushes over with our tab. As I put the tape recorder away, Jason lunges for it and hands her enough money to cover both of our drinks plus a tip. I tell him it’s completely unnecessary. I should be paying for him. Then I remember that this is the same Jason Molina who, when I was at school in Allentown, handed an audience member a one-hundred dollar bill at The First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia with instructions to get as many bottles of water for the audience as possible. Simply put, Jason is one of the good guys.
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