Here is the first part of a fascinating two part interview with Jason Falkner. Here is the first interview from 1999. The second part is a further catch up from 2009. I felt combined that the two were a little long for what we do here, so Part 2 appears at the weekend.
Well I remember the day I got Ro Sham Bo, the one and only album by The Grays, a few weeks after it had been released. This was at the very dawn of the golden age of Power Pop when Jellyfish and Beagle reigned supreme and A Man Called E had delivered up his first utterances. I bought it on the strength of it being ex Jellyfish, but looking through the credits on the way home, I realised that the only ex involved was the guitarist from the first Jellyfish album, Jason Falkner. This was back in the days long before the internet and Los Angeles was an ocean away and the only real information available on such bands was what could be gleaned from the album sleeves themselves. Other than that we were stumbling through the dark.
Besides Falkner, the other names meant nothing to me (though I was to later realise that Jon Brion was the session guitarist on the second Jellyfish album and was the producer the the first two Aimee Mann albums). On first play the album sounded not very Jellyfishy at all, by the third play this masterpiece of grown up passionate and detailed power pop had begun to reveal itself for the stone cold classic it remains to this day. For me, it far outshone Jellyfish in every way imaginable.
Ro Sham Bo is one of the benchmark albums of the nineties and The Grays, that short lived combo who are responsible for it, a legend. A band with three equally brilliant songwriters, Falkner, Brion and Buddy Judge, a band with four brilliant musicians including drummer Dan McCarroll. A band doomed from the start by the personality and methodology clash of Falkner and Brion. Simply put, Jason and Jon did not get on and halfway through the tour to promote the album, Brion walked away and the band was no more.
Of the three principals, only Falkner really delivered up the promise of The Grays. Jon Brion returned to session and production work and eventually released a solo album that while full of beautiful songs, was musically crafted, but un-adventurous. Buddy Judge also eventually released a strange solo album, that is quaintly old fashioned in a music hall type of way.
Back when I interviewed Jason. he had already released one brilliant solo album and was about to release a second. For all intent and purposes, Falkner was the crown prince of power pop We were all in awe of the sheer majesty and craft the he was delivering up.
The news that he was playing live in Paris in support of his second album was too hard to resist, especially since two London based french girls, who were also big Falkner fans and friends of mine were heading home to see him and invited me along. I packed my trusty tape machine on the off chance that I might grab him for an interview....and here it is.
So how did you first start doing music?
“My mom says I was singing tunefully even before I was talking. For me it was never like a thing I got into consciously. It was playing with the piano before I could sit on the stool by myself and I used to follow my Mom around when she was cooking and play drums on her butt. I guess I started on the piano and the teacher was like "He should be in a proper class". She then recommended a serious teacher and I went through that teacher in a couple of years and then got me an amazing teacher.
But the whole time I was totally into Rock, like FM Rock, that was around at the time, Queen etc. The first record I ever bought was In The Summer by The Beach Boys. I started hassling my parents for a guitar. but my parents knew it was going to take me away from the piano and they were right. I finally got one when I was twelve. Then really soon after, punk happened. My sister got me into Costello and then Blondie"
So it was more new wave than punk?
“It wasn't punk at first, it was more Joe Jackson, Squeeze, Elvis Costello. Wasn't even XTC, I didn't know about them until a couple of years later. At first I hated Costello because of the Farfisa and stuff, I associated that sound with Muzak that was in the supermarket. So I was like "that's lame, like it doesn't go 'bbbbbvvvvv' it needs to go 'bbbbvvvvv' to be good". Then all of a sudden one day I just totally got it. It was This Years Model and I was 'Holy mother of God, what's this playing?
This is totally the future for me'. There was a radio station in LA that would play entire albums and I heard English Settlement by XTC and it just totally freaked me out, especially Jason And The Argonauts. I hadn't caught which album it was so I went through this astonishing sequence of trying to find that album and I bought every XTC album and that was the last one before I found that song. I was totally hooked to that band."
So when did you start playing in bands?
“I had this cover band in ninth grade, we were called Your Boy Soldiers. A terrible name, it's really hard to say. We played in front of the whole school. We did Stray Cat Strut and everybody in the stands stood up and screamed and I was just like 'this job is for me, this job is good, good job!' After that I was totally adopted into the 'cool weirdo' clique, I was a freshman and most of them were junior or senior, and they were all into Joy Division, Teardrop Explodes and Magazine. Pretty esoteric stuff for Southern California. Then this guy who was part of that crew, he was like "Hey man, your band's alright, but do you want to be in my band? My band's fucking cool".
He made me this tape, supposedly of his band's demos and I went home and listened to this tape and I was blown away, I didn't know what this was. I heard clicks and scratches like a record and I thought 'man these guys have made a 7 inch or something". I was totally into being in his band and I was like "You guys have made a record or something? "He was like "Oh no I just have really inferior recording equipment" and sort of brushed it off. So I went to the rehearsal and the singer had hair like Mick Karn, sort of black here and white there.
His mic stand was a golf putter with the mike duck taped to the head, like Freddie Mercury or something. The drummer played just a floor tom and a snare. The bass player had his strings all tuned to the same note, but it was not intentional. These people didn't know what they were doing at all! So we did the first song on the cassette and I'm the only one actually doing the song, the others were just making a noise. I was like "What the hell man, you guys sound so good on the tape!" But I was totally mesmerised by their lack of anything structured, I thought it was just really cool. I spent the next couple of years in this group, we were called the Autopops. I paid my dues with that group.
About a month in, I'm totally committed to them and the guy admits "You total idiot, that wasn't us on the demo tape". You know what it was? It was the first two Monochrome Set singles and the first Swell Maps single. I have this weird struggle with this concept and love of music by people who have no idea what they're doing. Then my training and my own musical head takes things to an opposite extreme. Both are constantly at odds and neither will ever reign supreme. Maybe in the future, I'll get rid of the love for the novice thing, I think I already have, but earlier on it was very important to me to honour that side.”
So were you doing It's Frank (The first Monochrome Set single) live with this band, you did it later on with The Grays?
“Autopop couldn't play It's Frank to save its life. We were doing originals and we were doing 20 minute versions of Heroin at parties. We were definitely the weirdo band, we would all trip on mushrooms and have all these mannequin's parts on stage. I was writing a lot of songs and they were all like Mod sounding. But the band was so sloppy and organic it turned into this trashy pop thing. It was a cool band.”
You wrote She Goes To Bed when you were sixteen?
“I wrote that about a girl that I was just friends with, a doomed tale of one way love, but it wasn't actually totally one way, it was just sort of impossible. There are five different demos of it. The first ones are excruciating to listen to, because I didn't take myself seriously as a singer for quite a while. So yes it's an old song. Funnily enough the first single off Can You Still Feel, Eloquence, was an old song, at least seven years old.”
You did it live with the Grays?
“How did you know that, have you seen that Tower Records video? Oh that's really painful to watch. Did I still have my goatee? My god what was that doing? It was kind of like a chin strap.”
There's a fundamental rule, no moustache without beard and definitely no beard without moustache.
“Very true, just moustache is sort of LAPD cop and just a beard is just 'something's wrong with that guy, I don't know what it is, but keep him away from my kid's school! The worst thing is the photos from that era, it's so grotesque and there's things in it, bits of food. Hey, why won't you talk to me?”
So when did you really start writing songs?
“Probably in my early 20s during Jellyfish. I always felt like I was a solo artist, even when I was in bands. I never quite acclimated myself to being in a band, especially when they were trying to make me just a guitar player, not a crucial member.”
Which is what happened with Jellyfish. Big, big mistake on their part.
“It was just a real drag for me, they kind of deceived me, when I joined. They said it would be an equal three piece band. First time I started bringing in songs, they were like 'Nope.' I'm like 'what about this one?' 'Nope', 'Well, I thought I was going to be an equal member of this band', 'Well we lied! Sorry, we love your guitar playing, but you know... ?' I stuck with it for so long because I had lots of loyalty issues and the music just blew me away when I first heard their demos.”
The first Jellyfish album, there was nothing like it at the time.
“There wasn't and I was like 'Wow, allies' and that's why it was such a heartbreaking experience for me. Feeling that I was going to be part of this thing, more than I actually was, was the only reason I did it. I did so much more on that album and live, than I actually got credited with.”
You must have done a lot of the arrangements on that album. Because after you left, well the second Jellyfish hasn't got any real arrangements, and they substituted with a totally over the top production. It's a real kitchen sink job. It doesn't have any sense of discipline to it. It's 'look how clever we are' and that's boring. Wearing the 'Jellyfish' clothes, that must have been a bit of a killer for you?
“I did wear them at first, I regret to say. Seriously the whole image thing was sprung on me at the last moment. I remember we'd be doing demos and Andy would come in and say "Check out these boots man, I just got them" and they were like rainbow platforms. I'm like "What's going on?" The band were all kind of scuzzy, Roger looked like he'd crawled out of a sewer when I first met him, with these ratty dreadlocks. Then all of a sudden he's like wearing a dress! I wasn't expecting it. When we did the first video, he'd amassed this collection of clothes and they got them out and it was 'pick something' and I'm like 'I'm not into dressing like the Brady Bunch. But I acquiesced.”
Lets talk about The Grays.
“When I was in Jellyfish, I'd made a tape for my girlfriend at the time, who worked at this coffee house. It had a lot of Odessey & Oracle and some Imperial Bedroom and XTC demos and she played it at work. One day this customer says to her "Who made this tape?" and she tells him and he's like "Oh Jason Falkner, I know Jellyfish". So he passes on a tape of his demos and I liked some of his stuff. It wasn't where I was coming from, it didn't have the same urgency, but it was very musical.
So we met and hung out a little bit and this was Jon Brion. I remember, day one, thinking there's no way I want to be in a band with this guy and then all of a sudden I'm in a band with him, how did that happen? What did I do wrong? He called me six months after we'd first met and asked me down to this rehearsal studio. He knew that I was demoing, getting all the pain out of the Jellyfish experience. So I went down there and there was Buddy and Dan.
So we had a play and Jon goes out and calls this guy from Capitol Records and says "You'll never guess who I've got here playing together" and he says "I'll sign them sight unseen." All of a sudden we're being dangled the carrot and I'm like "wait a minute, I don't want to be in a band anymore, I hate bands right now!" Every record company you could name was flying out to set up a showcase. We had this whole attitude too, we didn't have a name or a manager and we didn't make a demo tape. All the record companies are going "We'll pay for a 24 track demo tape" and we're like "If you don't like us live, then fuck off'. We were being total brats. That's when I discovered being a brat really works.
In the music business they expect that of you. We were offered five deals and we went with the one that gave us the most creative freedom. I called Jack Puig because I loved him from the Jellyfish stuff and we started making the record, but that band was imploding from day one. I'm really proud of parts of Ro-Sham-Bo but it was hard to make. Jon and I were too similar in that we can play all the instruments, we were both really arrangement orientated and it was like only one of our visions was going to win, we both couldn't be served.
He wanted to make a record that was… I really don't know if even he knew what the wanted. We ended up competing to be the antithesis of the other, really unhealthy. When my vision started winning out, which was making a pop album, with arrangements, interesting parts hopefully, then he's like "I want to make this really loose thing, just jamming". I'm saying "I don't really jam", I write songs. I orchestrate these parts for him and they were not really open to that much jamming. He would like solo over a verse like Beavis, I mean like, settle down! I ended up arranging most of Buddy's songs with him and arranging most of Jon's with him too.
I was very specific in what I wanted and the rest had an idea that we would be an anti-band, like a total democracy and it doesn't work in art. There's no such thing. Whoever's song it is will be king and they have ultimate veto power. But as it turned out the other guys kind of backed out of their own stuff, because I guess my will was so strong I just took over.
There's elements of that record I'm really pleased with, some of it is a little to pristine recording wise, in that Jack was at that time trying to win engineering awards, which he absolutely should win because he's phenomenal. You should see where we recorded that. It was like a rat infested studio which shouldn't be able to produce something that sounds like that.”
So how did The Grays finish?
“We were in Chicago, we'd been touring solidly for the last six months. Our record company guy flew out to see the show and we broke up that night. Jon was leaving and we had a big meeting and the record company guy said "Jason, if you stay with the band, then they'd do mainly your songs and a few by Buddy". I didn't want to do it because when Jon said he was going to split I thought, good, so finally I can get to my real business. So I said to this guy, I'll do another Grays record if you let me do this album of cover versions. I made the mistake of saying I could do this cover record very cheap. I learnt from that that you should never say you can do something for cheap. Why do it cheaply when you can spend a lot of money!
So I did that record in a week, fourteen songs recorded and mixed in a week. I didn't have a budget approved I just went in and started recording and I got a call on the fifth day. "What the fuck do you think you're doing in the studio?" "What do you mean what am I doing? I'm making the record that we talked about" and he's saying "you haven't had the budget approved, this isn't supposed to be happening". I'm like "it's happening, it's going to be finished in two days, you should come down and listen to it and somebody's going to pay for it, because I'm not". So the album got shelved and that was about it with the Grays.”
So when it came to your first album, Author Unknown, how many songs did you have?
"I had a lot that had built up and a lot of them I still felt were relevant. It's funny like Follow Me, which was the second single, a horrible mistake for a single, was a song I wrote, god I was like fifteen or sixteen. I just did it as a lark at the end of the session, because we had two days left and I was pretty much done. I was deathly ill and we did it all in one day and my manager came down and was like "that's brilliant!". I'm like 'no it's not man', but he's pushing for it to be a single.
It went down like a lead balloon that single. Each time I record, it's never really thought out, what songs have the greatest impact or anything. It's like whatever I feel like recording that day. It's really that random with me. I don't have the patience to sit around and go, what do I think people want to hear? I'm not going out of my way not to write hits, but I'm not going out of my way to write them either. Never again will I let them choose the singles, because I knew Follow Me was wrong. If I'm going to go down in flames, I'd rather it was with something daring. One of the pretty songs, because that would stand out.”
Like Goodnight Sweet Night?
“I would have loved that, but all the things I think would be a good single, like nobody ever talks about, It's like no way if it doesn't fit in with radio formats. There was not a bad word said in the press about that album, but it sold really poorly because it just wasn't promoted.”
Next up is Can You Still Feel? I heard stories that your record company didn't think there was any singles on it when you first presented it.
“They had the record and all the reports I had back were 'it's genius' and then a week later I get 'Please Jason I know you can write a hit'. It's like 'try something simple' and I'm saying 'Do you realise what you're saying to me? You want me to spit something out that's not really coming from my soul'. I thought I had two ways I can deal with this. My usual stance, which is "fuck off" or the other stance which is, maybe a more mature Jason, let me try this, this might be kind of an interesting experiment. I had just, with the record company's money, bought a cool studio and put it in my house. So I started recording this song Start Over.
It was the first thing I did with this studio and I really liked it. It kinda ended up with a little Velvets tinge to it. The bridge was very atypical, like the rest of my stuff and the verse was kind of a simple thing. I really liked the lyrics. I handed it in and they were like 'brilliant' and then a week later they're saying 'hmm it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album', so I'm like 'I'm taking it off. I had mastered the album with the song on it and listened back to it. I'm like, it's not part of this mind set. So I took it off and nobody complained. So that was the experiment, it succeeded and failed and I knew it would fail the whole time. I give them the hit and they don't even care about it.
"But I think I garnered a lot more respect from them because I tried it, and they realised 'what he's doing is better than what we ask him to do'. So I appeased everybody. Acting the arsehole doesn't work for me, all you have to do is let somebody think that they have something to do with it. That's the magic right there, the total key. Say yes even when you mean no. I've done it so many times, in the studio they're like 'Jason turn up the lead vocal a little bit' and I'm like "Oh, OK". I ride the fader, but I don't write into the automation and so I'm 'It's done' and we play it back and they're 'oh it's brilliant'. It's the same as before but they think I've changed it. They walk out going ' I had something to do with that'. Everybody's happy!”
So there were promo copies of the album under the name 17A and then you pulled that and changed stuff?
“The mastering was so missed the first time around, it sounded brutal to me, too rough. Great Big Yes was exactly the same scenario as the track Author Unknown. There was a version of that for the first record, but the performance and sound wasn't so great, so I pulled and put a new version on this album. With Great Big Yes, I'm looking round at Nigel going 'this rocks yes?' He's going 'yes this is rocking', but inside he's going 'this is not rocking'. It sounds like it's rocking but it's not, it's halfway there and we just didn't have the time to fix it. So I pulled it and replaced it with Holiday. Then with Lucky Day, I did a better version on my home studio, so I swapped that over. There's the finished album.”