Jerry Joseph and the truth about Denmark Vesey

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Talking to Jerry Joseph is always an interesting experience.  For a man many fans know as the seemingly angry anti-hippie songwriter that got his big break when Widespread Panic started performing his songs, Joseph is actually amazingly subdued, incredibly well rounded, and just about the most intellectual individual one could ever hope to meet.

During our most recent interview, which took place as Joseph embarked on his latest tour with drummer Steve Drizos, we discussed the duo’s forthcoming CD, the subsequent naming of their band, and what the future holds for the man with a seemingly endless string of rock-n-roll melodies waiting to roll off the tip of his tongue.

HONEST TUNE: When did you and Steve first begin playing together?

JERRY JOSEPH: We first got together when I was on a hiatus in Montana in 1995.  I had a job booking acts in a bar, and Steve had this band called Dexter Grove that I booked.  We were friends for a number of years, and we had the same birthday, which was always sort of a connection. Then, Steve moved out to Portland and his band would play with us a lot, including New Year’s in Mexico, five years ago or six years ago.  Then he started playing with the Jackmormons as a percussion player, when the Jackmormons went to a five piece. 

We’ve been playing as a duo off and on for about two years. This really is our second record together, because he and I did the April 19th record. That had a bunch of different people playing with us, so the idea this time was to do it with just the two of us.

HT: For just two people, you sure get an incredible amount of sound.

JJ: It is certainly something that’s not consistent for us.  This tour’s been hard because it’s been at the mercy of my guitar tone.  It’s almost like we need more gear to do this correctly than just with the Jackmormons or some normal rock band. We’ve been hauling around keyboards, and all these different kinds of guitars; but we haven’t plugged any of that shit in on this tour.  We’re just in the mindset of ‘go on tour.’  It would be better if we were bringing along a proper sound guy; but when it works it’s just electric – the sound of a good full sounding electric guitar and drums.

There are no effects, no loops, which is what we were trying for on the record.  You can hear some keyboards and a guitar solo over a rhythm guitar. But there is no bass, and there isn’t a lot of trickery because we knew eventually we’d have to tour the damned thing.

There are a lot of drummers I could have done this with. (I was looking for) two things. One was compatibility, and Steve and I have become really good friends. It’s the same thing with the Jackmormons.  I think there’s an argument to playing with people who can develop stylistically around you, as opposed to a pre-formed package. 

Stockholm Syndrome is a bunch of pre-made parts and that that works on that level. But to try and come up with something more organic and different I think was a cool thing. It’s been a weird thing to do.  I don’t know how well received it is all the time.  When it doesn’t go well people are very excited to tell me how they don’t like it. People come to the shows very skeptical, so when it does go well, it’s rewarding because you went on stage to a lot of people with their arms crossed, and I’m not known as a guitar player, so it’s certainly not about virtuosity.

denmarkveseys9lr.jpgHT: Steve does an amazing job.  It definitely sounds like there’s more than one person behind that drum kit a lot of the time.

JJ: I think he’s really come into that.  Half the point of the project was for him to find his voice.  Really for both of us, but, I’ve been around longer. When we were recording with (producer Dave) Barbe, Steve started doing this kind of tom-tom thing that became a lot more of his signature thing.  When you look at all the other duos to compare us to, The Flat Duo Jets or White Stripes, they are so much about the gear and sound of the different guitars’ mics that they’re switching stuff out all night; while The Black Keys have this North Mississippi-Junior Kimbrough thing.

For us, we weren’t sure what we were doing.  We had Jerry Joseph songs and two musicians. We try and play a lot of that stuff, so we’re working with 250 songs. The good part and the bad part is that when they work, they really work and when they suck, they really suck.  We haven’t gone through enough of them to find out which is which yet.

HT: Now that the record’s done, how do you feel it came out?

JJ: This is one of the first records where I cannot think of one thing I do not like. 

It’s good.  It’s different, which is what we were looking for.  I feel bad for Steve, because I think a lot of times ‘Jerry Joseph records’ just sort of get tossed in the ‘Jerry Joseph, bald hippie’ bin.  We just laugh. Sometimes we think of Michael Stipe and when he was talking about the mixed reviews of the first Billy Berry-less REM record. He said something like, ‘If we were some twenty year old band they’d be throwing a parade; they’d be cheering in the streets if they made a record like this.’

Sometimes I almost wish it was someone else singing these songs, somebody without my baggage attached.  The songs would have more of a chance. But Steve’s really excited about the album.  He did a really good job on it.{mospagebreak}

jerry3.jpgHT:  The last time you came through Athens, you were performing simply as Jerry Joseph and Steve Drizos.  What led to the decision to give the duo a name?
JJ:  We were hoping to present it as a band instead of just another Jerry Joseph record, whatever that is.  Denmark Vesey was a very controversial figure. It depends on who you talk to whether he was a hero or a villain.  He was a freed black save that organized what would have been the most successful slave revolt of American history, but they caught him at the last minute.  It’s an amazing story in Charleston, which I think, was one of the prototypes of the modern police state. 

This guy did his math and figured out there were like three to four black adults to each white adult. His plan was take the city and kill every white person – the nannies would slit the throats of the babies, everybody was supposed to die and then they would leave enough people to take the boats to Haiti, where (ex-slave Pierre-Dominique) Toussaint had just had a successful slave revolution.  Doubtful he would have let them in, having the wrath of the American navy on them, and then they were going to go to Africa.

I live in Harlem and was walking in the street just last week doing an interview with the guy from Charleston.  He said to me, ‘so you named your band after the guy that was going to slaughter the whole city?’  And I answered, ‘Well, your half.’ 

So, it really does depend on who you’re talking to.  People in bondage, they’re justifiably pretty angry.  I was asking people in the streets –in New York you can just ask people something – "Do you know who Denmark Vesey is?"

On my street, all the avenues have been named after black leaders. So I am standing on Malcolm X Blvd. and 125th Street and nobody really knows who he is.  His biography was sitting on my bookshelf the day we said we needed a band name, so the name was really just to stir up shit.  We like the name because nobody really knows what it is, so we’ll see how it takes.  I think it’s cool for me and Steve to make sure that there’s some kind of difference between this and all my other work.

HT: You have been involved in a lot of different projects over the years.

JJ: For a couple of years it’s been, ‘Is it Jerry Joseph or is it Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons?’  We just wanted to make this project seem different.  If we were smart, we’d do another recording immediately, like an EP.  We could probably make a pretty good vicious, angry dwarf version of Jack Johnson on a record.  I make records I like, but I’ve long since given up any ‘maybe this is the one.’ I may have let that go, though I don’t know that I could expect Steve to do that yet.

denmarkveseys8lr.jpgHT: Speaking of the record, I’d like to go song by song and ask you to share a bit of insight in to each track.

JJ: I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  I’ve had a thing more and more over years of not wanting to explain my songs because I think at the end of the day, what people get (out of a song) personally is more important.  People have come up to me and said, ‘Thanks for ‘Climb to Safety,’ We’re getting married to that.  It’s the most uplifting song.’ 

I would say, ‘Uplifting?  You f’n kidding me?’  I wrote that song so strung out and close to death in a hotel in northern California.  It’s anything but uplifting to me.  And then it started to feel like, why should I take that away from them?  Having said that, I do need to go through this exercise anyway, so let’s start with you.

Letter To Chico 

HT: Great, you know you can be relaxed with me.  Let’s start with ‘Letter to Chico.’

JJ: My friend Chico Harris from Oxford is one of my favorite people.  He wrote a book that was sitting in my living room called Letters to Bogue Eucaba.  When I finally sat down to write this batch of songs, I was looking at the book; I’d been reading it, so I just said, ‘I always write titles first,’ so I wrote ‘Letter to Chico’ and that kind of started bringing up things for me.    Chico introduced me to Joe Strummer (The Clash). Then I started bringing up this other friend ours, Charlie Jacobs, from The Tangents in Mississippi.  They were the band that actually brought me to the south for the first time, back in the mid ’80s.

I met Charlie Jacobs up in Wyoming, and those guys were one of the most badass bands I’d heard in my life. I was this hippie liberal kid and asked, ‘What kind of music do you guys play man, Cajun heroin music?’ Then he said ‘more like white-trash nigger music.’ I was just this Boulder, Colorado kid via Sandinista and that fuckin’ blew me away and totally taught me more about style, and unfortunately, for me and him, junkie chic and how to pull that ‘awe, man, you know’ shtick.

He just had this thing, and I looked up to him.  He died, ultimately, of a heroin overdose, after I started coming back down here.  So, he’s in the song, which is also a take on Eddie Hinton’s ‘Letters From Mississippi,” and so instead of ‘Letters From Mississippi’ it was ‘Letter to Chico.’  The whole song is kind of a Mississippi thing for me; it has always been one of my favorite states.  I’m actually really anxious to hear what Tom Speed (Honest Tune publisher) thinks of this song, because he knows these characters.

Elastic 

HT: Interesting. I am sure Tom will love it. Now, tell me about ‘Elastic.’

JJ: I was surprised that Steve picked that as the second song (for the record), but every so often I try to write these airy kind of love songs.  I keep trying to learn how to do it.  One of the best loved pop songs is ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,’ by the Police.  It’s super simple to sing along with.  I was in the dining room with my fiancé and I was actually getting engaged when I wrote that, it took about ten minutes. 

And, I’d always wanted to figure out how to get National Geographic in a song.  It’s a thing about her reading in National Geographic that there are 60,000 miles of vein in the human heart, or one of those things, and I was able to go rhyme it in the song. I was very pleased with myself.{mospagebreak}

Cochise 

HT: How about ‘Cochise?’ That is one of my favorites.

JJ:  That is one of the most personal things I’ve written, which could kind of spoil it too much for listeners. My parents were really crying when I played that for them.  This is one of those songs that was a title first.  Cochise was the Apache Warrior, one of the last fighters against the U.S. government.  Again, one of these controversial figures I write about – a brutal man, or a total hero.  I get these titles and it just gives me vehicle to write songs.  My friend Jason says people have to spend too much time in Wikipedia to figure what my songs are about.  It’s a very personal song about someone wishing he could measure up to a hero and not being able to do.

jerry1.jpgHT: Do you think you captured what you were going for in that one?

JJ: Yeah, I think it’s one of the best songs I ever wrote.  But, whenever I say that it’s usually people’s least favorite.

Broken 

HT: Next comes ‘Broken.’

JJ: We wrote ‘Broken’ pretty quickly.  It was the first song that Steve and I wrote together.  I was sitting at the piano, and he was sitting at the drums saying, ‘How do we do this?’ I said, ‘Like this, pick a chord and start.’ Steve’s fiancé is the keyboard player for The Decembrists, so there were some really cool keyboards we could fuck around with on our first songwriting session and that was a good excuse for me to use a fake David Bowie British accent.

HT: So, ‘Broken’ started with you writing on the piano.  Do you start most of your songs instrumentally, or do you have the lyrics first?

JJ: I start them at the same time.  I almost always have the title first.  With ‘Broken’ maybe I didn’t, I started that one (hums the refrain bars), and Steve started playing and the song just came out.

HT: So, you normally have the title and that gives you mental image to get started?

JJ:  Yeah, it gives me someplace to start.  And then a lot of times I just start playing the chords and humming…and it fills in.  I don’t know anybody that does it that way, but it’s always worked for me.  If I cannot think of a title, I start looking at books on my bookshelf.  A chapter title from somebody’s book could be a song title for me.

drizus1.jpgHT: Interesting, I could see where that could be a natural launching point.

JJ: And it’s good if you run out of ideas.  I know a lot of times, when I write with (Dave) Schools we don’t start off at that point because we’re starting fresh, and then you are looking for titles out of the song. I don’t like that as much, but I like those kind of strange titles and sometimes they don’t have anything to do with the song.

Ho Chi Minh 

HT: Let’s get back to the new album.  Tell me about ‘Ho Chi Minh,’ which has to be my favorite track.

JJ: "Ho Chi Minh" was the second song I wrote with Steve.  We started that riff and played around with it for awhile. Then Steve said, ‘What are you going to sing,’ and I told him to give me ten minutes. I went upstairs and just free formed that whole thing really fast.  There’s one kind of writing thing I do, ‘American Fork’ would be an example from the Stockholm Syndrome record, that when I’m on it, and I’m not concerned with a  particular story line, but more from imagery, I can usually nail it quick.  I just went upstairs with a notepad and wrote all those lyrics down and came back down.

HT:  Tell me a bit about the story behind that one.

JJ:  I just started with diseases and then it gets into John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban kid, then it’s ‘wrap your sex in body bags for Ho Chi Minh’…it’s pretty harsh.

I’m talking about a kid like John Walker Lindh, who learned to speak Arabic, and memorized the Koran before he got out of high school.  He moved to Yemen to study Islam, and found them not committed enough, so he went to Pakistan and hiked up into the mountains to fight for the Taliban against the Mujahideen. Then 9-11 breaks out he’s fighting in an f’n foxhole in Afghanistan.  If it wasn’t the enemy, that would be everything we hold dear in our teenagers – bravery and faith and standing up for your beliefs and being intelligent and educated. And there will be people who listen to this song and wonder what it’s all about.

Helena Bucket 

jerry6.jpgHT: Next comes Helena Bucket, a very clever tune.

JJ: That came from being in Helena, Montana, where I’ve played many times before. I kept asking if there was any band in town called The Buckets, and no one seemed to understand what I meant.  To me, if I were from Helena, I would think that Helena Buckets would be a freaking awesome name for a band.  I also wondered how could someone had missed that one – you could almost move there to have that band name, the Helena Buckets.

HT: So, like you said before, the song came from the title?

JJ: Totally, with no idea what it was going to be about.  I like singing the song, but ‘I have a dreadlocked old lady, a whip, and a 30-aught-6.’ I don’t what demographic I’m going for there, S&M, bear hunting, rastas – armed, social, environmental awareness.

Supper’s Ready 

HT: Supper’s Ready does an excellent job of showcasing your strong spiritual side.

JJ: It’s the oldest song on the record.  I wrote it a couple of years ago in Mexico, proving that you can be in a very bad place and write something uplifting.  It was kind of like a lost weekend in Mexico, I was by myself, at my brother’s house outside of Ensenada. I’ve always toyed with the idea of learning how to write gospel songs and this was my attempt to do that.  There was a big argument (in the studio) about the song and whether we should have recorded it like we did.  It would be cool in a big version with lots of instruments, and maybe we could re-record it like that, but I liked the idea of just doing it on the electric piano and drums.  But, the song’s so long, that we had (John) Neff come in and play pedal steel, which adds a nice touch.

It Comes In Waves 

HT: ’It Comes In Waves’ is another very beautiful song.

JJ:  That is another one that I wrote down in the dining room, and started with the title. It was the most difficult song we recorded.  We were trying to do at least two songs a day, and ‘It Comes In Waves’ didn’t happen anything remotely like that.  It bogged us down, and was frustrating, which is funny because now that I can listen to it (in full), the frustrating part is wearing off.

HT: What was it that made this one so challenging?

JJ:  Because we knew that it could be really great, and trying to figure out what was really pushing the envelope.  It’s certainly the most complex song on the record as far as takes and overdubs.  After we got through that, we got our groove going and we were able to nail them.  Like a lot of these songs; Steve was learning them there in the studio.   I’d play them for Steve and Barbe, then we’d run through it once and then we’d roll f’n tape.

I think that is why (the record) sounds fresh like it does, because we didn’t have time to over-think it.  I’d say, ‘Here’s the song’ and ask Barbe what he thought.  He would say, ‘Cut that verse or shorten this, maybe tighten it up here,’ and Steve would ask ‘What kind of beat do you think?’  We’d try one, and diddle around until we found something that sounded good, and then Barbe would go ‘Roll.’{mospagebreak}

Zombie Blues 

HT: The record closes with ‘Zombie Blues.’  I remember you stopping by my house on the way to the studio to record that one and then again the next afternoon

JJ:  Yeah, it was Lisa (Adams, Honest Tune copy editor) that said, ‘Wow, Jerry, you managed to offend everybody on this record – equally. Everybody gets the heat.’

Yet another one I wrote in the dining room.  We were having dinner with a friend of mine, and his Haitian wife, who maintains she grew up with Zombies, and that her uncle had eight Zombies. That is the magic she grew up with, and she believes in.  I don’t think she doesn’t believe in it, but she maintained that her uncle flies a ’69 Cadillac along the countryside, about 8 feet off the ground and never had to put gas in it because it flew.  And he was a Voodoo Priest.  Those people believe in that stuff to their core.

jerry7.jpg I said, ‘Well that certainly doesn’t exist,’ but she replied, ‘Go tell him that as the car is flying at 70 miles an hour just above the ground.’  I just turned that into a political song, because I just get so f’n pissed.   That’s why the song makes the point that it’s not the left, or the right, it’s just my genuine disgust in the American apathy to political stuff. 

And then the song took on a whole different meaning when I went to India (where Joseph spent a month traveling in Nepal, recharging after recording this record).  I wasn’t around Zombies, but I was around a lot of cremations.  I was watching lots of bodies burn and people die, and kept coming back.  The song made more sense to me after I came back from India.

HT: That is interesting that your own song would make more sense after the fact.

JJ: A lot of songs do that for me.  Some of the ones I wrote when I was young, I didn’t know what they were about until now.  There are Little Women songs that mean a lot more to me now, compared to when I was kid and I had no idea.  Songs like ‘Chainsaw City,’ I had no idea what that song was about.  It was just sort of freeform writing to a reggae groove and now it’s got all this different meaning to me now.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve gotten old enough to see that process happen.

HT: When we listened to the record together the day after you finished recording, and Lisa made that comment about you pissing off people on both sides, what was you initial reaction?

JJ: Well, that was the point.  I may be a dick, but hopefully I’m not naïve.  There’s always this argument that it’s better to have people hate you.  Love me or hate me, but don’t be indifferent.

HT: Now that the record is coming out, what do you see happening next?

JJ: I think it’s a good starting point for me and Steve to work together.  We started the duo thing, because we thought that would be a good way to accomplish more of our dreams, to play more in Europe.  I’ve lived in New Zealand, but I’ve never toured down there and the South Pacific.  I want to do more international stuff.  I want to be able to operate more like a little young band, and do more 7-inches, and free download singles. Working with Steve, that gives us a lot of freedom.  We can do this as a duo, or we can bring out ten other people. 

So, I don’t know what the future holds.  Not just with him, but with me.  We are trying to figure out what we want to do this summer.  Do we want to stick to our guns on this duo thing, and are we willing to get our asses kicked financially (to perform as a duo) because the money doubles if I have a bass player.  People don’t look at a duo as a rock band.  Am I willing to fight from scratch for a new band?

I was in Little Women for 10 years, and the Jackmormons for 10 years.  This tour that we are doing now, and it’s only for three weeks, it has been really crazy.  And, it is difficult for the audience, because it doesn’t have a built in thing to dance to.  When we nail it it does, but…

HT: Well, Steve can create that by himself.

JJ: Sure, but we see it on a lot of people’s faces.  There are people that are really into it, and there are people that are really not into it.  How much do you really want to weather that critical analysis is the question.  It means you’re doing something that’s not wallpaper, which is a good thing.

We will see what happens.  The record just came out, and I have no idea what’s going to happen to this thing, or whether people will like it or what kind of reviews it will get.  I’m too old to think this is going to be ‘the big one,’ because that’s unlikely.  But if it sells enough, we can do it again.

 

Whether The Denmark Veseys sells well or not, the record is sure to draw rave critical reviews.  Joseph is in top form throughout, his song writing and performing as strong as ever.  And, though unheralded, Steve Drizos is undeniably one of the most talented drummers in the world today; capable of creating complex, multi-layered rhythms that often sound like a man playing with at least four hands.  Together, these two ultra-talented musicians have created a duo that makes more music onstage than many 12-piece orchestras. 

While the children of Harlem may not know the story of the original Denmark Vesey, if there is any justice in the musical world, the latest incarnation of The Denmark Veseys will leave a lasting impression on listeners for decades to come.  If cream truly rises to the top, then this record is sure to rank amongst the year’s most heralded releases.

Studio photos by Brad Hodge / bradhodgephoto.com

Live photos by Josh Mintz / photosbyjosh.com

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