Writer’s Workshop: Jesse Jarnow

I like having it all crash together semi-passively while I figure out what it’s all about and how it connects to the music around it. After a month or so, most of the album has probably come up at least twice, and I’ll have a general sense of it. And, when it’s time to write, I listen straight through, hopefully, a few more times, though I often drop the iTunes needle randomly into the middle of different tracks to look for details I half-remember. Then, y’know, write.

RD: I’ve noticed that you often mention your father and his filmmaking in your writing. Was he a big influence on your interest in pursuing a creative line of work? Were you one of those little guys seeing Dead shows in a stroller back in the day?

JJ: Yes, he was definitely an influence, but I’m not sure that’s a strong enough word. Like, I think it would’ve been a surprise to everybody in my family if I ended up doing anything else. Both of my parents are hugely creative people who, while I was growing up, never worked straight office jobs, Mom just as much as Dad. She was an art student and has done all kinds of stuff — wrote DIY crafts books in the ’70s and ’80s, a guide to children’s music, some teen romance novels, and used to make all kinds of homemade publications for various projects she was involved with. Both of them were way involved in building the Long Island Children’s Museum from the ground up, everything from being on the board raising money to designing exhibits. (I worked there for a summer in junior high.)

Both of them were huge folkies–Dad saw Dylan at Newport in ’63, ’64, and ’65, as well as the electric Forest Hills show a week later–and both had really broad taste in music. (I think Dad might’ve been the only person to buy the first Velvet Underground album when it came out and not start a band.) I just excavated/stole their record collection over Thanksgiving, and found all kinds of insane stuff that I never appreciated in high school–weird Canadian free jazz, some super-obscure ’70s folk (Karen Dalton!), and the like. They definitely took me to lots of music when I was growing up, though it was more of the Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie variety, but just as many galleries, museums, movies, too. And though Dad drove and paid for the tickets, I actually more or less brought him to his first Dead show since the ’60s in March ’94 at Nassau Coliseum, which was also my first Dead show.

RD: Have you ever conducted an interview where you were just shit-in-your-pants nervous to speak to the subject of your inquisition?

JJ: Well, it’s weird, I actually get equally nervous before almost every interview I do. It doesn’t matter who. Especially if it’s on the phone. Even if it’s somebody I know well, I still find myself pacing around before it’s time for the call. On the flip side, in nearly all cases, once the conversation is underway, all of that disappears almost instantly. And while I’ve certainly had bad interviews, the only time that nervousness never dissipated over the course of the interview was with Brian Wilson. Holy sweet mother of crap was that awkward.

I had something like 20 or 30 questions prepared and, in the wake of monosyllabic answers from Brian, I blew through them all in 10 minutes and lost all footing when I should’ve stood my ground and followed up. I wish I could do it over, but it also sounds like reliving a nightmare, and I doubt it’d be any different. I wonder how they get him to be so articulate for all those DVDs.

RD: Given you have established pretty solid name recognition at this point and have some hefty credentials under your belt, are there any book ideas rattling around upstairs that you are looking to pursue?

JJ: For sure. I actually started sending my first real proposal to agents last month. Obviously, it’s something I’d quite like to do, but–for the most part–I’ve just been concentrating on getting work. I probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to sell a book. Keeping my fingers crossed, though.

RD: Have you ever felt like you really wished you could retract a review after spending more time with an album (or book or movie) and letting it grow on you?

JJ: Yeah, it happens with some frequency, really. Maybe not wanting to retract it–though that happens, too–but at least wanting to say something different. Most of the time, reviewing is about predicting how an album will function. Like, thinking, “ah, this’ll be good for rainy winter nights” without ever experiencing the album on one of those nights. A lot of the time, I have no idea if an album is really good until I realize it’s six months later and I still remember how the songs go. That doesn’t happen very much. One example of that is Chutes Too Narrow by the Shins, which just sounded like well-produced, semi-alright indie stuff to me when I first heard it. But then it came on between bands at some show I was at, months afterwards, and I realized I knew all the words, at which point I had to accept the fact that I really liked it.

RD: This is a fun little writing exercise that I anticipate using in all of these Writer’s Workshops segments. Translate the following three sentences into music critic speak.

1) Kings of Leon are overrated.

JJ: The 13 cherubic brothers whose holy rolling family band, Kings of Leon, preaches the gospel of leather pants, electric guitars, and buggering virgins, hardly do anything that the Stones, the Strokes, or Jesus didn’t do before them.

2) Hampton Coliseum is going to be really crowded

JJ: When the lights go down for Phish’s reunion shows at the Hampton Coliseum in March, something like 14,400 bodies averaging (say) 100 miles worth of gas-use and at least $500 in disposable income each, will bug the fuck out — and that’s to say nothing of the emissions, car-spat or otherwise, from the countless other souls crushed against the barricades outside.

3) Chuck Palahniuk is paranoid.

JJ: Chuck Palahniuk new novel, Tweak, reads as if it was written through a periscope, his computer’s screen a distant staging field for Philip K. Dick-like reveries on the meaning of dread.

RD: While I’d say normally I think of myself as someone who has at least a functional knowledge of new/under-covered music, but your selections for the Frow Show typically read like a restaurant menu written in a lost language. What are some of your go-to sources to dig up new musical tastes?

JJ: Ha. Hm. I get it from everywhere, really. Some go-to sources, though, would be lists of stuff Other Music and Turntable Lab are stocking, WFMU’s new bin, shows by other DJs over there (I’m a major, major n00b compared to those dudes), the Mutant Sounds blog. There are lots. I love reading lists of musicians’ favorite albums. Frequently, I find stuff through my crew of friends. They know my taste, I know theirs. We tend to trade lots of albums and links and stuff.

A lot more comes just from following up on stuff I’ve liked, Googling around and figuring out side-projects and musical family trees and connection points and such. Or, really, just being aware of when a recording sounds like it might be up my alley, be it a throwaway reference in a review of something else, a song mentioned in some book, or whatever. A while back, I saw a link to one of those typically weird internet wire stories about how people had supposedly recorded the sounds of angels’ voices in a few churches. I followed the links and, lo, there were mp3s at the end of the chain. Most of that stuff gets tossed into the playlist I mentioned before and shuffled until the good stuff surfaces.

RD: Are there any publications out there to which you’d really like to contribute?

JJ: Of course. All of them! I dunno, probably the same publications that any writer wants to write for: the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the Economist, McSweeney’s, and on and on.

RD: Finally, who is your favorite music writer of all-time?

JJ: I guess the two most formative writers for me when I started were Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, but those aren’t very original choices. That’s like saying you were influenced by the Beatles. I learned a lot from reading Richard Gehr’s stuff in the Village Voice over the years, both in terms of language, but also all kinds of back recommendations for things to read and check out. But the one I’ll shout it to, if I had to pick absolutely one, is probably Paul Williams, who founded Crawdaddy. Specifically his books about Dylan. He’s just got such an absolute love for the music. He’s so overblown and ridiculous about it, but it’s this totally warm kind of life-affirming hippie enthusiasm. (Not like Bangs where it’s always tempered with existential dread.) He comes away with these great, penetrating observations that are almost cathartic to read.

RD: Which comes first, the music or the words?

JJ: Definitely the music.

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8 Responses

  1. Jesse Jarnow is Dog. I mean, Dod. No – wait; don’t print that. Jesse Jarnow is Ggod. Godd. Gdddod.

    Forget it.

    Just forget it.

  2. Huge Jesse fan, have been for years, but I went to his blog and couldn’t find any merch. Anyone know where I can score some Jarnow swag? I’m lookin’ to flesh out the Christmas list and could use a nice Frow Show hoodie or a “Jesse Jarnow Approved” record bag or an oldschool, official-lookin’ “Camp Bisco Counselor: Jesse Jarnow” shirt or maybe even some “WWJJD?” tri-color wristbands. Anyone?

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