Monday, November 2, 2009

Jandek: The Strangest Gig I've Ever Played

Posted By on Mon, Nov 2, 2009 at 2:39 PM

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When you're both a music writer and a performer in a town as incestuous as Nashville, the occasional conflict of interest is inevitable. In this week's print edition of the Scene, you may have noticed this piece in the music section I wrote previewing the legendarily mysterious outsider-folkie Jandek's first ever appearance in Nashville. If you managed to make it to the show, then you might have also noticed me playing drums for Jandek. I know how it looks. You see, at the time I wrote the article I had no idea that, 48 hours prior to the show, I would receive an invitation to provide percussive services for the very artist I was writing about. Despite the obvious conflict presented, I decided that--since I wrote the piece before knowing I'd be involved in the show--this was a victimless breach of my journalistic integrity, and that the opportunity to be one of the few musicians to ever work professionally with Jandek was too unique to pass up.

Since we're in the area of full disclosure, I'll tell you what it was like to participate in this event. When I arrived at The Basement Friday for our one pre-show rehearsal, my biggest fear was that the man believed to be Jandek had read my description of his music as something the world at large mostly hears as "fart-on-snare-drum noodling lauded as art--the kind of music only considered as such by the bookish philosophy majors and vinyl-obsessed shut-ins who embrace it as genius," and took it the wrong way. Kurt Cobain did a better job describing Jandek's music when he said, "He's not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music." Luckily, the whole issue never came up. I also found, in meeting the Jandek fans who travel to see his shows, that they really don't come off as pretentious. I think the pretentious ones are those who pretend to like his music. The man himself was not pretentious at all, and to me he came off as relentlessly sincere in the performance of his art.

When I asked the show's organizer how I should prepare for the gig, I was told simply to "show up with an open mind." Indeed I did. Joining me in backing Jandek would be Dillon from Grimey's--on harmonium and percussion--and Birmingham experimental multi-intrumentalist LaDonna Smith--on a myriad of exotic fiddles and the like. None of us knew what to expect.

Hardly a word was uttered as the enigmatic wiry man--clad in an all black suit and cowboy hat, and with his demure assistant in tow--casually entered the room and introduced himself as Sterling. We quietly set up and got acquainted. It should be noted that the name Jandek was never mentioned and that the man of honor referred to himself only as a representative of Corwood Industries. He then asked each of us to sign a document stating that we would not be given credit in the liner notes when Corwood--his label--releases a live recording of the performance. We were told to expect five copies in the three years.

Next, we sat Indian-style on the stage while Sterling explained to us, in very broad terms, that he was going for his version of a country and western show. He read some lyrics to us and explained that he would not call out tempos, cue endings or even tell us who would start each tune. Everything was to be improvised. That is about as un-Nashville an approach as there is. Somehow this all worked: Within minutes of setting up on the stage we were hypnotizing ourselves with atonal drones and primal rhythms while the rep from Corwood went in and out of time with a percussive rumble on his fretless hollow-body bass. Atop this controlled cacophony he eerily sang his lyrical compositions with a timbre and strain familiar to anyone who's ever heard one of his recordings. After the first tune ended, we sat in silence and waited for his reaction. He stood pensively before raising his head and saying, "That was beyond my wildest dreams." Things were going well. We rehearsed for another hour or so before deciding to reconvene for a sound check prior to doors.

After a short set by The Mattoid, we got ready and Sterling came up to each of us individually and said, "Now we'll rise to the occasion. God be with us." We then got to playing. At no time during the performance was there a word uttered; all communication was nonverbal. Somehow, we managed to create a musical dialogue that went on for an hour and a half. Like most people, I'd never seen a Jandek show--hell, there's only been about 50--so I was as curious as anyone in the audience to know what it was going to be like. Seeing it from the stage was definitely a trip, and most of the time I kinda just forgot I was playing at all, listened to the others, and just sort of let what was going to happen, happen. I think that's what he was going for, or at least I hope it was. Despite going about the show the way we did in rehearsal, the result sounded and felt different, something that Sterling later told me troubled him at the beginning. This is inevitable when playing improvised music and I wasn't surprised. Nevertheless, the show seemed to go over well with the audience, and didn't sound anything like this. Given that a handful had traveled from out of state, I was pleased to have seemingly not ruined their evening.

As to be expected, Sterling shared almost no personal information, except for at one point explaining that he spent years on a macrobiotic diet. I was, however, able to glean that he's an avid beer drinker. Once he'd appeared to have gotten enough ale in him--he likes Yazoo--some of my band mates decided it'd be a good time to ask him if he'd like to come to our studio the next day to cut a record. Once we assured him he could own and distribute the finished product on Corwood, he agreed. The next day--Halloween--we got a confirmation call from Corwood Industries and their single rep showed up promptly at 5:30 p.m. Over the next two hours, the man culturally known as Jandek proceeded to use our services in cutting his first Nashville record. We were all thrilled and so was he, as he said this was something he'd never done before. And now we are currently in possession of the rarest Jandek recording. We gave him the tracks--look for the result on Corwood, release date TBD.

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