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Resurrection songs: Jason Molina’s vision (by Lee Chung Horn)
It’s 40 degrees most days now in Chicago. Out on the streets, the warm clothes are coming on. In the nippy air, people walk a little faster, and getting indoors becomes a matter of importance these days. Jason Molina, who has called Chicago home for many years now, is reflective. Chicago is special: such a large part of his music had been written and created in the city that even when he’s not there physically, his heart is.
Throughout a musical career that has spanned some 13 years under his given name, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., Molina has moved through nine different locations. His early, plaintive folky style is gone; in its place, he has marshaled a muscular rock band that backs him both on tours and in the studio. For 2006, Molina recorded not one, but two records, both different sounding, and both equally true to his vision of life as a harrowing quest for peace and resolution.
Fading Trails, the first record, was made at three locations: with auteur Steve Albini at his Electric Audio Studio, ex-Camper Van Beethoven leader David Lowery’s Sound of Music Studio, and also at Memphis’s famed Sun Studio. Some more of the tracks came out of a home undertaking called the Shohola sessions. But, the record sounds a cohesive whole.
The second album is more stripped down. Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go was written and recorded in Bloomington, Indiana where Molina’s record label Secretly Canadian is sited. Molina hid out inside a garage, put out the lights, lit candles, and wrote music and words. He recorded the songs one after the other in the order they were written. These ruminations captured Molina’s depression and fear in a violent and powerful way. Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go therefore goes beyond Leonard Cohen and Morrissey to stake out a place where cleverness was just not important if it hid the truth.
It’s been two days since Molina came back from tour, and he was keen to unwind a bit in the Windy City. Beta’s Lee Chung Horn caught up with him via email, and, as is usual for Molina, his responses returned, all typed in upper case.
After 12 years in music, what still gets you up and inspires to write and perform?
IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE IDEA THAT I HAVE GOT TO WORK HARD. NOTHING ELSE CAN MAKE SENSE IN MY WORLD OR IN MY WAY OF THINKING IF I’M NOT WILLING TO PUT IN THE SWEAT TO WRITE. I DON’T ALWAYS END UP WITH GREAT SONGS, BUT THE LEARNING THAT COMES WITH WORKING HARD ON AN IDEA IS ALWAYS SOMETHING THAT LEADS TO BETTER MUSIC. AS FAR AS PERFORMING GOES, I DON’T CONSIDER MYSELF A PERFORMER. I AM A SONGWRITER. PART OF THE PROCESS IS TO TAKE OUT THE SONGS ONCE IN A WHILE AND PLAY THEM FOR PEOPLE. THERE ARE GREAT MOMENTS OF INSPIRATION THAT COME FROM TOURING ALL THE TIME, AND I VALUE THESE AS MUCH AS THE WRITING PROCESS.
“Fading Trails” finds you working with Steve Albini again. Many people admire Albini. I especially love the way he records drums, and I notice that “Fading Trails” has a very heavy drum sound that reminded me of the drums on the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa”. What do you think are Albini’s distinctives, what sets him apart from other producers?
I NEVER APPROACHED STEVE WITH A SOLID IDEA OF HOW THE FINAL RECORDINGS WOULD SOUND. I’VE LEARNED, BY WORKING WITH HIM, THAT HE HAS A SOLID GRIP ON HOW TO JUST LEAVE BANDS ALONE, TO LET THEM WORK THEIR IDEAS OUT. HE IS ALWAYS READY TO GO WHEN THE BAND IS. I AM NOT AN ENGINEER BUT I’VE MADE DOZENS OF RECORDS. PERHAPS THE FACT THAT EVERYONE AT ELECTRICAL AUDIO ARE WORKING MUSICIANS AS WELL AS ENGINEERS HAS HELPED US TO FEEL COMFORTABLE THERE. STEVE IS NOT A HEAVY HANDED RECORDIST, AND WILL TRY TO PUT TO TAPE WHATEVER IDEAS YOU AS A MUSICIAN CAN COME UP WITH.
You also worked with David Lowery. How did you first meet David?
I HAVE BEEN A CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN FAN FOR YEARS AND YEARS. THAT WAS ONE BAND THAT STOOD OUT IN THE YEARS WHEN I WAS LISTENING TO A LOT OF HEAVY MUSIC, I THOUGHT BRINGING ALL OF THESE FOLK MUSIC ELEMENTS INTO THIS PUNK ROCK WORLD WAS BRILLIANT. I STILL COULD LISTEN TO BIG BLACK OR BLACK SABBATH AND NOT FEEL THAT CAMPER WAS OUT OF LINE. IT WAS ALL ABOUT GOOD SONGS, SO WHEN I HEARD THAT ALL OF THEIR GEAR HAD BEEN STOLEN I OFFERED UP WHAT I HAD TO THE BAND, THAT WAS HOW WE FIRST MET.
What was Lowery’s Sound of Music studio like? How was Lowery’s method different from Albini’s?
FOR THE SESSIONS WITH LOWERY, HE ACTUALLY WOULD PUT ON A GUITAR OR A BASS OR WHATEVER AND WORK OUT IDEAS ON THE FLOOR. THIS SESSION WAS MOSTLY A SITUATION LIKE “THE PYRAMID ELECTRIC COMPANY” WHERE I WOULD SLEEP IN THE STUDIO AND WRITE ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT AND MORNING AND TRY TO COME UP WITH IDEAS TO SHOW TO THE BAND. DAVID WAS VERY GOOD AT HELPING TO GET THE ARRANGEMENTS TO BE INTERESTING. ALSO ON THE SESSIONS’ CONTROLS AND OTHER MUSICAL DUTIES WAS ALAN WEATHERHEAD. HE BROUGHT A BRILLIANT STYLE AND A LOT OF TASTE TO THE FINAL RECORD.
Did you buy any of the Camper Van Beethoven records growing up?
I HAD MOST OF THEM AT SOME POINT.
When were the songs for the lost Shohola album written? Are you finding it interesting to dust off old demos from long ago, and finishing them?
YOU KNOW, THESE SONGS WERE WRITTEN A LONG TIME AGO, I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHEN. I’M GLAD TO SEE THAT SOME VERSION OF THAT SESSION WILL BE COMING OUT. I HAD WANTED THAT TO BE A MAGNOLIA RECORD, BUT DUE TO THINGS OUT OF MY CONTROL IT COULD NOT HAPPEN.
Do you think your songwriting and song structures have become more straight-ahead with time? When “Magnolia Electric Co.” came out in 2003, many people gasped because it marked such a shift in direction from Songs: Ohia. The music was the most driving and straightforward rock you’ve made at that time.
I WOULD SAY THAT PLAYING WITH THE BAND REGULARLY NOW HAS CHANGED THE WAY I ARRANGE THE SONGS. I GO FOR WHAT IS MORE STANDARD, AND IN THE PROCESS THE BEAUTY IN THE SONG HAS TO COME OUT OF THE DYNAMICS OF THE BAND AND HOW WE PLAY TOGETHER. I STILL WORK ON STRANGE OR UNEXPECTED FORMS FOR SONGS, BUT LEAVE THAT MOSTLY TO THE SOLO RECORDS NOW.
“Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go”, from your press kit, seems to have had a strenuous, even harrowing birth. You basically wrote each song and recorded it before moving on to the next one. And you were in a dark garage with no windows. The aim was to allow introspection, self examination, focus and catharsis. All in three mornings. Were you exhausted after the whole undertaking?
NO. AFTER THREE DAYS, I FELT ALIVE. IT’S A RESURRECTION RECORD I GUESS. I LOVE TO WORK THIS WAY, IT IS VERY DIFFICULT, PHYSICALLY, BECAUSE YOU ARE ALWAYS TIRED BEYOND TIRED, AND EMOTIONALLY AS WELL. THERE CAN NOT BE TIMES WHEN YOU DOUBT WHAT YOU ARE DOING, OR WHEN YOU DOUBT THE WORK.
Were there any light moments?
I DON’T THINK SO. HONESTLY.
Wikipedia says: “It is not entirely clear when Songs: Ohia became Magnolia Electric Co. In interviews, Jason Molina has claimed that he considered the tenure of Songs: Ohia over after “Didn’t It Rain”, which would make Magnolia Electric Co. the eponymous debut album of the new band.” Your comments?
THAT IS CORRECT. THE FINAL SONGS: OHIA RECORD IS “DIDN’T IT RAIN.”
Where do you live now?
You were raised in West Virginia and Ohio but have moved to many places. Do you like moving around?
MOVING, IT IS JUST PART OF WHO I AM. GYPSY EYES. PROBABLY MY SPANISH HERITAGE IN THERE. IT IS VERY HARD ON ME, BUT IT’S ALSO PART OF WHO I AM. I THINK I’LL MOVE AWAY FROM CHICAGO THIS YEAR, WHO KNOWS TO WHERE?
Of all the cities you’ve lived, which one holds the best memories and experiences for you? Why?
CHICAGO IS WHERE I’VE WRITTEN THE MOST MUSIC, MANY SINGLES. SO MANY RECORDS WERE WRITTEN HERE. IT’S HARD FOR ME TO SEE MY MUSIC OUTSIDE OF THIS PLACE. EVEN WHEN I’M LIVING SOMEWHERE ELSE, I FEEL LIKE I’M AT HOME IN CHICAGO. I COULD LIVE IN THE MOUNTAINS, THE DESERT OR IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. IF I HAD TO LIVE AROUND PEOPLE AND MAKE MUSIC IN A HUGE CITY, IT WOULD BE HERE. BUT THINGS CHANGE ALWAYS.
I may be wrong, but didn’t you live in New Orleans last year? Was that before or after Hurricane Katrina? What are your thoughts about the hurricane? Did you play any benefits?
I DID PLAY A FEW BENEFITS, BUT I WASN’T LIVING IN NEW ORLEANS AT THE TIME. I DID SOME RECORDINGS THERE AND PLAYED A LOT OF SHOWS AROUND THAT TIME. NEW ORLEANS IS A WONDERFUL CITY, ONE OF MY FAVORITE PLACES ON THE PLANET.
Have you spoken to Eric Weddle lately? I remember Eric when you first started.
I HAVEN’T, NOT IN A LONG TIME. I LIKE HIS MUSIC, IN ANOTHER LIFE, I WOULD HAVE BEEN STILL MAKING MUSIC THAT IS FULL OF FEEDBACK AND LOOPS AND PAIN. I HAVE BEEN DOING THIS KIND OF SONGWRITING NOW FOR SO LONG, IT WOULD BE HARD TO DO WHAT HE DOES. HE’S BRILLIANT IN HIS WAY.
Jason, you’re also an accomplished visual artist, and you’ve exhibited at the Brooklyn Fireproof Gallery in New York City with other rock people like David Berman, Archer Prewitt and Pall Jenkins, and John Darnielle. Tell us about your painting?
I’VE BEEN PAINTING AND DRAWING SERIOUSLY FOR ABOUT 15 YEARS. IT IS A SHAME THAT TOURING TAKES SO MUCH TIME AWAY FROM DOING MY ART, BUT IT’S A FAIR TRADE. PEOPLE SEEM TO LIKE WHATEVER I AM DOING AT A GIVEN MOMENT. I DON’T FEELANY PRESSURE TO BE DOING ONE OR THE OTHER.
Where can we see some of your works?
I THINK I WILL PUBLISH A FEW DRAWINGS THIS YEAR IN MAGAZINES, NOTHING ELSE IS PLANNED.
Haven’t you just come back from tour?
YEAH, I’M JUST HOME NOW FOR A FEW DAYS. I’M LEAVING TOMORROW TO FINISH UP THIS USA TOUR AND THEN I’M HEADING ON TO AUSTRALIA.
I remember you told me in our earlier interview that Ohia is a red Hawaiian flower. Do you know there is a music blog called Songs: Ohio? Do you read blogs much?
WOW. I AM NOT AWARE OF THIS. I NEVER READ BLOGS, REALLY. I THINK THEY WASTE TOO MUCH SONGWRITING TIME.
In the last one month there have been some eleven blog postings about you.
You’ve said in interviews that you prefer recording in as live a manner as possible. The quick take is important to you. Why?
THIS IS HOW I FEEL LIKE I AM BEING THE MOST HONEST TO THE SONG. THE SENSITIVITY AND THE EMOTION IN THE SONGS SEEM TO BE KILLED THE MORE YOU TRY TO OVERDO THEM.
The Coke Dares are now your regular band. Did they have their own lead singer before? What role does he play now?
ALL OF THE COKE DARES ARE SINGERS, SO THEY ALL TAKE CARE OF THAT.
I hear you’ve talked with Jeff Tweedy, Sally Timms and Andrew Bird about working together. Any news about this?
NOTHING RIGHT NOW. I’VE SPOKEN TO THEM ALL, BUT I THINK GETTING TIME TO GET IN THE STUDIO WITH THEM IS A NEAR IMPOSSIBILITY. ANDREW DID SOME RECORDING FOR PART OF THE BLACK RAM SESSIONS THAT I DID WITH DAVID LOWERY, THAT SHOULD SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY NEXT YEAR. I THINK THAT SHOULD BE INTERESTING.