This is the third of four initial parts of a long Jason Webley interview conducted by Mike Whybark in spring, 2003.
The first part mostly discussed Jason’s plans for the upcoming July 20 Monsters of Accordion show and tour; the second followed that up and veered into some technical minutia about microphones. In this section, we examine busking for a moment or two.
M: [eating] Pretty good chow.
J: So are you going to ask me any more questions?
M: Yeah, definitely.
J: Or did I not answer some questions?
M: No, you’ve been pretty good, actually. I mean I kind of had to chase you around the table on that one, but…
J: That wasn’t one of your questions. I mean that you have written down. That was me stupidly going off into giving you information that I didn’t want you to ask me about.
M: Part of the joy of the interview. So some of the stuff is gonna be, like, you know, you already know it; part of the reason is to get it in the context of the interview. So how old are you?
J: You know, I don’t think that appears in print anywhere. [pause]
M: So how old are you?
J: Uh. Twenty… well, actually, I haven’t even been born yet. Incredibly young.
[ed. Jason is probably referring to the fact that his annual birthday show has yet to occur at the time we were talking.]
M: Incredibly young. So how old were you when you actually, uh, embarked on the uh,
J: [interrupting] Ninety-eight.
[ed. Understood to mean 1998, at the time, by Mike.]
M: That was right after – not right after, but shortly after you’d finished college at UW, is that correct?
J: That was after – at some point after I had finished college. [pause] More than a year.
M: Did you play out in Red Square while you were attending college?
J: [vehemently] Never. Never. Never would have even remotely dreamed of doing that. [Laughs]
M: I think you were living in Wallingford – convenient to campus after you were done with school for a while. Is that when you started busking on the Ave, regular, like Red Square and the Ave and stuff?
J: Yeah yeah yeah. That was the first – it’s funny, I think in a lot of people’s brains, a lot of people remember that as this being this huge period of time. But for me it feels like it was really brief.
I came back, I traveled that summer after I had put out Viaje a bit. And then I got back. I slo-o-owly got up the courage to go out on the street and play. I think I played for an hour or so at Bumbershoot that year. I remember going to class – to University of Washington class – to the first day of classes. Playing in Red Square. That was the first time. And it went horribly.
I remember playing in front of the U Bookstore and it going horribly.
I remember though at some point that winter – I’d go out and I’d occasionally and take a stab at it. Playing – I played like one song, and I think I sold like five CDs. They were five dollars each And I played one song and made like twenty-five dollars. And it was this sort of revolutionary, like “wow”, you could actually make a living doing this.
Seemed pretty incredible at the time. Now it’s just [inaudible].
But that was pretty much all that year. But since then I’ve really only played, as far as street performing goes, I’ve really only done Bumbershoot and Folklife. I don’t think I’ve been down to the Pike Place Market, since back then except for maybe like you know one time.
M: So how like long a period of time was busking sort of like your primary venue for what you were doing with music? Eighteen months, a year. . .
J: About a year. I guess from when Viaje came out until… well it depends, I did busking after that but it was at festivals, which feels really different. That next summer was when I did Folklife and then I went on tour and I did all the Canadian fringe theater festivals. Then I recorded Against the Night, then that winter went to Australia and did this other festival there, and then I came back and did the Canadian fringe festivals again…
And so I guess I occasionally show up – like at the UW campus is the one I’ve occasionally done since – I don’t think I did it last year at all.
M: I guess the reason I’m curious about that busking stuff, is because of the way that like audience – inclusion and guidance, I guess – is such an important part of your performance style. I mean I always just assumed that you sort of learned those performance tactics as a means of – I don’t know – improving the ambience of the street performance.
Obviously that’s a really tough school. You have a real clear metering system in place for how well you’re doing. I mean either they’re putting money into the case and listening to what you’re doing or they’re not.
J: Mmmh… Well, the better measure is whether they’re actually engaging and having fun. The money, well, that’s kind of irrelevant. I mean it depends on what kind of street performing you’re doing, what your game is. I mean I judge everything by like, “will something extraordinary happen?”
I mean, not judge, but, I’m trying to create environments for something extraordinary to happen, regardless of where I am. And I still do street-performance-like situations, like at festivals and stuff.
But I’m not likely to just go blindly out on the Ave hoping for a miracle anymore.
I don’t know – they feel really different to me, the two different things and I guess that things carry over from one to the other. I don’t have a lot of flexibility on the street. I developed certain tricks that I developed over that first year and a half and they got to a certain point and they are just there. That’s how they are. New ideas come really slowly.
Whereas in a theater situation, I can have a whole show that feels to me like a lot of new ideas, you know, several hours of new ideas, a couple times a year.
The street performing doesn’t feel like it evolves much. That used to always annoy me about street performers – watching friends that were street performers, you know, they had their banter, they’d do their thing like twenty times a day, and be word for word verbatim exactly the same…
It used to really annoy me. I used to really dread that, and not want that to happen to me. And it’s happened as far as street performing. I’ve got my thing that works, even though for years I’d try to always shake it up, do different things.
Now when I do that, I’ve got this very concise thing – basically only three songs – I play ’em over and over and over again. Because it works. It’s sort of a framework that can, sometimes cause something extraordinary to happen.
M: Which three songs?
J: Old Man Time, Last Song, Drinking Song, and sometimes that damn Aardvark thing.