In May of 2003, I spoke with musician – and friend – Jason Webley at great length about his plans for the upcoming 2003 performing season and about his music in general. It was by far the most detailed conversation I’d ever had with him on the topic.
I’ve known Jason since sometime in 1999, around the time he released his first CD, Viaje. Just prior to that a bandmate had stumbled across a real audio format version of my favorite song from that album, “Halloween,” and I was intrigued. When the slightly crazy-seeming accordion busker at Seattle Center played the song, it was pretty interesting – something had emerged from the mists of the internet and become real for me for the first time I could recall.
I dropped a band business card in his instrument case and went on with my life. A couple of months later, that same bandmate excitedly told me in practice that he’d figured out who the “Halloween” song was by, and he was going to ask the musician to open for us. Apparently I’d forgotten to tell him about seeing Jason. Not that it mattered, as I hadn’t gotten any contact info. So, eventually, Jason opened for us at the now defunct Art Bar, and one thing led to another, and he asked about leads for a CD release party, and a few months later, we backed him on several songs at the elaborate show to celebrate the entrance of Against The Night into the world.
Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Jason. As is true for many who love his music, I was touched by the strong sense of personal, intimate communication in his music; it’s as though you’re listening to someone tell you about your own night thoughts, born in those desolate hours. It’s been interesting speaking with him as he’s been both gratified and surprised at the intensity of the personal reaction that his music can provoke, and in the course of our friendship I’ve seen him grow both as a person and as an artist.
Jason is never someone who will take the easy road, and this interview is no exception. I went to a matinee of a performance by Pastor Kaleb in Belltown, met Jason, and we proceeded to walk from the Rendevous, to Clever Dunnes on Capitol Hill for lunch, and from there up across Broadway to 12th Street, down 12th to Juvenile Hall, and back from there to the Convention Center, where I nearly fell asleep on a couch as Jason opened the heavy box he’d carried for the entire distance to reveal a manual typewriter, which he used to begin preparing handbills and flyers for his upcoming spring tour.
The consequence of the long walk for me was that as we neared the Convention center, our interaction became more of an aimless conversation than an interview. Additionally, the recording of the interview I have is somewhat hard to hear clearly in spots due to traffic noise or the noise of Jason’s jacket rubbing against the mic as we walk around. The whole thing took about four hours, about three of which I recorded.
Later in the week, I’ll run the transcripts of a much shorter telephone interview we conducted in early October.
MW: Side two, still at Clever Dunnes.
So the puppets, especially the big puppets, that you once told me were designed to be used in a puppet show that was given from an overpass over the freeway: I see relationships between those puppets, your interest in street theater and your analytic breakdown of instruction and response to the audience, to traditions of American and European political street theater like for example, the Bread and Puppet Theater. Is that something your consciously aware of as an influence?
JW: I know about Peter Schumann. I know about the Bread and Puppet Theater. I studied theater in school. I think that in general though, actually, my ideas that I have that come out of this now are actually more of a response against that information and what I learned in school.
Yeah the theatre world doesn’t excite me, so much.
I have a friend, that I was just talking to recently about Peter Schuman. He went to [some sort of gathering of radical puppeteers]. It’s funny to think about being like having a whole convention of radical puppeteers. And I guess Peter Schumann talked to them all and he was like ” what you guys are doing is boring.”
MW: It’d be like personification puppets for the street protests like we saw at WTO.
JW: Yah. All that stuff fits in a box. Like, once you’ve got it, people want to be able to see something and like put it in some kind of place. And it’s getting trickier and trickier in the world especially in the city. Because there’s now this whole place of like, “Oh that’s someone fucking with me, and trying to create something that doesn’t go in a place.” And then you’ve got that place you can put things.
But that was my idea with the freeway overpass thing. The idea isn’t to cause people to think right. The idea isn’t to cause people to have the right opinion about some problem. The idea is to trigger some kind of thing in the synapses that doesn’t normally happen like some sort of – some sort of stimulus that causes them in their car to have to, like, in some way deal with the fact that on a freeway overpass are ten giant vegetables smiling and happy standing on either side of the grim reaper.
Like, a giant grim reaper and the giant vegetables. That was my image, I thought that somehow that would really – Which is incidentally the first vegetable thing.
MW: Glad you mentioned it. That’s kind of the next thing – where did the vegetables come from?
JW: A vision from God. Build a giant grim reaper and vegetables. Put them next to each other on the freeway overpass with smiling faces. The winds were too high. That actual event was very brief.
But I still think it’s a great idea. If Peter Schumann or anyone else – any other radical puppeteers are reading this, you’re perfectly welcome to take these ideas. Send five dollars royalty for every hour you stay out on the freeway overpass to P.O. Box 95261, Seattle, Washington, 98145.
And take a picture, I’d like to see a picture.
And if you put a monkey by that, it’s a cheap trick. Don’t just throw in the monkey.
MW: Tell me about vegetables and vegetarian, uh, stuff.
JW: Vegetables have nothing to do with vegetarianism. And um, vegetables are great. Um, All plants are great. My nephews, uh, just the other day. They’re like five and three. I was askin’ them, where’d their food come from? They don’t know. No-one knows anymore. They’re gonna grow up in a world where we don’t really know where food comes from. I lived for twenty some odd years before ever really noticing that seasons happened. I mean, you’ve got this vague notion that seasons happen. Right now outside, the trees – the green’s just starting; and I swear I didn’t notice that at all. I knew about it intellectually, but when each year came, I didn’t see that. And I think most people don’t, I think that most people [inaudible]. . . Or like other things within that context of man made structures – in terms of man made systems of measurement, inches, hours. . .
Vegetables kinda defy all that. And I’m not a guy that keeps a garden. Hopefully some point in my life I will be settled enough that that’s the case. I do keep a garden of sorts and I’m more aware of it in that way. In that I take some of these things that are given to me and I undergo a certain process and it yields fruit. That fruit itself also contains within it the potential for progeny – the potential to give rise to another generation.
I see recording an album as being, as creating with any hope like each thing is full of seeds, that these are viable offspring – that these songs will go on to live completely separate lives from me.
MW: On first encountering your music, because of the repeated instances of the use of vegetable imagery, I think a lot of people immediately form the impression that somehow or other it’s a sort of vegetarian propaganda. I think tht you might share this impression. How do you feel about people having that initial reaction to your music?
JW: I might share that impression, that people see that?
MW: I mean, when I mentioned the vegetables, you jumped in with a specific statement that – so I’m curious.
JW: I’m not interested in being a vegetarian propagandist, at all. My love of vegetables – I eat lots of spaghetti and pasta, I just ate potatoes – I guess those are vegetables. But they sure don’t feel like vegetables when they are in the soup.
If you walk down the side of the road holding various things in your hands and smiling at people – a rock – or a stick – a or chicken. . . I guess maybe the monkeys – If I’d have thought a bit harder I’d have settled on monkeys.
[I recall Jason concluding that a vegetable would make people smile the most but the tape appears to have dropped out at that point. We’re interrupted to pay for lunch, chitchat before resuming – M.]
MW: So here’s a good one. Here’s one that you’ll hate the most.
JW: [pained] Tom Waits?
MW: Absolutely. The other thing that people immediately. . . I’ve heard it over and over again to the point that I’ve actually seen you wince when it comes up – people immediately draw a line or a comparison or a relationship between you and Tom Waits. You jump up and down and say “No! There’s nothing there!” You’ve really gotten agitated over it.
JW: [skeptically] When did you see me do this?
MW: The time that was the best was uh, someone was uh, oh God, what was it. . . [inaudible]. . . Tom Waits song or something. And you were just like, “NO!” . . .[inaudible]. . . Onstage or something. There was some honest emotion around how much you weren’t gonna do a Tom Waits song.
JW: I think it’s a wise decision to not even know how to play any of his songs. [laughs]
MW: First of all, how do you really feel about people drawing that connection? I mean are you irritated with it just because you hear it all the time, or are you bothered by it? I mean, I think most of the time when people make that connection, they’re actually – it’s a positive thing, you know?
JW: Yeah. Well, it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I mean uh – uh – I don’t know. For me, [sigh], like I say, you want to try to create something that people don’t immediately have the ability to throw into a category. And therefore in a lot of ways dismiss. And in a huge way I’ve failed at that, miserably. Because all that I am – I’m so quickly dismissable, and like a lot of, especially the stuff I do on the street – is characters that Tom Waits actually wrote.
I didn’t know this until I’d been doing this for a few years, but I guess Tom Waits at some point actually wrote a musical, um, Frank’s Wild Years –
JW: About an accordion player that’s out trying to do something like what I do.
MW: Did Tom Waits summon you in some strange way, without your being aware of it?
JW: I don’t know what this guy’s doing. [laughs]
MW: Have the comparisons caused you to deliberately avoid looking at his music?
JW: I don’t look at his music very much. I think he’s fine. I think he’s great. I think he sounds like Cookie Monster. Which really scares me. Do I sound like Cookie Monster?
C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me
The voice thing – I grew – I listened – um
MW: Good, that’s another thing I wanted to talk about. Who did you listen to growing up, and how have they influenced your playing and creativity?
JW: I loved the theme song to The Greatest American Hero. I thought that was the best song.
MW: You wanna sing a little bit of it for me?
Yeah, I could.
Um. [laughs self-consciously]
I was just singing it yesterday.
And um, I liked the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, immensely.
MW: This is when you were a little kid?
JW: Yeah, I was probably old enough to know better. I had really bad taste in music for the most part. And I think I probably still do – I don’t listen to much music.
I know enough – I’m aware of the areas in which my taste in music was bad. I was really fond of Billy Joel; I was really fond of the Monkees. So, that, as far as singer-songwriter guys go, Bill Joel is pretty bad. Like, that’s a pretty guilty, horrible thing. I mean, I didn’t know much better, but most people, given the Monkees or the Beatles, end up becoming Beatles fans. I’m one that at that age heard them and decided the Monkees were awesome.
MW: I have the impression, although I’ve never talked to you about it, that Michael Jackson was also important to you.
MW: The Thriller period?
JW: Uh, yeah. How, just, great, I thought he was. But. . .
MW: Did you have a jacket? [an eighties-style zippered leather jacket that appears in the video for Thriller, widely sold at the time]
JW: No, see, I had my own costume. It didn’t look anything like his. I had this tee shirt that had
Frankenstein Frankenstein on it. I performed Thriller in the school talent show. This sort of deals with the Tom Waits question.
I remember at first it was probably like the moment in my life that sealed the lust for performing. There were two shows. There was an evening show and a daytime show. And during the daytime show. . .
[We run into someone on the street who knows Jason and stop and chat at the corner of Broadway and Denny by the Kinko’s phone.]
. . . Oh yeah.
And so the daytime performance was just in front of my peers. I was in second or third grade, and I was just singing acapella, unaccompanied, tying to do my best to sing Thriller. And I had this. . .
MW: Is there a videotape?
JW: Noo. . . [sighing, pained]
JW: The um, so, the uh, days before video tape, outside of a very small. . . The early days of home video movies anyway.
What’s going on? Um, oh yeah.
So the daytime performance, I was in second or third grade, so there’s like fifth, sixth graders in the audience. And I went up and did my thing and it caused a lot of loooow murmur in the audience. A lot of like, “mmmmgggnnnrrr,” [grumbly groany sound] and a kind of lukewarm at best response.
At the end of the song I had this little plastic skull full of worms and things that I opened up and threw. Like little rubber worms and things. That I threw out, you know, off the stage. And that was that.
So, that night though, when it was the big one in front of the parents and the kids, When they announced my name, all the kids who had been there in the daytime show ran forward to be right up near the front of the stage, ’cause they wanted these little worms and things.
The parents, of course, were much more polite; they gave a huge ovation.
. . .
[aside] Someone wrote to me the other day, that they saw two carrots – [looped over a telephone wire on the street]
MW: Yeah, I saw that, I think it was on the list.
JW: Oh, was it on the email list? That makes me happy when people see these things and think of me.
MW: So these kids, and the parents gave you an ovation, and. . .
JW: Yeah, except that I was i-rate because of the way my name appeared in the program was “Jason Webley doing Michael Jackson impersonation.” Not “singing the song Thriller,” it was a Michael Jackon impersonation. And so somehow. . .
[street noise, mumbles]
MW: You’ve also told me you’re big fan of um, Crimpshrine, did I say that correctly?
MW: Aaron Cometbus‘ band in the late eighties/early nineties.
JW: Yeah. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that guy’s voice.
MW: No, actually, I haven’t.
JW: [sings, gravelly loud] Another day, another. . .
Yeah, I always thought I was ripping his voice off.
MW: So can you still get that stuff? [hard to hear]
JW: Yeah, I think they’ve got two CDs on Lookout!, compilations of all the stuff in various places. There’s several songs that you can’t find anywhere.
MW: Aaron’s one of the most sensitive subcultural writers period.
MW: Yeah, like in terms of his – when he writes about – how he writes about – [inaudible, but probably, albeit ineloquently, making the point that Aaron’s writing combines honest observation with utopian fervor, which gives it power and poetry.]
MW: Would you say that his writing style and maybe personal sort-of goal-setting [inaudible] has been some kind of influence or an inspiration to you?
JW: Well, that whole scene was really influential. Just the whole idea that you can do these things, and that they’re important.
M: [inaudible. Probably something like, “By scene, you mean Gilman Street?” Gilman Street is an all-ages Oakland performance space that was the foundation of the East Bay scene which produced Green Day as well as Crimpshrine. It opened in 1986. I still have my opening day membership card!]
JW: Yeah, and it makes me really happy that I can now go and perform there, at the Gilman Street Project, in a way growing up on music that came from there.
MW: Tell me how you felt after or during the first show that you played at Gilman Street.
JW: You know, I have a really good friend that I met through there. His name’s Brad, he has a twin brother, they bicycle all around the country, all around the word. They bicycled from Alaska down to Chile. I met him through there. I’d placed an ad looking for rare Crimpshrine records, and it just had my address in Mukilteo. And I got a phone call and it was this weird – my parents said – it’s funny I just talked to him last night for the first time in months – but he um you know my mother says “you got a phone call.” I answer the phone, and it’s like “Hi, I saw your ad in Maximum Rock’n’Roll,” and it’s really creepy ’cause I hadn’t put my phone number in there.
And he says, “I saw you lived in Mukilteo so I looked you up in the phone book, I’m in Everett.” And that’s where I met this person.
So we met through Maximum Rock’n’Roll and through these bands, and were friends over the years. He’d gone on this trip and I hadn’t seen him for almost four years, he’d been down south. I think it was the first time I played at Gilman.
[aside] I think that this is probably it. Alright, let’s de-rig me.
But anyway, I hadn’t seen him in about four years, and I’m playing the show at Gilman, and he came. He’d been bicycling back up from Chile, and had seen a flyer that I was playing there, and that was beautiful.
MW: Now, you told me that Aaron came to that show but you didn’t meet him, right?
JW: Someone once told me something like that, but I don’t know anything about it.
MW: And we’re at the police station at 12th and Pine.
JW: So you think we talked about um whatever we were talking about enough? Did you get enough Tom Waits?
MW: Lemme check my notes. So far though I’m getting a lot of the stuff that I was really curious about.
Part Two on Tuesday!