Jesse Malin took some time off from packing for his European tour with his band, The St Marks Social, to talk to us about his new adventures and his long career, and how it went from punk and hardcore to softer styles.
Modern Mystery: Can you tell us about the St Marks Social? Who’s involved? What it’s about?
Jesse Malin: I’ve had a lot of backing bands… I love bands, and being in band, being part of a gang, a social club. And as a New Yorker, St Marks was the place where you were free to express yourself, where you came to find like-minded people, artists, drug addicts… Anyone who was a a little outside of society. Most places in the world have an area like that, which is not for the mainstream person. Now of course that’s changed, it resembles more Little Tokyo now but it still has that history with the beats, the record shops, Lenny Bruce lived there… So the band was getting a group of guys together, like Todd Youth that I’ve known since we were kids. It’s a great line-up; it feels like a band, like a five-headed monster. And now we’re going to Europe and we’re doing a Holiday Tour in the North East where we’ll be back playing in New York on December 11th at the Bowery Ballroom.
MM: How long did it take you to record Love It To Life?
JM: The producer, Ted Hutt, knows how to make a records fast and cheap. We laid the basic tracks down in three days, then spent about a month on overdubs and mixing. We worked in LA, as well as Greenpoint in Brooklyn. His method is to do a lot in pre-production and get everything into place before you even enter the studio.
MM: How do you write songs? What inspires you?
Watching the movie of life and feeling it. Listening to people talk, reading, films, listening to other music… I always carry a pen with me. I like to record on tape as well. You can enter this unconscious trance where you’re singing melodies and you may get a sense of where a song is going, then you connect the dots. Finishing the song is the work.
MM: How do you keep the songwriting process fresh? You’ve been doing this for quite a while now…
JM: Hearing new things. When you hear something for the first time, it gets the juices flowing. When you’re walking around New York as well, songs just happen. I read in a book about the Clash that Joe Strummer said, “No input, No output.” It’s about challenging yourself with new things. Maybe it’s tuning your guitar differently. Sometimes I write with rhythms; I ask my drummer to give my a beat and start working on that. It’s about motion and stimulating that side of the brain.
MM: Tell us about your experiences in the studio. Do you like working there? What are your favorite parts of the recording process?
JM: The stage and the studio are two different animals and I like them both. When you play live, you have the instant gratification from the audience and then the free beer [laughs]. When you come in the studio, you think you can create things one way but the elements and the ingredients you have available can change a song you may have bashed out in rehearsals. It can morph. I had thought my first solo record out as a mellow, piano record. In the studio, it can go the other way!
I like analog a lot and old mics. I like tape. I don’t mind Pro Tools and all that but I try to use analog technology as much as I can. I mean, I write in notebooks, those black and white composition notebooks from high school. I like the art form to be physical.
MM: With all that you are doing as a musician, how do you find the time to co-own two bars, The Bowery Electric and Niagara?
JM: It’s this club house, Sinatra fantasy that turned bigger [laughs]. We get good people, and we can hire friends and give them support. It’s a lot about having a great staff at both places because, you know, I don’t know how to make a screwdriver. But I like to have a good time.
MM: Why did you decide to go solo after D Generation split?
JM: I was scared of going solo. I thought it was very adult and I needed to grow a mustache and I didn’t think it was very rock’n’roll, but my friend Ryan Adams convinced me. D Generation was a real band; every member was key. We’d been together 7 years, we’d recorded 3 albums, it was time for a change. I wanted to strip it down, write something more personal and quiet. I think D Generation was misunderstood. People paid more attention to the hair, the mascara and the slam dancing. I wanted to give more attention to the writing.
MM: What made you decide to go back to a band now?
JM: I missed being in a band. It was like a benevolent dictatorship as solo artist. But now I like that I can do both. I can do an acoustic tour by myself, and now we’re going to Europe with The St Marks Social and we have a rocking album. I like having the freedom of doing both. They’re different physical challenges. With the band, I can work off their energy.
MM: You’ve touched on this a little earlier, but could you tell us more about your favorite aspect of touring?
JM: It’s the idea that you can do it every night. And the ore you do it, the better you are at it. It’s like a muscle to train all the time. The feeling of taking something private to people, the give and take with the audience, you can’t get that any other way. It’s a sort of religious, guttural, tribal experience. You get very hooked. I don’t love all the bad food, the border controls, the time zones, the bed bugs in some hotels, but I’m always grateful for the audience.
MM: Where are some of your favorite places to perform?
JM: I like Chicago, Stockholm, London, Italy… I love playing in Glasgow, Scotland. And of course New York. At the end of this tour, we’ll be back performing here around Christmas time. The beer always tastes better after hard work.
MM: You collaborated with Ryan Adams with The Finger. Is there any chance of a second collaboration? Possibly outside of the punk genre?
JM: Ryan’s been a big part of my career. He’s played guitar in every studio record I’ve released. I’m sure we’ll work together again at some point. He produced my first solo record, he has a raw, tough, 1950’s approach. He lives in LA, and I’m here in New York so we’re both doing our own thing but who knows? It’s always a good time with the kid.
MM: How have you evolved as an artist since your beginnings?
JM: I’m still angry, although probably less angry. I’ve worked hard to have a stronger voice, to play my guitar better. It comes from practicing. I think I’ve come full circle with genres… The more you do, you get confident and comfortable. You find your own spin on everything. It’s about mixing what you hear and seeing what comes out with your own twist. I like the “happy-sad” thing like Sam Cooke, with the happy music and the sad lyrics. I’m still working to get on his level though.
MM: What would you be if you weren’t a musician?
JM: That’s always a tough question. I always think that I wouldn’t know what to do and that’s why I’m a musician [laughs]. But I like film, movies, writing stories, DJing, spoken word – I’ve dabbled in that a little bit. Maybe I’d be a bank robber or an archeologist or a rabbi, although I’m not so much into organized religion. I’ve always been into PMA, “Positive Mental Attitude.” Maybe I’d teach, or I’d be a student to learn again. I’m also into healthy food and finding alternatives to dead animals. Maybe I could write a book of all the places to get good vegan and vegetarian delicacies.
Catch Jesse Malin & The St. Marks Social with Marah at the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, December 11th. For more info about the show go HERE.