It's been almost three decades since I first got the idea not to interview Jandek, the prolific Texas improviser who avoided any public appearances for the first 26 years of his career. His identity remains unknown, and he's done two interviews since 1978. Still, despite my previous experience—I had, after all, been not interviewing him for years—avoiding him proved much harder than I imagined.
First came Jandek's records, a relentless stream sold cheap and sent in triplicate to the college radio station in Virginia where I worked. The music within was mysterious, beguiling, begging to be investigated. How did Jandek write and record these lonely, voice-in-your-head songs? And what did all the cryptic titles—Six and Six, Living in a Moon So Blue, Telegraph Melts—actually mean?
Same for the album covers, which usually featured photos of vague, empty locations that screamed "Find me!" or shots of Jandek himself (well, it was probably him—the only way to know for sure would be to interview him, but no way I was going to take that bait). Everyone who heard him wanted to know more. Many wrote to his label, Corwood Industries, only to receive short, scrawled answers in return. Some stalked his Houston post office box. One Texas paper actually tracked him down, or at least found someone who looked like Jandek and knew a lot about the guy and ... sounded like he wanted to be interviewed. I didn't fall for it.
In the early 2000s, not interviewing Jandek actually got easy. A movie about him, Jandek on Corwood, made all the questions tangible. The questions proved more important than the answers he wouldn't provide. Plus the filmmakers unearthed an early interview with a pre-reclusive Jandek that actually explained some details. It had been done.
But Jandek wouldn't let it rest: Soon after Jandek on Corwood was released, he began performing haunting new songs with musicians around the globe, and inspiring a whole new set of questions. His touring schedule since has been as relentless as his discography: first England, then Texas, then California; later Boston, Richmond, and now Chapel Hill, with a trail of live CDs and DVDs following him like breadcrumbs. Why won't this guy just leave me alone and let me not interview him?
Rather than let him answer that for me, I gave in. I agreed to interview Jandek. I was willing to ask all the questions everyone had ever had, but I had one requirement: He couldn't answer any of them.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: There have been many rumors about why you decided to start performing live 26 years after your first record was released. Some think Jandek on Corwood made you realize how many people were interested in your music; others have speculated that you have some sort of illness that made you decide it was now or never; a few even suggest you've been playing live all along and just now decided to start publicizing it.
But you must have had some kind of reaction to Jandek on Corwood, right? What was it like watching music critics guess at your ideas, your methods and your mental condition? Didn't you mind someone calling you a psychopath?
Many in the film also discuss your un-tuned guitar style, but you've been seen twiddling your pegs at shows. What gives?
You also often play with a stand in front of you. What's on it? Lyrics? Music? Ideas? Drawings? Phone numbers of local restaurants?
So far in concert you've played guitar, bass, piano, synth, drums and harmonica. What instruments will you play at the Chapel Hill show? And how did you pick The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle to accompany you playing keyboards (something he hasn't done publicly since age 9)?
Interesting. Since first teaming with Richard Youngs and Alex Nielsen for your first three shows, you've played with a ton of great avant-garde musicians: Loren Connors, Chris Corsano, Alan Licht, Tom Carter, C. Spencer Yeh, etc. Does this mean that, instead of being a recluse unaware of any work but your own, you've been an underground music aficionado for a while?
It's hard to imagine you hadn't heard Connors before. His abstract, painterly guitar work, and his tireless career (marked by two decades of Parkinson's disease) make him your only equal as an uncompromising underground icon. Connors once said about playing with you, "He's a lot better than he thinks he is, a lot more intuitive and resourceful than he gives himself credit for." Do you agree?
From the beginning, you've been pretty responsive to letters from Corwood customers. There's even a group on the photo Web site Flickr that collects these hand-written missives. Yet often these responses are so short and cryptic that they just inspire more questions. Why write back at all?
But what about this idea from Seth Tisue, who runs the amazingly comprehensive Web site (tisue.net/jandek) about you: "Ever since [the first Jandek album], he's been in a feedback loop where his output is definitely sustained, if not shaped, by attention from fans and reviewers, attention that he both rebuffs and thrives on, in a single dynamic"?
So maybe your lyrics are responses, too? There have been so many great lines in your performances, but my two favorites are from "Real Wild"—"I made the decision to get real wild"—and "This Wasted Life"—"Why can't I stop this wasted life/ Please take my freedom, I can't use it right." Is it fair to say those two sentiments are the thematic poles between which your current work fluctuates?
Ahh, yes. That's what I thought.
Jandek will perform at Chapel Hill's Gerrard Hall at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Tickets are $20-$22 and are available through the Cat's Cradle box office, CD Alley, Schoolkids Records, Chaz's Bull City Records and online at www.etix.com.
On Sunday, John Darnielle, the founder of The Mountain Goats, will make his first public appearance behind a keyboard since the age of 9. He'll share the stage with bassist Anne Gomez (of Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan), drummer Brian Jones (of The Agents of Good Roots) and Jandek, the Texas enigma who's been releasing albums on his own label for three decades but only began performing in 2004.
Last February, I played a 10-track mixtape for Darnielle in his Durham living room for a feature in the final issue of the late music magazine Harp. The closing track was "Locked Up," taken from Jandek's Newcastle Sunday, a recording of his second concert appearance ever. The track sparked a long conversation about Jandek, reprinted here.
JOHN DARNIELLE: Oh, this is Jandek. I don't recognize this tune.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: It's "Locked Up," from Newcastle Sunday, the second live show.
This one is on Columbia, right? [Laughs.] Well, you heard about that right? Columbia Records put out a double. It's remarkable, in this kind of economy, they're willing to take that kind of a chance on a guy who's been making records for 30 years. So kudos to you, Columbia Records, for giving Jandek his shot. [Laughs.] I appreciate that.
When's the first time you heard Jandek?
I think I was at Franklin Bruno's house, where Franklin lived and where Peter [Hughes] lived. In your early 20s, you know how it is. You go to your friend's house and you see records and to immediately make conversation, you start thumbing through their records, and there were about seven Jandek records in front of the stereo, and they all looked the same. I said, "What are these?" "Oh, that's Jandek." "Well, what's it like?" "Well, I don't know if it would be your thing." Then he said, "Well, I don't know, maybe you would like it." We didn't play it.
About six months later, I was at KSPC [88.7 FM, Claremont, Calif.] doing an in-studio thing, and I was flipping through discs and I see the Jandek records. And what's remarkable about them is not that there's one of them but how many of them there are. I was fascinated. But I wasn't fascinated enough to pursue it sonically. I don't even remember what the first time I actually heard it was, but it was weird: I got really super-obsessed with him before he decided to play live. It was super bizarre. I was here, and I had an idea for a short film called Jandek Therapy, where a patient would lie on a couch. He'd be talking and, as the camera pulled away, you'd realize he was talking to a Jandek sleeve. There would be a series of these where Jandek is the therapist, and he doesn't have anything to say. Do it. Which are your favorite Jandek albums? It's got to be the three a cappella albums. Have you heard the a cappella albums?
I actually haven't heard those three records.
Oh, fuck, I think they're probably in a box upstairs.
I could always get all three for $21 from Forced Exposure.
I know, but I sort of want to be the guy who... There's no way I'll find 'em, no way. That's the beauty of Jandek. He's made 25 records and then one year he sends 'em out. I don't know what his relationship is with Forced Exposure, but they get them first, it seems, and they're like, "Well, OK, here's the new Jandek record." I'm going to read the descriptions because they're so fucking priceless. So he makes an a cappella record, and the thing is everybody who cares about Jandek... Before he played live, and after he did these, he made a couple that were just bass and the voice. One of them was The Gone Wait. And then he played live and everything changed. But the a cappella ones, what was great about 'em, was that he made three of them. Making one record that's a cappella, that's a gimmick. Making two is a surprise. Making three is the point at which everybody goes, "Is this how it's going to be from now on?" It's a wonderful thing to do.
[At this point, Darnielle realizes his computer is out of power, so he switches computers and visits Jandek's Forced Exposure page.]
Oh, there it is, the cover of Ready for the House. I walked past the Jandek house when I went to Houston. They told me, "You know, that house is right around the corner." I had to. I felt kind of guilty because it was before he played live, and I was like, "Wow, it would be uncool, if people don't know where he is, to blow his thing." To show up at his house is probably not cool. I walked past his house and was like, "Well, Jandek is probably in there. [Laughs.]
You saw Jandek on Corwood, I assume.
Well, it had the phone call in it. There was no way of hearing that until then. ... Here it is. So, this is the beginning, and we're this many records into his career. So he makes that, which is one of my favorites, and I Woke Up, which is really good. And then, The Beginning: Eight tracks. The last track is all solo piano. And then Forced Exposure comments, "Only one person knows where it leads to next." And where it leads to next is Put My Dream on This Planet. "No. 29 in the ever-growing oeuvre of Jandek, and it's certainly a head-scratcher. No guitar, no drums, no piano, just him rambling on for a small eternity in a sort of song/speech mode on two lengthy and one very short tracks, all of it sounding kind of like it was recorded through ..." Well, they say "a 50 Watt Peavey Bandit amp," but I'll tell you what it sounds like. It sounds like he has a voice-activated handheld, and he's singing and stopping. And every time he stops singing, it shuts off. It sounds like it just keeps starting back up. So that's the 29th record. Then the 30th record, all a cappella again, two in a row. And the reviewer says, "Opening with a 29-minute track, it follows through with 11 shorter vignettes. I have no idea what to say." See, what can you say? The 31st one: "The third document in Jandek's new solo-vocal style..." It's called Worthless Recluse.
There's a few more. There were four more, I think. This was a band one. This one. They say acoustic guitar and vocal. I know that this one actually sounds to me like it is bass and vocal, not guitar and vocal. And his vocals start to get weird. That's the same, Shadow of Leaves. That's the one where the Jandek mailing list got very excited because they thought that picture had been Photoshopped, and you know there's nothing to get people online excited than talking about whether something has been Photoshopped or not. Because the people who say they're sure it has will tell you what a moron you are that you can't see it, that you really can't understand Photoshop. And then the other people will be like, "Well, I don't know. It looks like a real picture to me." I tend to side with those people: "You know, why is Jandek going to... He's Jandek. All of these sleeves seem to have been done in the exact same place, possibly on the same day." The blackness of his outfit is so black on it that you wonder. Then he played live, but he still had a few records to go before he put out Glasgow Sunday. I didn't hear these ones, but I think those pictures are Ireland and Scotland. That's the one, of course, where he had Will Oldham pose for the front cover. Just kidding. Yeah, and then he played live, and I still don't know what to think about that.
Have you seen Jandek live?
I saw him last year in Texas with Tom Carter. Weird scene.
Good place to see him, I guess. Well, I don't know.
What did you think about Jandek coming into public to play after 26 years of avoiding it all, especially since your obsession with him had just grown so intense?
I feel weird talking about it because there was a lot of discussion when Jandek played live. People said, "Well, I don't know if he should have done this." And then others, I think rightly, said, "Look, he can do whatever he wants to do. It's his music. It's his fucking business." But at the same time, let's imagine it's 150 years in the future, so we're not talking about a guy who's alive and what he does or doesn't want to do. We're talking about a historical figure now.
Well, he was perfect. For a long time, there was no story like him in the whole history of music. And it existed with a strange relationship to shifting technologies. It was only LPs and then suddenly [snaps] it was only CDs. He did it overnight. With the exception of the one ad that he had ever taken out, all he did was make records, send them around to the exact same list of radio stations for many, many years, sold them in bulk. [Laughs.] He still kept it perfect in that he doesn't do interviews or stuff like that, but I don't see why not at this point.
But even with the concessions of playing live, if that's what we can call them, is there another story like that in history?
Well, it's not that I would call them concessions. It's just such a tidy, amazing narrative and it was so open you couldn't know anything about him. The only information you could have—the only information you could have—was the records themselves. And maybe, maybe, maybe if you were lucky, and you asked your question the right way, he would scribble a little note for you. When Summertseps did those tribute records, they wrote to him to ask if he wanted to participate in all that, and he wrote back and gave them like two sentences and said, "This is fine with me." Then they sent him disposable cameras and said, "If you want to send us some pictures, you can." And he took like two rolls and sent them out. Perfect. Amazingly weird. They got in touch with him, he answers, but you didn't know that it was him because he didn't say, "I'm Jandek."
Now that he plays live, there's nothing wrong with it. He's still doing the same thing. But that one aspect of it that was such an incredible mystery—and real mysteries are so rare in this world. There aren't any, especially in music, where everything anybody ever does... I used to like to be coy about this band that I was in in high school because there was almost no information about us. We had an archive of tapes that was like four hours of material or more, but we wouldn't answer any questions and there was this mystery. But the Internet ruined all of that. You can't have any secrecy unless you're Jandek. He had nothing but secrets. Now he still has some, but fewer.
And he inspires so much conversation with so little of his own.
That's the thing about it. That's what's so great about him. Even now that people can say, "I've seen Jandek," whereas previously your chances of running into anybody who had seen him in the flesh were 100,000,000,000:1—there was Katy Vine and if you want to Houston, someone would say, "I'm sure I've seen that guy. I've seen him at the post office, but he's just some dude." That made it better.
That, to me, was what was weird about him playing live. He goes over to Glasgow, and who's he playing with? Experimental musicians. Well, what that does, it tells you how to think of his music. It gives it a genre. It gives it a category. It's willfully outsider stuff. Prior to that, for all anybody knew, he thought it was rock 'n' roll. For all anybody knew, he's Howard Finster, and you had no clue. As soon as you call Simon Wickham-Smith, you're like, "Ahh, this guy has listened to Simon Wickham-Smith." Then you have a little placement.
That was kind of what was so pure about it: Prior to that, the only way to interpret it was through the purity of your own lens. It was one of the few cases where there was no context for it. It was just the music. You can't have that in this world anymore. There are press kits.