Jason Falkner Talks Past Projects, Upcoming Releases, and His Lifelong Connection to Experimental Music
Any discussion about some of the most compelling music of the last 25 years would benefit greatly from the inclusion of Jason Falkner. Though comparatively few are aware just how impressively broad the spectrum of his work is, millions of people around the globe are familiar with at least a fraction of it through his substantial artistic contributions via internationally-acclaimed artists like Beck, Air, Jellyfish, The Grays, Daniel Johnston, R. Stevie Moore, Ariel Pink, Paul McCartney, and countless others. Recently, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of sitting down with Jason on a rare rainy L.A. afternoon, and captured just part of a lengthy and rewarding music conversation here.
Bobby Weirdo: I think many people wouldn’t be aware that you’re in this world of R. Stevie Moore, Daniel Johnston, Ariel Pink and others, and yet you’re a huge part of this world.
Jason Falkner: Yeah, I know. I think it’s a big surprise to a lot of people that I’m involved with some of these people that I’ve gotten tangled up with [laughs]. My dad is a painter, and he was a professor of fine art, so I grew up with some very weird records, as well as pop, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. But my dad also had Terry Riley and Steve Reich. We had Love records when I was a little kid, and records like Da Capo scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I remember putting that record on and staring at those bad-asses in the band [laughs], in the weird ruins [on the album cover] and thinking, “What is this?”
And my dad kind of commandeered the Moog synthesizer that was given to the university. There was a Moog that was for educational purposes. It came in a plastic, hard kind of suitcase. It was monophonic – I never see those. So he would bring that home when I was 3, 4, and 5 years old, and I would sit there with a Moog at that very young age.
The first record I bought with my own money was the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer. I bought it from a bookmobile at my elementary school. But also, [I listened to] the Love stuff, and Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air – I was obsessed with that.
So, throughout my output, there’s always been something there that is very experimental, even if it’s not the featured part of the mix. It’s part of the puzzle that has to be there. I feel like if I do something that’s too straight, and doesn’t have anything pulling at it, it’s boring to me, so I can’t expect anybody else to be intrigued by it. So I guess that explains some of these people and I working together, or at least being drawn to each other.
BW: There’s the R. Stevie Moore/Ariel Pink album, Ku Klux Glam, that you’re are big part of, and then I’ve heard and absolutely love the soon-to-be released album you did with R. Stevie Moore, Make it Be. I can’t wait for it to be heard by more people.
JF: Yeah, I hope people like it.
BW: How did those two projects come about?
I remember hanging out with Ariel, because I was producing Lilys, which was one of my favorite bands during this period of the late 90s, early 2000s. I was basically just a member of the band, but we were also recording at my house, and I was engineering and producing. We played a show at the Echo, and this kid [Ariel Pink] was opening up for us. There was nobody there except what looked like his family, and his girlfriend, and there was no one else there. He was running around, and had a Marshall half stack with a boom box, and was just playing this insane music. I was instantly, completely captivated by what I heard. It sounded so good in a club too, with a really loud PA. I thought “I have no idea where this kid’s coming from, but sign me up.”
We became friends at an after party later that night, and he gave me some cassettes. Later, we were driving to a bachelor party of a mutual friend, and I asked him what he was into, because I had no idea. He said, “You know what I’m into? R. Stevie Moore.” And I said, “Really? That totally makes sense.” He was totally blown away that I knew of R. Stevie, and that was really the only person early on that I remember even knowing who Stevie was, let alone worshiping him, you know [laughs].
I first became aware of Stevie at a record shop that used be here [in L.A.] that was going out of business. I was looking through the 10 inches, and I saw this crazy 10 inch with all the [Beatles] Revolver artwork, but with this other guy’s face all over it, and I wondered, “who the hell is this guy?” It’s called Revolve. This was a probably around ’99 or something. I thought, “who would do that? Of course I’m going to take this.” Just the audacity to do that with the Revolver artwork! I took it home, listened to it, and loved it.
I remember when Stevie reached out to me on Myspace – or maybe Friendster – it was a long time ago [laughs]. He said, “I’m a huge fan of yours,” and I thought, “Really? What are you fan of?” He was really into the Grays record, and really into my first and second solo records on Elektra [Presents Author Unknown and Can you Still Feel?]. That was super flattering to me. I’m very proud of them, and have so many fond memories of them. Of course, commercially they didn’t perform the way records needed to perform back then for you to basically have a career [laughs]. So it’s always cool when people talk about those records. But when Stevie professed his love for those records, it was just on.
About a decade later, he and Ariel were working on stuff over at Ariel’s house, and then they contacted me, saying “Hey, can we come over to your house?” I told them, “Well, I just got this new board, and it’s not even really plugged in – not really hooked up.” I mean I was just hooking it up, and they persisted. I remember Ariel sent a text that was some sort of combination of our three names together and I said, "Alright – I’ll do it.”
We recorded quickly. It was mostly those guys doing everything. I think I played drums on all of it, and then some guitar. It was super fun. And then Stevie and I were looking at each other thinking, “We have to make a record together as well.” So his dear friend Roger Ferguson, who wrote the lyrics to that amazing song “Another Day Slips Away”, flew Stevie out and found a place for him right around the corner from my house. I think we only had two weeks, which seems like a long time, but it would have been nice to have a month. The first thing I said was, “We have to re-imagine ‘I Hate People’.” [Remaking that with me] wasn’t even on his radar. There’s something about how up and joyous and rocking that chorus is, with the lyric, “I hate people” [laughs] that just absolutely kills me. I love it so much. Stevie asked, “Really, you want to do that one?” And I said, “Yes – we’re doing that one! Anything else you want to do, let’s do [laughs], but we have to do “I Hate People”. I’m so happy with that [recording].
BW: With artists like R. Stevie Moore and Gary Wilson, I think people are prepared for something that is going to be utterly crazy, but I find that when listeners actually hear the music, the response is often that they just genuinely enjoy it.
BW: You know, like it’s actually really easy to listen to [that music].
JF: Some of it’s not as challenging as it seems.
BW: And I think that touches on your place in this music’s history too. You’re able to bring people to a Daniel Johnston record, or to an R. Stevie Moore record, with – in the best sense of the word –a “pop” sensibility, and hooks, and the sonic qualities of Jason Falkner’s production.
JF: Well, hopefully. That’s the goal.
BW: My understanding is that when you work with Bent Van Looy that you play a lot of the instruments on his records.
BW: So on albums like the Daniel Johnston record or a Bent Van Looy record, you produce them, you play the instruments, and they’re the songwriters.
JF: And I’m arranging a lot [on those records], which is a big part of the sound.
BW: Bent’s lyrics can be really dark and off the wall, juxtaposed with lighter music.
JF: Yes, exactly. If you just take it on its surface, like if you heard that music in a car driving by, you’d go, “Oh, what’s that poppy thing?” But if you get to the next verse, it might be somebody talking about dying within the context of this Partridge Family sounding thing [laughs]. That’s a juxtaposition that I’ve always really enjoyed – something that can fool you into thinking it’s one way, and then upon closer inspection, it’s quite the opposite.
Bent’s work is that way, and there’s another record I made [Suddenly Past] that I just adore with Thom Hell, who is from Oslo. It’s another record where I’m playing the majority of the music on it, and arranging together [with him], but for the most part, he’s the sole songwriter.
Another fantastic guy I worked with, Anne Soldaat, was in a really good band from Amsterdam called Daryll-Ann. A lot of these guys [in Europe] are a handful of years younger than me – maybe a decade younger, so they grew up with me and my solo records. When we get together, the writing is natural for me to work on and embellish, because a lot of it sounds like me [laughs]. That's flattering, but there’s been a couple times in the course of making those records where I think, “This is almost a conflict of interest!” [laughs]. I ask myself if I can give everything to a song because it already sounds so much like me that it almost upsets me. But I always get over that and end up doing my thing to it. It’s a very satisfying and unusual experience as a producer to make a record with people you don’t even know, and you can barely do anything they don’t like.
Also, it’s fairly rare to be a producer who plays instruments like I do. When I'm working on a record with someone, we don't call anyone in to play anything. [Todd] Rundgren has one of my favorite quotes about making records: “If you know what you want, I’ll help you get it. If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.” And that’s exactly how I [approach it]. We’ll get it together, but if an artist doesn't have any ideas at some point, I’m bursting at the seams with them. Of course, at the end of putting a song together, I’m very open to somebody saying, “I think it went too far that way,” or “Let’s try something else.” I’m totally fine with that, but at the same time, I’m not going to fail. There’s definitely a responsibility I feel to the people that I’m working with, and also myself, to make something great and get it done. It’s completely ironic that I say this, because it takes me so long to finish my own records, but I definitely can’t stand not finishing something [laughs].
BW: In the late 80s, you were a member of the band The Three O’clock. Did you ever meet Prince when you did with The Three O’clock track [penned by prince under the pseudonym Joey Coco] “Neon Telephone”?
JF:Yeah, because we were signed to Paisley Park, and that’s right when I joined the band, so this is around ’88. I was nineteen or something. I remember I met up with the drummer Danny [Benair], who was also in the Quick, who I love. John Silva was also there, who I work with now because he manages Beck. The three of met up at a Du-par’s pie restaurant in the Valley here. It was a big deal for me to get in this band, because my high school band had covered The Three O’clock. We covered “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend” and “I Go Wild”. When I was fifteen, sixteen, I was obsessed with the Three O’clock. This is a band I saw at the Palace with 2,000 people, so when I found myself in this band all of a sudden, I felt I had already made it! [laughs]”
John Silva told me, “First things first, kid. There is no money. And I thought, “What do you mean, ‘there’s no money’? These guys are on the radio! They play in front of 2,000 people. Aren’t we signed by Prince?” But I didn’t say any of that. I told them it was cool, and that I don’t need money. We started making the record, and I didn’t really like the demos. That was a little challenging, because I was wondering what happened to this band that I loved. It sounded to me like it was trying to be commercial, and I have a really finely tuned B.S. detector for that. I could be totally wrong, but that’s just what it sounded like to me.
We made the record at a studio owned by Richie Podoler and Bill Cooper. These are the guys who did “Born to be Wild”. We’d get phone calls [in the studio] where somebody from Prince’s world was calling, warning us that he was just arriving at LAX, going to be taking a limo over to us to meet the band and see how the record was going. If we had any friends, family, or anybody hanging out there, we were asked to tell them to leave [laughs]. I was supposed to be just the band – he didn't want anybody else there. So we were all excited, and all three times – Prince was a no show.
So then, the record came out. We found out he was flying all the Paisley Park artists out to Minneapolis to see the very first show of the Lovesexy tour. This was around ’88, ’89. I remember on the plane, Chaka Khan was breastfeeding her baby right behind me, George Clinton borrowed my Spin magazine, Taja Sevelle, Jill Jones…all these people were people. It was totally insane. We get off the plane in Minneapolis, and I get separated from my band. Now, we’re the only kind of rock band at this – it was all R&B, soul, and funk artists. It was all gnarly, cool, funk musicians. There were a bunch of limos for all of us, but I didn't know where my band was. Someone ushered us into cars, and I climbed into a limousine with George Clinton and a girl that was not on the plane. I sat there, and George said,“Hey, what are you doin’, little man?”, or something like that. And I I said something like [whispers] “I have no idea. I have no idea what I’m doing.” He told me “It’s gonna be an adventure” [laughs]. It was pretty intense.
The show was great. It was like three hours long. There was a Thunderbird car that came out onto the stage, and Sheila E. was on drum kit, which was really badass. This was during his apex. His apex lasted quite a while, but [at this time] he was in the throes of just killing it.
And then we went to the after-party at Paisley Park. I stood there talking with Jill Jones, who was the girl with the blonde wig in the “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” videos, and was basically responsible for my earliest fantasies, of anything. We stood up a few steps, and I saw this kind of hole in the crowd. Prince had been jamming on the drums and the B-3, and [then] a super group was up there jamming. But I saw this sort of hole –an eye of a hurricane- on the main floor, which was packed with people. The hole moved closer and closer to us, and then it literally parted. There’s just that thing with some people where there’s special lighting that doesn’t really exist. That guy definitely had that. And I was young enough that I wouldn’t make that up. I wouldn’t invent that for him, and I wasn’t even that big of a fan, to be honest with you --I was into the Stiff Little Fingers when I was nineteen years old! I wasn’t that into Prince, but I definitely loved the show I had just seen, and I definitely understood he was a complete badass. So the hole opened up, and this little, tiny guy came out of there, and said, “Hello Jill.” They kissed and hugged each other, and she said, “This is Jason”. He replied, “I know who he is!” [laughs]. He told me I was a really good guitar player. I thanked him, and then he asked me, “Where’s your singer?” I told him I didn’t know, and then he said, “That voice…that voice” [laughs]. He said that, and then he got sucked back into the doughnut hole, and off he went.
So I was the kid – the new guy – for the year that I was in that band. I was definitely way younger than they were. We were staying in St. Cloud, and the next morning when we all got in the van, Michael the singer asked, “Did anybody even meet him?” I told him I did, and the band said, “What? You did?” I told them Prince said I was a good guitar player. “What? Well, did he say anything about the record? Does he like the record?” I told them the whole story, and that he also commented, “That voice…that voice.” Michael asked, “That voice, what?” but all I could say was, “That’s it, man – he got sucked back into the crowd, and I don’t know what happened. I don’t have any answer for you.” Michael kept asking, “What does that mean?” It just turned into that thing that we would probably still laugh about today if we saw each other. It was really funny, because obviously, we didn’t know if he liked the voice or hated the voice.
BW: It’s so Seinfeld.
JF: It’s totally Seinfeld! Very Larry David - yeah. Exactly [laughs]! But yeah, that was my only experience with Prince.
BW: Going back to those early years, I’ve always been curious about those Jellyfish guitar solos. On “She Still Loves Him”, there’s that gnarly solo.
JF: Yeah, it’s super gnarly [laughs]!
BW: Were those labored solos?
JF: No, and that’s the perfect example. That was an amazing situation when we tracked that song. First of all, we tracked that record as a trio as often as possible. Generally speaking, it would be me on an electric guitar, Roger [Manning] on a piano, or maybe Hammond or Wurlitzer or something, and then Andy [Sturmer] on drums. So we tracked without bass. I think maybe a couple of times I tracked bass live with the same situation I just described. The cool thing was that the producer and engineer really liked the authenticity and integrity of a guitar track that is the rhythm track, and then is also the solo. So you have an A-B box. I love layers, and clearly I’ve proven that over the years. But it’s hard for me, because I also really like sparseness of records where you can really, really hear everything, like the old Blue Note jazz records. Those are some of the finest sounding things, because there’s not a lot competing for your ears through the little outputs of a stereo system. One of my AC30s would be in a mic locker on “10”, and then my other one would be my rhythm tone.
Andy and I never had a good communication. There’s been enough said about all that stuff, but there was a particular communication breakdown on this night. Oddly enough [The Three O’clock drummer] Danny went into management, and had just asked if I wanted him to be my manager. He was managing this guy who hadn’t yet put out a record, but it was just about to come out. It was Lenny Kravitz. I had just heard a little bit about this guy and his record – that it was a really rad kind of 60’s rock, and very authentic sounding.
Danny didn’t know anything about the band that I was in, making a record with. He had sent me some of the Lenny stuff, and I really liked it. There was just something really tough about that sound, and I think I found out later it was a 2 inch [tape], 16-track record or something. It’s very badass how they recorded it. I just really liked that, and it was rawer than what we were doing in Jellyfish. Basically, Andy and I were just not getting along, and I was literally at my wits end with him [on that solo], ready to just throw my guitar at the drum kit and leave, and never come back. And I was maybe going to go do this thing with this guy Lenny Kravitz.
I’m glad I didn’t do that. I have nothing against Lenny, but I wouldn’t have been happy in that situation. At least in Jellyfish I was an equal third, even though they tried hard to downplay that. With Lenny, I would have been an actor in his play. But that solo is just rage [laughs]. It’s full-blown anger, and I love how sloppy it is. It’s definitely not labored over, because if it were, it would be a lot cleaner. That little tiny shredding thing I did is sloppier than the sloppiest British invasion guitar player [laughs]. It cracks me up – I just hear a very young me when I listen to that. I’m pretty sure after that take I did put my guitar down and start walking out, and I remember Roger followed me, almost pushing me through the door, because he was so emotional. He said, “Please – I want you to leave the band. Only because I’m so sorry for how he’s acting. I can’t justify anything that he’s doing to you – the way he’s vibing you and chopping you down, and stuff like that." I actually did audition for the Lenny thing, and I basically got it, but he wasn’t at the audition. I was told, “We’re going to have Lenny come and meet you, because we know he’ll like you,” but I got too sentimental about the record we were making [with Jellyfish] because I was such a fan of the songs that we had written. Mainly those guys had written the songs, but I helped write and certainly helped arrange, so that’s why I stuck with my original band.
The other thing on that album I think was a fun surprise for everybody was my bass playing, because I knew that I felt that instrument, but I never had a bass. On my demos or home recordings prior to making that record with Jellyfish, I would just tune a guitar way down. That’s where I developed my palm-muting thing, which is basically my bass-playing sound, especially on a slower song where the bass doesn’t ring out all the way because I’m palm-muting in a very specific place. We tried to find a bass player and couldn’t, and then the producer Albhy [Galuten] and Jack [Joseph Puig] the engineer said, “Well, isn’t that Jason on the demos? Just have him play the bass”. I was happy to play bass.
BW: So that’s you playing bass on like “Calling Sarah”?
JF: Yes, and it’s Steve McDonald on “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” and “All I Want is Everything”, and then we had the awesome jazz dude John Patitucci play upright on “The Man I Used to Be”, “Bedspring Kiss”, and “I Wanna Stay Home”.
BW: You have the distinction of appearing on Beavis and Butthead when the two characters watched the video for “These are the Very Best Years”. Recently, I was talking with R. Stevie Moore and another friend about how funny that is of course, but more importantly about how great that song and band really are. Listening back, it seems like people may have slept on the album Ro Sham Bo back then, but now you listen to it, and can really appreciate it. You can hear where you, Jon Brion, and the others would be heading musically in the future. It was like this incubator that absolutely worked on its own level, but also showed where things were headed. It’s an amazing album.
JF: Thanks man – yeah. Very few people talk about that record, so it’s nice to talk about. That was a challenging, super exciting time. I had left Jellyfish, and was gung-ho to not be in another band. I met Jon shortly before leaving Jellyfish. A girlfriend of mine worked in a coffee house here in L.A., and I made her cassettes to play at work. One of those cassettes was [the Zombies’] Odyssey and Oracle, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society record, and some other stuff that people weren’t playing in public. According to my girlfriend, some “weird guy would come in every day,” and one day when she was playing one of my cassettes, he ran up to her and asked who made it. She said, “My boyfriend did”. He asked who her boyfriend was, and she said “Jason Falkner.” The next day, he came back and gave her a cassette that had some of his songs on it, some Brian Wilson demos, and Ray Davies demos. It was cool. I came home from tour, and I started listening to [the cassette tape] and I liked a lot of his own stuff. It didn’t have the thing pulling at the pop thing that I feel like I have to have. I have to have something in there that’s fighting for it to be interesting to me. It didn’t have that – it was more just like pure pop, but I liked it.
When we first met, we went out drinking and had a blast, and I remember thinking, “I don’t want to be in a band with this guy. But it’s nice to know that he’s there.” It was a comfort that there was somebody else who was really into this stuff, and even knew about it, because at that point, there just weren’t a lot of people talking about Odyssey and Oracle. It hadn’t really been discovered by the intelligentsia.
So a few months later, he called me up and said, “Hey, it’s probably been a few months since you’ve been in a room playing with people,” because he knew that I was just holed up in my girlfriend’s Hollywood apartment. I had a toy drum set from Toys R Us, and was tracking on that because I couldn’t have a real drum set there. I had my one electric guitar that I would tune down for tracking bass, and an acoustic guitar. Jon told me, “I have some friends here from Boston. Why don’t you come down and we’ll just jam? We’ll play some Kinks songs and just screw around.” So I went down there, and that’s how the Grays started. We just jammed – there was no band, and no original songs that were shared. We literally played Kinks and Beatles. It was amazing because we could play “Something”, and we could all play the crap out of it the first time we got together. That was pretty exciting. But again, I felt like there was some edge missing that was really important to me when I was around 24, 25. I really wanted to put my imprint out to the world, and not compromise it with anybody else, the way I had done with Jellyfish.
A mutual friend of ours called a person at Capitol Records that he somehow knew was interested in us. This guy at Capitol had my demo tapes and Jon’s demo tapes. He might have even had Buddy Judge’s demo tapes, and he had these all independently. Our friend called up the guy at Capitol Records and said, “You’re never going to believe who’s in the room: Jason Falkner, Jon Brion, Buddy Judge, and Dan McCarroll. They’re a band.” We all got home to independent messages on our machines, saying, “I’ll sign this [band] sight unseen. You guys have a record deal with Capitol if you want.” It just snowballed, and it turned into this thing.
We had such youthful arrogance. We had a showcase, and we made a deal with ourselves that anyone who came had to be the people we invited. They couldn’t send somebody else to represent. So we invited Irving Azoff, we invited the presidents of record companies, and they came. Oh, and our showcase was two hours long, with kegs of beer! It wasn’t a showcase, and it was completely unprofessional. It was just our friends getting drunk, us getting drunk, playing as many songs as we wanted. Our other cocky thing was that if anybody left, they were off the table. It didn’t matter if they threw half a million dollars at us -- our attitude was: “No, you have to stay for the whole show. We put on a show for you.” So there was this wild arrogance mixed with a very naïve attitude that’s hard to even imagine in 2016 [laughs].
But we had it in spades, and we were signed through Alan Mintz, who was very interested. He had been Jellyfish’s attorney, and he told us to not sign a deal with anybody, because something was about to go down, and that thing that went down was that he stopped being an attorney and he was hired to be the senior VP of the west coast at Epic Records. Now, unbeknownst to any of us – mainly himself – the Epic Records west coast offices were a rouse. They had no power; Epic was New York. So this whole department that our guy was heading up had no juice, and he also told everybody, “this is my band – you just keep doing your thing with your bands.” So he basically told everybody at the label to go screw themselves, and our fearless leader had no power.
It was a super fun record to make – the most kitchen sink thing I’ve ever done. I was exploding at that time in my life, musically. I could not be contained. I put everything I had into everybody else’s songs as well. Jon and I had a bit of an ego clash at that time; he kind of retreated and I kind of inflated. It didn’t help that Jack [Joseph Puig], our producer, favored my songs and my voice. So that’s why I have one more song than everybody else on that record, and that was a real thing that really irked everybody else. It was like, “Oh, so now you’re the main guy? So this whole concept that we have a total band with no leaders is out the window.” And I was thinking, “Well, that’s because that concept is flawed” [laughs]. It really is flawed – there’s no such thing as a band that can thrive like that. You can’t have four generals, so that’s what happened with that.
There was a very heartbreaking thing that happened when that record came out. KROQ, which is the big station out here [in L.A.], at that time had a ton of power and influence. KROQ, in partnership with MTV, informed the world of what they should be playing on the radio. And KROQ started playing “Very Best Years” a lot. They put it in medium rotation, and the record wasn’t even out yet. It was the first song on a HITS Magazine sampler CD. I remember hearing the KROQ DJs, who I knew very well from the radio, saying, “This is our favorite new band here at KROQ. We don’t know where they’re from – we think they’re from England – we don’t anything about them. This is the Grays” [sings intro riff to “The Very Best Years”]. I remember Jack Puig calling me, saying, “Hold on, man. You are about to explode. This sounds so good on the radio. You have a hit.” I was already practical enough at this point, because we had three singles on the Jellyfish album, they were all played on MTV, and none of them were hits. I left that band penniless. But I heard "The Very Best Years on the radio", and thought, “This is crazy.”
Then, the week that the record came out, KROQ never played it ever again. I tried to get an answer as to what happened, because something obviously happened. I couldn’t get an answer at that time, because the truth was too brutal. Epic had fulfilled some sort of political thing with the station. There was a mess up, and we got punished. I did get that confirmed a decade or so later by an Epic employee. That was a very large brick in the wall for me. We toured a little bit, and then that band collapsed.
But then, the most exciting times of my life were those first two solo records (Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown and Can You Still Feel) and the live shows. It was fun time working by myself, just incredibly creative and [I was] still very optimistic about how the whole thing worked.
BW: That must have been a nice kind of detox for you to say, “OK, this is under my control, to some extent.”
JF: Oh, big time. There was no other thing that I could have done. I couldn’t have joined another band or started another band. The Black Crowes had kind of asked me to be in the band after Jellyfish. It was between me and Marc Ford, and I said, "Marc Ford is your guy” [laughs]. Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t survive that band, and it wasn’t really my musical style. Certainly after The Grays I could have found another thing to be in, but I wanted to make a bedroom record. I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms, but that’s how I made the record. I was by myself; I had an engineer who wasn’t really a producer. I was producing it, and I just had him following me around with a U-47. I didn’t really know a lot about recording yet. But I did some things on that record that I intentionally made lo-fi or mid-fi. I like to say that that record – and a lot of my stuff – is actually kind of mid-fi. There’s definitely some choices that I made that were maybe not giving you exactly what you want. And that taps into this struggle that I talk about – there’s things pulling.
I was a classical piano kid, but when I heard the Damned I lost my mind. So how do you talk about Debussy and Captain Sensible with equal passion? I do. But those are opposite poles. So there was always something I wanted to have in my songs that was challenging. What’s funny is that if I didn’t do that, it would probably connect a lot more [laughs]. So the very thing that I like is what maybe throws some people off my scent.
BW: But also something you and I have talked about is that like R. Stevie Moore’s approach, that’s the very thing that’s given your work its longevity. Like, it’s just slightly left field.
JF: Right. Slightly askew. Exactly. That was always important to me, and it’s not always a choice. But oftentimes, probably more than people would think, it is actually a choice. And that goes into the thing that we were talking about – hearing some of your heroes talking about their craft, and being really disappointed because you’re thinking, “Isn’t there any kind cognizance behind this?” [laughs]. And if there isn’t, it’s so disappointing. That’s just your instinct? That’s cool, but I like when it’s both. I like to follow my instinct, but I also like to use my brain.
BW: Is there a track from one of those solo albums that you feel really captured the zeitgeist of where you were during that time, -- post-bands, recording in that way -- or are they more kind of album statements?
JF: There’s one song called “Nobody Knows”. There’s something about that [song]. It’s a very sad story lyrically, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of music that I’ve put together. It’s not my favorite sounding thing I’ve done, but there’s something about it that I love. Basically, if you heard that chorus sung by an artist like Rihanna, it would sound like an R&B song. It’s this weird thing, and I’m not doing it like that at all. But I’ve heard it performed like that by a fan, and it was unbelievable. I realized, “Oh, that’s a smash R&B song.” It has one of those choruses, but it has this weird kind of group vocal. There’s just a bunch of little details in that track that I think really sum up where I was at that time. I was so excited. I was finally able to lay out exactly what I wanted to do, and I was clipping my wings a little bit. I think I needed to do that. I was spreading my wings and doing my own thing for the first time, but I was also not fully flying. And I was doing that on purpose – it was the weirdest thing.
It was also this sign of the time in ’95, ’96 too, where the attitude was, “You can’t go full on. People aren’t going full on.” I want to go full on, but I get why it’s cool to have some discipline and not go full on. It was rebellion. There’s this weird thing that’s maybe hard for people in this day and age to understand. It was a very 90s thing – this fallout of grunge attitude. If you were there, you remember you couldn’t be showy, and you couldn’t really be virtuosic. That was uncool. It shouldn’t be uncool if you’re virtuosic and tasteful. But the problem is the people with the bad taste ruin it all – ruin the virtuosity for the people with good taste [laughs]. So then, if you have any kind of abilities...like Rivers Cuomo [of Weezer] has shredding abilities, and he was downplaying that stuff like you can’t even imagine. It was just the times.
BW: This brings me to a question that I would love to ask you. It seems like there’s been a backlash for some time now against smart music with classic song forms and more sophisticated harmonies. It’s really surprising if you ever hear anything like that these days. How do you get that kind of stuff into a song in 2017?
JF: I don’t know, but it’s funny. As you were saying that, several things sprung to mind. There’s this new crop of super youngsters like the Lemon Twigs and Danny James. It’s amazing. Those guys are going fully into territory that was illegal for so long. We’ll see if they stay doing that – it could be some weird trend. So I don’t know how authentic it is, but it’s still definitely interesting to experience that. It goes back to what we were saying about never having to repeat myself because I’ve never been commercially successful enough to warrant worrying about that. I never liked when people went full anything, like the guys who went full Beach Boys. To me, that's just ripping off. I don’t want to hear something that sounds just like the Beatles, or just like the Beach Boys, or whatever. And there are so many examples of that in our history where something will become the cool thing because a generation discovers a record, and there’s a ton of bands that sound like that because these people don’t have an original idea. And I think this psychedelic revival – this modern psychedelic thing that’s happening – is interesting. I do think that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a good band and very inventive. But some of these bands sound just like your record collection on your sleeve – it’s too literal. I hopefully haven’t done that. I’m sure I’ve done some things where people say, “Oh, that sounds kind of like this song”. A lot of that is definitely subconscious, if not all of it.
But I’m about five songs into a new record, and I just write the way I write. It’s funny – when I was going to do the second record, my intentions were to make a really direct thing. I kind of got in my mind that I wanted to do this thing like my memories of the Glen Campbell Music Show, where a singer would be pleading their case to the camera, and it was really, really sincere. And no distractions – nothing pulling at it. It’s just this expression. I haven’t been able to do that yet, though I’ve tried. There’s a song called “See You Again” off my second solo record that’s sort of supposed to be that, but of course it sounds like it’s recorded on Mars. It’s got all these phasing and string machines and stuff.
BW: Is there a missing Jason Falkner record in there somewhere? I feel like three years ago or so, you were talking about stuff that was about to come out, but didn’t. Is it just constantly evolving?
JF: No [laughs]. There isn’t a missing record. The record I was talking about a few years ago is what I’m still working on. I got sidetracked playing in Beck’s band, and that’s fun for me because we’re old friends. It’s literally a bunch of old friends getting together and goofing around and spazzing out onstage.
BW: It’s funny, because to the world, that’s probably the most high-profile thing you’re involved in, and yet you’re the most low-key about that one.
JF: You mean as far as just talking about it?
JF: Yeah, it’s not as creative of a thing for me. I kind of developed a persona for that. I certainly jump around and spaz out and roll around the ground more than I do if you come see me solo [laughs]. It’s a different show. There’s really nothing more fun than having a shot of tequila and starting off with “Devil’s Haircut”. It’s fun. That’s some teenage fun I can have for the rest of my life [laughs].
BW: I did want to ask about TV Eyes, because that project is fascinating to me. That band’s album is something you can keep returning to. It came out, and was retro. Now, all of a sudden, it doesn’t sound that retro anymore. It feels like it could come out now.
JF: Right. And we made that in 2001! I know – that was such a weird thing. I can’t really blame anybody for these things having the smaller life than I feel they should. I don’t really care ultimately, to be perfectly honest. I do feel there’s some really fine songwriting on that record. I personally went above and beyond what we had originally discussed. We had recorded a fake soundtrack to a non-existent sequel to the 70s movie Logan’s Run, which was put out by our friends at Emperor Norton Records.
BW: Logan’s Sanctuary, right?
JF: That’s right. So Roger [Manning] and Brian [Reitzell] made that primarily, and then they had me come play on a few things and sing on a few things. And after I sang “Search for Tomorrow”, we were all outside talking, and Roger and Brian said, “Man, that was so fun having you down, and everything you did – that shredding porn guitar that you did – and all this crazy stuff" [laughs]…We agreed we should do something together again. We just kind of just started riffing, along the lines of Tubeway Army, Japan, and Depeche Mode. Roger was throwing out more of the synthy stuff like Depeche Mode and Human League, and I was throwing out Wire. This conversation was around ’99. With the exception of the people we already knew that were into those bands, like Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] – who were into Wire – for the most part, there was no new wave scene. I remember Mark Arm had a shirt that said “Nobody Knows I’m new wave” and I thought that was such a bad-ass shirt. I wanted that shirt so badly, because I’m totally new wave” [laughs]. And I know of course there was irony there, but Mark is pretty new wave as well.
Again though, this was before the 2001 Strokes, jagged post-punk thing with the Killers and all that stuff. That record had its roots in that. It’s really dense and dark. As a lyricist and singer, I got into this Orwellian nightmare. I loved that position and that pose. There are some lyrics I’m super proud of on that record that I would never write again.
It’s just a shame, and it’s our own fault that nothing really happened with it. We shopped it around a bit, but didn’t shop it around that hard. We didn’t kick down every door, like you have to do. We were kind of lazy about it. We weren’t lazy about the record, and we certainly weren’t lazy about the shows. We had these crazy films that Roger and I made. Basically I turned into a video director and editor. We culled our insane public access and obscure film VHS collections -- everything from Emmanuelle to weird French softcore porn stuff with dancer girls. It was just this fantasy stuff that we made, and then there was also a lot of paranoid imagery from Japanese sci-fi. It was just a really fun visual project that we had projected behind us for the three shows that we did [laughs] – two at the Echo, and one at the Troubadour. We spent five months making those movies, and just played three shows [laughs]. It’s insane. And on two of those stages, I don’t think you could even see the films – they were just projected on us. But Omnivore put it out.
It’s funny, because there was an original mix of that record that I did when we were still called Softcore which was way more like Tubeway Army, before we did all the drum replacement stuff. Brian Reitzell and I were in Air in the same time while we made this record. I remember being on tour, and Air were kind of the kings of the underground at that time. I just got a wild hair that I didn’t want to hear a drum kit, and that’s significant for me to say that, because I adore drums. I’m so into the aesthetic of a vintage drum kit. I love playing drums, I love watching people play, the sounds of a killer snare drum, and all that. But at this moment in my life, I just wanted to have really tough sounding drum machines, and basically sound replace everything, so that’s what we did. None of us were very good at sound replacing though [laughs], so it doesn’t quite as tough of a sound as I wanted, but that was that record.
BW: The drums [on that album] are a distinct departure.
JF: Yeah, they’re very mechanized.
BW: I just love that album.
JF: That’s awesome, man – I’m so happy you know it!
BW: That song “Fascinating” is great.
JF: "Fascinating"’s fun – “those moves should be in the Louvre” [laughs]. Which, I think you can hear me kind of laugh. I’m pretty sure I tried to sneak a laugh in the mix.