JT: I haven’t asked that much about the music part of the music, only because I really lack the technical vocabulary to do it, I’m a non-musician, but I wonder if you can relate those same ideas in terms of the music. You write all the music, and you play the guitar – do you play other things?
JM: The easiest way to describe it is that I write the skeleton of the song, and that means I basically write the chord progression, and usually come up with the arrangement, I say ‘Well, I think I’d rather have piano or maybe I would like to have bass on this part.’ That’s a very general part of the songwriting that usually comes after the song is basically written, the lyrics are there and they’re solid.
I get in the studio with the band, and let them figure out whatever parts they’d like to play. Maybe Pete the bass player wants to play drums on this song, that’s completely fine – we try that out, and once we get the handle on the basic structure of the song, I kind of throw in the melody. I try to figure it out on the fly.
JT: My own experience of your music, as a fan, seems so defined by this kind of intimacy that almost borders on obsession—maybe “immersion” is a better word. Whether it’s when a new record comes out, or some particular song from the back-catalog that happens to catch my ear, it’ll be this one thing that totally arrests the attention, and you—meaning I—just want to live inside the emotional space of the music, wander its terrain, occupy it, in some sense.
JM: You’ve really hit a nerve there. that’s something that I don’t usually consciously think about, but when I think of a good song I want the band to be able to come into the space of that song and then I hope that the people who listen to it later on after it’s recorded and it’s on the tape, I hope that they can come into it. If you think of the rebus, and then you think of a séance – well, the band are the people at the table of the séance, and we’re sitting there and the song has already left me by the time I get into the room with the people who are going to be playing on the track. I just want to see what this song is going to manifest itself as, if I can be a little bit surreal, but that is something serious. You should leave space in your songs. If I can be off the record for a moment, I’ve been going back and listening to a ton of Hendrix stuff, it was because I saw this photo of him, you know because he was in London for awhile, part of the legend is he came over here and brought a parrot, or a parakeet, a tropical bird, and that was when he was living on Carnaby Street here in London, and putting this band together and kicking ass because he wasn’t doing so good in America, and he let those birds free. So they have bread all over London, and I get them on the wall in the back of my house. These tropical birds that supposedly were introduced by Hendrix, and I was mesmerized by that. This is just folklore, this could probably be stupid, but it’s not like they have snakes here in London, but there is truth to the fact that he had these birds and he did let them out and now they have bread and they’re all over. I went and started studying Hendrix’s lyrics, you know obviously the guitar is amazing, showmanship – you can’t beat it, I don’t think anybody could beat it, but the lyrics are fantastic. When the mountains tumble to the sea. I was like that is so obvious, but then he says eventually (laughs). I saw this photo of him in this gallery; I was just outside the window waiting for my wife to get off work. It was the person who took all the photos of, all the famous Hendrix photos, like, have you ever seen the nude, the one with all the, 15 chicks, all naked, laying all around him? This person has the gallery, or someone who represents him, and this photo of him, and it’s Hendrix and he looks totally cool and whatever, but he’s got a little duffel bag, and it’s kind of unlatched, and inside I can see the spine of Bob Dylan’s songbook, and I was like ‘holy crap, this fucking genie out of the bottle’. He somehow managed to find this songbook, and I bet that’s when he learned ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ He probably heard it on the radio and then said ‘I need to learn this song’. And I was like, it just set me on a path, all the gospel music I was studying, I study like the sacred harp, old white and black spirituals, and I was like, Hendrix was on that path, and I think the guitar was secondary to him, I believe that he really really put his heart into the lyrics, but just happened to be just this warrior of the guitar, I thought it was beautiful. Okay, we’re back on the record.
JT: I would love to talk to you actually about gospel and devotional music. I started thinking about it when you mentioned the séance earlier. It seems to me that there is a strong strain of the devotional or the spiritual all throughout your music, but it is outside any particular religious system that we would know and it seems to me that it really goes all the way back to the beginning with Nor Cease Thou, Never Now. That’s another reference of yours I didn’t know, but figured out it was a reference and looked it up You can tell me where you got it from, but I traced it back to the “Cuckoo Song”, the middle English song celebrating the coming of spring, which seems to have that, you know, not theology but spirituality, in this case pagan…
JM: I associate any kind of music with a deep deep reverence. You will find me in many many churches in the middle of the week just sitting there, and I’m just listening to the music, and if they have a hymnal I’m reading it, otherwise I’m just listening to it. I much prefer that to putting on a record. I find myself just going to where there is this live music, if it is devotional, I don’t have to be devoted to whatever they’re saying.
JT: Let me ask you this: much earlier when we were talking about recurring images and ideas and the building of the rebus, I left one thing out from of list I suggested, which is the ghost, which is probably the biggest, at least in my mind, from going back through your whole catalogue. So I guess my question is: is the ghost as concrete as say, the mule and the mine?
JM: Yes, I see them, talk to them, completely am surrounded by them. I have been in a bed surrounded by these figures just walking around in circles and circles and circles and circles, and I was never afraid. But, for sure, I believe in the chance that some people can see spirits, I believe that spirits would be anywhere, but some people can see them, maybe some people can’t. There is no denying it for me. You can stand in a room – I can remember when I was really really young, my brother saying that I was, like the bed was levitating, shaking and on I was on it. I was just shaking and shaking and shaking. We shared a room by the way—
JT: Older brother or younger?
JM: He’s a little younger than I am. So the next day, he told me, and he didn’t know about ghosts or spirits, or whatever you may call them – a ghost is just a generic word, but he told me what he saw. I had no memory of it, no idea of what had happened. So yeah, I have some history with actual ghosts.
My grandma—who is still kicking, God bless her soul—used to make fucking ammunitions for the army during the war. She has been reluctant to tell me about my grandpa, but he was very superstitious. He put things all around the house. And when I learned this it freaked me out, because I have lanterns, acorns, little holly beads, a piece of silver, an ancient coin, a bell. I collect all of these things and place them around my house. My family just went apeshit over that. They’re like, “how do you know to do this stuff?” You know, garlic in the one place and rosemary in the north corner—I didn’t read a book about that, and I certainly didn’t go on the Internet. I just did those things naturally. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’ve been attracted to all these things over the years, where most people who have spent their life playing music will have rock n’ roll posters, someone sent me antlers, someone sent me keys, someone has sent me vases. It’s all protection spells.
When it comes straight down to any gospel references I do go pretty deep into American gospel because I studied the blues so much, and then I get stuff out of blues song, and I really want to know what they’re really getting at, and it always goes back to straight Baptist bible stuff, but it’s interpreted through an African style, and it is amazing to see that they could take a passage and every single word could be reinterpreted in a way that they would encode. When it says John, that might not mean John – John might be the strongest one, you know? I’m just mesmerized. And I’m not really a student; I don’t have the time to be a student of that, but I certainly have seen it. By the way, I have these Spanish-Jewish songbooks and these Russian-Jewish songbooks and I use them to practice but I can’t read a fucking goddamn word of any of them. But the songs are great and they sound real sad. So okay, I know I took you on a tangent there—what else you got?
JT: One other thing that I was interested in talking about, and there’s not a great segue here, but it’s kind of connected or at least it could be, is cover songs. You haven’t released a ton of cover songs, I have your two Zevon covers (“Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money”), and there’s that great shout out to Neil Young at the end of “The Big Beast” on Trials and Errors—
JM: And Townes Van Zandt and Tammy Wynette, and that’s it.
JT: And that’s it?
JM: Yep, as far as I know
JT: Well, you would probably know.
JM: I think covers are important; I’ve seen it in its maximum power during the Johnny Cash American Recording sessions. You might notice that my songs did not get covered by Cash, or maybe one did but it’s not been released.
JT: Do you know which song he was thinking of, or if there was one in particular?
JM: Yeah, but I think that Willie [Nelson] took it. Then I did that “Song for Willie”… One of my band mates, Daniel McAdams, did the cover art for the new Willie Nelson record. He’s a brilliant silkscreen artist, he did the first Songs:Ohia record, he played bass with me for years, we shared a place together, so I said, “well, look I did this ‘Song for Willie,’ can you give him this fucking record?” and he did, so at least Willie has that in his hands. “Song for Willie” is, I think, the best song I ever wrote. Ever. And whether or not he ever hears it, it doesn’t matter.
JT: I’ll have to go back and listen to that song again. I was listening to it this morning. I mean I like that song a lot, but—well, I don’t want to sit here and have a fight with you about which of your own songs is the best, but I guess if I was putting a list together, “Farewell Transmission” would be a really strong contender for me. Also “It’s Made Me Cry”, with that one riff. I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve listened to that song, which is actually hard to “get lost” in in the way I was describing before, because it’s so short. You have to just put it on again and—
JM: (hums riff)
JT: – Yeah, exactly.
JM: Well, when it comes to that song, and some others like the “The Lioness” and “The Black Crow,” I get a feeling that those are longtime fans hits. But I don’t like playing them. I already lived those moments.
“Farewell Transmission” must be one of the most heroic recording moments of all time, because I called in people that were not already scheduled to be in the band and I was like, “Oh, now we’re going to have a violin player, and we’re going to have an extra singer.” I called out all of these things, much like a conductor does – and trust me, I’m not a conductor. I’m the break man. I will not fuck you up if I am the break man, I just don’t want to move anymore.
We put, I think, about 12 people in a room and recorded that song live, completely live, and unrehearsed. I showed ‘em the chord progression, they had no idea when it would end, and we just cut it.
Steve [Albini] did a beautiful job. I noticed that at one point when it was a little too loud or a little too soft he came and opened a door to make it work, because it was just an ambient recording. When you hear that song kick off everybody knows it, and what’s so disturbing to me is the way that I ended it is I was dictating to the band and Steve—I go “Listen. Listen. Listen.” And then at one point they all stop. It’s great.
JT: I can’t even believe that was done live and improvised. That is absolutely stunning.
JM: I got all my favorite friends from Chicago, and my favorite, good musicians and we just did this record, and it has lasted. It’s got weight, I’m talking 500 pound weight; something you ain’t going to be able to lift too easy. You have to understand we’re working on a string, and Steve is throwing us a bone, giving us the studio and everything, and we are terrified about how expensive it is and he just went the extra mile. That’s the way it works and that’s where I come from. You get the job fucking done.