Jay Bennett, the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist, passed away in his sleep on early Sunday morning (May 24) due to unknown causes. He was 45. Bennett was best known for his work with Wilco, the group for which he wrote and recorded on 1996’s Being There, 1999’s Summerteeth and 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as well as the band’s Woody Guthrie themed albums with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2.
Bennett was recently in the news for as he sued Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy for breach of contract stemming from his work for Wilco. The suit came less than two weeks after Bennett publicly revealed that he needed hip replacement surgery which he could not afford due to lack of health insurance.
Brian Robbins spoke with Bennett in late 2008 for a revealing and uniquely written Glide feature that explored Bennett’s creative ramblings. Robbins last heard from Bennett around May 6th, just after news of the lawsuit broke. He had been corresponding to Robbins about the hip procedure and appeared as Robbins states – "in good spirits and sweet as ever."
Read on for one of Jay Bennett’s last interviews,published in Glide last September 25, 2008.
CHAPTER ONE – Our lead-in paragraph, in which we deal with the obvious … and go on from there.
“I’m never, ever going to have a record review that doesn’t at least start off with some mention of my participation in Wilco, you know – and a comparison of my music now to the contributions I made to Wilco’s music – or what Wilco was then to what Wilco is now. That’s just reality – I’m never going to be taken just completely on my own; it’s always going to get set up in that context. Of course, a certain amount of that is appropriate, because you need your lead-in paragraph … well … I kinda come with a built-in lead-in paragraph.”
CHAPTER TWO – Long night into a new dawn … a signal flare … and embracing the 21st century.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 12, 2008 Jay Bennett sent a little signal flare up into the sky – or, at least, the virtual sky of the on-line world. Visitors to his MySpace page that morning found it completely made over and updated (after laying dormant for about two years), the end result of a 36-hour stretch of work by Bennett and his manager, Jeff Macklin.
BRIEF CLARIFICATION – “I did not pull an all-nighter: I laid down around 11:30 and got back up around 2:00 AM.”
Bennett is no stranger to the hunker-down-and-do-it approach. For years, he’s almost used it as a creative tool – another instrument to add to the mix. The results can be brilliant … or they can sometimes be weird. In this case, Bennett was being fueled by nothing short of an epiphany.
“If I hadn’t been doing anything for the last two years, it probably wouldn’t have been nagging at me,” says Bennett during our late afternoon conversation on the 12th, “but I’ve actually been busy. And in the meantime, there’s all these people wondering where I am and what I’m doing. It’s just me and my manager, you know – we don’t have an intern or whatever to respond to e-mails – and we finally said ‘Let’s do this.’ We basically did two years’ worth of work in about 36 hours – let’s get everyone up to speed on what’s going on.”
What is going on?
First, there’s a new solo Jay album to be titled Kicking At The Perfumed Air, set to be released October 1st. Secondly, fans of Bennett’s 2002 collaboration with buddy Edward Burch can look forward to a new 6-song EP from the duo – a tribute to another duo: Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. Along with those fresh tracks, Bennett has unearthed an album’s worth of material from his old band Titanic Love Affair – songs that, in his words, “make me think that this could be the best TLA album of all.”
And the almost-as-big news: for now, all three projects are digital-only releases.
For Bennett, recognizing the Internet as a medium to get new music out there is a turning point.
“Yeah, it’s true – I am finally accepting the 21st century now that we’re eight years into it,” he laughs. “But it’s there. It’s a changing world. At first I was discouraged by all this, but – like any shift – you need to just wrap your mind around it and there is a silver lining … absolutely. Five years ago, I would’ve thumbed my nose at MySpace – but I’m so much more open-minded now. And career-wise, it makes sense.
“If a really cool touring opportunity presented itself, I’d go out again – absolutely. I love playing live. But, for right now, anyway, I’m looking at MySpace as an alternative to touring – I can keep people engaged and interested in what I’m doing. Post some little ditties – some goofy songs – or maybe something serious that didn’t make it onto an album … or the acoustic version of the electric version of something.”
“Or, for instance, I wrote this horrible disco song a couple of years ago. And I mean it when I say horrible, I mean I did it really well: I nailed it. I wrote this 1976-77 disco song with all the sounds and the melody and the beat. I did it so perfectly I scared myself. I wrote an absolutely great disco song – which is what makes it horrible. I’m not sure that I want to divulge that I have that hidden talent … it scares you sometimes to find out that you have an aptitude for something that you otherwise didn’t know. We’re thinking of putting this disco song out there for download – there are no lyrics, but the melody’s mapped out – and letting people come up with words for it. Make a little contest out of it.”
* ALL CLEAR – THIS AREA IS NOW DISCO-FREE – ALL CLEAR *
“I’m looking at it as a chance to have a dialogue and keep people updated – instead of having two years go by and saying: ‘Jay’s got a new record.’ And another two years go by and: ‘Jay’s got a new record.’”
Long-time followers of Bennett’s work need not fret – the embracement of today’s available technology is by no means a deviation away from the earthiness of some of his earlier work. Indeed: there are several right-now-one-take-Jay-and-a-guitar-and-a-microphone moments on the new solo album … the kind of stuff that no studio tech wizardry can recreate.
CHAPTER THREE – Dealing with leftovers … taking a break … and coming back.
Listening to some rough cuts from Bennett’s upcoming solo album Kicking At The Perfumed Air, there’s a neat rawness. Of the first three sneak peeks, one is just Jay, a guitar, and one mike; one is a basic Jay track with some Jay touches added after (a little mando, for instance); and one is a “cast of characters playing live in the studio with copious overdubs,” according to Bennett.
When asked about the 50-something songs that were left over from his last studio album (2006’s The Magnificent Defeat) and how many made their way to Kicking, Bennett replies: “At one point, I thought I needed to completely cleanse my palate of leftovers before I could move on, right? But I finally said to myself, ‘That’s not going to work … I’m not going to get everything I’ve ever written out there … and while I’m working on leftovers – finishing the writing process, finishing the recording process, finishing the mixing process, whatever – I’m not writing.’ At that point, I was ready to pick up the guitar and start writing again.”
NOTE TO READER: Even when he’s talking about digital-only releases, Jay Bennett refers to them as “records.” He grew up with “records”; he loved “records”; he still loves “records”; he has an estimated 900 “records”; and any group of songs that are to be offered up as a collective work will be referred to as a “record” by Jay. That’s the way it is. Get over it.
“This record has a few leftovers on it, but for the most part, it’s all new material. After having been on such an incredibly productive streak for three or four years and then taking a break from the process, you like to think that you’ve gotten away from it enough that your approach is going to be altered in some way when you come back. The way you sing, the way you write, the way you play are all going to be different – and, hopefully, for the better – from having been away.”
At this point, it’s clear that when he talks about having taken a break, Bennett is referring to more than just the period of time since The Magnificent Defeat’s release: “That record was largely finishing up things that I’d collected … things that had been written here and there. There were like 69 songs that got winnowed down to whatever was on The Magnificent Defeat … but I really wasn’t writing for at least a year prior to the release of that record.
“Hopefully, that’s what this record is: what I’ve learned from being away.”
CHAPTER FOUR – Q&A: The Prince test … perfect last songs … and the appropriate number of warts.
BR: What I’ve heard so far for songs off the new album seem to be really acoustic-based … if you wanted to, you could go out with a guitar, a microphone, and a comfortable stool and pull them off live.
JB: There’s a number of people who could take credit for saying this, but any good song ultimately should stand up with just a guitar and a vocal – or a piano and a vocal … or just a vocal, you know? I worked once with Susan Rogers, one of Prince’s engineers, and she remarked that his rule regarding whether an overdub was to be deemed worthy or not was if that one overdub and the vocal could be the song – then that overdub was worthwhile.
BR: Wow … do you believe that?
JB: Yeah – it’s valid. I don’t know as it holds up across the board … but I’ve tried to apply that rule more and more. I’ve sometimes justly been accused in the past of throwing the kitchen sink at things … but that can be fun, too, you know – providing it’s not start-to-finish kitchen sink.
BR: But, for the most part, the new album is more stripped-down, from-the-gut stuff?
JB: Well, strangely enough, this record is either of two things: recorded with no click-track at all – so the instruments are reacting completely to the vocal – or there’s a handful of tunes that were cut to a really cheesy drum machine which I then had to make sound “not-like-a-drum-machine” to have a cool vibe … make them sound organic. So there’s kind of a dichotomy in the record. I’m struggling to sequence it right now … in my mind, they’re similar approaches, but to describe them aloud just now, they sound like very different approaches, don’t they? (laughs)
BR: You mentioned sequencing – if you don’t make “When Heaven Held The World” the last song on the album, I’ll never speak to you again. (both laugh)
JB: The only issue with closing it with the beautiful, lonesome acoustic number is that’s what you would expect. That might be my only problem with that.
BR: Well, maybe … but when I think of songs like the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” – there’s no other place “Moonlight Mile” could’ve been than at the end of Sticky Fingers.
JB: Oh, yeah – it’s definitely got that sort of feel. And another thing: when I sequence, I still sequence in terms of two sides. I still conceptualize it as a record with a side A and a side B.
JB: Oh, man, I’ve been listening to so much vinyl at the studio lately … we must’ve listened to Nebraska and Tonight’s The Night about a hundred times apiece. It’s great: you’ve got, like, 15 minutes of music to a side – Neil’s records were always short – with an opener and a closer on each side. It really makes the process of sequencing a lot easier if you can define your opener and your closer on side A and side B … then you just have to fill in the gaps. It’s really an easier approach for me.
BR: So, in 50 words or less …
JB: Oh, man … (both laugh)
BR: Okay – 100 words or less: what were you after with the new album?
JB: I can’t talk about it without resorting to clichés, but – I want it to be organic; I don’t want it to be slick. I want it to have the appropriate number of warts, although I don’t want it to be sloppy and just full of warts. I think the thing I’m really shooting for is all instruments dancing around the vocal. I want it to be warm and wide and thick without a lot of overdubs. It’s meant to sound like there’s more going on than there really is.
Ram – Paul McCartney
Revolver – The Beatles
Bone Machine – Tom Waits
Paris 1999 – John Cale
Hunky Dory – David Bowie
CHAPTER FIVE – Jay’s buddy Edward … “Tribute To A Tribute” … and a guitar for sale!
Of all the various subjects we cover in our conversation, there’s a noticeable difference in Jay Bennett’s voice when he talks about his long-time musical collaborator, Edward Burch. What’s true is, throughout the rough spots of the last few years (divorce, a number of deaths in his immediate family, personal health issues – and that Wilco thing), Bennett’s relationship with Burch has remained a true bright spot. “I cherish Edward, I really do,” says Bennett. “Whatever we work on together, he always brings out the best in me, no matter what.”
Fans of the duo’s 2002 release, The Palace at 4am (Part I) will find their latest project a bit of a change – with no less heart, however. Where the mix on The Palace was fairly dense with instrumentation at times, the new Bennett & Burch album is pretty much … well … Bennett & Burch.
“This record is exclusively Edward and Jay,” says Bennett. “Two vocals and two acoustic guitars.”
There’s a concept of sorts to the new album, explains Bennett: “When the band Rockpile released the first pressing of Seconds Of Pleasure in 1980, there was a bonus 45 included: Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds Sing the Everly Brothers. Great stuff – just the two of them with acoustic guitars singing stuff like ‘Poor Jenny’ and ‘Crying In The Rain.’
“What we’re doing is a tribute to those guy’s tribute – ours started out as a six-song EP, but it may end up being more. Sometimes we can’t stop ourselves.”
And the song selection? “Acoustic versions of Nick and Dave stuff: ‘Now And Always’ is on there … ‘I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On’ is another one. Edward does this gorgeous version of ‘Heart’ … we’re still finishing it up.
A side note: gearheads may wonder what Bennett’s weapons of choice are for a project of this nature. “Gibsons, mostly … mid-60s Gibson acoustics; that’s my world these days … and I do have a Martin that’s for sale, if anybody’s interested.”
CHAPTER SIX – Hitting the bathroom … a long night of Tonight’s The Night … harmonica theory … and a highlighted quote!
A good two hours or so into our conversation, Bennett asks if he can take a quick break to hit the bathroom and roll a cigarette. I bring up the fact that he’d mentioned in an earlier conversation that he was eating healthier these days and had really cut back on his smoking. “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “This is the first one I’ve had since we started talking this afternoon … I’m way down from the two-plus-packs-a-day times … or three-plus when I was in the studio.”
So we take a minute or two, me hanging at my desk with the speakerphone on.
Suddenly I hear a voice over the wires – is that Jay? No, I don’t think so … kind of a mumbling sing-song … but as it gets louder, I realize it is Jay, walking back to the phone. I begin to make out some words:
What do you mean
He had bullet holes in his mirrors
He tried to do his best
But he could not
Please take my advice
Please take my advice
Please take my advice
Open up the tired eyes
“Tired Eyes” from Tonight’s The Night, Neil Young’s fractured 1975 tribute to recently dead friends. If the original wasn’t weird enough for you, you ought to hear Jay Bennett at the tail end of a long awake spell doing a weary Neil Young impression over a speakerphone.
JB: Okay, I’m back.
BR: Uhhh … Neil Young?
JB: Oh, (laughs) yeah. I kinda OD’d on Tonight’s The Night while we were working last night. My studio manager was playing it over and over and over. I finally said, ‘Look, I’m going to start weeping or fall asleep or pass out … you’ve got to play something up-tempo here – I’m trying to stay awake and stay focused and that ain’t gonna do it.’ But, hey: Neil Young – beautiful slop, you know? Can’t beat it.
BR: Oh, man – “Heart Of Gold” was the inspiration for my taking up the harmonica when I was a teenager. First time I heard “Heart Of Gold,” I said, ‘I want to do that; I can do that. It can’t be that hard – but it’s perfect.’
JB: Well, that’s the beauty of a harmonica – no wrong notes.
BR: Right! At least, the way I play: if you can breathe –
JB: (laughing) You too can play the harmonica!
BR: (laughing) Yes! (pause to get under control) Everybody in the nursing homes should have a harmonica on a neck rack – or duct tape ‘em or whatever –
JB: And if you walk into the nursing home and it sounds like an early Dylan record, you know everybody’s still breathing! (another explosion of laughter) Wait – wait! I want that to be a highlighted quote:
REQUESTED HIGHLIGHTED QUOTE BY JAY BENNETT: “When you walk into the nursing home and it sounds like an early Dylan record, then you know everybody’s still breathing.”
JB: I like identifying my own highlighted quotes in an article. I want to go on record as identifying that as one, okay?
CHAPTER SEVEN: TLA … one trick pony? … the ones that got away.
The third release in Bennett’s musical hat trick is a new album by his pre-Wilco band Titanic Love Affair. Described by Bennett as having a sound “maybe somewhere between Soul Asylum and the Replacements – only a little more harmony rich,” Titanic Love Affair was founded by Bennett in the late 80s with their self-titled debut album hitting the ground in 1991. The Illinois-based band ripped it up over the next five years – and two more albums – calling it quits when Bennett departed to join Wilco in 1996.
Bennett speaks of his old band with a certain amount of qualified pride: “In all actuality, Titanic Love Affair was – in the best sense of the word – a one trick pony, but we did that one trick so well that we could pull it off. Hooky guitar licks intertwining with catchy melodies – that’s what we did. And we were damn good at it.
So – new album, but … new music? “I really just stumbled onto these songs and notified the other guys,” says Bennett. “When you listen to this stuff, it really leaves you scratching your head: ‘How’d that one get away?’ But – you have to look at what was going on at the time. All three of our releases were on labels with record people to satisfy … decisions were made and these were songs that didn’t make the records. I really wholeheartedly believe this could be the best one.”
Even though the new album is music recorded by Titanic Love Affair, the question arises: with band members scattered over the country and over a decade into new lives, doesn’t the project end up being a Jay Bennett production? “I’m at the helm, for sure,” says Bennett, “but let’s not take anything away from anybody else – that was a collaborative band.”
CHAPTER EIGHT – Health check … the big embrace … things to do.
Anyone who’s followed Bennett’s career is bound to ask: how’s he feeling? With a bad back (childhood treehouse fall) and a long-time bum knee (he was wearing a knee brace as we were talking), Bennett still has a certain amount of discomfort to put up with even on a good day. About the time he hit the road in 2006 to tour behind The Magnificent Defeat, Bennett really appeared to be old beyond his years – chain-smoking, heavier than he wanted to be, lame and tired-looking – although those extra years usually fell away when he got on stage and plugged in his trusty red 330 Gibson.
Today, he’s feeling better physically than he has for years.
“Absolutely – I’m doing a lot better. I had a handful of unhealthy years; then I had a couple slouchy years when I was trying to get over the crazy stuff, you know … now it feels like things are more balanced. No coffee – no booze – no drugs. I’m trying to eat better and exercise more … and I’m down to the five-ish cigarettes a day. I’m feeling good.”
I let Jay have a go at summing up his epiphany: “Hey, I remember how cool it was to open up a new record album – peel off the plastic and open up the gatefold … great album art and lyric sheets – maybe a poster. I miss that.
“The flip side is, to find the really cool bands that nobody knew about years ago, you really had to dig for ‘em – it took some effort. Now, with the Internet, it’s really easy to find that kind of stuff, and there’s something cool about that, too.
“So, I think you have to commit and get with the program. And I have – I’ve embraced the technology. Today is my official day to embrace MySpace and the digital-only release.”
Jay Bennett sounds good (especially after the around-the-clock marathon that he’s put in prior to our conversation). For someone with a “built-in lead-in paragraph,” he sounds confident and focused.
Imagine what he would be like with a good night’s sleep.
But – not right now … he’s got things to do.