A Chat with Jerry Joseph

By: Dennis Cook

The Jackmormons tour behind their new album begins tonight, March 20, in Moscow, ID, before heading into a string of Montana shows this weekend and a California run in April. Full dates and details for tour here.

Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons by Tony Morey
Happy probably isn’t the first word to come to mind when one considers Jerry Joseph, a warts-and-all rock prophet carrying on the good work of dudes like John Lennon, Warren Zevon and Joe Strummer. However, his latest long-player with 17-years-and-counting cohorts The Jackmormons - Joseph (guitar, lead vocals), JR Ruppel (bass, backing vocals) and Steve Drizos (drums, backing vocals) – is dotted with passages of genuine uplift, hard won hope hiding in the craggy, sharp places of our lives. Happy Book (released March 20 on Response Records) takes a buzzsaw to the babble and bullshit bubbling all around today, using guitars, bass and drums to douse out well springs of renewal and truth. It’s a powerful album, and one strangely and beautifully illuminated by an inner light that shines despite all the death and disappointment that abound in the world. Joseph and the Jackmormons’ resistance to glib panaceas and dedication to taut, dense musicality gives Happy Book a rare combination of heft and accessibility that speaks to universal things but never panders or dumbs down the conversation. Aided by some of Portland, Oregon’s finest - Jenny Conlee-Drizos and Chris Funk (The Decemberists), Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper), Dan Eccles and Paul Brainard (Richmond Fontaine), Little Sue Weaver – as well as Wally Ingram, Happy Book was produced by Joseph’s former Little Women percussionist Gregg Williams (Dandy Warhols, Blitzen Trapper), and marks the group’s first proper double album, an expansive, inquisitive set that one absorbs slowly, the sweetness and medicine of it all too much to digest at once but ultimately just the cure for what ails us.

New Album
We snagged Jerry for a winding, insightful conversation about what’s going in his music – today and earlier – that touches on U2, Whitney Houston and Coldplay as well as the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, the nature of God, and much else. One rarely goes at a subject – any subject – with Joseph directly. It’s the long way around, but much is learned in the journey towards one’s destination in his company.

JamBase: Happy Book shows off a pretty good range of what you’re about as an artist, and the band seems unafraid to explore any tributary that interests them. This is, in many ways, a cool handshake to listeners who aren’t familiar with your work.

Jerry Joseph: Well, I always let my expectations get too high and then watch things go under the indie label grinder [laughs]. The fact is I’m 50-years-old and I listen to a lot of different music, so I think it’d be weird if I put out a record and it sounded all the same. Clearly, I’m not getting a Grammy next year [laughs]. It’s a process of digesting your disappointment and putting on your brave face.

JamBase: Cynical but you speak from a position of experience.

Jerry Joseph: You make things and you’re proud of them, but you try to get a certain detachment from them. I always feign not caring BUT I do.

It’s easier to deal with the world-at-large if you convey a certain practiced ennui. People don’t want you to care TOO much. Actual passion seems to make a lot of them nervous...

Jerry Joseph by Phil Santala
…which is funny because there’s Bono, who each time out says, “This is amazing. This is a brand new band.” He’s got his fucking bullet points down on a global level! I was just in Southeast Asia and U2 is everywhere. They do deliver a message of hope on a global scale.

The Jackmormons are known for going out and being this really incendiary thing, but we’d probably be more popular and successful if we just toured acoustically and focused on the harmonies and did these songs. There’s a demographic who really loves that side. So, making this record, the point was to get these songs down in a way that represented some of our range.

Well, the new album is hopeful in its ways…

…but I’m sort of saddled with the opening line [“I’ve got to tell you/ I’d really love to get high”] in this current round of press/interviews. Suddenly I’m thrown back into fucking heroin world in all these articles. It’s funny. In the scene I operate in, if I was using smack again people would know about it in a minute.

It’s one line, one train of thought, in an album full of different pathways, but it’s easy to see how lazy writers latch onto that opening line. It fulfills the soundbite they have for you of junkie cult rock guy. But getting high hardly defines your life anymore, even if the thought crosses your mind, as it naturally would.

All these different things were happening when I was writing these songs – death, birth – and a drink and a couple pain killers sounded pretty good – checking out for a few minutes, but I don’t even talk about it for the rest of the song.

Piece o’ Valuable History
My impression is you’re increasingly NOT writing autobiography in the purest sense. You seem to be weaving your own tale into larger stories and going for that “global” thing in your own way.

If I can’t own it, I can’t sing it.

I had this concept the other day while reading A People’s History of the United States, and I told a friend that this would make a great song cycle, not necessarily for me but it would be cool to write this for someone like Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), who’s very good at writing characters. I don’t think that I’ve heard anything that nails himself down personally. But I’m not a Robbie Robertson writer. I don’t have a bunch of titles with guy’s names…

…like Steely Dan, who have whole cities of characters in their songs...

…except Steely Dan hits it on a personal level more than they let on. At the end of the day, Donald Fagen’s writing probably had more of an effect on me than most things – in the way I rhyme, that always-satire thing where you can’t really tell what’s serious.

Yeah, it’s not always clear where the laugh line is in your stuff or theirs.

Donald Fagen
“The Cuervo Gold/ The fine Colombian/ Make tonight a wonderful thing.” You know those guys were rolling on the ground when they came up with that, thinking how everyone is going to sing this and hug each other [laughs]. And though I couldn’t figure it out, all my gay friends in the 70s said that “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was the Number One gay anthem. I still really don’t know why [laughs].

Their music gives us entrance to a darker, more interesting world most of us will never experience. They tease out strange parts of our collective psyche and invite us to inhabit them. And you do the same thing at times! I’ve been struck on repeat listens to Happy Book by the way the world expands and contracts in your work. There are mentions of different parts of the world, but there are also personal stories about a new child coming into your life, your father dying, etc. It’s a pretty cool trick.

If it’s a trick, it’s not one that I’m conscious of. I love shock value. I love delivering that “head down to the disco/ do the mambo with the chicks with dicks” line [from Happy Book’s “The Beautiful Dirt”] onstage just because I love watching people’s reactions. There’s only one demographic that gets really excited! Their eyes light up and they smile, but it’s a small portion of the crowd [laughs].

Jackmormons by Phil Santala
I also love well-placed pretentiousness. There’s a line in “North” – “You think that I'm ridiculous/ I think I fuckin’ rule/ Haul you back to Texas / Send you back to school” – and I wrote that because of an outdoor show I was at in the 80s. This kid was dancing, obviously fucked up, and wearing a homemade t-shirt that read, “I Fuckin’ Rule!” I remember thinking, “That’s the greatest shirt I’ve ever seen.” In a world where I don’t have a lot of self-confidence, where I have a typical addict personality of massive low self-esteem combined with being completely self-centered, putting in a line like that lets people who already think so say, “I told you he was a dick!” But people who know me pretty well know that’s not what I think. I get as much out of saying it as the audience gets out of it because it’s NOT how I actually feel.

And usually when it’s a geographical thing it’s a true one. “Kicking Hong Kong” is pretty verbatim. There was a point in my life where I had references to stuff in songs about places I hadn’t been, and I consciously made myself go to those places so it wasn’t an imaginary thing. Maybe the geographical stuff is an attempt to make myself look cool. I don’t know [laughs].

You actually travel to these far-flung places though, and there’s a reciprocal value that emerges from these trips in your music. There was no logical reason for you to do a shoestring acoustic tour of Southeast Asia this winter but…

Shot from 2012 Southeast Asia Tour
…except I got SO much out of it in unexplainable ways. I didn’t get a tan. I didn’t get to sit by the beach. It wasn’t a vacation. It was really hard. We were playing every night to mixed groups, Cambodians and ex-pats and more. When I landed, my buddy said, “Welcome to the Jerry Joseph Humiliation Tour because here no one gives a fuck!” I was like, “Thanks, Frank,” and onto Show One!

I got a lot of press in Phnom Penh for some strange reason. My favorite bit was a Bangkok article that started, “Lovely Jerry Joseph…”. I was all, “I love this town!”

My whole thing with travel is I really love people. I love waking up in big cities that I don’t know and the commonality with the other 8 million people waking up, having their coffee and taking a shit and putting on their shirt and going about their day. It’s a commonality we all have and there’s something really life affirming about it for me. It’s humanity and I like humanity. I don’t know how to boil this stuff down into big hits. I’m not U2 and my next single isn’t going global, but I love trying to capture that.

In the next few months I’m going to get tired of saying how happy and grateful I am, but I sure would like to learn how to do more of that in my art. Sting always said the hardest [Police] song to write was “Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. How do you write about hope and love and not sound like a fucking two-year-old? Or how do you sound like a two-year-old and not a 20-year-old?

You want simple-ness of heart but you don’t want to be a simpleton. It’s a weird, fine line you have to walk with such subject matter to achieve genuine universality. Whatever one thinks of Bono personally, you have to admire U2’s ability to walk this walk so well.

Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons by Phil Santala
I love it! The other night I was trying to figure out a Whitney Houston song to cover. Someone had shown me Chris Cornell singing “I Will Always Love You”, and I wasn’t going to do that! So, I was doing this song “Exhale,” and it has a pretty uplifting thing. I listened to a Best Of and it was the only thing I could really get into since a lot of it was trite and stupid, so trite and stupid that I don’t think I could gruff it up. So, sometimes the stuff that passes for hope, love and change is really trite, terrible music.

One of my most powerful musical moments was waking up first thing in the morning and my son says, “So cold, so cold!” and we put on that Coldplay record [“Hurts Like Heaven” off Mylo Xyloto] and we danced around the house for 15 minutes. Well, there’s your faith in music and its ability to transform and connect. He’s a kid and he’s got all the words. He knows the words to that and stuff like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” So, I have no problem with well-crafted, mindless pop, but in the songs I’m writing there’s certain emotional things I’m always going for, and God and sex, that Al Green/Prince thing. I’m also trying to learn to write a better song. Sometimes people find [my music] too much, too emotional, but jeez, isn’t that the point? As long as it’s not sappy - that’s the trick.

For my next song cycle, I either want to write honestly about love and marriage or maybe something political. I’m super engaged in politics but it makes for poor songwriting many times. You can only be a firebrand leftist at a certain age, and if you’re smart and educated shit gets grey over time. That’s part of why I moved away from writing political stuff. Taking it back to the personal stuff, I don’t know if there’s a lyrical thread to Happy Book. Every song is different. There’s some pretty mean shit.

Shot from 2012 Southeast Asia Tour
It’s important to hold up dark, truthful mirrors if you know these things to be true. It might not always endear you to people, but it shows you aren’t one of those musicians that puts as much energy into the fame machine as they do their work, the kind of folks who put as much into doing an ad campaign for a car as they do writing a song.

Well, no one has ever asked me to sell out, so I can’t really say [laughs].

Recently, I was sitting in the Killing Fields with a couple Cambodians. One of them spoke pretty good English, and he and his family had been through it. Somewhere in this conversation I started talking about A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous] and he asked me to explain it. I told him it was a conglomeration of a bunch of different religions set up to help people deal with their problems with addiction. At the end of the day, I told him it’s about people developing some relationship with a higher power, which we’ll call God for the sake of argument. So, he said, “When the Khmer Rouge came and started slaughtering everyone – our children, our families – with their HANDS, we prayed everyday to God and you know what, Jerry? God didn’t come.” Okay, so much for my gospel album!

Jerry Joseph
By Tony Morey
That’s such a blunt debunking of the notion of God as a benevolent gumball machine in the sky that intervenes in human affairs. There’s just too much history, too much evidence that’s NOT how it works. Ask and ye probably will not receive. That’s just fact.

I call myself a Catholic because it’s the one I know - I know when to kneel and when to stand - and here’s what I do know: If the crowd is listening AND I don’t say it preachy AND I say anything like “God loves you” or – I was saying this a lot before Tweedy wrote the fucking song about it – anything about the concept that you’re not alone, and about a quarter of the crowd starts balling. People want to hear that so fucking bad. They want to hear so badly that they aren’t alone on this fucking planet and that they’re part of a greater love. I really think it’s the message people are DYING to hear. They may not think that or know that but I think it’s why a song like “Climb To Safety” works so well with Panic, where they hear, “It’s okay, I’m throwing you a rope. You’re not fighting this one by yourself.” I don’t know if the Cambodians would rate that song, but it’s something I know, and maybe, consciously and unconsciously, I’m trying to get that across more in my songwriting these days.

Bill Moyers recently observed on his new PBS show that we’re a God hungry world.

I don’t know if I’d say ‘world’ but definitely here in America. I don’t think people in Saigon are worrying about it, but I do think everybody wants something real, maybe not every time but sometimes, and I try really hard to be honest.

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[Published on: 3/20/12]

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