FATAL JAMZ: WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?
photography by alex the brown
Fatal Jamz is the passion(ate) project of Marion Belle, the black-lipsticked child of not just Bowie and Iggy, but Axl and Nikki Sixx and Debbie Harry and Jobriath and Tupac and Andre 3000 and … well, you know the type. Icons, immortals, invincibles—they changed his life, and now Fatal Jamz wants to change yours. His recent album Coverboy (Lolipop) is the first triumphant movement of a glitter-noir rock ‘n’ roll trilogy, a beyond-ambitious effort inspired by everyone famous, infamous or un-famous that ever stalked the sidewalks of the Sunset Strip. (Plus he’s got unbelievably sophisticated 70s/80s neon-and-chrome production and truly stratospheric guitar work.) In a time when the lights sometime seem like they’re going out one by one, he still wants to be a star—or at least keep the flame burning. He speaks now on his way to Art Basel, where he performed with Lydia Lunch and Weasel Walter. Fatal Jamz performs with Gene Loves Jezebel this Sunday at the Echo, and will tour with Weyes Blood next month. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Marion Belle: I’m in an airport in Houston right now. There are cardiac arrest machines everywhere and chapels. I passed three chapels.
If the cardiac machine doesn’t work, the chapel will. You can’t lose.
Marion Belle: It’s like a mall where you could die or get married!
Where did you come from and how did you end up in L.A.? You moved here, right?
Marion Belle: I was born in Nashville because my father was studying there after [my parents] had returned from the Peace Corps. I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia near the Pennsylvania countryside. I went to a private school where my mother taught English literature and mythology. I played sports and read a lot. My father played the piano every night and I sang with him. We sang songs like ‘Earth Angel’ and ‘In The Still Of The Night’ … the Everly Brothers stuff. I was always surrounded by nature. It was a quiet internal time. I was always within and without because I was a teacher’s kid surrounded by the rich girls who I wanted to impress and connect with. That town and that time of my life is indelible in a way, and that within-without situation I think is the germ of all my writing.
What kind of person do you feel like you were as a child? Or a kid starting high school? Or an adult who entered ‘the real world’? What caused the changes between these versions of yourself?
Marion Belle: As a very young child I was into nature and observing things. I kinda knew every yard and alley in my neighborhood—who lived in every house and what their trees smelled like and what their parents did. I’d take long walks by myself and push this wheelbarrow around and fill it with different plants and branches and snails and stuff and bring it home to look at. Even when kids started to bully me … like this older blonde skater kid took a hatred to me because he had gotten caught smoking cigarettes in our alley and breaking our basketball hoop. He bullied me and said I probably didn’t even know what a blowjob was. I said it was when you blew on it and he laughed and beat me. Even that kind of stuff I was just fascinated by … like at a distance. Like … ‘Who is this kid and why is he so messed up? What kind of music does he listen to?’ When I got into middle school, I had a very insecure high anxiety period because I had really extreme Russian features. I was definitely always getting called a freak and ugly and I was on Ritalin. Just going to the mall I felt like I was in a distorted looking glass where everyone was pointing and whispering and laughing at me. This seems now like what we all go through at that age, but it was intense for me and it changed me. I became kind of a bully myself—and an off-the-wall jokester. Sometimes I could be very mean. I also started journaling and writing a lot during this time—this was 8th and 9th grade. When I got my driver’s license, I felt so free because I could take the car and drive away out by myself through these wild beautiful country roads—past these crumbling DuPont estates, through this old Native American land, through the woods and fields. That’s when I started to listen to music very very intensely: Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye. When I started high school, I started to hang out with the older kids and smoke and drink in the woods. There was this guy who had already graduated. He had a radio station at Hamilton College in Pennsylvania. I would go to his house and he’d give me tapes and playlists and albums he’d burned. He was like the Lester Bangs character in Almost Famous—kind of overweight, sweaty, brilliant and giving. He also always wanted to hear about who I was dating and my sex life, which was kinda weird. But his enthusiasm about bands and the culture of bands blew me away and changed everything for me. When I left for college he gave me a biography of Sam Cooke and a CD of his album Night Beat. That music got me through freshmen year and taught me a lot about how I wanted to sing. I guess I entered the ‘real world’ when I came to Los Angeles. It was the classic ‘he’s leaving home’ [situation]: my mom was crying in the kitchen, I was driving in a packed car across the country. I stopped in Chicago, picked up my best friend Jason and we drove the rest of the way. He was the first person I had ever known who I could make music with, and he was also the most beautiful wild soul I had ever known. He was half Haitian and half Irish and just brilliant. He was like Hamlet to me. We got an east Hollywood apartment, a bass guitar and a drum machine, and signed up at a temp agency for work. That period immediately woke me to the fact that if I wanted to make music as a lifestyle, I was going to have to work so fucking hard. I was going to have to learn everything. How to play guitar, how to sing, how to record myself, how to write, how to rent a lockout and pay my bills. I knew for sure I had something to say. Growing up I always thought musicians were absolute gods. Their looks, their confidence, their voices—it was so powerful to me. It was like they were from Valhalla. Everything in youth was tied to different songs. I saw the way my babysitter’s—these gorgeous 18- or 19-year-old girls—were in love with the singer of like Jane’s Addiction. The guitar ballads—the deep cuts—they’d play them over and over again. I just always wanted to make music that meant that much to people like them—to turn them on.
What does that actually mean to you? ‘Turn someone on’ — it could mean giving someone acid, it could mean sex, it could mean teaching them about something. So what’s a person who is turned off, and what does it mean to turn them on?
Marion Belle: I want to give someone who’s maybe even like 13 years like the inspiration of a poetic life—that’s in a nutshell the currency that I’m peddling.
Like that happened to you, and you want to pass it on?
Marion Belle: I want to pass it on. It’s like a fire. It’s just a way of being, and not taking anything for granted and just living fucking fully alive. That’s what it was for me when I saw a guy on TV in white cut-off spandex holding a microphone in front of 80,000 people and singing a song. If you got up in class and read the lyrics of ‘Patience’ to your high school class you’d get laughed at. But here’s this guys singing ‘Patience’ in spandex and it says everything about a way to live, and girls and guys get it. But also yes—sexually turning people on. Turning people on where they want to fuck you, and they just want to fuck you in a kind of romantic way.
A lovely fuck.
Marion Belle: The lovely fuck! I’ll tell you this. I’ve been trying to find this artifact that I remember seeing on the back of like a Motley Crue record—you’d look at the back of the liner notes, and it would say like ‘fan club,’ and at the bottom it would say ‘Send pics! You know the kind we like!’ I swear to God, that’s on one of their records and I’d love to see that again.
You should do that, and see what people think it is that you like.
Marion Belle: Probably it’s so different now!
Your song ‘Lead Singer’ is a pretty sexual song, but also it’s interesting. In it you sing ‘I’ll lick your pussy clean.’ What’s the difference between that and someone saying or singing about ‘suck my dick’?
Marion Belle: It’s coming from a different place. As opposed to just crassness. I think it’s the polar opposite.
So to speak?
Marion Belle: So to speak—exactly! I love the idea and I believe in the idea: music can basically change your life like a thunderbolt in two ways. You’re in the crowd or you ended up at this show. And it’s kind of a whatever night, you don’t even know why you came out, and you start to hear these rumblings, and then some creature appears on the stage and just takes your breath away! And whatever happens over the next twenty minutes or so is stronger than any other drug, and everything is changed for you. And the other way that happens is when you’re driving or you’re in some mall and you hear a song. That’s happened to me in my life, where I’ve been at a record store and I hear this voice and I have to find out who that person is. I think that moment is so thrilling and it’s so sexual at the same time. ‘I’ll lick your pussy clean and vanish in the ocean wind.’ That feeling. And it’s like Lestat the vampire: it comes and sucks your blood and disappears.
And turns you into one too.
Marion Belle: Exactly.
Are you the most sexually philosophical person in any given record store?
Marion Belle: It used to be that the record store was so sacred. We used to go in and they’d have the used CDs and the headphones and stuff, and you’d buy like CD singles or you might come home with a box set. I’d go to the record store and get Astral Weeks and listen to that for like six months. And those singers and those bands, they’re definitely like teachers. Teachers in like spirit. I’ll say one more thing: one thing I’m really fascinated with is the castrati singers. And I remember reading that Thomas Edison—one of his first recordings, one of the first records ever, was of a castrati because he had some fascination and wanted to go record this one guy. And I went to the library at my college, and I heard that guy sing. It was like a really old recording. Like 100 years old—a voice between masculine and feminine. Like an adolescent’s voice that never grew up. Kind of like Michael Jackson tried to sing. And I hear that when I hear Vince Neil.
Vince Neil would probably be so bummed that you compared him to a castrati from 1908.
Marion Belle: He would be so bummed. And you know who else would be bummed—but it’s the biggest compliment—is Michael Monroe from Hanoi Rocks.
When did you actually start to make music and think about yourself as a musician?
Marion Belle: I used to write rhymes and rap a lot. My friends would always make me spit rhymes at parties and say ‘You got to hear this kid!’ and they were always pumping me up. My high school friends were incredible for that. I know I jumped from being a fan to actually making my own music and performing because I was tired of being at parties and standing on a wall and saying in my head, ‘I got something sacred, I got something special to say and nobody knows it.’ I wanted to prove it to myself and be about it. I had recorded some rap songs in little sessions here and there. I had a radio show in Boston and I’d use the studio late at night to record myself over instrumentals. That was the extent of my experience. I had never performed or been in a group. I don’t think I had barely held a guitar. I learned how to play and how to write by watching every musician around me and by listening to records. In the beginning I worked almost exclusively on my singing and on my production. I did take some vocal lessons in the early L.A. days—peeps I found on Craigslist. In the Valley. I remember everything about them. One girl had pink hair and she taught me a lot—how to scream and not lose your voice. She was so sexy she would wear spandex to the lessons! Eventually my roommate took me to Guitar Center and helped me get an acoustic and then he’d give me lessons. Our rap group almost got signed to Warner Brothers and we had developed a live show using an MPC 2000XL, a Fender Rhodes and an electric guitar. That group was like an emo rap group. We liked Mobb Deep. We were kind of like sensitive thugs.
Sensitive shook ones?
Marion Belle: I found sensitivity in lines like ‘I’m only 19 but my mind is old’—that is deep! There’s a beauty beyond the sum of its parts right there. But I was like ‘I’m not a black dude. I’m just from where I am.’ I hit a patch where I had to come to terms with it. By the time we had Warner Brothers interested, I was ready to put on lipstick and get farther out there. Like Ian Brown from Stones Roses, I saw him play at House of Blues, his solo thing. The way he performed—he was like a little hooligan. Like ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’ kinda guy. ‘I’m gonna sing ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and these sensitive ballads, but don’t fuck with me! I’m hard!’ That had an influence on me. You can be saying the most emotional naked beautiful thing, but at the same time, he’s putting that out. That’s it for me.
It’s fear and love mixed together—coming and going.