Anthony Page 25/08/2009
The smoking ban is a pain if you're a smoker at a gig. Having to fight your way outside, and afterwards working out where you put your ticket so you can be sure about getting back in - and of course the quandary of whether to miss part of the set or fight the pangs for what could be another hour. It does though have it's bonuses, though, as a smoker at a Jackie-O-Motherfucker's recent London show I was lucky enough to run into lead singer Tom Greenwood during a ciggie break. Being the thoroughly charming man that he is, he agreed to give me an interview once he got home to Portland to reflect on the recent tour, the new album Ballads of The Revolution, a new solo project that might be in the pipeline, and to offer a little background on one of the most interesting bands around right now.
You're 14 years and 10 albums in - but when you started the band did you expect to be able to say that?
Well, we started with the intention of working on something long term, but I didn't expect that we would be able to document things as extensively as we have. I knew we were charting some new territory, with our methods of working, but I guess the timing was right, and what we started doing somehow became aligned with the culture. I feel very lucky to have such an extensive discography.
Can you give me a little background on how Jackie-o started?
I had moved from NYC to Portland in 1993. While in NYC, I had started working on some sound collage material with a 4-track. I would cut loops on 1/4 inch reel to reel tape, some short, like a drum break, some really long! These loops ran all around my flat, and I used pencils to set the tension. I would then layer them with the 4-track, and mix them to cassette. When I ended up in Portland, I had all these cassettes, and I started to go through them, taking the bits I liked, and editing together some long sequences to use as a background to play over the top of. Then I met Duane (Nestor Bucket) and he was doing a small label called Imp records, and also learning to play the sax, so we would get together and play over the sequences of loops, with guitar and sax. Then we started doing some gigs, and made the first record...
How did you find touring the new album?
This was a really great tour, (summer 2009) maybe one of our best, in terms of the music. I wanted to play a lot of the material from the record, and see if it would hold up under those conditions, playing every night, etc. Also, we added a new instrument to the mix, a lap steel guitar, which turned out to be really great for the songs. We played a similar set each night, and every time it came out differently. It's great to know that we can take songs, and present them in a context of free playing, so that they keep growing and changing as we go.
How different is playing the UK and the rest of Europe compared to playing America?
Well, you can't really include the UK in with the rest of Europe. Playing in the UK is very much like doing gigs in the US. You turn up at the venue, and you never know what you will find! Fortunately, on this trip the UK gigs were great, but we've had some dodgy times playing in Britain in the past. Europe is a completely different story, there are so many amazing venues, and we always get treated really well there. I think it's a matter of expectation, there are so many bands touring in the US and the UK, everything becomes really competitive, and entertainment obsessed... it's sometimes difficult to present explorative music in an environment where people are so extremely saturated with entertainment.
Do you prefer recording or playing live?
I like them both for different reasons. With recording we get the opportunity to work with many more musicians, and to slowly build each song. Doing different mixes until we've reached the dimension we're striving for. Playing live is completely physical, and although it's just as challenging, it's more about the moment, and trying to create, sustain, and project energy.
Any fond memories or tour stories from the recent tour?
On this last tour in Europe, we were travelling in the summer; every other time we've toured there it's been in the spring or fall. The down side of it was that our drives between performances were longer, as more venues were shut for holidays, but it was great to travel in nice weather. We were able to make stops at some great beaches! There's nothing better than jumping into the sea late at night after driving, and playing a gig in the summer heat.
The new album is one of the most accessible of your career. Though still very Jackie-o it has a country feel to it - was that a deliberate decision?
Those elements have always been present to some extent, since the beginning. On this recording, I think since it starts out with some heavy pedal-steel guitar, it gives the record a more county feel, but it wasn't intentional to make a specifically county record. That said, I am interested in the simplicity, and emotional directness of county and folk music. We've tried to capture some of those methods of delivery, and apply them to the style we've developed with arrangement, and instrumentation.
Jackie-o seem to have quite a fluid line up of members, who played on the album - how did the choice of those musicians influence the music you made?
We've always worked with an open system. From the beginning, we decided not to be hung up on maintaining a consistent line-up. This has allowed for some amazing things to happen, it gives people the space to leave the group, go work on other projects, and come back. Honey Owens is someone whose contributions to the band have been vital, but she has also spent a lot of time working on her own music. She first played with us, very early on maybe 1997, and she has appeared over time, on many recordings. Working in this way, has had a big influence on our sound.
How did you find recording ballads compared to the other 9 studio albums you've done?
Recording is the most transparent part of our process generally, and this was no exception. By the time we line everything up to start tracking, we know exactly what we want from each piece. There are always a few exceptions, of course... Nightingale, the first track, was a sound check, basically, we'd never performed the song before, and I was just throwing it out there to get a vocal mic level set. Sometimes, the first time a song is ever attempted is the most beautiful, if you are lucky enough to have a microphone in front of you, it's great! When we listened back to it, we decided to keep working on it. The corner, which is my favourite track on the record, was really uncomfortable for me to do, tracking the vocals with only a bass pulse behind me was hard, but I love how it came out.
Do you think you'll retain most of the current line up for album 11?
There will be some changes, I'm sure... we are already working with some new people. Brian Mumford, who joined us on the last tour, has fit in really well with our music. We'll see, we've got a bunch of songs ready to record, so we'll see who is up for it when the time comes.
When we spoke, I remember you talking about the chance you might be forming a side project with the ex-Smog drummer, any more news on that?
Yes - that's Ron Burns. He's an amazing drummer, and we're good friends, we shared a house a few years ago, and I like working as a duo with him. It's great to play with just two people, granted it's a lot more work, but you can cover completely different ground, and it's a perfect scenario for improvising.
Any clues to when we might have the pleasure of Jackie-0 Motherfucker back in the UK?
Not sure just now, we'll see what comes up. We have some great friends in the UK, I lived in Leeds for a while, and I always enjoy going back.
The style of music you make appeals to the more artistic and outsider group predominately, is this reflected in your audiences?
I've always been really pleased with the audiences that come to see this band. I've made some amazing friends, who I never would have met otherwise, and I generally find that we attract a very respectful, interesting and intelligent group of people.
Finally, if I was to go through your CD or record collection - would it all be free-form experimental music or is there a few mainstream, maybe even pop stuff in there?
I love music, and I listen to all kinds of different stuff! I've had the opportunity to be around music all my life, and that is reflected in the recordings I hold on to. Generally, I keep stuff that is difficult to find, once people discover and issue records in great quantities, I no longer need to keep the CD, or record, so I move it on to someone else.