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the matthew show

Interview: Little Jack Melody (3-9-04)

Little Jack Melody is one of the most innovative obscure composers of the last decade and a half. From his original manifesto On the Blank Generation in 1991 to 1999's Noise & Smoke, he has consistently merged crooner charm, Weimar cabaret clamor, and Henry Miller angst into a truly unique American voice.

Full disclosure here: I've known Little Jack for ten years, and in 1999 & 2000 we weathered the dot-bomb storm at the now-defunct w3cd.com. We were also the first movie reviewers at Fandango.com, where we actually saw a few of the movies we reviewed. But I was a voracious fan well before I was a friend.

With no further adieu, allow me to introduce Mr. Melody...

tms: How's Denton, Texas, Land of the Colossal Weirdos today?

LJM: Today it's overcast. All the roads around my house are torn up. They don't finish fixing one before they start tearing up another one, and we're totally hemmed in by detour signs, chain gangs, cement mixers, and fast food. It's not so weird at the moment.

tms: Musically, what are you working on right now?

LJM: I've got a couple of songs partially written. Usually the music comes first, and then I've got to shoehorn some lyrics into the exoskeleton. And that's the slowest part of the process, because the words have to be just right, and the subject matter has to be the one and only possible thing that the song could possibly be about. So right now the songs are like foster children, waiting for the right family to come along to pick them up and take them home, and hopefully not abuse them too severely. One of these is a sort of British invasion ballad that I'd like to hear Lulu singing, and another is a hymn, but a mute one.

We've started recording another CD, but progress has been slow. Too many schedules, too little free time. And we're playing occasionally, but not as much as I'd like. But I've been saying that for the last ten years, come to think of it.

tms: Artistically, how far do you feel you've come since On the Blank Generation?

LJM: Not all that far, really. Some of my favorite songs I've written were on that first CD, and I could still listen to it without wincing loudly, if you held a registered handgun to my head and handed me a German beer. Songwriting has never come easily to me, and I always feel that the last song I've written is the last song I'll ever write. The rain gauge fills up very slowly.

I think the band and the musicianship has come a long way since the first one. And I think my singing has improved somewhat. But each of the four CDs has a favorite song or two, even after years of living with them. I'm still slow, though. I'm artistically slow.

tms: Speaking of On the Blank Generation, there's a song on there called Switzerland, wherein the U.S. invades Zurich because "happy nations have no history". You've explained before that the lyrics are a sarcastic representation of the U.S. involvement in Panama at that time. Now that we're in what may be a far greater military morass, do you ever get nostalgic for Bush Sr.?

LJM: No. Although I suppose his reign, in retrospect, was less egregious than the one we're currently living under. These are dark days, and it gets harder to hear the news all the time. I'm optimistic that Bush Jr. will repeat his old man's one term run. I really don't think he'll win in 2004.

tms: It seems that many artists such as yourself are staking out long-term, low-level, cumulative careers now. Aimee Mann, Ben Folds, even going back to Tom Waits. Do you think that's more a sign of the state the industry's in, or just the nature of certain artists?

LJM: My guess is that it's mainly a certain type of artist, and thanks for including me in the contents of your medicine cabinet there. I can't imagine any of the artists you've named, and I might throw Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon in there too, who would jump through the latter-day hoops that the industry has constructed. I think the industry feels some sort of collective guilt for peddling so much shit, be it in the form of another boy band or the next Britney Spears clone or a yet again sounds-like-Pearl-Jam-only-Christian; maybe the large labels feel that they're saying 50 Hail Marys by keeping some genuine artists on their rosters. Like a trophy wife, with different hair. Because none of the artists you named are ever going to sell in large numbers, but it's nice to have your company's logo down in the lower right corner of the headshot.

I think the artists you mentioned wouldn't be putting out such great work if they were being held to delivering product every nine months, or some such incubation period. Hopefully the real artists will always have some credible means of production and a viable delivery system.

As for myself, I'm cumulative because I'm slow.

tms: In your perfect world, what would be the Top Ten tunes on the charts right now?

LJM: I can't think of anything current, so this will be some old ones, in no particular order:

1. Judee Sill - The Kiss
2. Randy Newman - Real Emotional Girl
3. Tom Waits - Kentucky Avenue
4. Frank Sinatra - One For My Baby
5. The Beatles - Michelle
6. Badfinger - Day After Day
7. Emmylou Harris - Millworker
8. Richard and Linda Thompson - I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
9. Abba - Like an Angel Passing Through My Room
10. Robert Wyatt - Shipbuilding

That's a hard question - no fair.

tms: Norah Jones: Anomaly or harbinger?

LJM: I think she may be the exception that proves the rule. An amazing success story, and I can't think of any precedent for it. Probably more anomaly than harbinger. I can't imagine the record industry coming up with "the new Norah Jones" over and over again. I do think that the biz may begin to try to cater to an older demographic. People who'd rather buy CDs than download them.

tms: Have you jumped on the music downloading bandwagon yet?

LJM: No. I've yet to download any music. If I do I'll find it on some site where I've got to pay for it. I'm still a believer in the idea of paying for music, intellectual property, all that. We've recently gotten a faster computer, so I may look into it pretty soon. Ask me again later.

tms: You hang with rock bands like Chomsky sometimes. Do you ever feel the urge to rock out?

LJM: Not really, although I do miss playing electric bass sometimes. I do feel the urge to stress out, however. Rock out? It's been a long time.

tms: What's the drunkest you've ever been?

LJM: It would be one of the several times I got sick and embarrassed myself. I can't cite any particular occasion. The drunkest I ever was on stage, maybe, was in a previous band, playing bass. Playing in Lubbock, TX at Fat Dawg's, I was so drunk I actually fell over the kick drum. I did not land on my feet, ever so cat-like, thus shattering another self-nurtured myth of my own immortality. I don't drink all that well. My tolerance for alcohol is low.

tms: You & I served some time in the dotcom trenches. What was the lesson you came away with? Ever miss reviewing movies?

LJM: The lesson I came away with? I do enjoy routines, schedules. I don't enjoy selling my soul. I do miss reviewing movies sometimes. I look back on that experience with fondness- the challenge of it, the sheer mendacity of reviewing movies sight unseen. Too many deadlines, not
enough movie passes. I should be embarrassed.

tms: I'm sorry, but I have to bring this up. You were in a progressive pop band in the '80s before going the cabaret route, and even performed on Star Search. Ever think back on those days fondly?

LJM: Just barely. It was nice to be in a band that had some fans, and we seemed to be a valuable commodity for a few hundred people in several different towns. People would shape their entire weekend around coming to see us play. Most of these fans were very nice, well-meaning, and most of them had pure motives for liking us. In some ways, the band didn't deserve that caliber of fan- we were too cynical for our own good. We eventually stayed together like a bad marriage and outlived our usefulness, unfortunately. Also, see previous answer regarding the drunkest I've ever been. It was a lot of fun, for the most part, while it lasted - at least maybe the first 8 of the 12 years I was in the band. Some of that time period is pretty hazy now.

tms: What words of wisdom would you impart to new artists?

LJM: Be true to yourself, try to find your own voice, don't try to be "the next" anything, anybody. I think it's hard to be yourself, especially in this celebrity-driven culture of ours. And it's not a bad idea to have "something to fall back on," as my parents used to say - it could be college, but it might not be. I've got an undergraduate degree in music composition from one of the best music schools in the country, but it sure as hell isn't anything I can fall back on. If I could do it again I'd like to have at least one foot in something potentially profitable, like maybe some computer-related skill. I missed that whole revolution coming and going. That previous sentiment has just tarred me as an old fart, but there it is.

And listen to everything, try to have big ears and be open to all kinds of music.

I gotta stop. I'm confirming the old fart status.

tms: Any last words?

LJM: Sorry it's taken me so long to finish answering your questions. I'm
going to go on a walk now. Thanks for having me.

tms: Thanks for taking the time.

Little Jack Melody information, CD's, and show listings can be found at his official website.

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