Interview: Jerry Joseph on Dead Confederates and Middle Eastern child refugees

If you have come across Jerry Joseph’s name recently you may be forgiven for thinking he is a new artist, such is the buzz around his latest album ‘The Beautiful Madness’. However, he has been a professional musician since the ‘70s and has made over 30 albums. In America, he has built up a dedicated fan base and gained a reputation as one of the better songwriters. He is a true believer in the view that music is art and, despite personal challenges and the disappointment on missing out on a major record deal 30 years ago, he has continued to pursue his muse. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up by phone with Jerry in a camper van on his Portland, Oregon, home’s driveway and they discussed not only Jerry’s music and influences but the jamband scene, Jerry’s charity work to bring music education to children in the Middle Eastern refugee camps, his love of his family and why he recorded his new album with the Drive-by Truckers. They also discussed, what is one of the best songs about the American South, Jerry’s own ‘Dead Confederate’.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
It is weird for me as I’m not complaining. I know musicians are out of work and that, but if I died tomorrow then I could say the last four months have been the best of my life spent with my family. The demonstrations in Portland were horrendous, I went down nearly every night, got the shit kicked out of me a few times, and it was a war zone. You had to pinch yourself to make sure this was actually happening in America. Very strange times overall but I am loathed to complain because of the time I’m spending with my family. I am seriously thinking about moving somewhere because of all the shit that is happening, Ireland you know, we are going into these dark months. When I did the album I was thinking of it being about marriage 10 or 15 years in but I have a couple of political songs on it and they just seem to be work with the newspapers every day.

Strange times indeed. Hopefully, come November, things will start improving.
Maybe for you guys but over here I can see another 200,000 dead, the president may even have managed to cancel the elections. It is a funny time for music. I do this streaming thing every Thursday night called ‘Happy Book’. It is amazing,  the number of people watching. Numbers have fallen off as people have started camping, but as the darker nights come, numbers will pick up again. I’ve also been working on my breakfast skills with my kids. I had to get to 60 to get my priorities right.

Your songs have been covered a lot by Widespread Panic, how helpful has the jamband link been to your career up to now?
I think it hurt me a lot. Here’s the deal with that, someone once called me the Henry Rollins of jambands. I can’t really play all them festivals and my band the Jackmormons are pretty rock heavy. Those guys in Widespread Panic are my fiends, and back in the day before ‘Spotify’, they made me a lot of money. But I couldn’t do things. I remember I couldn’t do a tour with Dinosaur Jr because of my jamband association.  Mojo magazine or Pitchfork get my albums and because of my Widespread Panic association they throw them in the trash without listening. I’ve made like 30 records and in Europe I’ve toured with the Delines, Chris Whitley,  and I come back to the states and I don’t get any credit for that. It has hurt me with other writers. Widespread Panic have a massive live audience but they don’t say anything in their songs. I don’t know what to do there, I can’t renounce my friends, but it has hurt me.

You’ve had a number of bands in your career, Little Women, Jackmormons, why record with the Drive-by Truckers on the new record ‘The Beautiful Madness’?
Patterson Hood was aware of my need to breakout of that situation. I’ve got a great band, but we talked about going sideways and using The Truckers. They are amazing and I’ve known them forever, I brought them out on their first tours of the West and we have been friends ever since. Me and Patterson have been dancing around him producing a record and finally it was green lighted. For me, I have never deferred to a producer as much as I have with Patterson. He had a mission, he knew what the songs needed to sound like, he knew the ones he wanted to cut.

Patterson has a great track record as a producer doesn’t he?
He has amazing ears. He moved to Portland a few years back, and we started hanging, we both had young children. When we came back from touring there was no let daddy sleep for three days, it was straight into childcare. We found such similarities in our lives and we started conversations about making this record. It has been good.

The new record is making a lot of waves in the media due to the quality of the songs. How many did you have to start with and how did you whittle them down to what was used for the record?
More than I’ve ever had in my life. When I write songs, I try to go somewhere and just spew them out. I don’t do demos. I had a week writing in South Africa and a week in California. My brother has this house down in Mexico and I write a lot of songs there. It is just 90 minutes south of where I grew up in San Diego, and it is kind of a weird area. Big Cartel wars but it also has an amazing surf break. So I had all these songs written, a lot like 30 songs, and I gave them to Patterson to see what he wanted to work with.

He certainly made an impressive selection for the album, mind you, I haven’t heard the songs that weren’t selected.
He picked a wide range of songs and the band were pretty receptive to them. It was pretty cool.

You have been a respected musician and songwriter for a long time now, why is it now you are making a big push in Europe?
Why? I’ve been trying for years. In the late ‘90s, I was on a label out of Berlin. I would well in like Germany and Italy, not fabulous, but good. However, I could never break in the UK. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve played the 12 Bar on Denmark Street for like 8 people. I kept trying, kept trying going back and forth . I was with Richard Fontaine on the last tour, and those guys are good friends of mine, they started opening for me in the mid-nineties. It all sort of feel into place organically, and the original plan was to be out with The Truckers all of June, and they were going to come out and back me as a band called The Stiff Boys, and then do their show. I couldn’t believe their management were going to let them do that. Those were pretty big shows across Europe and they have been pushed back until next year. I’m out with the Delines in February. One thing I’m known for is a pretty good work ethic. When this thing is over I will work any gig, record store appearance from Cork to Glasgow you know. We’ll see what happens, I’m excited for when I can go work again.

When you are out with the Delines will you be solo?
One thing about this record, I can play it solo or with a band. Solo isn’t my scene only because it gets really lonely but I’m probably at my best.  As well as my band, I play with my drummer, who’s wife is Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists and we do a trio thing, so all that stuff is on the table but with the Delines I will be solo. I’m pretty malleable, hell I’m pretty old,  and I’ve had 10 piece bands, duos but if the songs are good that’s what counts. After the songs, it doesn’t really matter.

Patterson Hood of the Truckers has said ‘Sugar Smacks’ is the best punk song he has heard in 20 years. You also have a song about Bowie, ‘Black Star Line’, on the record, how much was he and ‘70s music an influence on your music?
I was born in 1961. When I was 10 I started playing electric guitar. There used to be a Beatle’s cartoon on a Saturday and I kind of always wanted to be a musician as well as a superhero and war hero. My mom has my first song.  I started playing in bands at 11. We are now taking 1972 and I saw everybody in concert. Back then you could let your 11 and 12 year-old go to concerts. We were just talking the other night about going to the opening night of ‘Physical Graffiti’. It was 1974 or something and that’s when I saw Bowie. We were like little kids, and he comes on and asks  how many bi-sexuals are out there, and we said “What is a bi-sexual?”. In Southern California in the ‘70s at 10 or 11 we were already smoking pot, taking acid, that culture, we were only children, it certainly didn’t make for a good time for my parents. I was in a lot of trouble, so we moved to New Zealand when I was 15. My parents thought the could keep me out of trouble by moving to the other side of the world but it didn’t work out. I hung out with a motorcycle gang, played in a heavy metal band, and then I was kicked out of the country. While my parents weren’t happy, I was playing music professionally. I was listening to what every other 15 or 16 year old was listening to, you know some prog stuff, Weather Report what have you. Then, just before I went to New Zealand,  I saw The Wailers. And they may have well have beamed down from Mars they were that different.  The Clash broke when I was in New Zealand, and for a long time I was a reggae guy. My ‘80s band The Little Woman were a roots reggae band and we toured with some reggae guys, Burning Spear for one. However, on every record I did there was always this country thing, country songs on them. One of my big influences was The Amazing Rhythm Aces, lead by a guy named Russell Smith. He died last year and I was crying, this guy meant the world to me, a great songwriter. All that Lowell George stuff was also a big influence. It is funny for kids these days with Spotify playlists. Everyone gets genre specific but in San Diego in ’74, ’75 we saw the Wailers, The Stones, The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top, I love ZZ Top. I had all those influences but I worry for kids now, if they only listen to one thing, they are like hip hop or something. Some 18 year olds are only into Townes Van Zandt, but hey, I love Townes but there is other stuff going down. We had a great young guitar play a couple of years ago, Geoff Crosby, and we were driving in the van and he is like 26 and he asked me “What kind of music should I listen to?”. We were just looking at each other and thinking well you could spend a year just listening to Tuff Gong out of Jamaica for instance. I never liked ‘50s music, never liked Elvis. I was good with all my blues music coming from Rory Gallagher and British white guys. Back then there was only so much music to listen to. Why I feel sad for kids now is that you really have to seek music out, its all available, every song ever written. How do you negotiate those waters, how do you get that vocabulary? We were a bit like sheep in the ‘70s but at the same time it was a remarkable time for music.

Do you think music is now undervalued, compared to how it was, due to it’s availability?
One thing it has lost is it’s Godhood status. Like I was listening the other day to Layla on vinyl, and I was trying to explain to my wife  like here is Duane, Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon and how awesome these guys were, also Patti Boyd and George Harrison and Eric Clapton, these people were like Gods. Now, those sort of people are the tech people, it is the guy who developed the app, or it is is the person with the most ‘YouTube’ visits. So those people have been replaced. We had movie star and rock star royalty in the States, but I don’t know whether kids look at musicians the same way. Coming back to David Bowie, he walked on stage and Jesus could have walked on stage, Bob Marley  the same. A couple of years ago I went to see Pau Weller and he was playing here in town to 300 or so, I was with a Brit and another guy who didn’t know much about Weller,  the way Paul Weller walked on stage, he just wore massive rock star, he just exuded it. Even if you didn’t know who The Jam were in 30 seconds you would know he was massive. I can’t think of any young rock band I care about. You don’t see it anymore, take The Clash and their bravado when they came out . Joe Strummer is probably one of my biggest heroes, and I look for that in young people and I don’t see it very often. As far as undervaluing, a lot of that is on the musicians I think. There are some DJs I think are remarkable you know, I travel a lot . I was in Afghanistan doing this thing teaching kids in a rock school. The other guys there were Pakistani rock stars, and I asked this guy what does that mean in Pakistan, and he goes well we sold 6 million of our last record and I go, what? Globally I don’t think music is undervalued, but I think of my 10 year old and what he watches on ’YouTube’, when I was 10 if there had been something like that all I would have cared for was my rock heroes. Another thing because the music is all free it is also kind of undervalued.  We are all glued to our phones, primarily because of the unprecedented political times we are living in. Everyday is a shocker, you wake up and look at the news and go holy f&@!, I can’t believe that is happening. I don’t wander round under any allusions. I do this thing, I go to war zones to support kids to learn to play the guitar. It could be the boy had to kill his own parents, the girl was continually raped for two years. I get my guitars and it is funny for them, I bang my head. Every so often though , there is this kid who gets it, and I don’t think that will ever end. I don’t think art will ever end, we are not going to stop painting pictures or writing books.

How are you protecting your career while still dealing with the coronavirus restrictions?
We are in extraordinary times, but I’m not sure we will make any money out of it. There was a time when the steaming thing started, I was making more money in an hour on Facebook than in a week of touring. That money has now gone way down.

‘Dead Confederate’, I don’t know what to say. I read you wrote this song four years ago, did you ever imagine how relevant it would become in 2020 with the whole question of Confederate statues taking centre stage?
I didn’t think it would be as controversial. About a month ago we were really worried about it because here in Portland we had the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In the South I am pretty vocal, I work out there and say lets be clear, you tell me your great great grandfather died fighting for the rebel cause, I say f@*& it, he died to protect the selling of human flesh and lives. I have researched this, and I have zero empathy with that cause but I wrote the song as a character, and the statue is not going to say I am a dumbass, racist scumbag. That is not what the statue would say, it would say I have my pride, I have these things. I thought it was really clear where I was coming from, but we got worried because bands like Widespread Panic, they are big down there, but they have this one demographic that is this fraternity for Republicans and Panic gets nervous about anything to do with politics.

As things developed this year with the Black Lives Matter protests and counter protests, did you ever worry that the song might be misinterpreted?
I have one issue with the jambands and that is they have nothing to say, it is ridiculous, you have an audience of 10,000 people so say something. When we played the South, if they didn’t hear my introduction, all these dumb f&+%$ would come to the front and pump their fists. A couple of times I almost shut the song down. My wife hates that song because she says I did too good of a job as by the third verse she is feeling empathy for the statue. My son is black, as are my grandchildren, and he is saying “I don’t know dad”, it is too believable. Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell thought it was a good one though. So it is all there, everything is on the table to see. You guys are also having your own trouble with statues.

What got me about that song is that the question of the South is very complex and multifaceted. You have slavery of course which is indefensible and a terrible crime, but you also have a shared black and white culture that has enhanced the lives of the world through primarily music but also through food, literature and art. Your song captured that complexity. But you are not of the South. You were born in California, lived in New York and now Oregon. Where did you get your insight from?
Well I’ve spent a lot of time down there with Widespread Panic, The Drive-By Truckers, I’ve toured and toured and I was pretty popular down there. I used to be fascinated with the South. I would have said my favourite state was Mississippi. It was that black and white, good and evil everything laid out. Then I started to hear from these people, educated liberals, who followed me and they started to say the Civil War was not about slavery. I started reading to educate myself, and I have a history Professor friend who helped by giving me a stack of books. The consequence was that some of the shine of the South was gone. They still have political power down there that influences my life here in Oregon. I’m tempted to say give the land back to them and let’s get rid. Tell them they won the war, they are now on their own. The divisions are now very big, mind you a lot of them are going to die as they have Republican governors who are mishandling coronavirus. On the other side, some of my dearest friends have Southern roots but they are not Republican racists. Patterson Hood  is from rural Alabama but his dad played with Aretha Franklyn. I’m too attached to the South to really say f&%* the South, but I wrote that song and stand by it. The thing to remember is those statues weren’t put up until the early 20th century, they were put up specifically to remind black people they had better not get their arse caught out after sundown, they were put there for hate. You can talk about all the other statues, you can argue about Mount Rushmore, you can argue about Gandhi, Churchill may have been a racist but he also beat the Nazis. Anyway I’m glad you like it, it was one of those songs that you know after 5 minutes it is a good one. Take ‘Sugar Smacks’ off the new album, after ten minutes I knew it was a good one. As fast as I could type I got the words down. I sent it to Patterson and I thought he would edit the shit out of it but he said “….no no . we are keeping every f&^%$*( word.

You may not be well known in Europe, but you have taken your music across the world including South America, the Middle and Far East. Also, you are involved in guitar school charity work for children caught up in Middle Eastern war zones. Americans can sometimes take an insular approach as far as the rest of the world goes. Where does your world interest come from? How much has your Irish, Lebanese and Syrian ancestry influenced you?
Well my father was an international figure, he was a scientist and was a top guy for tuna in Conservation, Fisheries and Food. I was speaking to his counterpart in Tokyo the other day, so I grew up with a kind of global thing. I visited museums a lot and travelled to Central and South America as a kid. I kind of realised 15 years ago that I was never going to be a big enough rock star to get invited to Vietnam or something, but if I wanted to see the world I had to make it up. So we started putting these tours together, South East Asia, we did Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, then we did Lebanon where I have family as I’m Lebanese Syrian on my father’s side. I found my grandmother’s village in the Beqaa Valley.  I played Israel and we played Tel Aviv and air raid sirens go off and this guy next to me said in a million years Hamas will not get a missile through, two seconds later the first one f&^%$£* hits. We then play our show. They asked if we wanted to cancel our other shows and we said no. That is what lead to the Afghan people asking me if I would go to a school and teach music. So I started raising money and that lead to the Iraqis asking me to visit the refugee camps. I think I had found something I could do hands-on. I’m willing to go to war zones, I can hand a kid a guitar and watch them learn a chord. I can get the girls to sing, these girls have been in slave camps, death camps even,  and culturally they are not even meant to laugh. With an interpreter I finally get them to sing and I think that is the sound of God. Musicians always talk a lot and support a lot of causes and that is great, but rarely is it something you can get your physical hands-on, you know. So me and my mate Charlie fly to Iraq and if I can help one kid, if I can change that kid’s life and get them to go to university to study music, is that worth $50,000? Do you know how many times people spent $50,000 sending me to rehab, the amount of money spent getting me of heroin pales compared to these things. I am a fortunate person, I am still alive, I have a beautiful young family, currently I can still write songs. It just gives me something to do. You are right, Americans are isolationist, 85% of Trump voters don’t have a passport. They don’t know anything about the world, all they see is this one version. We live in extraordinary times.

What is your views on streaming? You have mentioned it and some artists are trying to move away from it to try and get more control of their music and how it is sold.
Whatever money I made from royalties, which wasn’t a lot, I would get a cheque four times a year for $3,000. Once Spotify started that dropped to $300. I was never a big radio guy, and when I did this hour thing that I do on Thursdays I keep it free therefore rely on tips. Mike Cooley and those guys do it behind a paywall. If you are broke you can watch for free, I’ve got a great band and I’ve had $500 tips, but most people tip $5. I find it very uncomfortable. It is the most nervous I’ve ever been as far as doing my job goes. I don’t know why, it may be the camera, I forget the words. I’m a huge Nick Cave fan, and I was looking at his new merchandise website. Right now we are selling a lot of T-shirts and back catalogue albums. We have this captive audience who can’t go out to a concert. Think about it, you spend $30 on a t-shirt, you may buy a CD for $30, you drink at least $30. So they have this money in their pocket. We will see. They say six million people are up for eviction in the next few weeks.  I have a small but loyal fan base. I could book a tour now, thirty to fifty tickets per show at $40 and I would probably sell that out. Just for me alone I could still make a living. All of my friends who are bigger and more successful than me are struggling to work out what to do. It is going to shake shit up. I know a lot of music business guys who are Jewish and they never had a clue the $500 million investment in Live Nation by the Saudis was coming. I try not to be a luddite and embrace the technology. I was telling a young person the other day, that since humans started making art, the first time a guy in a cave in France put black charcoal, red berry juice, red clay and made a buffalo, this is the most exciting time in human history to make art. You can have a kid in Liverpool, a kid in Akron, a kid in San Paulo and they rehearse on ‘Zoom’ , make a record and put it out, I use the word extraordinary very often but it is f&^*$%£ extraordinary. There are no rules, what a time to be 22 years old and an artist. I don’t know about being my age, but for young people, wow.

If you could go back with your experience, what would you change?
My biggest regret is when I was 30 I lost this big record deal, I was about to be signed to Capricorn Records, it was this huge thing, and a few things happened and I didn’t get the deal. I was 30 and I thought I was done, I thought it was over. I just seemed so old to me, if I could go back, and I’ve done too many shitty things, the one thing I would change would be to realise how young I was at 30. People were telling me I was still young, and I was convinced that I had nothing left. We were listening to some Faces record the other day, I mean how young was Ronnie Lane when he wrote those songs, he looks 12 you know. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Most musicians don’t get a deal until they are 30. It is not that weird group of 19-year-olds, The Faces are a good example because you look at them in their tiny suits and they are 12 years old and they are massive. We covered Debris on my stream last night. I have seen more younger musicians in the UK, Bristol, Glasgow, Dublin even. Young bands, dressing up and going for it but you never see that in the US.

 At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your playlist?
When this thing started, and I hope I don’t get a divorce, I started buying a lot of vinyl. I’m looking on ‘Amazon’ and see something for $20 and I get it. Even my kids are saying, daddy has another package. With vinyl, I’ve been trying to buy all the records important to me. The other day I got that new Bobby Gentry, ‘The Delta Sweete’, and it is amazing, all the Tom Petty records. I’ve posted pictures of the covers of the vinyl I’m listening to on ‘Instagram’ . It is the summer, so Sly Stone ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ and Santana always remind me of the summer. I don’t listen to ‘Spotify’ that much. I was trying to teach my kids about the record. So we open the record up, they look at the cover and we put the thing on. I’ve really been too involved in listening to stuff from my youth.  Every so often there will be something crazy, that Taylor Swift new record is f&^%*$£ amazing. I really love Big Thief. It has been weird because you haven’t been able to go and see some of these bands as no one is touring. You have to go deep with an artist and I’m not sure Spotify does that for me. Can you still get as excited listening to a stream as when you open a record and put it on. Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’ is like a Picasso. I have spent a lot of time listening to a Scottish band, a favourite band of mine, Frightened Rabbit. The guy killed himself, he was always talking about jumping of this bridge in Glasgow for like four records, and he finally jumps of the bridge. I just go down these weird holes, the American band Messengers are always playing in my house. I’m a fan of The Hold Steady, Jason Isbell is like a big Nashville thing, I hope that answers the question.

It certainly does, a very wide spread of music.
We are trying to figure out what to do with the kids who aren’t going back to school. We are talking about taking a group of six kids who go to a different parent every week. My wife teaches 5th Grade and she is in the basement teaching, I was thinking what do I do on my day? I can probably teach 20th-century history, and music appreciation. So we go,  today we are talking about Miles Davis, and the first thing you have to learn is to say mother%^&%$£ like Miles. I think I would be a great teacher.

Is there anything you want to say to your European fans?
My friends in Ireland have just sent me the ‘Uncut’ article, and what is kind of funny is they are working this new record like I am a new artist, but I have had over 30 records out, if people like what they hear, I would encourage them to go back over my catalogue and get a more rounded view of me. I’m looking forward to touring this record. If we are lucky may be I can bring my family. We have been talking about moving to the UK for years now. So maybe we will see you guys sooner rather than later. If they cancel the elections I will be over on the next plane. Please thank your readers for their interest so far.

Are you going to issue a compilation album if the new one does well?
It is something we are talking about. At the core, we think that maybe the best follow-up, plus me and Patterson are already talking about the next new record. I think my fans in America would love a compilation record. The problem is how do you take 300 songs down to 15. No idea really. But we will be working on it.

Jerry Joseph’s ‘Beautiful Madness’ is released on 21st August on Decor Records

Photo Credits: Jason Thrasher

 

 

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Jerry Joseph on Dead Confederates and Middle Eastern child refugees”

  1. Yes, he has strong beliefs and does everything he can to implement them rather than simply pontificate.

  2. Pingback: Blabber 'n' Smoke

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