Jack Name Talks New Music, Upcoming Tour Dates, Past Work, and More
Jack Name is a seemingly-ubiquitous presence in the L.A. experimental music scene. Besides his own remarkable solo albums and live shows, the recording artist and performer has also worked with Ariel Pink, U.S. Girls, White Fence, Thee Oh Sees, Cass McCombs, and Fancy Space People, among others. With a resume that reads like this, it would be natural to assume that there is plenty of information out there regarding Jack but -- surprisingly -- the opposite is true. Whether by design, chance, or a combination of the two, it is in fact rather difficult to find much in the way of documented and confirmed information related to the exceptional talent that is Jack Name.
Understandably then, WMF jumped at the recent opportunity to while away a warm L.A. summer evening with Jack Name. Jack talked new music, his upcoming tour, and past work, filling in at least some of the blanks in the compelling story of his fascinating and ever-evolving work.
Bobby Weirdo: I’ve heard conflicting things over the years about where you’re from. You were born in Denmark, but you were only born there because your family just happened to be there at the time, right?
Jack Name: Yes -- my parents are Californians. I’m called an “American Citizen Born Abroad”.
BW: You’re currently finishing recording a new album, and have a tour coming up. Will you be playing the new material on the tour?
JN: Yes, and some old stuff too. The album is part three of the trilogy, and is going to be like the prequel to Light Show.
BW: So you see Weird Moons, Light Show, and the new album as a trilogy?
BW: The tracks I’ve heard from the upcoming album feel like a departure stylistically. The vocals are really up-front, there’s an organic feel and clarity to the guitars, and the arpeggiated playing stands out. It’s been a while since the other two albums, and I don’t know if they were from the same recording sessions, but they came out something like just one year apart from one another.
JN: Yes, but Light Show came out years after it was recorded. It was done around 2011 or 2012, and it didn’t come out until 2014. I had already started conceptualizing Weird Moons before Light Show came out. So the new album is actually on the same schedule. The first two were just released tighter together.
BW: But the interim has been the same…
JN: The creative interim has been the same.
BW: I was going to ask if something significant had happened, thinking you did an album, did another, and then took an extended break.
JN: Well, that happened too, actually. I did Weird Moons in two months. And Light Show was from a period where I did something like five albums worth of songs that I deleted and replaced with other songs. There were many different drafts of Light Show, so there are still something like seventy songs that could have been on that album.
BW: When you say you “deleted” them, did you actually get rid of them, or do you have unreleased tracks?
JN: I have tons of unreleased stuff from that chunk of time. A couple of those songs –- including one that White Fence covered -- will be on the new album. They were from earlier drafts of Light Show before I decided to break up the ideas into more than one album.
BW: It’s been mentioned before that Light Show and Weird Moons are concept albums, and I’ve even seen the word “rock opera” used. Are those accurate descriptions of each of those albums? And if they are concept albums, do all three as a trilogy constitute a larger story?
JN: Yes. They’re loosely attached. Light Show is definitely…there’s a point that I was trying to make, putting it into a fictional framework. I don’t know if it works as a way of communicating ideas. In my mind, I know what the character is doing, but nobody else is seeing what I’m imagining in my head…who the character is and what the situation is. I’m writing from someone’s point of view, without giving any background.
You know what it was about, right? In Light Show there were two gangs fighting each other, and the good gang dies. They were reborn on Jupiter as werewolves, and that’s Weird Moons.
For me, it’s easier to make the point I’m trying to make if I can stretch it out in a fictional context, and imagine a world for it to be in.
BW: When you’re singing, I feel like your voice literally takes on different characters. Sometimes, for instance, it sounds like you’re singing falsetto. Is that because you’re telling narratives from the perspective of someone else, or is it more of an intuitive, musical decision just based on sounds?
JN: It was sort a mix of character-driven decisions and musical aesthetic decisions. They’re doing a dance the whole time, and are inseparable.
BW: You’ve talked about identity in the past. Does the name Jack Name tie into this idea? I think the idea – if I understand it correctly – is to not associate the biography of a particular individual behind the music too closely with that music. But maybe the idea is something else?
JN: I do feel that way, but there are also personal reasons for it. I never wanted to go by my “real” name, but I got outed many times. I didn’t feel any attachment to my family name for a variety of reasons, so I wanted my own name. “Name” seemed like an obvious solution.
BW: Has the process been the same recording these three albums? Do you record at home, and do you record by yourself?
JN: Yes to both. Pretty much anyone on my recordings are friends who are going through something, or are bored. I can farm their depression or whatever they’re going through. It makes people feel better if they have something to do, so we both win. You can get potent stuff out of people who are down in the dumps.
BW: There’s a female voice singing on one of the tracks I’ve heard.
JN: That’s Izella Berman, my newest discovery. She’s an awesome singer, also really good on bass, and will be going on the tour with me.
BW: Speaking of that, what will the live lineup be for the tour?
JN: It’ll be Izella and me, and Dillon Watson from Nashville, who’s a super talented guitarist.
BW: Going back a while, there’s an album I wanted to ask you about. Half of it is Weird Moons, and half is a live set…
JN: Lune Spettrali.
BW: And the live part wasn’t edited, right?
JN: Right. It was recorded in a gallery in Bologna with one or two mics in the room. Brian Bamps and I were doing a European tour, and there was a Canadian-Italian guy named Jonathon Clancy in Bologna who set up that particular show. He has a label called Maple Death, and asked if he could record [the show] for a cassette release of the album with the live set on the B side.
Directly translated, “lune spettrali” means “spooky --or spectral-- moons” in Italian. When I first asked what “weird moons” would be translated into Italian, Jonathon said “lune strane,” but the meaning of “weird” in Weird Moons is more like the Weird Sisters of Shakespeare kind of weird -- “Wyrd”. Mysticism, fate... It’s old school weird.
BW: I want to ask about some of your collaborations. You’re credited as an arranger on the 2018 U.S. Girls album In a Poem Unlimited. What did the arranging entail there?
JN: Meg [Remy] asked me if I would sing on “Pearly Gates”. They ended up re-recording the song, and the new version was sung by James Bailey, but they still used my arrangement.
BW: How did you meet Meg in the first place?
JN: I did a tour when Light Show came out, and played a show in Montreal when Meg and Max [Turnbull] were playing as Slim Twig. We had hotel rooms right across from one another, and we just got along right away.
BW: You also have played synth for Cass McCombs…
JN: Oh yeah – I recorded a song for him, too. We used to be roommates; I like Cass a lot.
BW: You’re also credited as playing synth and guitars on Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom.
JN: I sang, too. I’m the monk chanting city names in the middle of “Dinosaur Carebears”. I did samples, synths, lots of guitar stuff, and some other singing, but “Dinosaur Carebears” was my moment.
BW: I’ve seen you billed as Fictional Boys, or Jack Name’s Fictional Boys.
JN: I like that more than my actual name, for sure. I was releasing stuff under Jack Name, and then touring under different names, which -- I guess -- is a terrible idea from a certain point of view. I didn’t make any effort to connect the two, so I can see why a label would be frustrated by that. So I told them I wouldn’t do that [anymore].
BW: And then you have an alter ego that plays with Fancy Space People.
Suzy Weirdo: Also, I first met Zumi [Rosow] because she was playing with you.
JN: Oh really? Zumi was another one of my great talent discoveries. She hadn’t played the horn since she was like eight, and I was having a saxophone obsession at that time, so I said “get that thing out!”
We would write these fucked up notes – I still have them somewhere. I don’t think she could read music anymore, so her notes were pictures of the holes on the horn. Maybe she can read music again now, but I like to think that she’s still using these ridiculous hieroglyph things that we would come up with. She’s amazing.
BW: What project was that?
JN: Before I was Jack Name I went by John Webster Johns. I started using that name while I was in Charlemaignes.
Charlemaignes was with Emmett Kelly, who’s another great musician. I had a kick drum, snare drum, and guitar. Emmett had a hi-hat, snare, and guitar, -sticks in our strumming hands- and we learned how to do drum-fills together. We would play on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. We had a permit, but the cops would tell us to stop because we were weird and people were trying to eat. But homeless people and toddlers loved us.
We had something like ten different band names. Our routine was that we would drive to get beer, decide what the band name was, decide what the band was all about on our way back home, and then drink beer and make the EP. Then Charlemaignes would cover all those bands. We were twenty-two and twenty-three.
BW: And you were John Webster Johns when you were playing with Zumi?
JN: That was what I was calling myself then, and I would put together twelve-piece bands at that time. A lot of people played in that as well: Nick Murray, Tim Presley, Kevin Lasting from Women and Children…a ton of people. It was like a party, and a really interesting mix of people. Everybody had different styles. And sometimes people were meeting for the first time on the stage. There were so many people that you couldn’t get them all to rehearse at the same time, so I would rehearse three times a day with different groups of people coming in and out. For a lot of the people, it was their first time ever playing a show or being in a band, so that was always exciting. I like helping people find their way in to music.
That was a fun, special time for me in L.A…2008 or something. It was a little more innocent, and kind of dorky in a way that was cool. That was before the influx of all of San Francisco and New York moving here. Nobody cared about L.A. as a music scene at that time – it was almost a taboo place to be. It was the tail-end of people hating L.A., and it was awesome. I like it now, and the people who move here are great, but there was something awesome about living in a city that people were mistakenly overlooking.
BW: Did a relative of yours direct the “Running After Ganymede” video?
JN: My brother. He’s a documentary filmmaker, but he also has done a lot of stop-motion stuff. He’s making a documentary right now about the Angeles Crest Highway.
BW: The “Out of Sight” video up online is pretty bizarre, with its found footage…
JN: I don’t know who made that; it’s totally random. There are a few things like that.
BW: So you had no involvement in that video?
JN: None at all. There’s a video for “Weird Moons” that Jessie [Stead] – who made the album covers – did. She’s a crazy awesome filmmaker. And there’s the one my brother did, but I don’t know who did any of the others. There’s a crazy, fucked up one that somebody put up on Vimeo for “Pure Terror” that made me cry actually. It’s terrifying, but powerful. I don’t know who made it. I have no idea who makes these videos, but I think that’s kind of cool. I’m happy they do.
BW: You toured with White Fence as the guitarist, and released a split 7-inch. What’s the background to that release and your song “Belly Full of Blood”?
JN: That’s another really old draft from Light Show. I think I recorded it in 2009 or 2010…maybe before that. That song was inspired by a story a friend told me about a kid who was killed by a medication called Accutane. It was so sad to imagine that situation; it really moved me. That release was for a charity the label was working with. Tim [Presley] asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said “sure.”
BW: You had cancer for five years without realizing you had it. Even though you didn’t consciously know you had cancer, did you sense it on another level?
JN: I had crazy anxiety for six months, probably around the time it started. I suspect it was related, but there’s no way to prove it. All day long, for six months, I had that jump-out-of-bed feeling you get when you wake up from a nightmare.
BW: What’s the status now – is the cancer gone?
JN: As far as I know. I’m a really lucky person.
BW: The cancer became the werewolves in your music right?
JN: I had started dreaming up Weird Moons before I knew about the cancer; I had an unrelated idea about werewolves that was on my mind a lot. But it also turned out to be a perfect way to address the cancer stuff. Bodies changing, morphing, and mutating. These things, -- ideas and realities -- always flow together in strange and almost magical ways.
BW: I’ve seen you live in venues like Basic Flowers and Hyperion Tavern in recent years doing what you might call experimental, improvised sets. How much is planned ahead of time?
JN:I think those were just improvised. After Weird Moons and all the touring for it, I hit a creative thing where all I could do was improvise for a couple years. I would write things, but I didn’t feel they had the linear narrative needed for a recording. I would do stuff that would go on for hours – just making atmospheres. Once I got to do a three-hour guitar improvisation performance with some friends at the MOCA. That was great to finally have a place where that stuff made sense and where it could stretch out. But I didn’t have anything concrete that I wanted to say, so it wasn’t a good time for songwriting. So, to keep things moving, I would just improvise.
And after Prince died, I got really obsessed with guitar playing. I was practicing six hours a day, being very militant about guitar stuff. I was really into the Funkadelic guitar players at that time too. So that stuff also had a lot to do with my state of mind at that time.
BW: What was it about Prince’s death that set that off in you?
JN: I don’t know. I think just that his body of work was so huge. Also, David Bowie died around the same time, so these mega people were dying. You look at your own life…by the time they were twenty-three they had done all this genius stuff. Glenn Goins was only twenty-four when he died. It’s not good to spend too much time comparing your life to other peoples, but maybe sometimes for artists it can be a healthy motivation, if you’re careful with it.
There’s a whole level of musicianship that is almost a forgotten thing, or that’s how it seemed to me at the time, thinking about Prince in the context of what’s going on with music now. There’s so much soul and skill in what he did, and it made me feel ashamed of myself for not being more disciplined. So I changed that.
BW: Is that why the guitar is so up-front in your new recordings?
JN: I guess that’s where it ended up. Once I had some emotional build-up that I could write with, and things I wanted to communicate, I could stop improvising and actually write music again.
Also, I was tripping out about the immediacy of the guitar without any effects. With synthesizer, you have to think a sound through, and it’s premeditated. It’s the same thing with pedals – you think about what you want, you set it up, and then you do it. But with a more “acoustic” instrument – even if it’s electric guitar – it’s all tactile and more immediate.
If you want to play angry on a synth, you can’t just play it angry. You have to think about what angry means, what angry sounds like, and scientifically reverse-engineer that and make it happen. You can just wiggle knobs, but you might be wiggling one that’s not attached to anything, and then you’re wiggling a knob with anger, but it’s not the same.
Singing is the probably the best example – if you scream, or if you whisper, it’s just so there. So I think I got re-excited by that, and I was also trying to get back to more of where my brain was in 2008 and beforehand…being younger when things were simpler.
Maybe even more to when I was twelve, and I was happy just playing guitar. I would write songs, remember them, and I sometimes wouldn’t record anything. There was no cutting and pasting of anything, and no different takes for vocals. You would have to record in your bathroom on a cassette thing, and there was something about that that I miss.
SW: You had to make choices and stick with them.
JN: Yeah, and the stuff that you would stick with was the stuff you remembered. I would be making a song up, and then next time I’d play it, whatever I remembered is what I deemed good enough to keep. I was never bummed about forgetting something or missing something, and there wasn’t a huge stockpile of useless takes I’m not going to use.
Now, a lot of people seem to make art specifically to post it online, and there’s a crazy schedule in people’s minds where things need to be released right away. With a lot of music these days, things get really obsessive in the production realm too, to the point where the individuality of the artist can be compromised by the production standards and fears of not fitting in to the big picture. It seems like there’s an anxiety about time and status in the culture, -especially in the arts- and it gets more acute as time goes on. As a kid, there was a little more freedom from all that. I didn’t know I was free from it, because it didn’t exist yet, but all I had was an exciting idea that maybe someone would hear what I was doing someday and it would mean something to them. But there was no pressure to keep up. There was only the positive excitement that “it” could happen. I think getting back to that expectation-free mentality is a really great thing.
SW: When I saw you in Berlin, you said something specifically about Los Angeles and that there is something significant about the Hollywood machine that makes the underground…
JN: It pressure-cooks it. I wonder if it’s even still true, or if it’s becoming less true because the egg has cracked as far as entertainment goes. The punk history of L.A. is crazy, and if you look at the experimental music like LAFMS, there’s a seriously rich history here. Maybe when you’re so close to that industry cheese, it strengthens the individuality of the characters that exist outside the crazy showbiz stuff. A lot of powerful things can happen when people give up on fitting in. Whether the population at large appreciates those things or not is their own problem.