Interview: Jesse Malin on why the world is sad and beautiful

Credit: Ilaria Conte

How a punk rocker can mellow with age while still remaining true to his original ideals.

For music fans of a certain age, the fact that Jesse Malin is celebrating his 40th anniversary with the re-release of Heart Attack’s iconic ‘God Is Dead’ single, and the first double record of his solo career, ‘Sad And Beautiful World’, maybe a touch disconcerting. While Jesse Malin has kept his punk flag flying, he has always recognised great songwriting whatever the genre. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jesse Malin in his New York apartment over Zoom while he was completing his last-minute packing, before boarding a plane to start his UK and European tour. Jesse Malin seems quite comfortable with himself in 2021, and shares his view that while his 14-year-old self may think he is a bit too mellow, he wouldn’t hate the 54-year-old Jesse Malin too much. While it is no surprise that The Clash are still a major influence, Malin discusses the influence Billy Bragg and Lucinda Williams have had on his music. While the songs on his new record are influenced by recent turbulent events, Jesse Malin explains why he is able to maintain a positive attitude about world events. Finally, he shares his joy at finally being able to fully engage with his audience and fans in a live setting.

How are you? I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?

It has been tough for everybody, but I am OK, and I’ve managed to get an album done.

Is it really your 40th anniversary?

Yeah, my first single came out when I was 14 at junior high school, that was Heart Attack’s ‘God Is Dead’. It was the first record I ever made, the first New York hard-core single, and the ‘God Is Dead’ EP is being released on October 22nd.

What does it feel like?

Good, you know, haha. Things haven’t changed, I’m still waiting for the band, I’m still looking to see that I have the right picks in my hands, plectrums you know, that everything is in-tune, and you are getting ready to go on, you are writing a set-list. As much as the world changes, some of those other things like the butterflies in your stomach, getting ripped-up to play, some of that stuff just doesn’t change, and that is really nice, haha.

If you met your 14-year-old self, what would he think of you now?

I guess in some ways I might think I was a little mellow, but in some ways, I’ve always liked those sad bastard ballads back then too. I don’t think my 14-year-old self would hate this guy too much, I think he would be alright in some ways. That is weird to say because you would figure my 14-year-old self would put on his combat boots and kick my 54-year-old arse, haha. I don’t know, I’m pretty happy with most of the journey and it is still going on, I still feel hungry, I still feel like I’m maybe 19.

Your new record ‘Sad And Beautiful World’ is your first double, isn’t it?

Let me see, I’ve done a covers record, I’ve done solo records, I’ve done band records, but yes, it is the first double. We didn’t plan it that way, but when we finished and looked at all the material, it just seemed to make sense. The label was very supportive, they wanted ‘Sunset Kids’ to be a double record.

Where did the songs come from on the new record?

A few of them we had beforehand because we were going to put this record out in October 2020. A lot of my favourite bands as a kid always did one record a year. We were doing a cover show where we were doing The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ for their 40th anniversary, and we learnt that whole record for a charity event for The Strummer Foundation. We looked and said, “Well, next year, Sandinista and we are going to have to learn a triple record.”. I thought, holy shit, that band did a double record and then a year later a triple record, well we have to strike while the iron is hot. We went boom, boom, boom, and we started to work, and we went on tour, and then, of course, this pandemo, pandemic, COVID thing happened, and give the world its blessings how we all got through it. We got stopped, and then I started writing at my house and I started to build up a collection of more songs, and when we could get near each other we would sneak across, with our masks on and cellophane wrap, and head over to the studio in East Village near my house and we kept recording. When I looked at all the material I said,” Wow, this stretches out here, there is stuff that is a little more mellow and kind of rootsier, and we have this kind of Saturday night in the city, kick out the jams kind of stuff.”. It felt that it would be kind of cool to do more of an americana, roots, downbeat, Sunday morning side, and then have more of an in-the-city kind of up-tempo kick out kind of thing. I like to play live, I like the physicality of moving to the music, the band and the drums, something to get into with the audience, but I also like to bring it down into a whisper, and some of my favourite records have always had both of those kinds of music, country and western, haha, as they say in The Blues Brothers.

It just made sense. It starts out with ‘Greener Pastures’ in some Texas hotel, just waking up, it is a morning, you are trying to find your footing, trying to find out how to go, and it ends with ‘Saint Christopher’, which is a song about travelling around the world while trying to figure shit out, and realising we are all the same, we bleed the same colour, the heartbeat of music unites us, and as fucked as it might be in your town, well it is fucked in someone else’s. It is the human experience, and we have got to put a good face on it.

How do you go about writing songs, do you find it easy or very hard?

Finishing is hard, getting the initial burst, sometimes they come sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I walk in from the street, and I just have an energy and I pick up a guitar and the melody and the chords lead me, and I follow the melody, I’m singing some lyrics, sometimes they are gibberish, sometimes they are right there, the whole song when you get lucky. Sometimes it is pieces of it and you have to figure it out. At the same time, I carry a notebook and sometimes I will cheat and I will use a device like a phone, I will write down ideas, things people say, things that come through my head like conversations or things in a book, things that trigger that like a movie. The title ‘Sad And Beautiful World’ comes from a line in a Jim Jarmusch movie called ‘Down By Law’ with Roberto Benigni and Tom Waites, and that was something in a notebook I had, and I thought this is the perfect title for this record and it is from a film I really enjoy.

So, it comes together, and you have a burst of a song and then it is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, getting it shined up and you are doing the homework. Sometimes it comes to the part where you have to sit down and put on your cap and tighten it up, and that is fun too, it is like a crossword puzzle or something. Sometimes you get the gift, and it is all right there, sometimes you have to do the homework.

You worked with Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby on ‘Sunset Kids’, are the tracks with her on the new record leftover from those earlier sessions?

The songs on this record were started during ‘Sunset Kids’, ‘Backstabbers’ and ‘The Way We Used To Roll’. I loved making that record with those two, and she sings on ‘Backstabbers’, but the songs felt like they were a different record sonically and rhythmically, and they seemed to make a lot more sense on the second side, what we call the radical side The Roots Rock Radical side on ‘Sad And Beautiful World’, it fits better with ‘Todd Youth’, a little death. They weren’t finished but they were close, and we all felt this was a different record. Songs are sometimes not ready to be born yet, they have to percolate, you have to simmer a little bit, and not just throw them in the microwave, sometimes they have to live a bit. But it was a different album and it has her singing and feel on ‘Backstabbers’.

Did you learn anything from the experience of working with them and what did she bring to your music?

When she was moving her hips and dancing, we knew that was the right take when she stood up from the couch and she started to move around the room, and she started shaking her hips really hard, that was the thing for tracking. For lyrics, we’ve been friends for years, and you know what, I’m also a fan. She is one of my favourite writers, storytellers and singers. So, it was like oh shit, it is like somebody I’ve had drinks and dinners with over the years, and I’m pretty comfortable with, and when we started to work I thought now I really have to up my game, haha. Maybe I did work harder knowing I was going to bring my songs to her and have her sit there and look at my lyrics, and she really went through them, and things I might have given myself a break with because they were abstract and let the listener in to interpret how they want, she was “What are you really saying, let’s be direct?”. I will write six or seven verses sometimes to get three, and she went through a lot of those and picked the three verses and said throw those away and rewrite this.  It was what I called the Lyric Doctor, she was like the Professor Of The Lyrics. I learnt about the details and the storyline, and I think we brought that over to ‘Sad And Beautiful World’. Working with Derek Cruz and Geoff Sanoff, I would bounce lyrics off them and sing them in the control room or the studio lounge, and I think they got down with the programme on how we were working and see which one sang better. Sometimes I will write all these verses, and I love them all like my children, and you have to kill your babies sometimes to edit. Editing when making the record is the tough part. I saw the four-hour version of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and there is a reason they cut out the French scene, you shouldn’t get laid, it is a war movie, you shouldn’t have sex, make the man struggle.

How easy was it to record?

It was done in pieces because of the pandemic. I would work at my kitchen table in my house, I’ve never been so locked in and isolated just like the rest of the world. We would go across the street and go and work in these bursts, instead of having three weeks in one shot we were having these bursts and we could live with it for a little bit, and then we would go in for a day or two, then there would be more codes and lockdowns and we would have to pause it. Somehow it worked out because of the same team, the same studio and we were able to find a sonic continuity. When we got down to mixing the world was a little more opened up and we could spend more time concentrating. Geoff Sanoff, who engineered a lot of my records, stepped up as co-producer with Derek Cruz who has been my guitar player and plays all these instruments, and they grabbed the reigns and the two of them have a really great work ethic. I have to say, having a drummer like Randy Schrager, a bass player like James Cruz and Cat Popper, Rob Clores the piano player. A core band who have played together for ten years, for some of us even more, and we have a good shorthand and a good telepathic thing when it comes together, haha. They can make it painless and fun.

Your songs seem to reflect what you have witnessed happening during these tumultuous times, but they are not hopeless.

This is not a COVID record, but we are living in these times of where this whole digital order at home, apps and phones, there is a lot of disconnect from the human thing and there is a lot of railing against the digital thing, get out and meet people, and then we became more homebound. The news used to be one hour and you then turned it off when I grew up, and now it is like all day news, bad news and fear. Outside my window people were protesting, people were having riots, people were looting, people were banging pots and pans to celebrate healthcare workers. Even though I wasn’t writing about it distinctly, it enters the record, your environment is going to creep in. There is some of that in what I was writing at home, and I was single after going through a breakup. I’m a hyper guy, I run around, and being couch-bound in this apartment doing these live streams was pretty different. I had to push myself to keep busy, I love being on the road, I love travelling, I love playing in front of people, I love the human aspect of human connection, haha.

Where do you get the positivity that comes through the record from?

Life is dark, but life is also beautiful, that dichotomy, it is a ‘Sad And Beautiful World’ and I’ve always felt I liked artists who sang about really hard things, so that you didn’t feel so alone because other people were going through similar things, it is OK to be scared, it is OK to be different. For me, the record still has life and hope and ends with Saint Christopher travelling around the world looking for that thing, that love. I wake up every day wondering what can I do today, what is going to be different, how can I be a better person, what can I give. I think if you give a lot out to the world, and I know we all fuck up sometimes, it will reverberate back. I don’t think you should be afraid to sing about some of the darker things, it isn’t just one long party, and we need to realise shit is fucked up. There is freedom in finding ways to dance around it, literally. You put a good face on it and take your pain and own it, spit it all out, take your blues and turn it into something a little more upbeat.

Your last album was nominated for various awards, I think, and got very good press. Are we seeing the complete Jesse Malin now or is it just another facet of your musical journey?

I loved my first record, ‘The Fine Art Of Self Destruction’ and some parts of my other records like ‘The Heat’. In a sense, the previous release was one I was particularly proud of, and I’m really happy with this. I know a lot of artists say, “Our new record is our best.”, and that may be the case or it may not be the case, who really knows. It is a journey, it is what I need to do, I have to do this, it is cathartic and an exorcism for me. It is the path I’ve been on since I was 12 years old. I am proud of this one, I definitely enjoyed making it and it is going into territories that I haven’t gone into sonically and musically. That is good, I always enjoy records that are challenging but still stay true to what I do and who I am. It is not like we went electronic or metal on this record. It is part of the path, and there has to be some evolution I feel, otherwise, you get stagnant, but it has to fit under that same umbrella.

Why does americana seem to fit with punk and indie rock?

I think these are all labels, and labels are more for the journalists, critics and people in record stores to file things. I think rock’n’roll is alive under a big umbrella, and punk rock and all that stuff is a lot about attitudes. I think there has always been a direct line between Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer, Stiff Little Fingers, anybody with a guitar and a message, going back to Woody Guthrie, or Johnny Cash, or Jerry Lee Lewis. I think there is something about three chords and not just an attitude, but the truth, or whatever these slogans we hear are. When I was a kid in punk bands, I used to go on the subway train, and I used to busk on a Friday at 7 to make some rehearsal money and beer money. I would play The Ramones, and I would play some of those songs acoustically to try and fool the passers-by, the mainstream workers. There were fifty songs, I would throw in some Dion songs too, ‘50s hits, but there is this thing about simplicity and melody, and having an attitude and a message. I think finally over time, in the 2000s, that troubadour guy became like a punk rock kinda guy, you have Frank Turner out there, and Brian Fallon, who come from that background. It makes sense to me, and Bob Dylan is very punk rock in ‘Don’t Look Back’, there is a lot of attitude, a lot of message and a lot of stance. You don’t need to put a leather jacket on and break things, you can do it other ways.

You mentioned The Clash and Billy Bragg, good British acts. How important are they to you?

Really important because in the mid-80s when I was looking for another way to tell stories and hear songs after I thought hardcore punk had got too macho, and too metal, I heard Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ and that was a guy who was a millionaire with just a guitar singing pretty truthful street-level, working-class heartfelt stories and I believed him. I was looking for other music in the ‘80s, which was a weird time, and I found Billy Bragg playing at Urban Plaza with just a guitar and singing political songs, and love songs that were complicated and he looked at it with a different angle. He had the balls and power of punk yet he also had the songcraft of those artists I listened to growing up, like Elton John, Neil Young and Jim Croce, on the radio in my parent’s car. He kinda had that thing of Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, a band maybe not that popular in the UK, and he was fearless doing a brash song and then an acoustic country ballad in the same set. He didn’t care if the skinheads spat at him. To be tender and vulnerable, especially at that age, was ballsy and scary, and it is hard to wear your heart on your sleeve sometimes. Those artists meant a lot to me, The Clash are obviously my favourite band of all time, and Joe Strummer and Paul Weller and those people taught me a lot about the world. You could say that was political music, but life is political. You walk out of your door, and you have to buy food and pay your rent, you have to get by and it is a class system and a race system. It has all been built before you are born, and you get into this thing with the best intentions, but nobody gives you a guidebook, haha. Those Clash records though, they gave us a view to the world, and we had to stand on our own feet and hold our ground.

What is it like being able to tour again, how road-fit are you?

I’m ready, I’ve done the push-ups, we have been rehearsing, we have been playing shows on the East Coast of America, and we are ready to kick it out, really turn up the mains, haha. I’m looking forward to it, it is COVID time so we have to be a little more careful and stay more in our bubble, we can’t be kissing everyone who has a Paul Weller t-shirt on. We have to keep ourselves in line and focused, but I am excited to play these songs because that is how you learn about songs, you take them out under the hot lights and microphone in front of people and see if the new songs hold up. Will they grow, can they stand the truth and the jury of your peers, or whatever, haha.

You are also a DJ aren’t you on Steve Van Zandt’s Underground Garage?

We all are, haha, I just love playing records, and I fill in sometimes on Underground Garage and listening to records is my thing. When I’m not playing music, I want to be in a bar listening to a jukebox or iPlaylist, I want to hear music and see bands. You need to have input to have output, and it is why I got into this initially. DJ’ing on a few stations, filling in, yeah it is fun, jabber and blabber about why I like a song, a lyric or some guitar part. It is geeky but fun.

Steve Van Zandt has a lot of plates spinning.

That guy has done a lot, he is head of the label we are on, Wicked Cool Records, and he is very generous and very supportive.

I’ve spoken to a few artists who have worked with him, and nobody has a bad thing to say about him.

He puts his heart on his sleeve, he puts his money where his mouth is, and he has done more for artists and rock’n’roll than anybody.

If you read the press, some people cite you as one of the best examples of a New York musician. Do you agree with that?

Haha, I don’t know, the press can say what they want but I consider myself, as Humphrey Bogart said, as a drunkard and citizen of the world, I do look at it as a global thing. I do however come from New York, and I grew up here and I didn’t move here in my ‘30s to set up the new Google office, no, I definitely have history and you write about where you are and what you know, and you hope it can translate and relate to other people in other areas. I’m proud of this city as much as it goes through changes, a city of mixed cultures that all come together when you walk down the street, the day can unfold and it is spontaneous. As much as it is gentrified like much of the rest of the world, we still have a lot of beautiful unique pockets, and it is a place for dreamers and artists and doers, like a Santa Claus kind of town. I think in LA they say, “How are you doing?” and in New York, they say, “What are you doing?”.

How challenging has it been to keep your club Bowery Electric going during COVID?

It was horrible. Me and a couple of friends just opened the place because we believed in music and wanted to put back in the community, we try and keep these places alive, and it was a year and a half and it looked like it wasn’t going to make it. We were trying to get support from Save Our Stages and the Government, independent venues were not getting a lot of help. So we got a little bit of help, and we hung on as long as we could and we were in some debt but we were able to open the doors and we noticed a lot of artists wanted to play, a lot of people wanted to come out, and the lines were around the block. This summer when the vaccines came and things opened up people went crazy, and it was nice to see. The people who are partners and deal with the money aspects were still paying of the debt, but we kind of made it and I always wanted a clubhouse as a teenager, as as an adult I had a kinda Sinatra fantasy to hang out and just listen to music. When I’m out I like to go see bands, and when you travel around the world it is nice to have a place that treats people like you want to be treated when you are on the road. I have good folks who keep the lights on for us and manage the place so it can operate in New York, which is forever changing, the music scene, the businesses. It is always being knocked down and started up again. We are trying to keep the Mom and Pop story as much as possible, and not have the corporate rock.

H.R. is on the new record, how important has he been to your development as an artist?

The first time I played a big room was opening for Bad Brains, and when we were kids they would lend us their equipment. They were the tightest, fastest most ferocious band I had ever seen, H.R. was one the best frontman like Michael Jackson meets Iggy Pop on steroids. He is a positive and spiritual person, PMA he took from a book he read, ‘Think And Go Rich’, and me and my friends have adapted that kind of ethos over the years, that positive mental attitude means a lot to us. He sings on the song ‘Todd Youth’ which is about my old friend and guitar player who overdosed on fentanyl in Los Angeles three years ago, and his favourite band was Bad Brains. So H.R. is on there singing with me giving it some kind of Rasta blessing, and that is always a nice thing when I hear that track and H.R. on there and I think of my friend Todd. There are a few other folks on there, Tommy Stinson from The Replacements sings on ‘State Of The Art’, a really good roots rock band Hollis Brown’s singer Mike Montali sings with Lucinda Williams and a few others are also on the record, but the real stars are always my core band. I always feel people want to write about my collaborations over the years, but I couldn’t have done it without someone like Derek Cruz producing the record and playing guitar, and the whole gang.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m really enjoying a band called Strand Of Oaks and their track  ‘Jimi and Stan’, a new band called Fantastic Cat that is kind of a supergroup roots rock kind of thing with a song called ‘Fiona’, I’m listening to The Clockworks from Great Britain and they have a lot of great singles and they are a young punky cool band, and then the ‘Neil Young Archives Volume II’ which covers ’71 – ’75. That set is just wonderful and I highly recommend that. I can probably go on and on, but that is a good little start right there anyway.

Neil Young, Dylan, what they have in their archives is amazing really.

The Bob Dylan stuff they keep putting out, even the ‘80s stuff just sounds a lot better than the records.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I just want to say thank you for all the years of support. I’ve been coming over to the UK since I was in D Generation when we opened for Green Day at Brixton Academy, Leeds and all over the place, Manchester. Coming on my first record, about 18 or 19 years ago, it is always a pleasure to play to those audiences who come early to see the support acts because they love music. So thank you for being so mad for it.

Jesse Malin’s ‘Sad And Beautiful World’ is out now on Wicked Cool Records

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
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.
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Dietmar Leibecke

Thanks for the great interview. As I am promoting a show with Jesse in Germany in a couple of weeks, I‘ll share this on my channels.