In the ten years since we last spoke to the Mr. Falkner, a lot has happened to the Los Angeles based musical masterclass in all things great. Jason was there at the birth of the musical revival that arrived at the start of the 90’s, firstly as one quarter of Jellyfish and The legendary Grays. Then with two solo albums for Elektra that cemented forever his place as one of, if not the, most ridiculously talented songwriters and crafted multi-instrumentalists on the planet. The last time I saw Jason in the flesh was at a packed and worship filled solo gig at Dingwalls in London. The whole audience seemed blissfully enraptured by the man’s warm but legendary presence. But then the usual story of major label neglect and then abandonment threw a spanner into his solo career for a few years.
In that period he became a session player, touring mainly with Air, sometimes with Beck and producing here, playing on a McCartney album there. A couple of welcome collections of rare and unreleased archive material kept the solo flag flying and then a short mini album, Bliss Descending , appeared along with the TV Eyes project along side his old Jellyfish pal Roger Manning. It was followed by a third album proper “I’m OK, You’re OK”, but this fine album was released only in Japan, which made it feel like he was back but not entirely so. I got back in contact with Jason, while working on the sleeve notes for Anne Soldaat’s stunning solo album In Another Life which Jason produced and played all over.
I caught him gearing up for the great return everybody has been waiting for. 2010 saw the stateside release of the brilliant and majestic new album “All Quiet On The Noise Floor”, a domestic release on vinyl and CD of “I’m OK, You’re OK” and the putting together a band for live shows. I caught up with the crazy busy Jason just as he returned from playing live in both Japan and China. He took time out from his busy schedule to tell us just what’s been going down.
I read somewhere that you have no real interest in playing Wembley and would rather fill a place like The Roxy. No longer being tied to a major must have given you a freedom in that area and yet the lack of significant financial support makes the possibilities of touring difficult. How important to you is the live aspect of what you do in comparison to the rest?
“Well let me start by saying I have played both Wembley Arena and Stadium and they were unforgettable experiences. Those sized shows in general are crazy fun, but very isolated from the people who are there to see you perform. There is generally very little personal contact with the audience and to be honest when you are on a stage of that size you can hardly make out anyone’s expression, even in the front row. It becomes almost a performance to a screen or a painting of a crowd, so that is why I say I prefer smaller venues. I don't like going to a huge show and watching the whole thing on a jumbo monitor above the stage.
As far as not being on a major label anymore, yeah there is complete control, doing things as DIY as I do, but I was left alone and trusted to make my music without label meddling even when I was on Elektra, which is amazing! Only once did the head of A&R suggest anything creatively to me and that was after I handed in "Can You Still Feel?" There was a big meeting with the head of A&R regarding the record and she said "look, we know you can write something a bit 'simpler' and we've taken your record to radio and they all say it's brilliant but no hits.”
This scenario, of course, is a cliche and my initial knee jerk reaction was to say, "Fuck off the record is done. Can't you MAKE them play it?" But this time I thought I would take their wee suggestion and run so I wrote "Start Over Again." After hearing it my label person said "Thank you! That is exactly what we had in mind" They then took that song to radio and the overall reaction was that it lacked the JF magic they all liked. but was still too complex for them to play on the radio. Another brick in the wall.”
Being on long tours with Air and Jellyfish must have given you the experience of the live performance taking on a life of its own after a time which you never fully got to taste with your own bands.
“Touring can be exhausting, but also incredibly fun and I do enjoy the feeling I get when it really becomes your life, which is about a month into a long tour. Ahhh.....but after about two months I really need my own bed. The only reason I don't tour more often is financial. I would LOVE to come to the UK and Europe again. I get really frustrated that I haven't been able to tour my records for so long now. There is nothing I want more than to put on a great show with lights and some degree of theatre. I really need a JF tour fund. Donations anyone?”
The Japanese are big fans but what’s the whole Japanese experience like?
“Japan has really become a home away from home for me. I love the culture and something that is really cool about the fans there is that they aren't afraid to show their fandom. I feel like your average music lover in Japan is a completest and will collect everything by their favourite artist much like I am with things I love. That being said the only reason I keep going there and not anywhere else is because the Japanese label pays for the whole affair....well, actually I do, but they front the money.”
The album “Everyone Says It’s On” must have been strange to put together being one disc of covers and the other of outtakes and demos. If you had to do another cover songs today what tracks would be on your list?
“Yeah I just wanted to release some of my 4 track demos, because I'm really proud of how they sound. I miss the urgent sound of that 4 track cassette machine, so warm and syrupy and delicious. The covers that comprise one disc of that double were actually recorded in 1994, when my short lived post Jellyfish band The Grays were dissolving. The head of Epic had flown out to Chicago to talk me into keeping The Grays together for one more record even though Jon Brion had quit. I was really over that group as well, so I negotiated that I be able to make a SOLO (my first solo performed record mind you) record of obscure covers and if that could happen I would make another Grays record without Jon.
My idea was given the green light, so when I got back to LA I booked a studio and started recording this cover record. I remember the A&R guy from Epic leaving tons of messages at the studio but I just kept recording and never called him back. I figured whatever he had to say couldn't be as important as this record I was making. Ha ha the nerve! This was a wonderfully exciting time making this record, because it was the first time I was in a proper studio playing all the instruments. I chose a very diverse collection of songs that had impacted me deeply. I also thought I might turn the world on to these great obscure bands like The Monochrome Set, The Left Banke and Magazine.
Well obviously I didn't do any of these bands a favour because the reason my A&R guy was calling so much was to tell me to STOP and inform me that The Grays were dropped from Epic. So I finally put that out in 2001 on a Japanese label run by a crook. Long story.....If I did another covers record now? Hmmm....maybe a Public Nuisance track and "Space Ace" by Brett Smiley. Something mid 90's by Guided by Voices....maybe I'll start this after the interview!”
The first new stuff you put out after leaving Electra was the “Bliss Descending” EP
“Actually the "Bliss Descending" EP was created so I would have something new for fans to buy as I embarked on a two week tour with my friends in Travis. We did a West Coast and Mexico tour in 2004 where I opened up solo and joined them for "All The Young Dudes". Great guys! Anyway I kept it short because I simply didn't have a full length ready. I also had new management dangling the publishing carrot wrapped in a lot of cash, which never materialised. I pretty much went into a funk for a couple of years after that until the Japanese label, Noise McCartney, came banging on my door.”
The next thing to turn up, not officially but leaked on the collector’s circuit, was the ten or so 2000 demos as they were labelled.
“Yeah that series of songs was never meant for public consumption. I honestly don't even know who compiled that because it's so random, but I'm glad people dig it! Princessa is redone on "All Quiet On The Noise Floor. " Feeling Much Better is a vinyl only bonus track on the domestic version of "I'm OK You're OK". Hey Little Spider is one of my favourite drunken songs, written on the spot with an ex-girlfriend, playing the part of the horny toad and I the spider! Ode to Lethargy will surface again someday, but most of the others are behind me at this point. I'm always writing and recording, so I have another unreleased album or two in me right now. I planned to start putting out two records a year without having to catch up to the Japanese releases which I'm doing now.”
Next up was TV Eyes record with your old Jellyfish mate Roger Manning.
“TV Eyes happened after Roger Manning and Brian Reitzell had me come down to record some porno guitar and Scott Walker-esque vocals on Logan’s Sanctuary (the mock soundtrack to the non existent sequel to Logan’s Run). We had so much fun that day that we started throwing around the idea of recording a robotic 80's sounding thing. We were cracking up talking about Gary Numan, Ultravox, Human League, Associates etc...all stuff we love, but mind you this was 1999 and no one at all was referencing this period of British music as yet.
Most of the skeleton ideas were written by the three of us, but I really went crazy adding my personality to the production and writing all the lyrics. I didn't want it to be a joke or novelty record, so I poured a great deal of myself into it. Some of the songs like "What She Said" and "Times Up" and Crash Yer Car" were written by me alone. Unfortunately that record never came out except in Japan a few years ago and now it seems so dated even though in 1999-2000, when we started it, we were way ahead of the curve. As far as the earlier mix when we were called Softcore I prefer that to the released mix as well! I did those early mixes myself on an old Trident console. Tough sound”
When I first heard you were working with Paul McCartney, all sorts of dreams went through my head in a Wondermints/Brian Wilson way, but as it turned out you were more just a session musician. But if you had been given the chance to take on doing a whole album with the man, producing, arranging, playing all over, would you or would the prospect be to daunting? I hear Macca dug your Bedtimes With The Beatles album though.
“Oh man I wish I could get myself in a position to produce someone like Paul. I couldn't help but fantasise about that when we were recording "Chaos and Creation." I know it would turn out amazing if I could, but I don't have the huge producer name that legends usually gravitate toward.
Oh Macca did more than dig my Bedtime With The Beatles! He wouldn't stop talking about it and that was probably the most ego rewarding experience I've ever had. He said he was flattered I had made the record with such attention to detail and obvious love for the original Beatles versions. I assured him that all the flattery belonged to me.”
You are not too keen to be stuck into the power pop drawer. Power Pop’s a wide and often misunderstood label. To me personally it means bands and artists that take there initial cue from later Beatles, are strong on melody and hooks and use the guitar as the main instrument, which seems to fit your music overall. How would you define your music?
“ Power Pop is a term I used to identify with but it's been so bastardised and flooded with no talent bands that have "Ooo la la la" background vocals that now I generally run from that scene. I make sure when I say Power Pop, people know I am talking about vintage power pop likeTthe Beatles and all of their offspring from Badfinger to Jellyfish. One could lump some of the skinny tie late 70's bands in with the genre, because of the high energy pop thing. To me Costello's 'Armed Forces', Joe Jacksons 'I'm the Man' are classic Power Pop. Anyway, I don't really support titles and categories, which is one reason I don't easily fit into any. If you listen to any of my records they don't have a uniform style to the sound or my production or even the song writing.
For instance, the almost 1940's Cole Porter/Tom Waits quality of "Before My Heart Attacks" from my first solo record sits next to the Buzzcocks energy of "Miracle Medicine" on the same record. Most bands or producers would consider this commercial suicide, because most people making records live in fear of confusing the audience. I give my audience way more credit than that and I am pretty sure at this point they like the journeys I take them on. I hope the thing that stands out most in my work is honesty. When I write and record, time doesn't exist and I luckily find myself in the same innocent place that I discovered when I first started writing and recording my music as a teenager.
I don't know how that mental space hasn't been polluted, but it really hasn't and for that I am blessed. I want my listener to dream and connect some of the dots themselves. I don't want to hand you a totally finished concept, but rather arm you with some imagery both lyrically and musically and off you go to complete my story yourself. There is also a sense of humour to what I'm doing that can be overshadowed by the weight, but it's very important to me for that to be understood.”
You record at home mostly these days and I love the sound you get. What’s it like being your own master, is it harder to keep motivated now that there’s no studio clock ticking above your head or is the freedom liberating?
"Thanks Mick! I generally like the sound I get here at home too. I have been collecting some unusual suspect pieces of vintage gear for some time now. I have a console from 1973 made in good ole Memphis TN and just barely enough other toys to come close to the sound I hear in my head. Of course that is a never ending search, much like writing the perfect song. For me there have to be elements at odds to really get me off. I like clarity, but also like ambiguity, so there you go. I will most likely be struggling with those poles my entire life.”
So next up was “I’m OK, You’re OK” which has been out in Japan for a while, but is now out in the States finally.
“The songs on this record span a few years, some of which go as far back as 2003, but the majority are from 2006-2007. There are two vinyl only bonus tracks "Feeling Much Better" and "Gimmi Gimmi" which were both recorded in 2006.”
I think there was an expectation with that last album carrying a decade worth of preconceptions like a monkey on its back and because I would say its your least immediate album. Rather than sit with it and give it the time it needed, a few people were too quick to say. “Oh its not as good as his first two”, simply because it was not exactly the Jason Falkner album they were hoping for after such a long gap. Now that your plan is to put out an album every year or so, do you think this will give you the freedom to experiment? Maybe push off into new avenues with the thought of, if this year’s album is not quite your cup of tea then there will be another one along soon enough? Then you never know I might surprise and delight you with where I am going with this.
“That is exactly right. I've always attached a great deal of weight to my output. On one hand I do feel pressure to make each record mean something and there is a lot of attention to detail going into each song. The idea that I can put out a record every one or two years does take a bit of that pressure off. I am making music for people like myself that are overly passionate about what they love and don't love. Sometimes just being okay ain't enough and so if some of my fans were disappointed with my last record that is not a problem. They are passionate people or they wouldn't have connected with me in the first place. Maybe they will love the new one...or the one after that.
I'm not concerned with pleasing everyone because it is impossible to do. I also look around at what is happening in popular culture and I am honestly afraid of this seemingly new hyper aggressive 'fame seeking without talent' personality type that is dominating the media. I couldn't care less about reaching that sector of the population. I think the thread in all of my work is my intention, which is coming from a place of exploration and truth seeking. One of the positives of not having a tremendous amount of commercial success is that I don't have to keep repeating myself, so we'll see what is next.
Regarding my insane hiatus between "Can You Still Feel?" and "I'm Ok You’re Ok", that was more about depression than writers block. After my Elektra deal went sour in 2000, I gave up a bit. Oddly enough I had been asking Elektra to drop me since the zero promotion of my first record. I flew to New York to have a big meeting with all the heads of the departments and they said "No we want you to make another record on this label. We know what we did wrong and we vow to correct it with your next one!" Sounded pretty good to me you know?
So I stayed and the same thing happened when the second one came out. No promotion at all! These events are very hard on the ego and psyche and so when I got the call that they were finally dropping me, because I had no radio hits it kinda knocked me out. I liken it to one person in a relationship having doubts for years and staying in it for the other person. Then that other person blindsiding you with "we need to talk" and then breaking up with you. You want to say "wait, you are breaking up with ME? I've wanted to end this...arrg!" I was the latter in my relationship with Elektra or Neglektya as I started calling them.”
Lyrically you seem to tread the same unconscious path as you do musically: both are epic and intimate at the same time, simultaneously personal and universal. I remember reading an old interview with you (and I am wildly paraphrasing here) where you said that someone had the opinion that maybe you got a bit oblique at times lyrically. You responded that maybe you should try a bit more straightforward in your approach and reading this my heart sank a little bit. Fortunately you seemed to have forgotten this idea and stayed with what you do best, rich and literate and to hell with the spoon feeding.
“Ah yes I remember this period of time where I was spouting off that I was going to excise the irony and ambiguity of my lyrics. An impossible notion. My lyrics come from visuals I have. Most are actually based on experiences I have recently had or situations I am presently involved in. I do, however, tend to embellish these scenarios a bit and that is possibly where they can get a bit abstract. Some songs of mine even have more than one protagonist! I'm evoking a feeling more than telling a straight story.
I absolutely loathe anything spoon fed. I have my own utensil thank you very much and it's a finely tuned BS detector! Ha ha... I appreciate what you said about the intimate, yet conversely also epic nature of my music. That speaks of my fundamental desire/nature to be both organic and other worldly at the same instance. If there is a concept running through all of my records then that fusion is it. I relate to a brilliant story teller speaking universal truths with intelligence and humour. At the same time I think music and the people who make it should be so unique that they almost seem like they are from outer space. A contradiction but a struggle I enjoy.”
So let’s talk about the process behind All Quiet On The Noise Floor. How do you go about recording a new album?
“The truth is that I hardly ever have a plan. I am a bit of a slave to inspiration when it hits, which results in a song or songs coming out and I have to stop whatever it is I'm doing and start writing. The music comes much more naturally, more easily than the lyrics, there's pretty much always some melodies swimming around in my head. I also have too many (can you really ever have too many?) instruments stashed in corners of every room in my house. So when an idea comes that I think is one of my better ones, I grab whatever is closest to me and start working a song out of it.
I used to record all the time, pretty much every day and the irony is, with the passage of time I have amassed a pretty cool collection of vintage instruments and a bit of choice vintage recording gear. And yet I don't work nearly as much as I did when all I had was a cassette four track! When I do start recording, I still have the same optimistic joy I had when I was a teenager which seems nearly impossible what with all the difficulties I've had in this biz. But in reality none of my negative experiences have tarnished my love of coming up with a new idea and turning it into a smashing tune!”
The new album opens with a new version of Princessa, an equally dazzling earlier version having been floating around fan circles for a few years. Later on there’s My Home Is Not A House which goes back to the days of playing it live with The Grays, there are two studio versions of it done soon after. Even though they are great, I can see that just putting either of those far older versions onto the new album would have been an ambient mistake. This is not the first time you have re recorded tracks; in fact it has been a noticeable feature of your output down the years.
“As far as the multiple recording of certain songs it might be a bit more random than some would think. Princessa, for example, was written almost nine years ago and I loved the original version (the one that is probably most bootlegged). But like you mentioned I had to re record it so it would fit sonically. Counting the version David Holmes and I started, but never finished by the way, I think there are four versions of that song! I don't know why it was so hard to get right, but it was and who knows if the version on "All Quiet On The Noise Floor" will be the last.
I'm very proud of this record at this point. When it first came out in Japan in 2007 I felt like it was the "little record that could" kind of thing and I wasn't sure how people would react to the sound of it being pretty mid-fi. But people tend to like the sound, so all good there. You know, as far fidelity goes, I find myself most compelled by non hi-fi records. I really like a little dirt in the mix and this record has that in spades. Again this new album has quite a bit of diversity in the writing but that's how I stay interested. I adore The Ramones, but I could never make a record (or an entire career!) that strictly sticks to one sound. Give me variety.”
And you played in China.
“China was crazy. We only did one show there in Shanghai and they really ate it up. I have a 24 track recording of it so that might surface some day. It was freezing cold there and we had already been touring Japan the week before so we were a bit tired. But the crude greeting I learned off our translator made the crowd explode! I immediately knew it would be a classic.”