Jarboe Part 2
by D. House
January 27, 2009
Jarboe’s musical explorations have led to select comparisons to other female musicians with regard for their success in penetrating the otherwise maledominated "rock" subculture. Her work is remarkable and unique and while much of the attention she has received as a member of the legendary SWANS, her collaborative has received international critical attention. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part of the interview HERE.
How is it working with Bill Laswell?
I learned a lot during that experience. There’s a relationship there when you work with a producer. You might look at it like you have a beautiful home and you’re going to hire an interior decorator to come in, and they give you your style. In terms of a producer’s usefulness, in an ideal world they should help you articulate your vision, but they shouldn’t override it. Obviously, he’s a brilliant musician and producer, however, what I saw happening during the process was that I was systematically being pushed out of my own work. My problem with the album was that I didn’t understand the people that were being brought in to guest on it. I didn’t understand showing up in the studio one day and having professional glossy background singers singing the parts that were mine.
So you weren’t even brought into this discussion or talked about it, suddenly they were just there?
No, I came into the studio and all of the background vocals had been recorded on one of the songs that I did lead vocal for. They had beautiful voices, but what did that have to do with us?
Do you think it was all largely due to the fact that you were on a major label, on MCA and they wanted to create a product that was more marketable and saleable?
I don’t know. To me, one of the trademark sounds of Swans was when I would be doing backing vocals to Michael. During “Love Will Tear Us Apart II” when I was doing backing vocals on that song, I was told to remove the vibrato from my voice. I have an extreme sense of control of my vibrato. If you want me to, I can track it twenty times, and every single curve in the vibrato will match the one before. To me, that was part of my sound, ergo part of the Swans sound, part of the entire vibe and energy. Why would you sign a band if you want to take away their trademark sound? Why do you want them to begin with? I of course raised a stink about it and pointed out that it had become impersonal, so those vocals were erased and I did the backing vocals. Things just kept happening like that where different people were brought in to do things that we didn’t need any help with. It was interesting when it was pointed out by the A&R at the major label that the thing that had made them fall in love with the band was the Children of God album. I will never understand why a company would hear Children of God and then try to create something that doesn’t sound like Children of God. I think for an artist, if you’re going to give them a lot of money, it’s best to put them in an isolation tank. I mean that as a metaphor. Children of God was done in Sawmill Studios in Cornwall, where you’d have to take a boat to get to the studios. That’s how remote it is, it’s cut off from everything. So you go there, and you live at the compound. The band members have different cabins where they sleep. There’s a cabin where a cook would come in and make our meals. You’re really out in this wilderness situation, it’s incredibly freeing and you can be really creative because you’re cut off from the daily distractions of life. I think that’s the way to do it, and not give all the money to a name producer and put you into a sterile studio environment and come out of there with something that you don’t believe sounds like you. I know a lot of the fans love that album, and the album itself may be wonderful. That’s not the point. The point is that you take someone’s soul, as it were, you take their essence of what makes them them and then you alter it to where even the people that were in it don’t recognize it anymore. That’s the thing I will never forget about that process. It was one of the most painful things I’ve been through in my entire life. I saw red flags, and we had a lot of pretty extreme arguments, and I felt a sense of a mother protecting her child for the band. I felt invaded, like my privacy had been violated. I think a lot of artists will say they’ve been through this. I think they’ll get it, like it’s a normal experience. It can be a positive thing because you read interviews of bands or singers all the time where they’ll say they can’t do an album without this producer. Look at my friends in Neurosis, for example. They need to work on their albums with Steve Albini, so obviously that’s a happy relationship.
How did you originally get connected with Neurosis?
I really identify with them because of the era. There’s a core group of people that may come and go for projects. It’s like being a new-born baby or a young child, then going through adolescence, then being a young man or woman. That’s the life of a band. It’s really like a human being growing up. You go through phases that are up and down. They have gone through different phases with various issues, and now they don’t have those issues anymore and have found who they are and found themselves. They’re someone I personally feel a sense of family connection to. They are the only group in the entire world that I can say that about right now because Swans obviously are not together anymore. Their musical vocabulary and their approach is so part of me, it’s something that I feel without being translated for me, I understand it immediately. I love them very deeply and I feel a sense of pride with their achievements. The last couple years they’ve really gotten a lot of acclaim. Right now they’re doing Beyond the Pale, which I did several years ago in San Francisco, and now this year they’re doing it at Roadburn Festival in Europe, and that’s incredible. They really have critics’ ears as well as die-hard fans who pretty much worship them. You go to one of their shows, and something’s going on. That’s what I like about it because it was the same in Swans. When you went it wasn’t like people were, “let’s go out for a night and see a band.” It’s like a ritual’s going on there. It’s something more than the music.
I felt back then that there was a lot more music that was centered more around a sense of ritual that wasn’t just a band playing songs. It wasn’t just bands, there was also a lot of performance going on. I think of bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, what you guys were doing, a lot of the Survival Research stuff. There seemed to be this kind of movement that was about more than just making music but really about attitude and philosophy and belief and having a particular perspective and really channeling a lot through that using the music as the vehicle.
The first time I saw Neurosis, it was during the time where at the end they would invite people from the audience to come on stage and to participate in the tribal drums. It would go down with this incredible bombardment of intense tribal drumming with people that were not drummers in addition to the drummers that were on stage. I think they’ve always had that sense of ritual. And of course I study that and watch all the subtle ways that unfolds. The thing I really relate to about them is the use of the body through sound, how you use your body. Michael did the same thing. When you sing or when you’re performing on stage, your whole body is involved. It’s almost athletic in a way, and it’s a thrill to watch, but it’s not staged. You get this sense that they’re really doing this; it’s not a slick choreographed thing. Doing that album with them was a very intimate experience for me, and the lyrics of every song are about extremely personal subject matter that I pulled from personal diary entries.
I wrote a song about the death of my father and wrote about what he really did say to me and about what really did happen to me when he had his brain operated on with brain cancer. They rolled him out of the operating room, and I leaned over and his eyes were awake. When they operate on your brain they don’t put you to sleep. His blue eyes were staring at me, and he could just articulate “burning” in a heavy, coarse whisper. That stayed with me, the sense that your brain has been operated on and you have a sense of fire going in there where they cut you. So I wrote a song about that called "His Last Words". Then I wrote a song about my mother, a devout Roman Catholic. My father was an atheist who then became a Buddhist and finally converted to Catholicism.
The song entitled "Receive" was an homage to my mother and her favorite prayer, which was the Hail Mary. My mother’s name was Mary. I didn’t have any sense of removing my self, I gave my intimate real world to them. “Seizure” is about my experience of several years of experiencing seizures.
That was from an insane week of my life in 2001 when I was simultaneously rehearsing for a performance at SXSW and getting ready to fly up to Greenpoint Studios and work on a production as a singer. People say I was flying all over the place in a rush. I went up the stairs to get a suitcase down to pack to go up to New York, and they just heard me hit the ground. I fell and slammed my skull really hard. I damaged my frontal lobe. Eight days in an intensive care brain ward, and in a matter of minutes there would have been nothing they could have done for me. I remember coming out of that I was heavily sedated with Dilantin to keep me from having a seizure. It definitely changed me because you have to crawl back to function. It really requires a will power to say that you’re going to continue to do something against all odds. For me it was that the seizures were going to stop, that I was going to be able to drive an automobile, that I was going to create incredible albums and keep on working and keep reaching for my best work. This is coming out of two months of just staring like a zombie, and I just hurled myself out of that. The accident happened in March, and by June I was out there running for five miles on the trail. I think that blasting my brain with blood doing all that running helped me.
Your new record, Mahakali, named for the Indian goddess of death and destruction, tell me about the vision of the record and about the goddess of change and destruction series.
She is also about time and change. Speaking about writing of personal experience, The Men Album is that as well, a double album I did on Atavistic. That took six years. I began working on The Men Album around the time of my head injury. That has collaborations on there with everybody. Blixa Bargeld is on there as well as Alan Sparhawk from Low. Chris Connelly and I sing a song together. Iva Davies from the Australian band Icehouse, Edward Ka-Spel, David J. So this is just a huge collaboration that I wanted to do to reach out to male friends that I knew and liked, so the album explored relationships with men as a woman, whether it be your father, a lover, a brother. Again, very personal subject matter. But with Mahakali, it’s the first commercial release with the subject matter not being about me, not being about my emotions, my feelings, my observations or my thoughts. It was purely thinking about the planet and about war and about the global crisis, and the sense of this churning upheaval with all this stuff falling apart. I channeled that. It’s growth for me as an artist because of the fact that it’s different subject matter. It’s not Jarboe talking about her experience being Jarboe. It’s about the subject of the world and the chaos.
Is it more of an external exploration as opposed to internal one?
Yes, and the lyrical theme would be the use of the word “element.” Again, because I love collaborating, and I love having the audacity to approach somebody, say with Blixa on The Men Album, this is a song called “Ferral.” It’s about the wildness of the heart when a lover has betrayed you. I wanted the song to open with the voice of a madhouse, replicating the sound of someone in a Victorian madhouse, just completely insane. And that’s what he did. Who else could do that? That was a brilliant collaboration, and I just let him be Blixa. With Mahakali, here are two people that I really was thinking about how they would add or interpret what kind of soul or heart or emotion or point of view would they bring. I had the nerve to ask Phil Anselmo and say, here’s this song that I’ve written about the upheaval of nature and the destruction of the planet, and we bonded with the fact that we have a Louisiana connection. What he did was very bluesy, like a Delta blues harmony, very emotional vocals. One of the first things he said to me was, “you’re not doing a metal album are you?” And I said, “No. I’m Jarboe, I’ll always do a Jarboe album.” It definitely can’t be classified as that. Of course, that’s one of the issues when you’re like that, the record companies don’t like you, they don’t know how to sell you. But what’s the point unless you’re being you? Why do this at all? I really liked listening to Mayhem, and I wanted to approach Attila [Csihar]. Attila and I do a duet, if you can call it that. It’s a mantra about death and dying. I wanted to do a play on words, where I envisioned a Mother Theresa in Calcutta with people after a holocaust or devastation or war or biological warfare, and here are these people dying in a room of fate, in a room of hate, in a room of pain, maybe in a room of faith. In my mind’s eye it was this ward of people suffering and dying. We do a duet where I use the soprano tone and some singing in a falsetto almost like a texture, and I let him come front and center when he wanted to emote. He did multi-tracks of death rattles and groans and gasping, and he also sang the words with his heavy Hungarian accent. In that way, our voices weave in and out, and they work together really well. In my head, I could hear it before we actually did it, and I think he’s really happy with it. That was the audacity, the nerve to approach people that you really see doing this and then they do it and it’s incredible. In a way that’s almost like me being a producer, having a vision of someone else doing this, telling them how I interpret the song. Now you interpret it, and you do your thing with it. That is tremendously satisfying.
Absolutely. Do you expect to do a full national tour to support Mahakali?
I’ve never done that on my own. In 2003, the Italian group Larsen came over and they toured as my band. It was a Larsen tour as well as my tour, and they became my band when I did my songs. I think we were on tour for over three weeks. We couldn’t play the center of the country because they had to get back, so I remember we literally did Seattle and the next show was - if I’m not mistaken - Chicago. It was brutal. We didn’t’ stop in places like Denver or Minneapolis, we just came up the West coast. So that wasn’t a full tour of the U.S., it was more a partial one, even though we drove through the entire country. I think to tour the entire country, it becomes a very boring question of economic feasibility. I would love to do that with someone else, to do a co-bill. It seems to me all the tours coming through Atlanta right now are these packaged tours, and it’s amazing to meto see these packaged tours with four heavy hitters on the same bill.
We've run out of time, but I'd like to know if you have any final thing to say.
I’ll be going on tour next Summer . I’ll be in Europe for around six weeks, and then try to do some shows here when I get back. I hope that gasoline is not fourteen dollars a gallon, because my question is how are groups doing these tours? How are they affording it? It must be pretty rough.
The read the first part of the interview with Jarboe, go to Part I.