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Jesse Malin: Do You Really Want To Know

Oct 31, 2019

By Bella Carles

Words by Katherine Turman

Photos by Paul Storey

Grooming by Tanya Pacht Using Peter Thomas Roth

It’s a scorching summer afternoon in Manhattan’s East Village, but Jesse Malin is cool, in every sense of the word. The singer-songwriter is subject of a photoshoot in the stylish, windowed upstairs of a bar on the corner of Avenue A and Second Street. Malin’s attention to detail is unwavering, his dry humor always on point as gritty neighborhood denizens and sweaty tourists trudge by below, oblivious to one of the city’s most beloved musicians and club curators above them. Malin, in his trademark newsboy cap, pointy shoes, and an equally sharp suit, looks as timeless as his music is, as evinced on his eighth solo album, Sunset Kids, produced by beloved singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. 

Sunset Kids contains 14 heartfelt, reflective songs with such provocative titles as “Room 13,” “Do You Really Wanna Know” and “Friends in Florida. It kicks off with “Meet Me at the End of the World Again…” which starts out vocally akin to a countrified Lou Reed, before morphing into its full, warm, sonorous, Stonesy self. Highlights include the poptastic Replacements-like ditty “Chemical Hearts” and “Shane,” an homage to Pogues singer MacGowan, before Sunset Kids closes with a quietly reflective number, aptly titled “My Little Life.” Photoshoot successfully concluded, ALICE sat down with Malin at 2A to discuss life, death, and music. 

You’ve been doing this sort of thing, prepping for a new album release, the photos, the interviews; this same ritual, for decades. Do you care more these days? Less? What’s the difference?

JESSE MALIN: We started doing this first in a basement in, in Douglaston, Queens, with my guitar player, Jack Flanagan from The Mob. We were a band called Heart Attack and the way it went in those days was like, you have the drum set, you’re the drummer; you have a basement, you’re the manager, whoever ever had a camera… I remember doing fliers for a gig at CB’s and getting all excited and seeing the stuff develop. I think there’s, there’s some kind of magic—just like making a record. You go in and everybody is an artist. Whether it’s an engineer or a photographer, if they do it right, they’re going to give you their little magic dust, their perspective on who you are and what you do. So I embrace seeing that. Sometimes it’s a bum-out. Sometimes it’s like, ‘wow, you guys have something extra. I see why you get paid the big bucks.’

I know you’ve worked with musicians as producers, Ryan Adams, and of course this time Lucinda Williams, who I love, along with Tom Overby. Tell me about the very first time you met her.

We met at the Blue Note in the West Village, a jazz club, at a Charlie Watts gig. I had been a fan of hers because I had bought a Steve Earle record. I was really looking for other things to kind of get me excited about writing songs again. We were touring in D Generation and playing with all these great bands, Offspring and Green Day, and the shows were really good and I felt like our band was good. But nobody really seemed to pay attention to the lyrics we wrote. I was always into stories, since I was a little kid listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John and Jim Croce and Bob Dylan and Don McLean, “American Pie.” I always focused in on the stories. Even Chuck Berry has that. So punk was perfect for that because in a way it’s a folk music with Marshall stacks and leather jackets.

 But it’s still like a message the people from the street and in some ways, with a sense of humor, hopefully. So I started to listen to other records and I went back to some Springsteen and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. Neil Young; things I have liked, but I kept in the closet.  

Because? 

Because it wasn’t cool to like that stuff. Even Billy Joel. To this day, I still get crap for that. I’ve always liked songs as much as I like the energy of a loud groove. So I heard this voice pop out of the track on the Steve Earle record. It was the last song on the album. I was like, ‘wow!’ At the time I was talking to Joey Ramone. He was sober and jacked up on coffee in the mornings. He’d wake up a lot earlier than me and leave messages on the old answering machine. He said, ‘what are you listening to?’ And we tell each other. I said, ‘I heard this woman, Lucinda Williams, on the Steve Earle record.’  He says, ‘I know her.’ I was like, ‘What?!’ He’d done a writer’s circle in the round with the Bottom Line, this club in New York. I bought [the Lucinda albums] Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and a bunch of her records. I went to the Wiltern Theater in LA to see her. I was just blown away that this was what people were saying was roots or Americana or country and how much swagger she had, and the stories she told between songs and how really it was just dirty rock ‘n’ roll, honest, with great pictures being painted in this very unique voice.

But you hadn’t connected personally yet at that time? 

When I met her, I guess it would be five or six years later. I was just happy to meet her as a fan and she was this nice person. But I noticed that she really had this sweetness about her and a real humanity and vulnerability and kind of a great smile for everyone. So we stayed in touch and we would hang out when I was in LA or when she was in New York and we had many fun nights dancing and drinking and listening to records in corner bars, and we went to each other’s shows.

In the back of my mind, me and my new manager, Michael had a very short list of who could produce this record. I just threw Lucinda out there and he liked the idea. I said, ‘well, coincidentally, she just invited me to come see her open up for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in LA.’ We went out there and she played an hour. It was a beautiful, beautiful night under the stars in LA, the Hollywood Bowl, the last night of the Heart breakers-Petty tour. It was the best time I’d ever seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It was like a whole crazy level.  

We went out for dinner with Lucinda the next night and talked about producing my record and she seemed pretty interested. Then a week later Tom passed and that was such a shock. Then the Vegas shootings. So things kind of stopped for a minute. Then we regrouped and ended up doing a little test around Christmas time. I said ‘I’d love to work through the holidays. I don’t do a holiday family thing.’ She said, ‘I love it too. It stops the blues.’ So I went out and we did a Christmas week in Los Angeles and it seemed to click. First I went to her apartment with an acoustic guitar and sat at her kitchen table and I showed her some songs. I was pretty nervous because I’m a fan. She’s a friend, but she’s also one of my favorite singers and writers, and her father was a poet and a writer. She’s really acclaimed by the best of the best.  

So you really did a lot of pre-production and writing work together? 

I was excited and I sometimes come in with a lot more verses than I need. I had like five or six verses to a song and I said, ‘I like them all, they’re like my children.’ She was like, ‘no, these are the three.’ I was like, ‘you’re the lyric doctor. I got to see the lyric doctor!’ But it also makes you want to do your best when you know you’re working in front of somebody… I think that’s why as an artist if you know there’s an audience, there’s somebody listening, you do stuff knowing ‘wow,  somebody’s going to hear this.’ I can imagine writing just for myself thinking, no one’s ever going to hear this, but I’m probably more narcissistic than that. I need to know that there’s someone at the end of the line, you know?

I know that the dedication on Sunset Kids is to everyone who’s passed away in your life recently. 

We had a crazy year where the record started a couple of days after Tom Petty passing. I did not know him, but I wrote a song ‘Shining Down’ that was kind of inspired by his music. It’s about my life, but I was visiting my dad in Florida, who was in his final stages of life, though I didn’t realize it at the time; you deny it. You think he’s going to jump out of bed and start doing Fred Astaire moves. He was young; early seventies. But Todd Youth, who played with me, he passed, and then David Bianca, our west coast engineer, passed in the middle of making my record. When you’re making records, you’re sitting with somebody for 12 hours. You know every breath they take, when they go to the bathroom, when they eat. It’s very intimate and personal. Then I go home and I got a call from Lu’s husband Tom who said Dave had passed, and there were no signs of that [coming].  

Then I was walking one day and I saw a sign that says ‘Sunset Kids.’ I said, ‘it kind of fits a little bit of the sentiment even though the record is really about continuing in life.’ It’s just more about carrying the spirit of those people that touch our lives.

When I listen to a song, if it’s written first person, I tend to think it’s about the writer. You have lyrics “I used to be somebody, I used to be someone,” in “Meet Me At the End of the World Again.” Should we presume that is you or does that have a wider meaning? 

I think I felt that way. It felt like everything was kind of washed up. I’ve been lucky in my life to have a lot of opportunities to make records. As a hardcore kid with Heart Attack, and then get a record deal with D Generation, get dropped and get another record deal with them. When the D Generation thing was over it was ‘oh, I just want to kind of reinvent.’ 

So I’ve been myself now for about eight records. There were four years in between Sunset Kids and [2015’s] Outsiders and it was just like a tough time. The whole music business is in a different place, and you wonder, ‘Yeah, I have a following and I could go anywhere.’ But at a certain level, is it half empty or half full? That song opens up, I’m walking up on 24th Street and looking at a life; it was the tearing down this building of Giorgio Gomelsky, who was a producer of the Yardbirds and a manager of the Stones.

 He was an old Russian guy who let us rehearse at his house and store our gear there and throw parties, which were called the Green Door party, which would eventually become [the club] Coney Island High. And that’s why I like to have this Frank Sinatra rock ‘n’ roll bar fantasy business in my life where I have a couple of saloons, which just came out of throwing events in this guy’s house.  

I was just walking down the street thinking this the world that used to be. People say, ‘New York is so gentrified. How do you live there?’ I’m like, ‘I’m fucking in the world. I go, I travel, I see. You gotta find the pockets and hopefully, there are some good people there to keep things alive. But the whole world is like Chortle and Starbucks and the same five chains, where it used to be you went on tour and you went to different towns and it was ‘this place you can buy brass knuckles, switchblades in this place.’ Or, ‘here’s where you get those funny hopscotches that your aunt likes.’

So you mentioned that growing up you like reading. Do you have any favorite writers, and do writers or poets and influence you now at all? 

I think you need to have input to have output. You need to always take stuff in. I mean, as a kid I liked JD Salinger and Ken Kelsey; people who kinda came up from the Fifties and Sixties on. I didn’t have the energy to sit down in school like in, at a younger age. But music—Joe Strummer, or Jello Biafra and Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, I think a lot of bands were, we’re educational. I think any rock song, even simple ones that aren’t so social-political ones, they say, ‘hey, there’s a place, there are other things. You’re not alone. It’s okay to feel this way.’ If somebody is singing about some street or place downtown, you want to go. The subway trains got us out and I came down here. We’re from a time where people back in Queens and those places, it wasn’t acceptable to be into something different. You got beat up and so you had to come find your tribe. 

Yes, your lyrics do that as well. 

I was always one that wanted to follow the lyrics. Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce are influences. Filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Sidney Lumet and Scorsese and Woody Allen and Coppola and  Jim Jarmusch. Things that create a slice of life that have a sense of humor, but also really paint a picture of where you’re from. As much as I don’t want to be from New York and Queens, some days it’s kind of, you know, I’m here.

 If everybody went around the room and looked at IDs in a bar one night I’d probably be me and the bouncer might be other people that have a New York driver’s license. But it’s who I am. And I have to cop to that, and I think this record is a lot about owning things. Like in the past, things might’ve been painful and you might’ve wanted to write about trying to break away or run from things. I think in this record, even though there’s a lot of movement in the characters, I think it’s about some of the dysfunctions and characteristics that you grow older with; just accepting them and owning who you are. The Fine Art of Self Destruction, my first solo record, was more about glorifying the wreckage and breaking things; breaking up bands and breaking up relationships.

I come from a broken home. All my friends came from these divorces in the ‘70s and all we knew was endings and running away, and that fear channels really well into a loud song. But now I think this is more embracing of who you are; accepting it and finding some way to stand taller with it instead of trying to find ways to hide behind things.

On Sunset Kids you have both Lucinda and Billie Joe from Green Day. I feel like you’re the only person who’s had them together on a record. Were you all together for any of the recording?

  There was a song I’d written with Billie Joe that we were going to use it for a side project called Rodeo Queens. But Lucinda and her husband heard the song ‘Strangers and Thieves’ and they said, ‘you got to keep it for this record.’ I asked Billie and he was fine with it. It was a song that was written after we walked around. I showed him on a Sunday afternoon, a lot of the old haunts and we went by where things were, and then he went back to the Bay Area and sent the lyrics like ‘boom’ in a text. Just one scroll on it. He kept the line or two I have; but it was his whole thing and it kind of matched my childhood and it kind of fit a little bit with Todd Youth, who we lost. It just really seemed to fit the Sunset Kids song list. Lu and Billie were fans of each other for sure. We’d been working in LA and    Lucinda and I took off one night and went out and saw Billie in [his band] the Longshot. They were just great together. I mean we’re all three Aquariuses if you believe in the stars and horoscopes. They were hanging, they just had like this great, great time. It was just good to connect. You know when you have friends, somebody who you really like, you want your other friends to meet them, and it’s nice if they get along. The song seemed to fit this record even though it’s more of a rocking kind of number.

But you know, when you play live, as much as I love the slow, sad-bastard songs, I also like stuff that’s very physical. You know, you get on stage and sometimes the old kid in me comes back. I need to jump around a little bit.  

DGen was definitively a rock band, how many of those fans came with you on your slightly quieter solo journey?   

Some of them have definitely over the years, and that’s nice. Some don’t get it. And you know, think I’m just some folker or whatever. With this band that I’ve had for a bunch of years, we still dig in, we pull stuff out. Like the flip side of ‘Strangers and Thieves’ is a Lords of the New Church cover. We’ve played Dead Boys songs. To me it all seems to fit. It makes sense. 

To me, too. 

But It took a while to meld, to mix both those worlds. ‘Cause when I started I had to go down to a whisper and really make it acoustic to really get people’s attention and really be different. But as each record’s gone on, it’s been records that have probably rocked maybe more than I would’ve expected, looking back. I’m conscious of tempos and people say you shouldn’t be. But I’m always aware that I want to go play these things live, and that there is a certain place where the quiet songs work and some of those are not at festivals outdoors or in big rooms. Like sometimes you need to hit people over the head with a broomstick. And so when writing a setlist and putting a tour together, there is a way to have the ballads, but also have a place where I can jump off the drums and still have that feeling of holding the mic stand and just sweating out the poison. But it took a while to figure out how that music would fit in and not sound like we were just totally switching gears or like we’re like a weird mixtape or a Lenny Kravitz record.

When you began in music, as a pre-teen, what did your family think? And I also wanted to ask, with the passing of your dad; was he proud of you? 

He kept wanting to hear this new record and I kept saying, ‘wait till it’s done cause you’ve been very critical.’ When I was in D Generation, we were headlining CBGBs for like three, four nights and selling out, he was like ‘okay, cut your hair and start working at the post office. I’ll come see you when you play the Garden.’ Then we play Madison Square Garden, opening for KISS. He knew KISS was my childhood favorite. Our families are very excited, even back then in the ‘90s, that they had better seats than Donald Trump. They were looking back, smiling, which is funny to look at now and think of all that. But my dad came to that show. He was proud. He was a Lucinda Williams fan and he was waiting to hear this record.

 So when he passed I had to go down to Florida and clean up everything in his apartment and I had to return his leased car. So when I was heading to the car rental leasing place, I thought, ‘I haven’t heard my record in a car.’ Car test! I put it on and played it in his car just days after he passed. I played the whole record. But yeah, he was really anxious to hear this one and I was, I was a jerk ‘cause I’m saying ‘wait til it’s done. No rough mixes.’ He would say. When I was into punk and I’d have brothel creeper shoes, he’d go, ‘Rain Man, get those Mother Goose shoes off.’

And I’m like, ‘Dad, your boy Elvis wore them.’ Or,  you know, when I was on TV, he’d go, ‘I saw you on Jay Leno says you’re doing weird hand signals. You’re very unprofessional.’

Wow. That’s very rough. 

He was a tough, quiet guy from the Bronx who probably wasn’t as happy as he should have been in this life. Me, I’m not that quiet, and hey, I’m not that tough. But you know, we got to know each other in later years. I think he would like this record. When I cleared out his house, I saw a lot of Lucinda Williams records. Some Bryan Adams, all that Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger stuff. 

So, with Giorgio, your dad,  and friends dying—when something like that happens, are you immediately feeling creative or do you have to process it? 

Sometimes you walk around with it for a while until you’re ready and it pours out. I’ve had a weird relationship with people’s spirits and death and stuff. I’m not some kind of mystical, religious person. But my mom passed when I was pretty young and I’ve written some songs about that. I just think there’s an energy in people who come in and out of your lives and they leave you with these things. A song like ‘Shining Down’ or a lot of these, the idea is to just carry that energy, and life is for the living. You’ve got to appreciate living in every moment and that’s hard to do. We’re looking forward to the tour or the weekend or the paycheck, but sometimes to step back and go, ‘you know, it’s all right.’  Enjoy like being on the road and not the destination. And it’s hard to remind yourself that. 

I get excited. I wake up every day not knowing what’s going to happen still. I do the pushups. I get a couple of green drinks in me and you don’t know where, how, things are going in your life and you put out energy all the time and a lot of days suck. But then sometimes things just shoot back at you when you need them. I think the music community and the people who are a little bit outside of society, but listen to their heartbeat and the rhythm of that… maybe we’re outcasts or whatever we are. But I think we take care of each other in a weird way. That’s happened since I was a hardcore kid when we slept on people’s floors—from Bad Brains lending us their equipment to the guys at Maximum Rock N Roll in California letting us tape all their records and put them in cassettes and sleep on their couches… just finding ways. I think that the beauty of getting a band together or a crew is like putting a pirate ship together. You go on the road with these people you love and sing these songs and get free beer, you know? Your van or bus, you go from town to town and someone doesn’t say ‘go back to your room and turn it down and shut up.’

To do this every night is a gift and I appreciate that and I still get excited to go out and play, and I still get nervous, and that makes me feel like I’m alive. Like asking how some beautiful girl out or getting on the Cyclone roller coaster. There are some things that are like, ‘wow, this scares the hell outta me.’ But it also lets me know that, all right, I’m here. Blood is flowing.

Find this interview and more in our fall issue out now in Newstands and Barnes & Noble near you!

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