The Jason Falkner Interview, Part Two

(continued from Part One)

Not surprisingly, Jason Falkner concedes that “I’m just trying to entertain myself. I just want to hear a song that really gets me off, so there are some elements that I put in there that are nostalgic for me.” He thinks back to influences he absorbed early in his childhood. “I’ve got some things that I remember on the radio, and whatever weird shit that my dad took me to go see, like a freaky painter guy. I saw some experimental people when I was younger. So there is some of that weird kind of 70’s kind of stuff going on.”

“I love classic rock ‘n roll,” Falkner admits. “It goes in and out of being a real dirty word. I was in a record shop the other day.  Behind the counter was a girl with a tattooed chest, neck, and part of her face. She said to me, ‘ahh, you might like this band or that band. It’s “dad-rock.”’ I said, ‘You mean rock n’ roll? You mean like good music? I guess the Rolling Stones might be grandpa rock!’ Man, it’s really frightening.”

So Falkner actually likes this “dad-rock” stuff, and always has. “If when I was in my early 20’s I did something, and somebody said ‘Yeah, that sounded like Jimmy Page,’ that was the highest compliment I could be given. For me, if I do anything that reminds me of Jimmy Page, that’s the coolest thing in the world, right?”

Falkner waxes philosophical, but with a practical goal: “At the end of the day, every chord has been used millions of times. Every chord progression has been used a million times, and every melody has been written in some fashion or another. So the only thing that is original in all  this is your interpretation of all this. And mine, I think, is unique because I’m very insular, very in my own mind and almost in a bubble. And I have no problem with that. I preserve that. I think it’s like an innocence in that it’s important as it not only keeps me from being overtly trendy, because it would be very easy for me to make a record that follows some sort of trend. But that’s just not where I’m at, not at all. That’s kind of jaded. I’d rather just speak to people’s emotions with something that is nostalgic and also forward-thinking. And,” he adds with great emphasis, “that rocks. I want to rock!”

One word to describe Falkner’s musical approach on I’m OK, You’re OK is consistent. Put another way, if you like Jason Falkner’s albums on Elektra – Presents Author Unknown (1996) and Can You Still Feel? (1999) – then you’ll like this. Now, Falkner is no Oasis: he’s not giving us the same material over and over again in ten different ways. But his records do all have their own aesthetic. Ultimately, that’s true for good or bad: if those albums he did back in the ’90’s didn’t do something for a particular listener, then there’s not anything here that’s going to win that person over, either. So while Jason Falkner’s music is inviting and accessible, it’s also uncompromising.

And Falkner agrees with that assessment. “You know, it’s easy [for an artist] to say ‘take me as I am, or don’t,’ and a lot of people say that. But as you look through their output you sometimes see that it’s bullshit. If you look at my output, that’s exactly the thread: I’m very uncompromising. I mean, I don’t even have a manager. I don’t trust anybody. I don’t have anybody working for me because sometimes I can’t tolerate a suggestion. Let’s be honest here: I’m creating this music because I really don’t have any other choice!”

Fear of the Business
He expands on how that attitude has affected his output. “What took I’m OK, You’re OK so long to get out in America was basically my fear of the music business. Not a fear of music, but a fear of the music business. I’ve been told so many times that I’m the Second Coming of something. And yet it never happened. I never parted any sea!  And so I’m a little bit gun-shy.”

At this point,” Falkner explains, “it’s difficult. Because [people] call me and they want to work with me and help in the capacity of management, or agents and all that stuff. And I’m like ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah…okay,’ and then I just don’t want to talk about it. I just had this weird kind of phobia develop over the years. So many great things have happened to me, yet I’ve had quite a bit of setbacks as far as gaining any commercial success. So at this point I am solely doing it for the love of it. And anything else that happens as a result is great.”

That long-touted commercial breakthrough is, in Falkner’s words, “something I’m not expecting. I think to be quite honest, I’d like to be in the large-theater kind of level, the 1000 to 3000-seaters every night. Unfortunately I’m still in the mid- to large-club level, and even small clubs in places. And even living rooms in places. You know, that’s kind of disenchanting. I appreciate what I have and I appreciate the fans I have for sure.” But he does wish for more success for having “integrity, and with an almost defiant connection and allegiance to my own way of doing things.”

A hallmark of Falkner’s early collaborations was a failure to tap into the guitarist’s potential. The (sort-of) supergroup the Grays is a case in point. Musically it was brilliant, but the will to hold things together wasn’t there. And going back a bit farther, in Jellyfish, Falkner’s creative talents were all but ignored.

“That’s very accurate,” says Falkner. “I was very underappreciated, very underutilized. Basically that’s why I quit. And I almost quit during the making of Bellybutton (1990). I know for a fact that Andy Stuermer did really like what I did as far as a writer. When I was asked to join that band I was basically lied to. Andy and Roger Manning were kind of fans of mine; Roger had answered an ad I had in the paper before Jellyfish started. His was the only call I got. I put an ad in the paper saying ‘I’m looking to meet like-minded people who are into Bowie,’ and I think I even mentioned the Blue Nile. And nobody else ever answered that ad!”

“So,” Falkner continues, “fast-forward to about a year later, and Roger and Andy come down to L.A. So basically they needed a band and I played them some of my songs. Roger was already a fan of my stuff because when we had gotten together a year earlier he freaked out over my songwriting. And so they said, ‘yeah, yeah, we want this to be like a real trio —  everyone’s equal’ and all this stuff. But that just never materialized. Not at all. I wrote some stuff on that record, but I wasn’t credited and I wasn’t paid.”

Falkner left Jellyfish vowing never again to join a band. But then came the Grays, a project full of talent but doomed to fail from the beginning. Falkner reverals that “none of us really cared about the fate of that band. It wasn’t really a band.”

The Grays
“It was a collective,” he says. “We all got together and created this bullshit philosophy. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s the kind of philosophy where it’s a band of four equals. The idea was, ‘We all sing on the songs, and we all sing on the record, and when it’s not your song you’re the best sideman you can be, and when it’s your song you have veto power over all decisions.’ It was going to be ‘four generals and no soldiers’ and all this crap.”

Falkner laughs and says, “It was a great idea to kind of idea to draw up at a bar where we’d just got signed, but it’s completely flawed in concept. In every band there has to be a leader, maybe two. Two at most. Three is a nightmare. Certainly not four leaders in a band! But I became the leader of that band. And one of the things that happened is that [producer] Jack Puig declared very loudly that he liked my songs the most.”

“So,” he observes, “there goes the thing. And maybe the other guys resented the fact: ‘Wait a second! We’re total equals here!’  You know, I was dying to record a solo album for myself. I’d just come out from under the thumb of Jellyfish. So I was raring to go. And this little philosophy we had was actually holding me back.”

Nonetheless, some great music resulted from the project. Most notable is one of Falkner’s contributions, the shimmering, anthemic “Very Best Years.”  He says that the album Ro Sham Bo (1994) is “the sound of me going crazy, in a good way. I play the majority of the music on that record. And Jon Brion – if he’s ever honest about that – would have to agree.” Falkner isn’t totally pleased with what he views as a too-slick approach on the record, but allows that “there were some really good musicians in that band.” He admits that “there were some hallucinogens involved, and it was just a very fun, a very free record, but it kind of sounds a little bit choked. We were just not harmonious when we were making it. I didn’t care enough. I didn’t even know any of those guys. I had only met them months before we were signed.”

So how did a band full of virtual strangers ever come together at all? “We literally got together in a room to jam because Jon Brion called me one day: ‘I got some friends down here. Why don’t you come down and play some Kinks songs and goof around?’ I thought, ‘That sounds fun.’ Then literally that first time I came down there, there was this guy who was hanging around in the studio —  I didn’t even notice him. He got on a pay phone and called the guy that was running Capitol at the time, and said, ‘Hey, guess who’s in the room right here? Jason Falkner, Jon Brion, Dan McCarroll, Buddy Judge. And they’re all in a band!’  Listen, hold the phone up, that kind of thing.”

That straight-out-of-Hollywood scene (which, as it happens, took place in Hollywood) led to a record contract. Falkner recalls, “Literally that night I got a message on my machine — as did Jon — from this guy who ran Capitol saying, ‘I’ll sign this right now…I don’t need to see it. I’m such a fan of both of you guys. If you’re doing a band together I’ll sign this right now.’ And we were like, “What?!” The next day we’re asking each other, ‘Did you get a fucking message from Capitol?’ ‘Yeah! Me too!’”

So despite major reservations, Falkner found himself in a band. Again. “Yeah, it was such a unique situation. I’d just got out from under the merciless thumb of another band, and now we’re being offered a quarter-million dollars to make a record. That was a shock. But everyone sort of washed their hands of it as soon as it was over.” Falkner laughs, “It was like ‘well, you know, that was interesting!’ Nobody was committed enough to the band’s survival to even kind of make it fun. We didn’t have that much fun.” Again Falkner pauses and adds, “The record, though, was fun to make.”

In Part Three, Jason Falkner discusses his discovery of music at a young age, and the wide array of influences that informed his musical approach. He talks about working on other people’s albums (including one by a former Beatle), and discusses live dates and his next album due out later this year.

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