INDIAN JEWELRY: A LOT OF TIME GETTING WEIRD
Indian Jewelry are from Houston. I’m living in Houston. It’s a weird place full of weirdos; a primordial swamp of high art, outsider art, and heavy industry. It’s also the kind of soup you’ll drown in if you don’t grow legs. Indian Jewelry have legs. So does their new album, Peel It, which may be their best yet. They explain evolution, better than I can, on the new album’s track, ‘Slouchback With Gills’: ‘I was a thing with a tail / But not anymore … Now I can’t even play guitar / There are things that I can’t do / I don’t even mind.’ I talked with Indian Jewelry’s Tex Kerschen about the bands conflicted take on (d)evolution and what gets left behind in the process of progress. This interview by Jon Lindsey.
Having made a set of albums by now that’s probably more canon than discography, do you feel Indian Jewelry has earned yourself a seat at the barbeque table with other Texas experimenters—people like the 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola and The Butthole Surfers?
Tex Kerschen (guitar/synth/vocals): We were heavily influenced by bands like the Butthole Surfers, Pain Teens, and Scratch Acid. We were into the 60s bands also, but they aren’t such a direct influence. The past is always around us, don’t get me wrong, I have older friends who were from that world. I worked one summer for Frank Davis, the engineer who recorded the 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, and the Golden Dawn for the International Artists label. He is an equally interesting musician/artist/inventor, and he had a lot of great things to say about the time. But I had to coax the stories out of him. He didn’t have too high an opinion of people who drag the past with them wherever they go.
How is your approach to making albums different today than it was when you started?
I was a lazy kid growing up. So when it came time to improve my work ethic, I adopted the William Blake line: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ Now we make records faster than labels want to put them out. We learn something new from the process, and that keeps us going. There’s a lot of dignity in laziness, and I aspire to that for my old age, but for the time being I have a lot of work to do. Making records is part of that work. A canon seems like something defined after the fact. Whereas we’re still in the jungle. I don’t know if we’re there as researchers or hunters. I hope we’re not missionaries.
What was it like making music in Houston when you started out? How do you see it having changed today?
Our prospects as a band have definitely improved. I could tell you the name of each of the people that used to come to our shows in the early years. They much didn’t like us at home until we moved away. I know we’re something of a hard sell in the best of times, but we were aliens to the people that already knew us. No matter how far back you go in history there never was a time that Houston was ever innocent of anything except good taste. And that’s a good thing. That’s its saving grace. I love Houston, but I’ve spent most of my life there, so I’ve earned my right to hate it too. It has changed in much the same way the rest of the country has changed. When the internet goes to trial they’re gonna hang it high. I remember Houston being wilder. Ten years ago, shows were wilder. The people and the vibe were more outré. There was less adherence to genre conventions. Twenty years ago shows were even wilder. I wonder if the formula holds true as you travel further back. But saying all this only amounts to old man talk. Someone’s always coming up with something exciting. My priorities have shifted, and I’m a little checked-out.
The new album has been out for a little while now. What has the response been?
I don’t think anyone has heard it.
Why ‘Peel It’?
Peel It—like get your own hand into the mix, drop the veils, crack the glass, get bloody and metamorphosize, stop lying to yourself or letting yourself be deceived. Find beauty where you like it, but let things be ugly if they’re gonna be ugly. We changed the working title of this record at the last moment. ‘Sufi Headbanger’ had the wrong connotations. While we’ve been involved in some hairy things we’ve never been an esoteric or exotic band. Early on in the making of this record I was inspired by a film I saw about headbanging Kurdish Sufis. What’s more, the first thing our daughter did when she appeared on an ultrasound monitor was bang her head. But as this turned out to be a fairly simple record, we gave it a good Pop Art name that happens to be an imperative.
This album has some beautiful songs, like ‘Eva Cherie’, but it doesn’t shy away from the grimey stuff you’re known for either. How do you feel the new album differs from your other albums?
Originally I wanted to make something fast and dumb like a Ramones record. So we turned the guitars up. But intentions change. We’re old enough now to trust our intuition. We do what we want. We let things fall into place. Since we record all our records ourselves we make a lot of mistakes. There’s always a lot of room for improvement.
How and where did the recording of Peel It happen?
We started recording Peel It in a nest in the Montrose [Houston] just around the time that Erika found out that she was pregnant. Our daughter is almost two now, so this was back in late 2010. We finished the record a year and a half later at a place called the Texas Firehouse in Queens, NY where we were living until a few months ago. In the meantime we circled around the country a few times. We’d lost our dog and some loved ones. We reckoned with some dark spots. We ate a lot of tacos. That’s what went into this record.
You’ve mentioned not wanting to make an album that just sits on a shelf next to all other albums, which brings to mind the sandpaper sleeves of the Debord and Jorn book, Mémoires, meant to ‘plane shavings off the neighbours goats’, or the Durutti Column album borrowing the same idea. [And the Feederz!—ed.] Is this kind of what you’re getting at?
I love that European enfant terrible stuff, but I can’t say that I understand it all that well. The European avant-garde, they make a lot of noise about their exclusive art gangs and prickly PR strategies and closed-system ideologies—it’s like they never left college. I think the American underground developed very differently than the European avant-garde. It’s more inclusive and more pragmatic. There’s more of a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. I’m speaking broadly. None of us went to art school. Our record covers are mostly eye candy. We want to be more involved in the ongoing and possibly imaginary conversation about the material and secret qualities of life. Nothing cryptic here. Depression and exhaustion are everywhere, but so are the possibilities of improvement. Invisible plans and necessary work. Like everyone I have to feed myself and my family. I don’t want to live on a commune or eat slop out of a trough, but I also don’t want to trade in the prospect of utopia for nothing. You’ve got to trade something for something or else it’s a rip off. Transformation of the entire human project, a handful of magic beans at least. Right now the human tone in our culture has been drowned out by the sound of what seems to be a giant totalitarian engine. I’m not an activist per se, I’m just a cheapo idea man, but we’ve all got our jobs. There are fracture lines in everything where the lightest pressure can snap off a corner of the matrix. Hopefully better sorts of people could step in for the clean-up.
That statement seems really hopeful. Lyrically and aesthetically Indian Jewelry often, at least to me, appear very cynical. How do you negotiate hope and cynicism?
I don’t think we’ve ever really been cynical. Many times we’re totally in earnest. Other times we’re just fucking with the program. Maybe our sense of humor doesn’t work for everyone. Earnestness and sincerity are traps, just like cynicism and nihilism are traps.
The role of the artist—that ‘cheapo idea man’—in society has always been, ideally, to press on the cracks of culture. And though Indian Jewelry aren’t an ‘activist’ band per se, you do make very sharp cultural critiques. Do you feel there is enough of this kind of critique happening in music today? Who do you see contributing to the conversation?
I’m not saying musicians or artists should be beholden to anyone’s program. But at the same time, we’re not shooting at the same fish as Bach or Charles Parker. We’ve got to recognize that the name of the game is one thing and the game is something else. I don’t have the perspective to say who is or isn’t contributing to the conversation. I would just recite a list of my friends and that’d just foster more misinformation and more clique trash. Most music going seems pretty dull, but I still have my favorites. The thing is that it isn’t just musicians who are sleeping under the boot, everyone’s got a case of the sleeping sickness, but there’s no room for that in a blog. Someone has convinced us that we don’t matter. So here’s the first question we’ve got to ask ourselves: do we matter? If so it’s a hop skip and a jump into a fascinating universe with room enough for both aesthetics and ethics.
In the past, Indian Jewelry has experimented with some radical forms of audience participation—like passing out instruments to the crowd. These days your shows seem less interested in that kind of audience reciprocity. What’s your approach to performance today?
We used to bring all sorts of percussion stuff, even guitars and effects sometimes, for the audience until we noticed a few things happening over and over. Some people can’t keep time. Some people bloody themselves in an effort to look tough. Most people stopped listening to the music and took the added spectacle as an invitation to behave in boring and obviously exhibitionist ways. It grew predictable. All in all, the fault lay with us—you can’t count on people to really shine when you put them on the spot. And then there are always a lot of dicks out there just waiting for a chance to act like dicks. Since we play in the dark we were giving them both the opportunity and the tools to hurt people, and, usually, we were the targets. It got normal for people to throw cracked cymbals at us while we were playing. Really throw them too, so hard that some nights the cymbals would be sticking into the wall behind us. Other people would be more passive-aggressive, they’d just break our stuff on purpose, you know, like smash the maracas or stab drum sticks through the drum heads. Then one night we were setting up onstage at a club in Houston. We had all the extra crap with us, but it was still stashed away in a bag when some dudes came up and asked me whether we were the band that gave all the drums to the audience. I don’t want to be categorical but the guys just came across like dicks. So starting that night we quit doing it.
Has new parenthood influenced your music?
My interior life was in a bad state before we had the baby. I was really sick of it all and it was starting to show. Now I have less time for bitching or trifling with my free time. I seldom get enough sleep, so while I may look terrible, my attitude is getting better.
You’re on a West Coast tour right now—what’s that like with a baby?
From a practical perspective it makes things complicated, because we have to bring an extra person along to watch the baby. But it is a lot of fun. We toured a lot right after we had our daughter. She wasn’t mobile yet, so she didn’t seem to mind much. If anything she liked all the company. Last time out we had a really close call. The hood of our van flew up and smashed into our windshield as we were driving down the mountains between Indio and L.A. We taped up the window before it came apart, but at any second it might have exploded in our faces. I have never driven so far with white knuckles, but we couldn’t stop or we’d have missed the show.
You lived in Los Angeles for a spell and used to frequent Part Time Punks, which you’re playing June 16th. Do you remember the best show you saw at PTP?
We lived in L.A. for two years and we go back whenever we can. The best show I’ve seen at PTP was the ESG reunion show. It was their first time back in L.A. since they’d opened for PiL in 1982, and they played downstairs. Throughout their set Jimi Hey kept tooting away on a coach’s whistle from the DJ booth. Other favorites include the Boy Scouts of Annihilation reunion. And I generally hate reunion shows. Also Nikki Sudden. In greater L.A. I got blown away by Sixes at a downtown artwalk, by Geneva Jacuzzi at an unaccountably empty LA WEEKLY party, by DEATHROES at Il Corral, and by the 400 Blows the time I saw them play at a house party in Echo Park. The Museum of Jurassic Technology was like a second home to us. We put in a lot of hours dancing at Screwball, Ding-A-ling, Part Time Punks, and a lot of time getting weird at the Il Corral (R.I.P.) We have a lot of good friends there: Rodney, Ann, Jimi, Don, and a whole lot of dudes named Michael. People who made us feel really welcome. We’ve lived in a lot of cities, and no other place has ever been half so supportive. I worked all the weird jobs I could get. I’ve seen some of the darkness too, but L.A. is great—it just needs weather.
INDIAN JEWELRY WITH DEATHDAY AND NET SHAKER AT THE 8TH ANNIVERSARY OF PART TIME PUNKS ON SUN., JUNE 16, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 10 PM / $8-$10 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! AND WITH BLACK BANANAS ON MON., JUNE 17, AT THE CONSTELLATION ROOM AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 8 PM / $10 / ALL AGES. OBSERVATORYOC.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! INDIAN JEWELRY’S PEEL IT IS OUT NOW ON REVERBERATION. VISIT INDIAN JEWELRY AT SWARMOFANGELS.COM.