Jerry Joseph has worn a lot of hats over more than three decades in the music trenches – righteous rocker, hyper-observant cultural observer, spiritual & political firebrand, force of nature live performer – but the bedrock of what he does has always been songwriting of the highest caliber. Joseph is a kindred tunesmith to sharp, craftsmanship minded pros like Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon and Nick Lowe, where the resoundingly sturdy bones inside their compositions shape things no matter what’s draped over them.
Jerry Joseph is coming to Eddie’s Attic this Wednesday, and Alex May spoke with the artist about his musical philosophies.
Having an extensive catalog of music that you’ve written, what is your approach to songwriting each time you sit down?
I’m not a write everyday person. Almost always I start with a title. Rarely is it the other way around. The title gives me something to start with.
You’ve written several albums with different groups. Do you prefer writing songs by yourself, or as part of a group?
It depends. I’ve rarely written anything as a group. I find that to be pretty difficult. Sometimes it’s cool I think, it depends if you’re going for a specific thing, or basing it around some kind of riff, but usually cowriting can be hard and it involves a certain amount of patience that I don’t think is in my DNA. That said, I’ve written a lot of stuff with people, and you always learn something from it.
Having played in different groups, what do you feel are the most important qualities for a bandmate to have?
I think that’s really different. It’s a lot like “what do you like in a partner?” I like this person because they’re nurturing, and they cook really good. It also depends on what you’re going for as a band. A band like the Jackmormons, it’s been almost twenty years. It certainly didn’t start based on musicianship, it was more people who happened to be in the room at the time. A band like Stockholm Syndrome was much more though out. I think there’s merits to both of those things. I think bands that try to put themselves together, based on a bunch of great musicians, I don’t think if that always works. Longevity is what works.
The best band I’ve seen in years, and I don’t go see a lot of music, would be the Bad Seeds, Something about that, between the fact that they’re great musicians, and also this shared experience. I think you can never quite put your finger on it. I don’t think at any point anybody went “Adam Clayton is the best bass player in the world,” but I think he is. There’s nothing that drives a U2 song more than those bass lines, but you can’t write that out on paper.
You have your own record label, Cosmic Sex School Records. What are some of the top qualities that record labels can offer musicians in today’s music environment?
That’s the million dollar question. Cosmic Sex School, for me, it’s kind of a vanity label. For the most part it just puts out my record. I try to find out where they all are. I have a lot of records where we don’t know where the masters are, we don’t know who has what. I put out a guys record this last year, this kid I think is really amazing named Jeff Crosby.
A few years back, I was in the Sony office the day that Radiohead announced they were giving away their record, and it was akin to being on wall street for the big crash in the 20s, people were going to jump out the window, because the whole thing shifted. Now I tell young people when they ask me “I’m only 22 years old, what do you think I should do?” it’s unprecedented as an exciting time to be 20. Theres no rule book. With a little bit of brains, you can get on a social network site where you can reach 10,000 South Africans that also can speak english and like your music. It’s super exciting.
You have made many of your most recent albums available on vinyl. Do you feel that vinyl as a format offers listeners something that can’t be found on CDs or downloads?
I don’t know. I like the physical part of it. I’m old enough to have had a huge record collection on vinyl when I was a kid. I think it’s a lot more fun to open the record than to look at my iTunes “play now” on my phone. I kind of resist that stuff anyway. I hate buying a new record online, that kills the whole thing for me. I like to open the package and look at the art, look at the credits.
I also hate listening to music on my phone. If I can help it, I won’t put music on my phone, because I don’t want to be listening to a song and then have it stop for a phone call or a text. I find that I’ll buy stuff I don’t care about that much, or I think I don’t care about. If someone’s like “you need to hear this new Lorde record,” I’ll buy something like that. Every so often there will be some huge conversation about somebody that I have no idea what the music sounds like. So I’ll buy something like that, but otherwise, the vinyl thing, in Europe, that’s all anybody wants to buy at shows. I found that in the Middle East too recently. So I think it’s cool that it’s coming back, and it’s obscene how much it costs.
Widespread Panic has recorded covers of seven of your songs, and performed even more live. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the band?
Those are guys I’ve known a long time. I first met them in the 80s, and they’ve always been pretty nice to me. Me and Dave Schools had this band, Stockholm Syndrome, and I’m psyched they like my songs. It’s given me a chunk of a fan base that helps keep me going.
Your recent self-titled release contains some songs that have been reworked to fit an acoustic format. How do you approach this process?
I trust the producer, Greg Williams produced that. He used to be my drummer in the early 90s, then he started producing records, and somehow started help producing a couple of her albums. That turned into producing big 90s records like the Dandy Warhols. He did Happy Book which was the Jackmormons double disc thing that came out a year and a half ago or something. We walked in and we cut 30 or 40 songs, and he picked which ones he wanted to do.
We toyed around with the idea “What do we care about here?’” Keep all the verses in, and we had a pretty extensive list of famous friends here in portland to play on the album, and were like “that’s ridiculous, let’s not do that.” We just got really good mics and recorded it, just me and an acoustic guitar, which is a lot of what I do live. I’ve been touring a lot trying to go to places that people don’t really tour all the time. In the past, I’ll play Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Lebanon, Israel, it’s kind of designed to help me do that.