11 Questions with Jesse Sykes- By Gary Heffren (repost from another blog)
Monday, October 17, 2016
Last August I sent out questionnaire’s to many of my musical and artists friends they all had the same 11 Questions. so thus the name of the column. I will publish one a week for you all. I got some tremendous response from a wide variety of people including Keith Morris, Lira Roessler, Lou Skum, John Dowd, and Mike Watt among many others. I want to start with my dear old friend jesse sykes . I love this woman to death. Her and Philip Wandscher have been making some of the greatest music of the last 10 years. so ... here we go. her depth of honesty in this is beautiful and horrific. Here' one for Tim Mays and Lucina Go, and many of you saw her with the Loons, old friend of mine, and another who thinks out of the box, and is a true visionary... and i love her Miss jesse sykes:
1. Would you name all the bands you have played in, and if you can remember approximately what years, and any recordings?
Children of the Future, Merkin, The Administration (1982-84), Made Of Wood (1992-1994), Hominy(1995-97). All of the 80's were just high school bands...no records. The 90's can be forgotten as well (one cd made with Hominy)…. Sang and co-wrote a song on "ALTAR" a collaboration with SUNNO))) and BORIS( 2007). Performed live with the ensemble a few times in the states and overseas. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter (2001-present), 4 albums, 2 eps. (*new record pending)....
2. what music, or life happening made your decision to play? and why?
I always played an instrument as a kid, but at age 12 guitar was summoned by a deep budding love for; sorry--Lynyrd Skynyrd!!! (the original, not the ridiculous version that must have Ronnie Van Zant rolling in his grave!). I went to a really uptight private school from 1978-81 (I eventually got kicked out in 8th grade!) and there was a lot of anti-Semitism (my maiden name was Solomon-can't get more Jewish then that!). Kids would call me a “kike”, “Jew this and Jew that” –that sort of thing. They were all blonde haired, blue eyed, country club kids with names like “Beanie” and “Buffy”…to make matters worse, we played sports on the country club’s private property (which was across the street from the school), but they didn’t allow blacks or Jews and back in those days no one minced words or pretended this wasn’t the case. It was accepted as normal and it was clear. They might as well have had a sign on the entry way. Me and the handful of other Jewish kids (there were like maybe 4 or 5 tops) and the one black kid, were made aware this was the case almost daily-it was a constant awareness. This school turned me into a very rebellious kid- and it was the perfect cocktail of being bullied and finding rock n' roll at the same time, that allowed these things to converge and I never looked back. Being sent to this place was the best thing that could have happened to me, in terms of waking up a monster inside me, and making it my life’s mission to be open and tell my own truth, always…. I’ve known since the end of 6th grade that music was all I wanted to do with my life and that I never wanted to be part of mainstream society. It took many years for it to evolve into being more than a concept, or a vehicle to simply express rage and youthful exuberance...the nuances and complexities came much later, as did the band that would allow me to incorporate all these elements in a cohesive, emotionally outside of the box way.
3. Was it difficult to find your first band or was it happenstance? where and how did you meet?
It was always happenstance....but that's a matter of perspective I suppose. In high school I begged a bunch of boys who had a band to let me sing a few songs and that band morphed into others, but it was always the same group of kids, more or less, and I don't know if I can really count it as my “first band” since we didn't even write our own music for the most part. They saw me as a pain in the ass I think, but I was persistent. I just wanted to sing. Really nothing much to report other then we had a lot of fun playing parties and on occasion I'd sneak into bars and sing (back in those days it was easy to get into bars underage, cause the drinking age was only 17). At 14 I was pretty clueless about the notion that I could start my own band...but songwriting wasn’t on my radar back then. It was all ego...I just wanted to be rapt in that energy that rock music provided. I could easily have been a groupie for that same reason, but the higher part of me always talked myself out of that notion. When I graduated art school (1989) I was doing pretty well in terms of being a young artist, in that I was on the right track and had lots of opportunities being presented ...I'd done an internship with photographer Mary Ellen Mark and was obsessed with her and her husband’s movie Streetwise (about street kids in Seattle in the 80's). I was a budding street photographer, but was becoming disillusioned with the art world in NYC-the hazing for example, of assistants and interns really bummed me out -and also, believe it or not, I felt NYC was already starting to get too gentrified -even back then. Seattle seemed grittier (at least through the lens of Streetwise) and I felt like I could go there and disappear, because I think I wanted for myself to become as interesting as the characters I was looking to take pictures of - these were people that had in many ways "disappeared" from society. At a young age I valued the notion that one must live life in an extreme way to become "interesting". I hated being young for that reason alone...I always felt a bit like a poser and hated hanging out with people my own age for that reason. We were all sort of pretending to be war torn and rag tag...and even if we were, (as many of us came from fucked up families and were no strangers to sorrow) we still had the sheath of youth on our side (which though unfair, always seemed to knock you back a few pegs)... Anyway, chasing freaks around seemed disingenuous after a while because I felt I wasn’t mirroring what I was chasing....So I put down the camera for the time being to just live. I was just a kid 22 or so....at the end of the day, because music was what I truly wanted in my soul and to embody - I decided to focus only on it...I wasn't all that selective at that time in my life and kind of joined forces with the first thing that came calling (I’m embarrassed to admit)...So that's how I came to Seattle(1990) and started playing music with my first band technically; me and a couple guys decided to leave the east coast to chase a dream of being in a band, but also were seduced by what then seemed to be a gritty and forlorn place. The high suicide rate also was a plus...kind of took the edge off of feeling like I needed to be well adjusted. These “guys” all left Seattle one by one, after only a few years, but I stayed. Meeting Phil years later was easy. I was on my favorite bar stool. And keeping the Sweet Hereafter together is effortless, because it’s a way of life vs just a band. It can’t break up ‘til one of us dies. All the other stuff was just to get me to this place...or to get me to sit on that particular bar stool, on that particular night....yeah, The Sweet Hereafter is my first band.
4. Now after all these years looking back, any regrets? Any feeling that your pursuit of music held you back from what you saw your friends at the same age happening (marriage careers, etc) ever make you double think what you were doing?
I have some sadness about the loss of certain band members along the way-in terms of how things went down and some friendships that seem to have been mired in the muck...but no, I'm the opposite of many when it comes to regrets about the big overarching life matters...I look at my friends with kids and I think "thank god I didn't go that route!"...I am fortunate to have no regrets in that department. But, I’m also fortunate in that I've never cared about money or major success. I always figured there was a chance I'd end up being a full time train hopper or hobo (this might still be in my future)...so the small successes I've had in music have been more than I could have hoped or dreamed in many ways. I’m saddened however that minor cult status bands used to be able to make a meager living (comparable to waiting tables for example) and I feel that's been taken away. If I didn't live in Iowa, I'd be waiting tables again....and there is nothing wrong with that...my point is simply, that access to free music online has taken that nugget of income away. Sometimes I do regret not being a train hopper still, because it seems the ultimate freedom and only way to combat the bullshit that reigns supreme these days... the way the world has become hurts my sensibilities, like Seattle becoming the playground for Amazon is a great example...the craziness of it all...sometimes I think I may try to live as far off the grid as possible, just finally disappear...I miss the grit and the wonder that seemed to be embedded in our culture before the tech industry got everyone drinking its Kool -Aid...
5. Influences, influences. influences.please!
Back in the early days of youth it was pretty much obvious classic rock...Led Zep, Cream, Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Airplane, Quicksilver, Neil Young, The Band, Grateful Dead (pig open era!!) Beatles, Stones, Velvet Underground, Allman Bros, Van Morrison - but also some jazz I was fortunate enough to find in the tiny record store I frequented; Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, some blues singers...Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton. Loved Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo, Little Willie John, Aretha Franklin, then the Fairport Convention, Leon Russell (huge obsession!!) Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs era!)......then came art school in the mid 80’s and there was the Throwing Muses, Minutemen, Violent Fems , the Cult, Gun Club... folk and country (too many to name) came a bit later –a guy named Paul K that I was obsessed with…he turned me onto Townes Van Zandt and that too really changed the game for me. I had the good fortune of meeting him in my mid 20s and he left an indelible mark on my heart...no one’s matched it since...He made me realize that night, I was on the right path, as I started to doubt myself in that period. He made me realize the importance of songwriting and what dedicating your life to your art might look like down the road(he was explaining to me that it wasn’t pretty). A few years later came stuff like Flower Traveling Band, CAN, Hawkwind, Dungen, SUNNO)), Boris, Giant Sand, Marissa Nadler, Dave Alvin, …really dig Stephen Malkmus' "Real Emotional Trash"... it’s so hard cause I know I'm leaving out so many important recent ones!!! My biggest influence in terms of my own music that's maybe slightly detectable in recent years (in that I’m always trying to write a song that captures some fragment of his essence) is Nicolai Dunger (Swedish singer songwriter) I could listen to nothing but him from here on out and feel it’s enough to sustain me emotionally. My favorite records of his are; "This Cloud Is Learning”, “Soul Rush" and "Tranquil Isolation." Oh, and Gary Heffern….!!!! Your pure heart and soul, keep me wanting to stay in the ring of fire!
6.What do you listen to now compared to what you were back then? Do you feel that your musical approach has changed and/or any new appreciation for music that you ignored in the past.
When I was a kid I was less open minded for sure in that I was not into quiet folk music except Cat Stephens-he was the exception...I would have found most folksier artists boring or at least not have been willing to give it a try (I was rigid) and I think I would have had trouble wrapping my head around certain punk bands as well....I had no exposure to that stuff at the time and it wouldn't have resonated to what I was already emotionally adhering to, in terms of my personal everyday backdrop...which was being alone a lot in the woods...so it was music that matched my interpretation of sky, nature-a certain romance had to be there. A certain classical structure I guess.... Now it’s hard, cuz the bar gets higher as we have so much to reflect on and so much is still being created. I’m personally not interested in music that sounds like "other" music to me, because I’ve already fallen in love with the original too many times over...What I mean by that is, it’s often kind of cookie cutter nowadays and the age old archetypes just kind of keep resurfacing, one after another...it’s like a Renaissance fair--anachronistic culture on crack! So truth be told, I’m not really “searching” anymore...I let it find me organically.....I hate the way music looks in a FB pipeline (notice i said “looks")...like a little two-dimensional nugget in a two inch square. It turns me off in that context...I can’t listen to music at all thru a lap top and I don't own a smart phone or an i-pod (just the name turns me off; i- “POD”-barf!!)...So there's no way I can fall in love with it thru the random FB feed...and songs are seemingly all that goes thru my feed when I can stomach being on fb and peeking in to the pipeline. A lot of middle aged men out there, seem to have not outgrown their homo erotic relationship to the teen dream rock stars of their day...and I get this (I really do)...but I guess for me it’s kind of painful to stay in that state all the time--I had to move on and let go a bit, find some distance from my beloved past in that there is some sorrow embedded. My associations with a lot of music from my past are painful to me now, in many ways and I guess I just need to see what life feels like without those particular lifelines. So in the interim I listen to lots of classical music and Nicolai Dunger....I’m trying to understand this and ’'ll let you know when i do! There’s plenty of time to go back to the classics and if I continue to live, I’m sure more than enough new stuff will find me…..there’s time. As far as my personal approach to making music; I’m not trying to fit into a record label’s parameters of always needing new music out there all the time (since we aren’t presently on a label)...that notions great if you are super prolific...I’m not... my music has to reflect my life and I need a lot of time to reflect and deflect...so it slows me down, or has slowed me down...I hate the indie rock parameters that are so deeply instilled in the current paradigm...I don't listen to music in 18 month tour cycles and two year record cycles...you know?
7. do you have children? what are they listening to that "you just don't get"?
No kids. Maybe I didn’t have kids out of the fear they'd listen to shitty music! Or worse-not be interested in music at all. The only thing I really “don’t get” is that many younger folks don’t care who the artist is, in relation to the music they hear on playlists and whatnot….for me, that was always important…..the messenger was someone I wanted to know- and context too really meant something….the history, the mythology…in many cases it all seems lost now.
8. Are you surprised to still be alive?You can go into any detail that you want on this.
Yes, I’m amazed!! Best question I’ve ever been asked! Amazed, I haven't died or been killed yet. And every day is a struggle. It’s always been this way for me since as far back as I can remember...that being said...I love being here and I love the struggle.
9. What is the worst situation you have found yourself in as far as a booking or a show?
A couple of years ago a deranged sound man tried to kill Phil by choking him on stage in front of an audience. Honest to god. I’m still not over it and frankly it’s been really hard. I haven’t shared the story with anyone, partially because I’ve been afraid people would make light of it, thinking that Phil might have deserved it. This was definitely NOT the case here. The sound guy, dressed in camo clam diggers with a big knife holstered to his belt, seemed immediately offended when I asked him some questions about the sound—there would be this 30 second delay where he’d just stare you down before answering the fucking question. This was the dynamic right out of the gates! We were nearing the end of our tour when it happened. It was one of those nights when we were on second and didn’t get a sound check. I went up to the guy a few minutes before the set and asked him to put some reverb on our voices and explained our aesthetic. Man, you could just see the hate in his eyes—like I must have thought I was “all that” because I had a “standard” I wanted to adhere to. It was like “man, you are so misinterpreting me!! I mean I know I’m maybe overcompensating because you are freaking me out, but…” So, we were attempting to do the line check and it was so fucked sounding up there, we just decided to start and get through it--there was no use trying to fine tune the monitors. We told him we were ready whenever he was (thinking he’d be happy about this, as it was clear he saw us as high maintenance) and he could “turn down the lights”… and the dude said snidely into the monitors ”man, you guys are bossy”…Phil tried to lighten the mood and made a joke about feeling like we were in “a sausage case at a deli”, More words were exchanged, something along the lines of “I should come up there and kick your ass”…“okay, have at it“ , “Bring it on”. Phil was sitting in a chair with his guitar strapped on when the guy lunged toward the stage. I could tell where this was going and I had my head in my hands. I heard the collision, the guitar neck snap, and when I looked up Phil was on his back with this dude and his buck knife standing over him, squashing his neck under the full brunt of his weight. I started punching him in the back and was about to grab a chair to hit him (Phil evidently had this guy’s balls twisted in his fist, which may have saved his life!) when some people jumped onto the stage and were trying get him off of Phil. Needless to say, we didn’t play our set that night… everyone was very shaken up, but the venue was completely on our side. The cops were called but we didn’t press charges (a mistake on our end in hindsight, as the narrative morphed over time), but we needed to just get the hell out of there at that point. We had another gig the night after the incident and amazingly, Phil was able to play his broken guitar, but as the set went on his guitar started falling apart. We attempted to connect with the audience by telling them what had happened—but we were opening for another band and the audience wasn’t too moved (in fact they were like "get these crazies off the stage"!). Phil and I started crying as his damaged guitar starting to fall apart--it’s the closest I've ever come to having a breakdown publicly and to quitting music forever. It tainted everything. We were pretty pathetic. But anyone who’s ever toured knows how easy it is too start to feel like there are no buffers. To make matters worse, one of the owners of the club where the incident took place, who was there the night before, was also in a band on this particular night’s bill (this was a city 15 hours away from ground zero!). He never asked if we were ok, just completely blew it off. But it gets even weirder—turns out a famous, Grammy winning artist was at the show that night (and one of my least favorite artists ever) because unbeknownst to us, he was friends with the headlining band we were touring with. This is where it gets really weird…turns out his personal sound man was the SAME camo wearing, knife-wielding, psychopath. What are the odds of that happening!! He (the Grammy winner) didn’t watch our set, but we had to meet him nonetheless. When Phil told him the story he was completely blasé about the whole thing. It was all so bizarre, a total mind fuck, and for Phil and I, it broke us. His complacent attitude…It was like a smug, sleek, shiny boot in the face...It took almost a year of back and forth to get the money out of the venue so Phil could be reimbursed for getting his guitar fixed. I just lost my faith in humanity on that tour and I still have nightmares about this incident where this guy is coming to kill me in my sleep.
10. What would you say to a kid that's just starting out today?
Go for it-because if it’s real to you- that ache, then it’s probably more than just the music you are chasing anyway...it’s the need to testify, to detect bullshit...to have a voice, to have a community -and be wide open to remind others they too can be wide open. I do believe music saves lives, cuz it most certainly saved mine.
11. any new albums or music or art coming out now? and thanks for your time!
Phil and I are going into the studio soon to start recording for a new record…We’re very excited about the new songs…it’s a new beginning.
I hope you have enjoyed this. go buy her records. support the arts. this is the longest of the interviews. she gave it her all. much love to all of you. and thank you jesse so much!