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Six Minutes of Music Heaven: A Chat with Jeff Kelly of Seattle's Green Pajamas

4 July 2023

Photo by James Johnson
EK: You guys have been together for almost 40 years. What has kept you going so long?

Jeff Kelly (JK): Being friends. The members of the Green Pajamas band have always been my closest friends, so it would often be about socializing as much as going and playing gigs. When we were younger, there were a lot of Green Pajama parties. The truth is, I like spending time drinking with these people as much as I do playing music with them so I think it’s friendship, in the end, that keeps such a diverse and opinionated bunch close together after so many years. Mainly because of COVID, I don’t see the band near as much as I used to, but whenever we do get together, it’s as if no time has passed at all, very much like family.

EK: When you started, we were in the midst of an explosion of psych music, and psych never really went away. Can you describe the feel of that time long ago compared to now?

JK: I recall the feel of that time as quite exciting. We were going to have go-go dancers and a sitar player! It was a lot of fun. But I guess it’s always a lot of fun to be young and in a band, isn’t it?

The “explosion” we knew was mostly coming from California. I had bought a couple of records by The Three O’clock and The Rain Parade that I liked a lot and when I met Joe Ross and we discovered that we were both into that kind of music, we thought it might be fun to make our own sort of version of that up here in Seattle. I don’t think it happened immediately. Joe had to talk me into the whole band thing. I finally said, “Okay, as long as I don’t have to rehearse!” So we actually did a bunch of gigs before we got the idea to write some new songs and record our cassette, ‘Summer of Lust. We called ourselves things like Felix The Cat Explodes and Spanking Naughty Teens, and we played songs like “Clash City Rockers” and “Little Red Corvette”. Later, when we started recording together, along with Karl Wilhelm, we decided on The Green Pajamas. That was one of the times Joe won the argument. I had wanted to be The Flying Nuns.

Of course, yes, psychedelic music is everywhere now, in all sorts of mini-genres of music — psych-this, psych-that, which is interesting. I love how diverse our choices of music are now. You can find just about anything you want to hear on Spotify. Just about anything you might imagine is on there somewhere if you can figure out the right words to search with. I’ve always loved a lot of different kinds of music. If you hear the cassette of Joe and me writing, “Kim the Waitress”, you can kind of tell I was thinking about Joy Division and Peter Hook while I was fooling around on the bass, as opposed to The Beatles or Rain Parade. But I’m sure there are multiple 10 or 12 hour playlists on there made up of any and every kind of psychedelia one might desire to hear. So there are some advantages to 2023 I guess!

EK: The industry has changed drastically over the many years you’ve been a band. What are your thoughts on these changes?

JK: When I hear the word “industry,” I can really only kinda look at you and blink. Because personally, the changes haven’t had a big effect on me as The Green Pajamas were never signed and then dropped by someone like EMI. Nobody has ever told me what kind of record I’m supposed to make. It sucks how little Spotify pays and it’s sad that Universal Music owns almost everything, but there are independent labels out there like Glitterbeat that seem to be doing fine and smaller labels like Green Monkey Records where it’s never been about money over art. People like Tom Dyer of Green Monkey, from the beginning, got involved in all of this because they loved their artists having freedom and making their art. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t love to have a few more bucks to allow a few more people, including himself, to make more art! And I think that one of the best things that has ever happened in the music world ever is Bandcamp. Being able to pay people directly for their art is wonderful. And bands and labels can make their own paths and priorities and find a happy and supportive audience without relying on some A&R asshole or anybody else telling them what to do. And the diversity of music is astonishing. I’ve come across some great stuff I wouldn’t have known about if not for Bandcamp.

EK: Beyond The Beatles, Byrds, Kinks, XTC, Neil Young, and even The Stones which I hear in some of your music, what are less obvious influences that inform your work?

JK: Music from the Middle East, Brazil, Portugal and Spain. Leonard Cohen’s older stuff, Classical music, Sinatra, and jazz from the 50s and 60s. A band from the 90s I still love called Curve. And a little bit of everything else sans most modern country, Christian rock, and death metal.

EK: Can you talk a little about your obvious love of The Beatles? What are your favorite recordings by them?

JK: I was one of those “different” kids. I didn’t care as much about going outside and playing softball as I did about sitting in my room alone and listening to the “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am The Walrus” single when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’ve tried to explain at times how it felt in those days to hear a new Beatles song come on the radio, especially when you get a song like, “I am the Walrus”. But it’s hard to put into words the way my stomach felt when I first heard those weird strings in the intro coming out of my little AM radio! And then that voice singing that crazy shit and everything else about it. We’re all so used to it now but nobody had done anything like that before, ever! That’s the funny thing about that time — they were the biggest pop group in the world while being very avant-garde at the same time! And there was a new song about every few months, always very different from the last thing and always exciting.

So, The Beatles were pretty much everything to me when I was that age. The first record my mom ever bought me was Yesterday and Today, which would have been 1966, and from that time on, when my sister got a new Beatles record, I got to get one too! Being a bit older than me, she had been in love with them from the start — the first Ed Sullivan appearance or whatever. So my favorites were from that point on – Revolver, Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, right up until the end with Abbey Road.

EK: What made you want to join a band/create your own music to begin with?

JK: I remember the first time I thought about the idea was after watching The Beatles singing “Hello Goodbye” on Ed Sullivan. The next day, my friend, Ryan (who grew up to be the Ryan Styles on a big TV show called The Drew Carey Show) and myself made a band: Ryan Styles and the Electric Garbage Cans. We had found a toy electric guitar in a garbage can and made some toy drums and that was the band! A little while later, I’d gotten a real electric guitar for Christmas and another friend had a snare drum and we called ourselves Springwater Ferry. We would charge the even littler kids a nickel to come and see us perform in my basement. We taped one of those “shows” and you can hear an excerpt on the Forever For A Little While album just before “I Love the Way You Smile at Me”. A little boy named Stevie was introducing us: “Here come The Springwater Ferries!” That’s from 1970 or ‘71.

EK: Among your earlier releases, what would you say is your favorite, a high water creative mark for the band?

JK: Probably the “Kim the Waitress” single. Despite what seems to have become a common belief, I never ever said I hated that song. It’s the opposite, I think it’s one of the best songs I ever wrote. I just got tired of performing it live for various reasons. The last gig I played was an acoustic show at Tim’s Tavern. We were playing songs from my album Beneath the Stars, Above the River. I was at the bar waiting to get a beer before we started, chatting with the guy next to me and he said, ‘Oh, and by the way, I’m not going to request Kim.’ I smiled. But it occurred to me that it wasn’t just the Green Pajamas band that thought I despised the song, but some of the fans as well. Maybe it came from an interview on KEXP when we did a live thing and the host asked me why I disliked the song. Can’t remember how I answered now but I probably didn’t articulate my thoughts on the subject very well at the time. I think part of it was a little bit of a knee-jerk: I got so tired of talking about whether we were or we weren’t going to perform “Kim the Waitress” every time we picked up our instruments.

EK: What was your most creative period? It appears you put out a lot of material between 2000-2008.

JK: I might say ’97 up through the early 2000s. Strung Behind the Sun, Meagan’s Bed, Seven Fathoms Down and then, This Is Where We Disappear. Those albums were popular and got some good critical acclaim. There were also a few EPs. Plus Laura Weller and I did the Goblin Market album, Ghostland, and I did an album under my own name called Indiscretion. Joe and I worked together a lot on putting the first two together and Eric Lichter contributed some great songs, but I recorded most of that stuff myself while working a full time day job and helping raise our two kids. My wife and kids would go to bed and I’d pour a brandy and start recording. I remember almost falling asleep standing up one night while doing a tambourine part. And the band was also performing live a lot then, so, from my perspective, that was probably the most creative period! I figure Joe would probably say, Summer of Lust.

EK: How many incarnations of the band have you and Joe Ross been through?

JK: I guess four or five, depending how you look at it. Although Joe wasn’t in the band when we recorded Book of Hours.

EK: Can you describe the songwriting, recording, and production process, especially for your latest work? Did COVID get in the way or did you work over the Internet like some bands did?

JK: I’m always writing and recording, but several months into the pandemic I had the thought that it might be fun to go back and do an old fashioned Pajamas album along the lines of Strung Behind the Sun — a real psych-pop kind of thing. So we had a Zoom band meeting and I encouraged anyone who was interested to contribute something along those lines. That was, “Sunlight Might Weigh Even More” and Eric had a couple of songs and Joe wrote a new song for that one as well. Eric and Joe sent me demos over email and then recorded their guitar bits and vocals at home, then shared them with me via a file sharing website. Laura did that as well with her vocal back-up on “Hello Hello”. And it was the same process with the newest album, Forever for a Little While. They all did some basic tracks at home and then sent them to me to finish.

These days, when I decide to do a Green Pajamas record, I do purposely write what I imagine might be an appropriate Green Pajamas song as opposed to a Jeff Kelly song. There was a time in the 2000s when those lines were a lot more blurry and I just figured whatever I wrote was a Pajamas song. Now I’m more deliberate. Songs come about in a variety of ways: sometimes it starts with some minor obsession, a book, a painting, a photograph — anything that inspires you. I just finished a song inspired by some characters in a Chinese TV historical romance/drama called “The Long Ballad”! Sometimes it’s a good hook, sometimes a riff, sometimes a chord progression and melody. And sometimes all those things happen at once – I’m thinking about, “She’s Still Bewitching Me”.

As far as the production process, I often make it up as I go. Sometimes I have the idea for a string part or a setar riff right at the beginning, but often I will throw in all kinds of instruments and then start eliminating them. It might take a day or two for one song or a week or two to perfect another. Sometimes I finish a whole song, and decide to completely start over with a different arrangement or time signature. My wife Susanne gives me a lot of good input. If she thinks I can sing something better or write some better lyrics, she tells me and that is helpful. Everything is recorded at home using Logic Pro X .

EK: _What are your favorite songs on the new record, and can you give us background on those? Maybe you can tell us about “The Hidden Fortress” or “Princess Misa”.

JK: Sure, those are a couple of my favorites and they’re very much related to each other. They are both inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s film, The Hidden Fortress. Weeks and months after I finished watching that film, the princess’ face remained vivid in my mind. A lot of aspects of the movie did, which is kinda interesting as I don’t think it’s necessarily one of that director’s most popular or profound movies. Still, there is something that haunts you and a big part of that for me was the Princess Yuki character. I might have called the song “Princess Yuki” but when I Googled that, I found out there is some famous anime character called that. So I didn’t want to use that. I also found out that the actress that played the roll was called Misa Uehara and then remembered I had read that Kurosawa had, “hired her for her eyes”. So instead of a song about Princess Yuki, it became a sort of daydream about a guy wandering onto that old film set, into that black and white world, and finding Misa Uehara there sitting on one of those hills. So I imagined myself as that young guy and wondered what I might have to offer a princess: my notions, my potions, my castles of sand. And at the end, bemused, she disappears off into the misty film set.

“The Hidden Fortress” song is more or less of the same conceptually. A companion piece. I was thinking about walking into the world that was that film — and reliving some of the scenes, or maybe just the scenery, all of these years later. That was one of those quick recordings like “Bewitching Me” — everything came together right away — the setar part, the bendy strings. The opposite was true of “Princess Misa”. I did several versions of that. The first version which was going to be discarded got rather heavily edited into “Princess Misa 2”.

EK: ”Six Minutes in Heaven” is a definite high point, and the title alone makes me smile. It seems to speak of aging, something I totally understand.

JK: I’m happy you like that one! Yes, it is a little bit about getting old. It’s a bit like an old guy’s version of “Rattlesnake Kiss”, which I recorded in 1997 or ’98. You do sort of wake up one day in your 50’s and go, what the fuck? I got old! So, as an old guy, it’s a little harder to write a song all about having nasty sex, like “Rattlesnake Kiss”, and present it to people without some irony or at least a little bit different perspective. So, I guess that’s what that song is about: getting old in the time of the pandemic, trying to stay sane and still fit a little sex in amongst all the horror that we’re currently flailing about in.

EK: What attracts you to psychedelia? It has many variants, including shoegaze and dream pop, among others. Which elements of this genre do you enjoy the most?

JK: The most right now? Hmmm. You know, I almost like it most when it’s almost accidental. Or I guess I should say, less contrived. Like in traditional middle eastern music or some of the new middle eastern music that is rooted in that tradition. I’ve been listening to a lot of music from Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and that area of the world and, what we think of here in the West as “psychedelic sounding” is often built into the foundation of that music. There is a Persian/American band called Niyaz, which is a good example of what I’m talking about. I have a six hour playlist of middle eastern music on Spotify and there are so many great songs and artists that don’t get written about over here. No one I know has ever heard any of this stuff! So I was looking all over the Internet trying to find where I could buy Fairuz CDs for a decent price and I found this Lebanese deli in New York! It also wouldn’t be a stretch to say there are strong elements of what we think of as “psychedelic” in those cool North African guitar bands like Tamikrest and Tinariwen as well. Talk about “trance-like”!

EK: What are you guys listening to when not doing your own thing?

JK: I can’t speak for the other Green Pajamas members as I haven’t talked much about music (beyond our own recordings) with any of them for quite a while.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Asian music this year. Japanese artist, Haru Nemuri. For Tracy Hyde and Hitsujibungaku who are often sorta filed under Dream Pop. There’s a good Korean band called Say Sue Me and I like Hiperson from China. I’m also listening to some older Japanese stuff like Hako Yamizaki, Keiko Fuji, and the rock band, Les Rallizes Dénudés. There’s a great compilation from Death Is Not The End Records called Longing for the Shadow, which is all Japanese Ryūkōka recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s. And that’s barely the tip of the iceberg. I always get on these kicks. Fado, Flamenco, Persian music. One summer it was all Laura Nyro and the next summer, George Jones, which amused my family no end.

EK: How about books and films?

JK: These things often mirror the music I’m listening to. Favorite films I’ve recently seen: Decision to Leave, The Wild Goose Lake, the 2018 Long Days Journey Into Night, Black River* by Masaki Kobayashi and everything from the Criterion Collection directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. I have a couple books bedside: _Strange Beasts of China and The Mermaid from Jeju and I just read a collection of weird Japanese Tales.

EK: Are you touring behind this record, or are you done with that?

JK: Done with Green PJs live performances for now. Maybe in the future we’ll get together for something again. Some of the best memories of my life stem from gigs with the band. From the Terrastock Festivals to tiny taverns in Seattle, over the course of my life there have been some really unforgettable times and I’ve been able to experience the feeling that a lot of people won’t — the thrill of being on stage and you’re holding an instrument that can make a whole fucking bunch of noise and there’s an audience that is really into it, you know? There are moments you remember and I feel lucky in that regard. There is a job-like aspect of being in a band as well, but the process of rehearsing and performing music shouldn’t become mundane. In theory, you do a soulless day job so as to go out and have fun playing music afterwards.

We had a new live band with Laura singing and playing guitar and Eric playing drums with Phil Hirschi on cello and Kerry Fowler on bass called The Cats of Cádiz, which was a lot of fun! We were performing new songs which was exciting again! But after one really great gig, the virus hit and unfortunately, I’m a famous germaphobe so we haven’t got back together again since that time.

EK: Any last words for fans?

JK: I appreciate everyone who has supported The Green Pajamas over the years so very much. I have been fortunate to meet so many kind, interesting people across all of these years since we started doing this in 1984 and, because of things like Facebook, I’m still in contact with people around the world who first wrote letters and sent packages from before any of us envisioned the Internet happening. When I was a kid, it was all kinda about me, which I think might often be the case with young people. But as I’ve grown up, I realize so much of what I do is about the people who ppreciate this music.

It’s been a rough year or so but I’m hoping for a new Pajamas album for 2023 and maybe something under my own name as well, along with whatever I might release on my Bandcamp page.

Catch up with the band over on their Bandcamp page. Pick up their latest record over at Green Monkey Records.


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