The G-Man Interview: Glenn Jones

"I never learned anything from pleasant, comfortable or inoffensive music."

Be it being whisked downriver on a steamboat decked out in Sunday finest or hitching a ride on the back of a mule-drawn cart, I always envision being on the move when listening to Glenn Jones. Proudly upkeeping the American Primitivism traditions of John Fahey and Robbie Basho, the New Jersey native's seamless transition from experimental noise-rock with former band Cul De Sac to a more timeless, rootsy sound has produced five solo albums to date. A term regularly used to describe his music, I ask the man himself to define American Primitivism in his own words.

The G-Man: It seems essential that every one of your interviews you feature in these days reference 'American Primitivism'. How would you define the term?
Glenn Jones: The term American Primitive has come to refer to guitar music that assumes John Fahey and/or Robbie Basho as mentors/exemplars, whether as players of a specific style of music, or as musicians who simply eschewed technique that wasn't, first and foremost, in the service of expression. Robbie Basho put it this way: "Soul first, technique later." Fahey's music often offers clues as to how he feels, and his titles often name-check the people, places and things that were important to him. Basho seeks to create new worlds with his music; his guitar compositions - he also sang and played piano - are daring and imaginative, often ethereal.

Unlike Fahey, Basho rarely referenced other musical forms, though he was, like Fahey, very fond of what we today call "world music" as well as western classical music. What they had in common was that they used the guitar as a means of expressing emotion, not as a vehicle by which to show off their chops. American Primitive is as good a term as any to describe my music. I feel like I'm walking similar paths as these musicians and I'm happy to acknowledge the powerful influence they've had on me, ever since I discovered their records as a teenager.

John Fahey and Robbie Basho – two more different people and two more different musicians would be hard to imagine. It's interesting to me that their music has come to be defined by the same term, American Primitive. Both musicians started out recording for the same label, Takoma Records, which Fahey started in 1959. But then, the term is now used to define the music of a quite a number of players of quite a variety of approaches. The music is often very sophisticated – hardly primitive - and its players are not all American-born or based.

Being so heavily influenced by the two, what steps do you take to ensure that you keep walking your own path?
I don't consciously do anything to avoid sounding like Fahey or Basho, because my compositions are, I feel, very much my own. Though my indebtedness to Fahey will be evident to anyone who knows our music. I follow my own intuition and leads.

How initially did you cross paths with the Baird sisters?
I knew Meg Baird's band, Espers, early on, and had met Meg through my friend Jack Rose (both Philadelphia natives at the time), but I didn't know the music of the Baird Sisters till guitarist James Blackshaw introduced me to one of their CDs on a short tour we did together some years ago. I love American old-time Appalachian roots music, a tradition the Bairds very much come out of, and took to what they were doing right away. Subsequently I did some dates with the Baird Sisters, and today I count Meg and Laura as among my closest friends.

How did the idea of recording arise and what convinced you Laura would be a good fit for your music?
One thing led to another. I'd been hired to do live music for the Buster Keaton silent film Steamboat Bill Jr. and felt I needed a partner to bring it off. As I was in New Jersey at the time looking after my mom*, I invited Laura Baird, who lives in the state as well, to work on it with me. Once every week during the month prior to our performance, Laura and I rehearsed the film in Laura's home studio, which she calls Forest Hills Farm. I loved the away-from-it-all-ness of the place!

Around the same time the Baird Sisters issued their When You Find Your Green album. I loved both the record and the sound of the album which had been made at Forest Hills Farm. Laura and I became closer friends while working on the Keaton film and had a good rapport. It seemed only logical to make the album there. Laura also plays on the album.

*My Garden State was written in Glenn's New Jersey home while he was caring for his mother who suffers from Alzheimer's

Do you think that a producer playing on a musician’s record helps tighten the musician/producer bond?
To my mind, it's not so much as a producer that Laura performs on the album, but as a musician whose skills I admire and as a friend.

From hibernating spadefoot frogs to exploring woods and streams, it sounds like the recording sessions were an enlightening experience.
I came to those sessions with most of the pieces already written but the environment, I think, helped clear the decks and allow the process of recording those pieces to occur in a natural, unimpeded way. Though the sessions were very relaxed and laid back, the music, I trust, is not. Laura was a great sounding board for any ideas I had and she was very accommodating and supportive.

What other adventures did you get up to on Forest Hill Farm?
Recording was adventure enough for me! I set goals for myself every day in terms of what I wanted to lay down, and then I listened obsessively to each days work for hours every night. I've discovered that playing a piece of music and listening to that same piece of music is a very different experience. If you’ve ever done something and then looked back on it later and said, "Geez, what was I thinking?" you'll understand what I mean! What is this piece about? How do I make it more what it's about? What's standing in the way of expressing what it seems to want to express? Playing sometimes gets in the way of answering those questions. It's just self-evaluation I guess, but listening back sometimes I feel as if I'm "getting" some of those pieces for the first time.

Some thrive on the pressure provided by the ticking clock whilst others not to feel relaxed and maybe even safe to reach their creative peak. Under what conditions are you at your best, both personally and musically?
When Cul de Sac toured with singer Damo Suzuki, we had to come up with something fresh, spontaneous and coherent in front of an audience for two-to-three hours every night. We failed as often as we succeeded, which was fine with Damo; he accepted failure as an unavoidable aspect of his "no covers, no rehearsal, no improvisation" ethos. That we also succeeded was a surprise. Drummer Chris Corsano, monologist David Greenberger and I just recently recorded an album's worth of music and stories. All those pieces were made up on the spot so I know I can create in the moment.

That said, I don't consider myself an improviser, and working under the shadow of the ticking clock is not my preferred method of recording an album. But playing with Damo may have unlocked something, as I've gotten better at creating spontaneously in the studio, as evidenced by 'Alcoeur Gardens' and 'The Vernal Pool' on the new album, both made up as the tapes ran. I'm as proud of those pieces as any of the composed pieces on the album, some of which took more than a year to complete.

According to the liner notes, 'Going Back to East Montgomery' was "written as an excuse to perform with Meg Baird". Were you two able to simply sit down together and go for it or was it a case of feeling each other out at first?
No, the piece was very much composed and arranged. I'd originally written a short piece, to which Meg wrote an accompanying part, and we rehearsed it in its earliest incarnation for a show we did in Philly. Over time, I added an introduction and two more sections. I recorded my part and Meg came in a few days later and overdubbed her part. Genius that she is, she nailed her overdub in one take.

What prompted the inclusion of the guitar tunings for each song on the booklet/inlay?
Partly it's an homage to Fahey and Basho who often included their tunings on their records, and partly it's a way to find out whether someone has bought my album or downloaded it! When I get an email from some poor dope asking what tuning I was in for such-and-such a song, I know he's just downloaded the music rather than involving themselves in the complete album experience. Yes, I very much believe in the concept of THE ALBUM: music, notes, graphics, etc.

Some musicians and artists are not as forthcoming with their long tried-and-tested techniques. Are you not precious about tunings that have taken years for you to stumble across?
Not at all. I love seeing what other people come up with in their attempts to wend their way through some landscape I've hobbled around in.

You've said in the past "Most tunings come with a built-in emotion, there’s already a color or complexion to the piece before it’s even written." Would you be able to mention some tunings and, when used, what colours you see or emotions you feel?
I'd have a tough time being that specific, that concrete, and I don’t know that I'd enjoy being that specific even if I could. It feels akin to pinning a butterfly to a board. Often what I get from a tuning is just a vibe. Sometimes the vibe is so complex or produces such conflicting emotions that you can’t express what it is you precisely feel.

Ands what's wrong with that? What I discovered in John Fahey's music is that I often couldn't put my finger on why the music made me feel the way it did, or what, exactly, I was feeling. That complexity, that uncertainty, is something I love about his music. The music I return to most often is music that is mysterious, or unsettling, or unfinished, or undefined.

The beautiful 'Bergen County Farewell' is such a fitting album closer. No matter what age, the selling of the family home - referenced in the liner notes - can be a traumatic experience. (I’m still not used to visiting a home that’s not my home) How did you cope with such an ordeal?
I let the new album be about the events I was dealing with when I wrote the pieces of music that make it up – my mom’s decline, and spending long periods of time in places I hadn't visited much since I was a teenager in high school: the family house, the town, the state, etc. What unified the pieces was where they were written and what I was feeling at the time. Rather than dressing up those pieces of music in clever titles or with obscure references, I decided to just say what they were about, or as much "about" as guitar and banjo instrumentals can be about anything. I'm not necessarily advocating music as catharsis, but music is my way of relating to the world, and I believe music, like all the arts, speaks to us, if we let it.

Some people prefer to have a superficial relationship to the arts – what they allow themselves to experience is only what they already know, or what they find pleasant, comfortable or inoffensive. Charles Ives famously said, "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair." I never learned anything from pleasant, comfortable or inoffensive music.

Others look to the arts as a form of engagement, a lens through which to experience the world, or a clue as to how to wrestle with their place in it, or a way of coming to terms with deeper aspects of themselves.

Just before closing the door for the final time both my very unsuperstitious brother and father swear they heard the pitter-patter of tiny dog feet on the wooden floors. Our family dog had died a long time before then but it was as if he was staying behind to keep an eye on the new owners. I'm not saying that I believe this myself but I'm comforted by the idea of it. What do you make of the notion that we possibly leave a trail of energy behind us, good or bad?
What makes up a life? We all grew up somewhere, most of us among families and friends. What was - who was - important to you? Teachers, pets, books, music, food? People, places and things are alive as long as our memory of them survives.

Moving back to New Jersey for long periods at a time obviously must have had a big impact on your life. Although not the ideal circumstances, did moving home help bring you closer as a family?
Nothing is ever smooth or perfect, family being family! But whatever our differences, my four sisters and I have worked hard to do what we think best for our mom, and yes, that energy has certainly brought us closer.

My Garden State is out now on Thrill Jockey and available from all good record stores.

Upcoming Irish tour dates:

For more on Glenn Jones visit:

- Glenn Jones will play The Black Mariah (Triskel Arts Centre), Cork on Saturday 9th November, 2013
- My Garden State is out now on Thrill Jockey and available from all good record stores

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