JACK NAME: BEFORE THINGS GOT THIS CRAZY
Jack Name’s Light Show is an album and a story equal parts art, dread and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the story of the forces of all-penetrating all-exposing all-controlling light and the resistance in the shadows. (Which are actually some mythologized teenage rock ‘n’ rollers called the Shadows.) There are echoes of Burroughs and Philip K. Dick at his most depressed and his most optimistic—Radio Free Albemuth, if you wanna be specific—as well as the subterranean space-rock of Simply Saucer and the early art-rock experiments of Brian Eno and friends. One reviewer called it the rock album of the year already—but it might be the rock album of the very near future, too. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What was the canary-in-the-coal-mine instant that started this album? What made you think, ‘The time to tell this harrowing story is finally now.’?
Somehow I started thinking a lot about kids being drugged in schools.
Actually drugged? Not metaphorically?
Yeah, the medical thing. That’s what I call the educational drug trade. And I sort of became obsessed with that idea. For me, it was an ethical dilemma I felt needed or deserved time for me nerding out on it. You think how Einstein would be on those drugs cuz apparently he sucked at school. And you think, ‘What do we lose from that?’ It’s everywhere. To me, is it a chemical imbalance or the symptoms of living in a fucked-up world? Of course, if your brain is a thing where the chemicals that are working in it are going to reflect the state of affairs, it seems forcing—especially when it comes to rebellious or artistic or scientifically talented kids—it’s kind of fucked up to abuse that.
It’s such a weird William Burroughs world. ‘Every kid takes ten pills each morning and stares at their own screen at school each day, and the information is all different and all the same at once.’ Except that’s pretty much reality.
That’s the way those things go!
The delay between the sci-fi of the past and the reality of the present keeps getting shorter and shorter.
And back then the scientists and the authors would kind of interface. Now it’s so in your face you don’t need to have meetings with them anymore.
Do you know what a search-engine bubble is? How the results are filtered to only give you the results the algorithm thinks you want? And over time it just cocoons around you. Everybody’s getting bubbled up.
Or are we marginalized to separate us further? To feel we’re different? Divide and conquer. The less you see a similarity between you and other people, the less you’ll be able to organize with them and sympathize with them and overcome bullshit. Divide and conquer. I never use those things anymore in my life cuz it freaks me out. Facebook is laid out like a People magazine on your screen, but it’s you and your friends. In a magazine, finally. On TV. When you lose a small community and it gets replaced by celebrities. So now instead of like, ‘I’m from this little community,’ it’s more like, ‘I’m into Motorhead and I wear this T-shirt, and you do too so we can be friends.’ Like people look through each other’s record collections so see if they can date each other. Weird shit like that. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s this hyper-specialized way to solve the communitylessness we have. Like you grow up seeing people you relate to and recognize on a daily basis, and it’s the people in the magazine, the people on the screen—it’s not the people in your neighborhood. It’s the figures they show on the screen. So maybe there’s some longing to be part of a community we list, and that gets filled by seeing yourself in a magazine layout on your screen. You feel like, ‘Ah, I’m home.’
When you were called John Webster Johns, I always heard, ‘John Webster Johns is working on an insane record!’ Is this that record?
This is basically that. It’s been five different records at this point. At one point there were 28 songs—there were probably 70 songs I ended up with. It got redrafted a bunch for the story’s sake. And there’d be situations where someone wants to put out a record, and the business end of the label would fall apart or there’d be some argument. That happened four or five times.
You were that close that many times?
I never actively sent anything to anyone in my life. I don’t see the point. Either someone wants to do it or they don’t. So I got sick of that, and every time it happened, I’d … I was obsessed with the idea I didn’t have the record right, so I’d do it over yet again. And meanwhile I was making other stuff, too. After a while I decided to make a cassette of it and release it myself. Seemed like the most rational way to deal with it.
When the Kinks made Village Green, they were just making a normal album until Ray Davies wrote ‘Village Green’ and realized that this was gonna be what the whole album was about. Did you have a moment like that?
There were three or four songs. I thought I could take the things they were saying directly or indirectly and try to fit that all in—I did a lot of editing myself. Taking a bunch of different things. I guess ‘crystallize’ is a good word.
I really liked how you flipped light and dark in this story—how the light is this penetrating thing that erases privacy and forces all to be revealed, and the dark is like a refuge, even as it’s pushed away. I think that says a lot about how certain things in the world work now. What made this clear to you?
It was an accident, back before things were this crazy, really. A big part of the album is that the Shadows are almost like radicalized versions of rock ‘n’ roll kids. Like if you put the world in total dystopia and then put in you and your friends when you were 16, so your traditional music would be incorporating things we have now—like instead of Hercules, it’d be Bruce Willis. And in my little fantasy world, dreams are divination. So I was thinking about dreams and how dreams are a sort of light show. And while I was thinking about that, more and more these things accidentally fell out. When you make music, it’s almost like a little autistic fit and you can analyze it later and figure things out, and that’s the nice thing about making it. So I went through all these crazy processes and I had a lot of time to let these things hit me. I didn’t come up with it on purpose as a way to describe things. And it definitely wasn’t on purpose to be like, ‘Oh, man, everything is like glowing phones now!’ iPods weren’t even out when I started working on this.
But it fits. Which is crazy.
Yeah—it is crazy.
The Shadows use art and anonymity together—like the line, ‘You could be anybody, wrapped in a shadow.’ And those are two things that are threatened now, and also tools of resistance. Survival, even.
Well, they don’t survive in the end! But those are tools of resistance. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Czech Republic and the Velvet Revolution, but that’s very real shit. That’s really how we do deal with things.
There’s that one lyric, ‘I was there with the gang the time the telephone rang/To say a sleeper bit the leader with his medicine fangs.’ That’s such a Burroughs line. Who’s someone who isn’t a musician that you feel is a kindred spirit to this record?
Haruki Murakami—the book Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It’s about this dude who’s a private detective, and it’s flashing between two worlds. And slowly through the story they line up. One is utter fantasy, and one is our pop culture reality. So it’s a good mix of fantasyland with dragon-type things and then like … Burger King. I like his style, the way he’s able to mix those things together. Which, to me, is also a big thing. The idea of a radicalized rocker tribe of kids.
Like The Warriors!
Yeah—with a little more mysticism in there! And maybe less violence! Did you ever see Orson Welles’ movie F for Fake? I like its style, the way he’ll go from one film stock to another. It’s very free. It’s not bound down. Like, ‘We have to adhere to these idioms’ or whatever. The freedom of it … anything like that, that’s the stuff I like a lot. I remember being in high school and … what do they make you read in high school? Slaughterhouse 5. I was like, ‘I can’t believe they gave us this to read.’
That’s a compliment I love to give—‘I can’t believe this got made.’ Like F for Fake. How did that get through? It’s unforgiving.
There’s nothing to call it. Not drama, not documentary, not comedy—it’s nothing. Just a cool movie. That’s what I like. I always like artists like that, where I don’t know what they’re doing. It doesn’t fit in with anything else. F for Fake is a masterpiece. Fuck Citizen Kane! You look at the world Welles was totally immersed in, the Hollywood bullshit he’d see everyday—if anyone would know bullshit, it’d be him.
Did you get a better understanding of bullshit from it?
It definitely spoke to me and a lot of problems I have as a guy who makes music. You can end up wondering like, ‘What the fuck, man? All I’m doing is moving air around with soundwaves, and somehow other people’s brains turn that into music? And maybe it’s not even what I’m thinking of?’ When that decoding happens, I don’t even know what it is. There’s so much we force into music: a lot of fashion nowadays, and probably since forever. There’s things that make you wonder. It’s a delicate balance between the part that connects you to something bigger and the part that’s your own disgusting ambition, your naked skeksis…
Maybe in a backward optimistic way, that makes things better—like music attracts these supercharged personalities who are like, ‘I’m not gonna make it? Fuck you, I’ll make the fuck out of it!’ And maybe they don’t, but they make something unique along the way.
Who knows? There’s all different ways for that to work. People are like, ‘Of course you’re gonna do it!’ And then other people are like, ‘Don’t get serious about this guitar, man—that’s a life of pain.’ That’s what my dad said to me. I was like 12. He said something like, ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ and that was the worst thing he coulda said cuz I got all, ‘Ah whatever, Dad!’ But at the same time, there’s all sorts of ambitious things, even small-scale social things that can be dangerous temptations. And as far as your personal relationship with the thing you do, at least for me, you need a good amount of self-loathing to keep yourself in line.
I would have just said self-awareness, but it’s probably the same process at work.
It works for me.
It’s like once you learn how to do what you do, it gets harder and harder. I read about so many artists and musicians who spent their lives trying to recapture the way they created as a child and didn’t really give a fuck.
Exactly. And the less I give a fuck, the better everything gets in every possible way. I’m really trying not to give a fuck about anything and it feels really good.
How do you do that?
You don’t wanna know. Unfortunately it involves a certain exposure to morbid shit. Becoming aware of mortality helps.
Why did you tell this story with a band? What does telling this story as an album let you do?
When you call something fiction, it automatically frees people to give up some of the genre-specific things that are already in their minds. They’re not expecting any specific kind of music, and that way the music can be more … like the actual sound doesn’t have to live up to a reputation as a badass band or whatever. It can be strictly to serve the subject matter. For me, that’s what’s up.
In one song, the Shadows say they’ll know us by the sound—like they can hear their allies. Who out there can you hear and recognize as an ally?
Harry Partch would be a major one! When I was 12, I randomly bought a Harry Partch CD. Something possessed me to get it, and it changed my life.
You said the Shadows don’t survive at the end, but there is that line where a raven flies away—I was hoping that was like an after-the-credits scene where a hand bursts out of the grave.
The bad guys sing that song, and I dunno if they care where the raven flies. It’s a little poetic license. They’re saying, ‘Yeah, that personality of yours, that thing’s gone! And now this guy is neutralized effectively.’ And that’s a bummer state.
JACK NAME WITH ZIG ZAGS AND THEE OH SEES ON THUR., MAY 29, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8 PM / $10-$12 / ALL AGES. TICKETS AT THEECHO.COM. JACK NAME’S LIGHT SHOW OUT NOW ON GOD?/DRAG CITY. VISIT AT JOHNWEBSTERJOHNS.COM.