JERRY PAPER: I’M GONNA PLAY MUSIC
There’s no magic in getting by. You get up, put on the slippers, scramble the eggs, wash the body, call the parents, kiss the cat. You take one step, and then the next. Then Abracadabra—another sunrise. Jerry Paper’s latest album is first an achievement of sound. What an absolutely gorgeous set of recordings—agile grooves and intrepid chord choices in an adventurous funk/retro-pop oeurve, punctuated by sanguine lyrics delivered in a matter-of-factly mellifluous baritone. Focusing on the feeling the record gives you, however, brings even more pleasure. These songs are melancholy—they’re searching for something and they’re sweet. They’re songs no one else could make in a language that begins when the needle drops and ends when the music stops—when you remember the way things are and the way things were and will never be again. But for those fleeting minutes when the record was on, there was magic, and you got by. Now take your pants off in the bubble bath. Jerry Paper’s Abracadabra is out now on Stones Throw. This interview by Tolliver.
I saw an interview where you said you only enjoy ten minutes of the entire recording process. I’m just wondering if that’s changed at all.
Jerry Paper: That definitely changed! I think that was my younger self with this immediacy where it’s just like, ’I have to get it out, I have to get it out!’ I like many different parts of the process. There are definitely some excruciating parts. The actual recording of this record was … really great in a lot of ways. Working with Jake Viator at Stones Throw’s studio was excellent. I had access to a nicer studio than I’ve ever had access to. That definitely influenced my sound in the sense that I used their equipment to record things. Literal sound.
Wolf’s not in the studio like, ‘We need a new snare!’? Smoking a stogie?
Jerry Paper: [laughs] He’ll walk in the studio and be like, ‘Cool, sounds good.’ They don’t have any creative input, which is really cool. I like that. I feel like a lot of labels have suggestions, so I like that they just kind of let me do my thing. I have a lot of friends who are dealing with labels and the labels are always sending like … suggestions for songs. I’ve never gotten an email from Stones Throw with suggestions about the music. But I also felt it was just a very new process working in the studio by myself. Or just me and an engineer. There were just a lot of emotional and psychological things that came up: my own inadequacy, my self-doubt, all those kinds of things. That gets really intense. Especially with this last record, I just changed the words that I used when I thought about it. Like ‘I’m gonna work on music’—I changed that to ‘I’m gonna play music.’ Which is like a super-simple thing, but it made a huge difference for me, and made a huge difference in how I approached the music. I was just like, ‘If I’m not having fun when I’m writing a song, then it’s not good.’ Because I’m never gonna be able to listen to this music. Listening to the music is for other people, so this is how I derive my fulfillment from it. Everyone else can make their meaning from whatever I did. I never get to have the experience that other people have with it. For me I will always hear flaws, I will always zero in on the things I wish I’d done differently. I just started to refocus what’s fulfilling and what feels good and what’s fun about it. So now I have fun when I’m making it. And I feel like I have more fun with lyrics now, too.
In what way? Are they more abstract?
Jerry Paper: I feel like they’re less abstract—or less direct. I have a lot of fun with details and with kind of creating an image in my mind and then only sharing a part of the image. Because I can’t write a full story, but I’ll write a story in mind and then I’ll pick out the details that I find to be interesting, and put them together into a song. So then everyone else probably makes a different story in their mind. To me it means a very specific thing … but also it doesn’t matter what it means to me. So much of music enjoyment—especially lyric enjoyment—is projection. I don’t know for sure—I might be correct about this lyric, but I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this lyric, but I never want to learn the right one, because I love it so much—but do you know the Prince song ‘Ballad of Dorothy Parker?’
I don’t know the words.
Jerry Paper: There’s one line where I think he says ‘I took another bubble bath with my pants on.’ That is the lyric to me. I never wanna know what it is if that’s not it. But like … it means so much to me. I feel like people probably have that sort of experience with all music.
There’s a very clear image you get of this person. Prince could’ve spent an entire album talking about ‘he likes to go to the Texaco, and he drinks Coca Cola.’ He could’ve done this whole thing. But really—the bubble bath got me. That’s it.
Jerry Paper: Yeah [laughs].
The opening lyric on ‘Memorial Highway’ is one of my favorites ever.
Jerry Paper: I had that lyric kicking around my head for years, and I’ve tried to write that song for years and it never came out the way I wanted it to. I was touring more and it finally sunk in what the memorial highway was. I always liked the idea of the memorial highway. I feel like it’s always for someone you don’t know. It’s almost never a recognizable name. You’re definitely not remembered—you’re just a name on a thing. But I dunno … doing a lot of touring, driving across country, bird shit and bug smashed windshields looking out into the world … It all came together for me and I was finally able to write this song that had been brewing in me for years. Production-wise I just wanted to make a groovy little sound, play a little Rhodes. I got this guy Logan Hone, who’s an amazing musician, to play flute on it. That song is very special to me. I’m very happy that’s gonna be out in the world. Logan played with me live for a little bit, but it’s too complicated to have that many people in the band for me right now. I really try to pay everyone as well as I can, and the more people the less I could do that.
It’s obviously really shitty that your tour is cancelled. Where were you looking forward to going most?
Jerry Paper: We were going to do a lot. I dunno, I like most places. I have a pretty good time most places.
You know what place sucks? Seattle.
Jerry Paper: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge, but that being said … the shows that I’ve played there, the people are incredibly cool. It’s one of the few places where people will bring their 7-year-old daughter who loves my music. I love that shit. That’s fun. It wasn’t just all like, cool people. It was a real grab bag of people. Which is legit. I will say, I am biased towards any city that has really good Vietnamese food. So it’s not so bad in my book. Really good Vietnamese food there.
‘Puppeteer’ is my favorite song on this fantastic album. I actually hadn’t checked out the video till this morning. And then I saw you’d worked with [director] Steve Smith before. What can you tell me about the production of that video?
Jerry Paper: Oh, the production of that video? That video took a week to make [laughs]. He’s working on another video for me right now that’s taken like a couple months. It’s really intense CGI. Basically Stones Throw emailed us like, ‘Hey, can you give us an image so we can post the song on YouTube?’ Initially Steve was like, ‘What?’ Like, ‘I dunno.’ We’re stuck inside, so he was just like, ‘Actually it might be fun to make like, a really shitty-looking video for like, a week. do the best we can and that’s it.’
You met Steve through Jay Weingarten, right? Jay’s one of my favorite comics.
Jerry Paper: I’d been working with Cole Kush—we’d been friends for years—and when I was moving to L.A. he was like, ‘You should meet my friend Jay Weingarten.’ Jay lived around the corner from Steve, and I was like, ‘Well, let’s get dinner.’ He invited Steve, and we’ve been friends since.
Some of your art is at least adjacent to the comedy community—are you ever gonna get up and do a Hot 5?
Jerry Paper: I attempted to do comedy once, and it was a failure. It was a show I did with Jay and Steve. We did something called ‘Jay Date’ at Cinefamily a few years ago. Of course … cancelled. I was supposed to do something more than just sit on stage and laugh and that’s all I did. I think I just like to laugh so much that I can’t keep a straight face.
You talked about feelings of inadequacy coming up when you’re recording. I’ve struggled with that in quarantine—feeling like I have to keep proving myself. But my perception is that this has actually been relaxing for you.
Jerry Paper: Umm—no. [laughs] I wouldn’t call it relaxing. I could talk for hours about what this experience has been like for me just cuz it’s been so many things. In certain ways it’s been really freeing. I’m only just starting to understand this about myself, but I have so much … It’s interesting, because this does not translate to the stage. On stage I feel extremely free. There are many areas in my life where I feel very free, and there are many areas of my life where I don’t feel very free, and I feel very much trapped by expectations—expectations from within myself and from society as a whole. I feel like I’m kind of looking at that under a microscope right now as I have almost no social interactions, and I start to see my free self and I start to see how I want to take that out with me into the world. So that has actually been a super intense process that I’m only right in the middle of. Being onstage is such an outlet for this free side of myself—where I can dress however I want, move however I want. I don’t know why. I just feel so not judged when I’m onstage the way I do when I’m in the real world. But I’m starting to see how I need that outlet for myself in my life, and that has been super intense. I mean there’s been many days of non-stop sobbing, there’s been like … all sorts of shit. Maybe one of the biggest things that’s coming out of this—extremely related to this idea of wanting to be free in my normal life, and feeling a loss for what I get out of live performance—is I’m starting to realize how much dancing means to me, and how important and how fulfilling it is to fully let go and just lose yourself in music. For me, dancing is the fullest way for me to lose myself in music. Sitting and listening doesn’t give me the kind of deep fulfillment as kind of fucking moving and letting loose and fully engaging with the music and the rhythm. I just feel like I’m having a revelation about dance right now. So.
I didn’t even realize that was like, an option to do at my house, y’know? To dance. I like to go to Motown On Mondays and stuff like that—I like to dance in front of people. But I haven’t danced at all in my house.
Jerry Paper: Oh my God, you find the perfect ratio of drunk and high and good music—just stand in front of your stereo and just fucking like, go. It’s like the most fun. I don’t know why, it sounds so ridiculous. I feel so alive. And that is a really wonderful thing. I don’t do it every night, but maybe a few nights a week, I’ll spend a half hour to an hour of listening to music and dancing, and it feels amazing. Give it a try.
How are your cats dealing with quarantine?
Jerry Paper: Um … pretty good. This guy seems real happy.
He really does. Are they indoor or outdoor cats?
Jerry Paper: Indoor. I feel like I’d be freaking out more if they were indoor/outdoor cuz they’d just be like, getting pet by random people and coming in my house.
I didn’t even think about that. I’ve been taking in a lot of content right now, people putting out music videos and stuff like that. Have you seen anything that’s really excited you? Beat battles?
Jerry Paper: Have you heard of the show ‘Dress Up Gang?’ Steve edited the show. I guess TBS ordered a full season of it a few years ago. Then they made the whole season and TBS said ‘We don’t wanna put this out.’ And they just put it on streaming services a week ago. So I’ve been watching that—it’s extremely good.
Have you felt any pressure to stay in people’s faces? To make content constantly?
Jerry Paper: Yeah. I’ve been trying to use social media more, which is something that I usually avoid, because it usually makes me very sad. I find it to be deeply unfulfilling. I guess my appetite for pleasure is simpler now, so it’s kind of working for me. I obviously can’t put out more music cuz I spent a couple years making an album and it’s coming out and I’m just hoping people listen to it. I’ve definitely been trying to work on those Eternal TV shows and … I don’t know. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself.
I have friends who feel like they have to constantly be going live, doing this and that. It’s already stressful enough out here. I’m a musician, too. And I’ve done nothing. I’ve done no lives. I’ve just talked to other musicians like this.
Jerry Paper: I mean—that’s pretty good.
Because people are always talking about Tik Tok, I figured I’d check and see if there was a Jerry Paper Tik Tok. Sadly there wasn’t.
Jerry Paper: No.
If you wanna see teens who are really fucking with Jerry Paper, you gotta get on Tik Tok, I’m telling you. There’s this girl on there who recreates your album cover with the egg … she like, freezes or some shit. It’s cool. Do you ever feel pressure to get on shit like Tik Tok or follow trends that pop up in the music industry?
Jerry Paper: I think that my personal struggles with social media have been intense enough that I don’t want to add another service. That’s kind of why I don’t wanna get on Tik Tok. But also I feel like I always resist the new social media thing for a couple years till it establishes dominance and then I’m ‘OK, I guess I’ll get one.’ Like I feel like I didn’t have an Instagram for a while.
You know what was really sick? Vine. Vine was good. Vine had some truly weird shit on there. Maybe go back to the graveyard and find that one. What you do strikes me a little bit like drag, because you’re putting on a bit of a persona as a means of navigating the world. Have you ever gotten into drag shows or anything like that?
Jerry Paper: Y’know, I’ve never been. I want to! They seem SO fun.
Whaaat? You know there’s a whole primer you can check out with RuPaul’s Drag Race. You have all the time in the world right now.
Jerry Paper: I know. I’m not that good at watching TV, that’s my problem. Like most of my TV watching I do with my wife. It’s hard for me to watch things by myself. Recently the only thing I’ve watched by myself is Star Trek.
Ok, word. But like which Star Trek?
Jerry Paper: I am halfway through Season 7 of Deep Space Nine right now.
I never did Deep Space Nine. I was a TNG person—I’ve seen all of it. With my mom.
Jerry Paper: I watched all of TNG over the last year. I did that and then all of my real Trek head friends told me that Deep Space Nine is the best one. So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ And like, the first couple seasons … most of the episodes are bad. But by season 7 it’s one of the best shows. It’s amazing. So good. It’s secretly the best one. Everyone I know who is a deep sci-fi head is like, ‘Deep Space Nine is incredible cuz it has more long-running story arcs.’ Next Gen is monster of the week, it’s like boom-boom-boom. [Deep Space Nine] is like … you really get into the characters. There’s an arc that basically goes across the last four seasons that is so good! You should give it a shot.