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Jeremy Jay: Synced In Time

20 January 2014

For a wonderful span of years beginning in 2008 and ending in 2011, Jeremy Jay was an album-a-year musician, releasing four gems that added up, by degrees, to a portrait of a clean, expressive guitarist with a penchant for romance and poetic detail, often offsetting his own warm presence with chilly synth undertones. This week he returns with Abandoned Apartments (K Records), his first new album since 2011’s Dream Diary, and the intervening years haven’t diluted his voice. It might be his most contained and specific work yet, stark yet expansive in its variety of sounds—despite its frequent feelings of isolation, it was made by Jay’s best group of collaborators to date—with lyrics that accumulate from the echoes of city scenes.

Longer gaps between albums will likely become the norm for a man with such wide-ranging ambitions. In the conversation that follows, he mentions some of his other aspirations—mostly in the areas of music (producing and fostering new talent, running a record label) and movies (composing, directing, acting)—some already realized, some not. But it’s great to have his musical persona back in such a major way. A description of 2008’s A Place Where We Could Go in the K Records catalog suggests that Jay’s appeal is unmistakable: “The reduction of pop music to its core attributes of the catchy and the delightful, with a smattering of the fantastic mixed in, and an urbane sense of color and good taste.” I’d hesitate to use the word “reduction,” but it’s true that Jay has always had a clear sense of why he makes music, and if you take “delightful” and “fantastic” out of the equation, both still applicable but somewhat inadequate to the new album’s muted, searching nature, and add a note about its warming sense of loneliness and mystery, you’d have Abandoned Apartments.

As with Stephen Malkmus and his new Wig Out at Jagbags, recorded partly in Berlin, this former L.A. musician’s relocation to London seems to have bolstered his sense of the artist he wants to be. Abandoned Apartments contains strong echoes of his past (particularly 2009’s Slow Dance) but also finds him sounding perpetually young, almost new to the world. It isn’t the first album he’s made in London, but it often feels like it could be. 2010’s London-made Splash opened with “As You Look Over the City,” a hopeful vision of a new life, and now a few years later it’s like the fresh, romantic period is over and he’s settling down for long seasons of poetic exploration, with a fearless, committed approach that might be mistaken for the artist’s earliest wanderings in his city. As we begin our talk, I ask Jay if he thinks this is a fair description of his new album.

JJ: I think it definitely has a different mood. I don’t think all hope is gone [laughs], but yeah, it’s definitely different. I think at this point I want to move on. A lot of the tours that I’ve done since 2006, up until last year, we still include a lot of the earlier albums’ material in the set. I think for me, right now, I want to move past that and change. Kind of shed skin. I think this album is the beginning of that.

GS: Dream Diary struck me as a summary of your career up to that point, whereas this new one, in a way it’s kind of a quintessential Jeremy Jay album, but it’s also a stark change of pace. Did it take a long time to develop the sound of the album?

JJ: Actually, yes, this album took three years to make. Half of the songs were recorded in 2010, nothing was recorded in 2011, and then in 2012 we went back to the studio and did more songs, and we compiled it into one album. For me it’s more of like a compilation album, whereas the other albums were recorded in one go, like Dream Diary was recorded in a week in L.A., Splash was recorded in a week in London, Slow Dance was recorded in two weeks in Olympia. This is definitely different in that way. There’s more of a gestation period. I think I’m happier with it.

GS: That’s a little surprising. It sounds very cohesive. Did the extra time help you develop it into a more complete work?

JJ: Yeah, I feel that happened, and I’m also learning more technical things. It’s also the first album we didn’t record analog, except for one of the songs. For me, I’m a real analog type of person, I love tape, I love the sound of analog recordings, so for me it was also an experiment. We still went to studios that I was really excited about but we approached it differently. What’s cool about recording digitally, you don’t have to rewind the tape or change the tape or do anything like that. I like that aspect, but I think the technical quality, like when you listen to Dream Diary, I think the technical quality is, not better or worse, but I just think it’s different. I think the next recordings I do will definitely be analog. But I do love the method of digital recording.

GS: Was that at all brought about by living in London? Do any of the band members from your previous albums make an appearance?

JJ: Actually there’s double the amount of people involved. Half the album was with some people and the other half was with a totally different group. The songs that we recorded in 2010 were with the musicians that played on Splash, minus the drummer. The other half of the album, like “Covered in Ivy,” “Graveyard Shift,” were recorded with my new band that I’ve been playing with for about two years. We did three tours together in Europe, we did loads of festivals together, we have plans to record more. It’s a group that I’ve stuck with. Before, it changed a lot, but I think “Covered in Ivy” and “Graveyard Shift” are two of the best songs that I’ve been a part of.

GS: “Covered in Ivy” has a lot of energy.

JJ: I’m really excited about that direction. It’s a different feel, more cohesive and more solid sounding.

GS: There’s more variety to the instrumentation. Whereas your past couple albums there was a lot of emphasis on your guitar playing, especially in the middle section of this new album there’s a lot of bass and drum action. Was it a more collaborative process?

JJ: Totally. This record is definitely a collaboration with writers. The people that played on the album had an influence on it, and brought more to the table, which is always something that I’m searching for. I really believe in collaboration and I feel like it creates a broader brushstroke, something that’s more interesting.

GS: There’s also some press for the album that mentions years of “self-inflicted isolation.” How does that play into the collaborative process?

JJ: I think that that’s halfway a misrepresentation. I wouldn’t say “self-inflicted.” I think that to me sounds brooding. For me, this past two or three years, I haven’t been touring like I did before and I’ve been focusing on songwriting, and that’s something I’ve been really needing in my life, is the time, the time to write, just to have that space. I have several albums worth of material that I don’t even know what to do with. [laughs] I also, the past two years, I did the soundtracks to two movies. One’s called Grand Central and the other one’s called Belle Epine.

GS: With the soundtrack work, did you approach those songs in a different way or were they just songs you were already working on, yourself?

JJ: For those soundtracks, I have a home studio, and I recorded all new original songs for the movies, except for two songs [Abandoned Apartments’ beautiful closing track “I Was Waiting” appears in Grand Central; it’s not hard to imagine its haunting guitar figure as an effective musical cue]. In my Final Cut Pro, I would watch the scene and compose to it, which is something I’m really excited by. I don’t know about you but I’m really fascinated by movies and I’m a really big movie buff. For me, that’s something I totally want to do and something I’m really excited about and something I want to do more of. I want to find more work in the movie world.

GS: Just primarily as a composer, or in any other way?

JJ: In every way, but definitely as a composer.

GS: There’s a strong visual element in your music. I love these found footage videos for some of these new songs, by Heather Lux. Did she do all the artwork for the singles and the album as well? There’s definitely a singular quality to it all.

JJ: I actually took the photos on my 35mm camera, but I gave her a lot of footage from the tour, and it’s all really lo-fi video quality, but I kind of like that organic, non-showy, music video-y type of thing. I don’t like it when they always push the name in front of the videos and they always have a lot of posturing. I really like videos that have some sort of connection to the band in some way.

GS: These ones are interesting collections of images.

JJ: I think the visual world can be foreign to musicians, and I think a lot of musicians don’t know how to express themselves visually, you know, because they’re musicians. [laughs] I’m halfway in that category. I feel halfway at a loss when it comes to visual-anything with music. The other half of me is very visual. It also costs a lot of money to make videos, or at least working with professionals that don’t charge you.

GS: Which makes the found footage idea interesting.

JJ: Yeah. I also think that if it’s not on YouTube, people won’t hear it, in a way. Especially nowadays, I think that people will listen to Spotify and listen to that kind of thing, but when it’s on YouTube there’s an accessibility and an immediacy nowadays where if it’s not there people don’t even know about it.

GS: I like the videos but I find that watching it on YouTube does dash the mystery a little bit.

JJ: Yeah, but I think that it’s really common. I have two cousins, and they’re 16 and 18, so they grew up in the current generation of the Internet world and I asked them, “Have you ever bought an album? Do you have any vinyl? Do you have any CDs?” And they say, “No, I watch YouTube.” I think that for the new generation of people, exploring music, that’s where they’re going to hear it. So there’s a current necessity for musicians, that if they want to be heard, they have to be on YouTube. [laughs]

GS: You’re giving in to that, but you’re also trying to do some interesting work in the process.

JJ: I’ve always wanted to do videos, and I have done videos, but not for every song on the whole album, and that’s kind of what I’m getting at, is that, if all your songs aren’t on YouTube, like your whole album, then there’s a chance that they won’t hear it. A lot of new artists are making videos for every song, that’s kind of what I’m talking about.

GS: Well you’re partway there, but that would leave a lot of work to do, like nine songs, right?

JJ: [laughs] Totally. There’s one thing I want to do, one thing that I did on my own. I took a video of a vinyl player playing the album, from beginning to end. It shows the flipping of the album. So I think that I want to put that on YouTube.

GS: Doing it that way would also emphasize to these young kids, hey, there is this physical object that exists with this music on it.

"Covered in Ivy" lyrics

GS: So I wanted to talk about the lyrics a little bit, too, going back to “Covered in Ivy.” I was curious, I like the images in it, and I also wondered if it was kind of a window to your writing process, lines like “expressions never happen again.” The way you write, are you just grabbing at images so fleeting that the songs might never have happened? Like there’s this game of chance in the songs that you end up coming up with?

JJ: Yeah, I really believe in that, and I think that’s the major barrier of artists, especially making your first album. The barrier is, you’re never happy with what you did. I think that once you realize “expressions never happen again,” then you begin to accept yourself, and that it is what it is. It’s that time and place and those people and that thing, and you begin to treasure that.

GS: I think that’s what people mean when they call someone an artist or a poet, like every single detail in the work could be different but as long as it’s filtered through a sensibility then the vision of the work remains. Did you have a specific idea for the album ahead of time or did it kind of just happen intuitively?

JJ: It just happened. But I worked very hard. I didn’t have any sort of budget or anything, and studios cost money if you want to record with a full band. I really love playing live in the studio. One major point I have is what I call “working music,” which means that it works on stage and it works in the studio. So you can have a band that goes and plays a show and also goes in the studio and just records the song. That comes back to the line “expressions never happen again.” Like the first Black Sabbath album, they recorded in two days, live in the studio, and they can never do that again, ever.

GS: Or like the first Beatles album I think was recorded in a couple days, which is why you can hear John Lennon’s shredded vocal chords by the last track. [Not quite: Please Please Me was recorded in only one day, on Monday, February 11, 1963.]

JJ: Totally. And that can never happen again, that was a time and a place and a thing. I think that’s what part of the song is about. Part of the song is about my friend John, where it says, “We are the starlight brothers, synced in time, somehow by chance.” I think that friendships or relationships in one life, it comes back to the line “expressions never happen again,” like those moments between people when they create something together. I think in everyone’s life, you know, each of your fingers on both of your hands count for the people that mean the most to you in your life, and I think that song’s about that. You know, “synced in time, somehow by chance,” like there’s no way that you would’ve known that you would meet but you did and you had that time together and it’s a thing.

GS: Do you feel like you’d like to do your next album a little faster, for that reason?

JJ: No, I don’t like rushing. I definitely don’t feel an urgency to record an album every month like I used to.

GS: I noticed the output has slowed down a bit.

JJ: Yeah, and I’m not saying I don’t write as much as I used to, because I do. The other side of it is that I’m not really in demand. People aren’t calling me up every day, “Oh, do you want to play a show, and here’s a thousand dollars, come to our city.” [laughs]

GS: Well, they should be.

Jeremy Jay - When I Met You

GS: I also wanted to bring up another song on the album, “When I Met You,” because that’s one that you’ve actually returned to and reworked quite a bit. It dates back to a single in 2010 and then there’s that sort of dub version on the “Sentimental Expressway” single [renamed “Later That Night”]. Was there something in that song that made you keep returning to it?

JJ: I was experimenting with that. That was recorded in 2010 and actually what you call the dub version is, what I was experimenting with was slowing down all the music, taking out the guitar, and then recording a vocal over the slowed down version, but a regular speed vocal. So obviously when you slow something down in a traditional way it detunes it, it makes it a lower tuning, so I sang over it like regular, so it provides a contrast. We did that to every song that we recorded during that session in 2010 and we ended up using just the one, which was the “When I Met You” version. I think that’s cool, and, yeah, I was really excited about it.

GS: I was really struck by the “When I Met You” version. Do you have plans for those others, or they didn’t turn out quite as interesting?

JJ: I think they didn’t turn out as interesting, mainly because I think “When I Met You” has the right chord structure or something, or the right notes, or, I don’t know, the right beat or something. The other ones we did that for, it just turned out to be too slow and just didn’t work in the same kind of way. I love experimenting, I love trying new things, and it excited me at the time.

GS: Another thing you did recently, I was listening online to this Sapphire Mansions album [Over America, the latest project by Jay Hough]. You’re listed as the person who mastered it. Did you have a hand in fashioning the sound of it or did you just come in after the fact?

JJ: No, I had no hand. He’s a friend of mine. He used to be in a band called GoGoGo Airheart in the early 2000s, and we met quite a while ago. We’ve been friends for several years, and he brought up that he was going to master his record, and I offered to do it for him, because I have a home studio. I did it as a friend to help him out. I asked Calvin [Johnson] if he could put it on the K Records mail order and he did, which is cool.

GS: It’s definitely a rougher sounding album than anything you’ve done. Was it a challenge to work with that kind of material?

JJ: Yeah, I would like to record that band, you know, in a proper studio and get it sounding really good. He recorded that in New York and it’s really lo-fi, which is good for what it is, but I hope I have the opportunity to record them and record other bands.

GS: Anyone in particular, or just friends of yours, primarily?

JJ: One band that I really like now, one new band, is called Weyes Blood. They’re on a label called Not Not Fun, in L.A. I really like that band and I wish that I could record that band, and produce it. I think that’d be really great. I think I also want to be more a part of a community of artists. I think a lot of artists nowadays feel isolated. I feel like being more a part of a community and more a part of other people’s work, and creating more of a community between artists that I like. I love being in the studio, I love recording. I’m very technically minded, also. I’m actually going to be producing a band called SheVegas in March. We’re going to go to the studio for a week and I’m going to produce the album for them, which I’m really excited about.

GS: Where are they located?

JJ: They’re located in Paris. But they’ve never done an album, they’ve never done any of that. But they did one demo that I really like, it’s called “Insomnia.” I wish I had a label so I could put it out, you know, put out records, I think that’d be great. I’d like to be a part of the recording process though. I wouldn’t want to just put out records. Kind of like early 4AD stuff.

GS: Or like what Calvin Johnson does for K?

JJ: Well, Calvin records people but he doesn’t get involved. I mean he does, but he’s really passive. Which is good for a certain thing. But like 4AD, are you familiar with their early work? Ivo Watts-Russell produced a lot of the early 4AD. He’s no longer with them, obviously, but he had a hand in mixing and really producing bands and almost like being a part of every band, in a way.

GS: Well I know he rescued Throwing Muses from obscurity, which is something to be proud of.

JJ: Yeah, and also one of my favorite bands is called His Name is Alive.

GS: You’ve mentioned them [in press] for this new album.

JJ: The record Livonia is one of my favorite albums of all time, and he totally took that album and made it what it is. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.

GS: I don’t know that one. I know Mouth by Mouth, which is a beautiful album.

JJ: Yeah. Plus there’s no drums on their first album, which I’m really, actually, currently excited about songs with no drums. [laughs]

GS: Going back to movies, I knew you to be a movie fan. I’ve read some interviews and seen you say quite a bit about your aspirations in that field. What are some ones that you look back to for inspiration? Or just one that stands out?

JJ: Oh, wow, um. That’s really hard.

GS: I saw something online about your wish to be in a David Lynch movie, and I can sort of see that inspiration in some of these new videos.

JJ: Yeah, I love David Lynch. I love Tim Burton.

GS: Do you think that might happen?

JJ: I would hope so. I wish Tim Burton would call me up, that’s for sure.

GS: I could see that, actually.

JJ: You know, he lives in London. I just think that he needs to make another good movie. I don’t think he’s made a good movie for a while. I think he’s lost the plot. But definitely Tim Burton, his early movies, like—oh, okay, let’s name a movie, one’s called Vincent. It was made in, I think, ’84. It’s one of Tim Burton’s first movies. It’s great. Also another one of his that is a huge inspiration is called Frankenweenie. It’s the one he made after that.

GS: The original.

JJ: Yeah, like ’85 or something. That’s great, and that one’s filmed in a neighborhood similar to where I used to live in L.A., like that looked exactly like where I used to live.

GS: Very manicured suburbia is how I remember it.

JJ: Yeah, I used to live right on the border of Hancock Park and Koreatown. I used to live in this really cool art deco 1930s apartment building. I used to work at Paramount Pictures as a set builder. I tried to join the union when I was living there. So I worked there and that used to be my trade, set construction. I used to do that also at this place called Pasadena Playhouse. And yeah, it’s like right where that was filmed, almost, or looks really similar, at least.

GS: That’s like a dream life for me, building sets. Or it just sounds kind of idyllic.

JJ: Really? Are you really into theater, and construction, like making things?

GS: I mean, it’s not something I’d pursue, but it sounds interesting, like I can see just sort of this dreamy aspect to having that kind of access to movies.

JJ: Yeah, it was really cool. I used to live, that same apartment was ten blocks away from Paramount Pictures. Work starts at 6 am and goes to 6 pm, and so I would get up at 5 and just drive a really short distance, and it was great. I made the most money I ever made working that job. There’s no way I could find something like that anywhere else other than L.A. You know, there’s so many studios there, it’s like that world is definitely Los Angeles. It’s a lot of hard work, I mean you’re basically a construction worker, but you’re working with wood that’s smaller than what you would use to build a house. When you build a set you would use maybe ¾-inch thick plywood with 2×4s, and you would make a wall out of that, whereas when you build a house you use a lot of bigger pieces of wood and more sturdy craftsmanship. But you can still make really beautiful craftsmanship with those smaller pieces of wood and you don’t really need it to be that sturdy because you’re going to be taking it down in a month, which is another part of the job, you have to undo what you did. [laughs]

GS: That could warp your interactions with the actual city, where everything starts to seem like an illusion.

"Graveyard Shift" lyrics

JJ: You brought up “Covered in Ivy” and I think for this album I really want to emphasize “Graveyard Shift” as the lead song of the album.

GS: Well, you posted it online, it’s not really a single, but it was one that you made available early on, right? It’s definitely got a much different sound than anything else on the album. I like the way that the piano works.

JJ: I brought up working at Paramount, but this song was about working at a convenience store. It was written about when I used to work at Plaid Pantry [chain of stores in Oregon and Washington] on the graveyard shift and I was wanting to capture that lyrically.

GS: Was this a long time ago?

JJ: This was… a long time ago, when I used to live in Portland, Oregon, which is actually when I met Calvin.

GS: I’ve done these kinds of retail jobs and I used to work at a newspaper factory at night. I like that line “fluorescent lights light the row,” which I think takes a certain bravery to repeat a word like that, where it almost looks like a mistake, where “lights” is both the subject and the verb. [James Baldwin wrote about “a lighthouse light, lit up,” in Another Country.]

JJ: I think what it means to me is like, “when the story was told we were set aside,” so it’s like you know something’s out there for you but you’re working this shit job and you kind of have this secret of yours that you know about, that you’re pushing for. I think that’s what that’s about. I think it’s about knowing that you’re part of something.

GS: Do you feel like you’ve realized that [purpose] now or is it still a work in progress?

JJ: Well I think that as a human being you find what you relate to and you find your people in the world, things that mean something to you. There’s a connection, you know, like you’re part of a bigger family, and I think that’s what it’s about, for me.

GS: I like the way you rescue these temporary fleeting details that could just be lost to time, but find a more permanent life in your songs. Well… I’m maybe just assuming that you’re a fan of the Everly Brothers. I wondered if you had any reaction to Phil Everly’s death yesterday?

JJ: Um, I didn’t know he died.

GS: Oh, I guess I’m the bearer of bad news then. Did they ever figure into your influences in any way?

JJ: Let me tell you a secret. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote their most favorite song, their most popular song, “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” I actually made a present for my girlfriend, I made a 7-inch with “We Belong Together” and that song for her on a 7-inch. In London they have this place called The Carvery, so you can go there with music and they can make a record out of it, just make one, so I did that with one of their songs and the Richie Valens song “We Belong Together.” So to answer your question, yes is the answer, yes they had an impact on me, in a way, and I love the story of that song. I don’t know if you know it, but the girl, Boudleaux, she was working in Wisconsin at a hotel and all her life she has had a dream of a man, and it was like always a mysterious figure. And then when she was 18 she was working at this hotel in Wisconsin and she saw a man by the fountain and it was the guy in her dreams, growing up. And it was Felice, the guy, and they wrote that song about that. So that’s what that song is about, “All I Have To Do Is Dream.”

GS: I never knew that, that’s beautiful.

JJ: Yeah, I think it’s totally fascinating. And I think that’s why that song resonated with so many people. I mean it’s huge. It’s also really overplayed, so I think especially growing up in America like I did and you did, it’s in the popular consciousness and it’s so overdone and you kind of forget what it was about in the first place.

GS: It’s actually one of my earliest musical memories, hearing that on the radio in California.

JJ: Yeah, totally, I mean it’s huge.

GS: Well now might be the time to release that 7-inch commercially, to cash in.

JJ: [laughs] No way, no way. No, that’s a special moment, that was a gift. And you know everyone has heard that song, they don’t need me to sing it.

GS: Yeah, it’s sort of perfect as it is, it doesn’t require a lot of reinterpretation.

JJ: No, and if you do you start sounding like Michael Buble, or like some weird wanker.