In Conversation With Jesse Malin
Born and raised in Queens, Jesse Malin is a New Yorker through and through; not just in his upbringing or his accent, but in his lifestyle, his career and his utter devotion to the city that bred his prolific hardcore, punk and singer-songwriter roots.
At the end of March, Malin celebrated the release of his latest solo full-length, New York Before the War, and followed it up just a couple of short weeks later with an additional solo 10" (Hardcore Feeling) and a D Generation 10" (Queens of A) for Record Store Day. And it sounds like that's just the beginning of what Malin has planned for 2015.
New York City may change with each passing season, but Malin has remained steadfast with his musical and cultural output. Chatting over a mid-afternoon bite at Cafe Mogador in the East Village -- the neighborhood he calls home -- we covered a lot a of ground with Malin, from what it was like making New York Before the War twice in the last five years to growing up in Queens as the class clown and finding an emotional release with music. Check out our exclusive -- and extensive -- conversation below:
It has to feel good to have New York Before the War out finally.
It’s nice. It’s nice to see some press and some people understanding where we’re coming from. The fans seem happy -- and just for me to let go of it and move on, I’ve been writing a lot for another record. This was one that, between the last one and this, there was a long gap. I don’t ever want to go that long again. But, during that time, I was able to build up a lot of material, pick the best stuff and I was lucky enough to hook up with great musicians to make a record that is my statement on how I feel right now in 2015. Even though it was recorded in 2014, the attitude, the thoughts, the concepts, I think they’re still relevant a year later ... unfortunately and fortunately. [Laughs]
What was it that took so long to get this album out? This was the longest gap in your solo records by a long shot.
Yeah, and maybe between any record, except perhaps my hardcore band and D Generation. There was a big gap there. I guess, you know, we made the record twice. We made it down on a farm in Virginia. We ended up using some of those songs -- I felt like it was a great experience to go lock ourselves away out in the woods, be with the band, live communally, just wake up everyday and make this record, but it was missing some of the angst and the uptempo anger, darker stuff that I like to mix in ... not just the music I create but also the music I listen to.
So, we came back and were about to release the record but I decided it wasn’t ready. That was a tough thing to say to the label, to my manager, to the producer ... and to the fans. I couldn’t blame anybody else. I just started to write and write, and I came up with 15 songs and 10 of those wound up on the album. We recorded them all in New York City, in the Magic Shop studios downtown. The engineer ended up mixing the songs that we did at the Virginia sessions at White Star studios with the stuff we did in New York and that became the 13 tracks plus the bonus material that would be New York Before the War.
It’s a metaphor for holding onto things that you believe in. It’s not even directly about New York -- New York is just my centerpiece.
When I came back to New York, I was writing the record in this apartment that I never had the energy to move out of all these years because I was touring so much. I mean, it sucked, it was freezing, the building was crooked, the landlord was giving me a hard time, but it said “The War” in huge letters painted on the side, so that tied into the title. A lot of people ask me what it’s about, but it’s really just about surviving. It’s not about one particular war or anything. It’s a metaphor for holding onto things that you believe in. It’s not even directly about New York -- New York is just my centerpiece. It’s a good metaphor for an apathetic and disposable culture that’s being destroyed by chain stores.
Derek Cruz, my guitar player, he’s the one guy that was on both sessions. He was my sideman and helped me with the production and the co-writes. He was part of the St. Marks Social band on the last album, Love it to Life, and that was five years ago. During those five years, we toured behind that album, I did some D Generation recording and we had a reunion. That was volatile but also really fun, and then I made this record twice. So, here we are five years later. I don’t think I would do that again, in fact I have another record ready to go, hopefully, by the end of this year even.
Well, when you lay it out like that, five years might not be that long actually. A tour, a couple of albums, reuniting with D Generation ...
It goes by fast. Definitely. It’s a good David Bowie song, too. And you know, that whole Russian five year plan.
Regardless of how much -- or how little -- you want New York to actually play a role in the meaning behind the LP's title, when people see it, it immediately hearkens images of the city. To me, it makes me think of how the city has changed over the last few decades.
People will go, “Oh, it’s apocalyptic,” but I really like taking heavy things and finding ways to turn them on their sides, to put a happy face on them. I come from a crazy family with divorced parents and my mom was struggling to raise kids, and I was always trying to find a way to put a smile on when times were hard. That’s why music is great. That’s why songs like “Bar Life” are about this kind of celebration or meditation to find a place to get relief from the beatdowns from daily life, or whatever we struggle with that we have to rise above.
That being said, I feel grateful that I’ve had music and have had that outlet, otherwise I don’t know what I would do. I don’t do this because I think I’m going to make a ton of money -- that’d be nice -- or because I want free beer, I do it because I need to and I need that expression and I love playing every night. I love taking these songs on the road and sharing them face-to-face with fans in dark rooms over dirty microphones in front of hot lights. There’s something about sweating it out that way, you learn about songs in a whole new way.
You were born and raised in Queens ...
Yeah, I had to get out of there quick. Now they have hipster bars and punk rock clubs and galleries. It’s funny because Manhattan, now, is very hard to afford to live in, just like London or San Francisco, but we came here as artists because it was cheap to create and also because the attention was there. We could carve a name out here and maybe somebody would notice and we could build up an audience. That’s what it was like down here.
And, it still is, there are still bands in downtown New York. Whenever I go on tour, I’m always looking for a good bar, cheap beer, cool health food spots, record stores, I’m looking for the things that go with the lifestyle. Everybody is on the internet and everybody wants to take pictures of their food and burn through the whole experience so fast. I think this record is definitely a call to grabbing the moment, you know? Enjoy this moment right now. This is your life. You can talk about how great it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you can talk about how great the Clash or the Strokes were, but this is the time to take and make something. As much as I love to listen to Chuck Berry and Motorhead and watch old Scorsese films, I still like that this is what we have to deal with. In the ‘80s, when I was in hardcore, we had Reagan and the nuclear arms race and ketchup was a vegetable and the fear of the draft and bad ‘80s music. Now we have to deal with everybody wrapped inside the Google box and people being told how to shop and people being worried about social media. You know, I like to have sex with a real human being, I like to play in front of a real crowd. I like to watch a band. I like to go to a real shop and buy a record.
You mentioned it’d be nice if you made a ton of money. But even though you might not be making millions of dollars off of millions of records being sold, you’re still iconic in an underground sense.
[Malin brushes off the “iconic” comment.]
Looking at your career, your history, the things you’ve done -- you’ve been able to do so much and work with so many people like Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen and the people you have on the new record. If you ever actually got the major label attention, do you think you’d still be the same Jesse Malin?
The path I’ve been on, we were on some big labels and we just got screwed around. We had some good opportunities and we actually made money in the ‘90s because there was so much going around. Luckily, I took that and with a couple of friends opened a little bar so when I didn’t have a record deal I had somewhere to DJ and drink free and be an idiot. It saved me.
We toured with our heroes, Kiss and the Ramones, we went on the TV shows, we got to do all that stuff, but it didn’t work out exactly as planned. I’m grateful I can stay out of a day job and still have an audience that shows up and there are people who will listen to what I have to say and don’t tell me to go back to my room and go to sleep, you know? [Laughs] I’ve learned from my experience ... when D Generation went on tour with the Ramones, we learned a lot about how to tour. They were so smart about being in a van. We were in a bus blowing all of our money. We learned so much about so many things, even just selling our merch.
When I hooked up with Ryan Adams, he was in Whiskeytown and then he went solo; what I learned from Ryan was to be fearless. He really supported me. Watching him, he has such a raw talent and he has so much freedom with it, he has such a natural way of singing and speaking -- it’s all in one. He taught me to be fearless and he also taught me that if you do have fear, be honest about it. The realness in that came through and gave me an opportunity to start again with my solo career. In Europe, they didn’t even know D Generation, so it was like I was a new artist at 30 years old or whatever.
The whole journey is connected and I wanted this new record to represent the rawness of and the disgust with how much of the human experience is being destroyed. Not even on an environmental level, just on a cultural level ... and even with that, I still want to have the PMA that I learned from hardcore, from Bad Brains, from Ian MacKaye.
Throughout the new album, there a nostalgic sentiment seems to be present, you know, looking back with respect, but there's also encouragement to look forward. In “Oh Sheena” you sing, “There’s a world outside if you want it.”
It's a place in time. I also sing, "When it all goes down in a corner / In a sad and beautiful world ..." I think I stole that line, "sad and beautiful world," from the Jim Jarmusch film Down by Law with Tom Waits. Lines like that just end up in your notebook, you know, and then you make it your own.
It really is a place in time. It’s now, whatever you’re into -- people are into punk, people are into songwriter s---, it doesn’t matter, we’re all here now. People are rioting over sports teams and people have wars over religion, but if you cut us open, we’re all the same. We have the same color of blood, we’re all human beings. I learned a lot about that when I traveled with Gogol Bordello and we went to Moscow and went through Europe -- being with this gypsy punk band, the message was unity and respect and standing up for things. I really took notice of that, and I never had realized how much the corporate thing is linking us all together. Each town used to be unique and now it’s all the same banks and the same Starbucks and the same Subway shops. Where is that uniqueness? We have to dig deeper, and we have to encourage people to create stuff. I was encouraged by Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains and the Clash, and now we have bands downtown here in New York who are playing in little rooms, bands like the Skaters and Threats, they’re listening to a lot of the stuff I grew up on, but then they also have this other element with the Strokes or Beastie Boys. People mix it all up into their own spin and they spit it out. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I love the Jam, I love Graham Parker, I love Elton John, I love Nirvana, I love Discharge -- it’s about songs, it’s about stories that exist in the song.
This record, for me, was kind of needed. I always feel like the records need to paint a picture and I always feel like there should be a light at the end of the tunnel, you know, “You’re okay. You’re not alone.” That’s what music said to me as a kid. It’s okay to be different, it’s okay to like different stuff. It’s okay to be angry, to be depressed, and there are other people who will share that with you. Go to a Swans concert. [Laughs]
Is that how you got into music, trying to find that type of release? Because you started Heart Attack when you were like 12, right?
Yeah, the first gig was at a CBGB audition night and we were a bunch of kids from Queens who were listening to the Ramones and Kiss and were trying to write songs without knowing what the f--- we were doing. In those days, they encouraged you to get up on the stage and they’d open their doors to you. At Max’s Kansas City, Peter Crowley, the booker, let me call all my 14-year-old friends and put a bill together and put all these people on a stage. He gave me money and he told me to put it in my underwear and take the train home safely. [Laughs] Go back to your mom’s apartment and don’t blow it all on Cocoa Puffs.
When you started writing with your friends and playing music, were you angry and angst-ridden just trying to find an outlet?
I didn’t know I was trying to find an outlet, you know? My parents got this crazy divorce and I felt like a freak. I used to have to wear a patch on one eye because I have a weak eye. We were moving all the time, I had a patch, I had glasses, I’m the new kid, I’m getting on the bus and my mother would say, “Captain Hook, be brave, Captain Hook.” I’d take the patch off, roll it in a ball and throw it on the ground. I’d roll around on the floor and became the class clown as a defense. I think that was the beginning of me being an outsider or a punk rocker-type person who didn’t fit in.
In the end, for me, if I have a record that I’m proud of and it means something to me, then I’m going to want to go out and play and get to the next record and keep making a body of work.
I don’t know why I was so angry, but I didn’t love going to school or following all the rules. I was into kung fu and all this other stuff and that was all before I got a guitar in my hands. That was when I felt like I finally had an outlet for the way I was feeling. I think everybody needs something, I think everyone should have a channel, whether it’s painting or sculpting, whatever it is. I think these days, rock and roll has become a very normal format for that. All the kids have a Guitar Center coupon in their pockets ... it’s not such an outsider thing, it’s pretty mainstream. But like anything, it’s all in how you do it. It’s all in the delivery. I enjoy doing it, I need to do it, I’ve spent a lot of time dedicated to it. In the end, for me, if I have a record that I’m proud of and it means something to me, then I’m going to want to go out and play and get to the next record and keep making a body of work. Keep looking forward, don’t look back.
But, looking back a bit, D Generation got together in the last five years, and you released a 10” for Record Store Day and you might have a new album out later this year. What was it like getting back together and kind of restarting that band all over again?
It was really great. After we broke up, we got offers every year to go to Europe and do these festivals and finally we just said, “Yes.” We finally gave in a few years ago. To do it with the same five people I grew up with, that’s the special part. Then to see younger people in the crowd who never saw the band in the early days, that’s really special. With Record Store Day, we only released Queens of A as a 10”, blood-red vinyl, as a message to support your local record stores. Then, yeah, there’s a full-length to follow. With D Generation, there’s a balance of love and hate, and that’s what makes the magic. [Laughs] But that can also make some tough days as we experienced over the years.
From when D Generation called it quits to when you decided to start it up again, were you guys staying in touch during that time?
There were periods when we never talked at all. I was in touch with some of the guys, but there were some dark periods of resentment and disconnection. But it’s a family, it’s a marriage with those five guys, and I think the new shows were better than ever. People who saw us back then really liked the newer shows.
And the new album is done?
Yep, it just needs to be mixed.
Throughout your experiences, it’s interesting that you're able to bounce from your solo career to things like D Generation. The fact that you can do what you want seems significant and somewhat unique in the industry. You can do a solo record, you can do a D Generation EP, you can go out on tour with this or that band ...
Or I can do a side-project with Green Day, Depression Times -- our name was Rodeo Queens, it was just a fun, late-night thing. I did a band called the Finger just for fun, I might do a Heart Attack record again someday.
You don’t close the door on anything like that?
No. I want to do some other projects with people, but I’m definitely excited to make some more Jesse Malin records. I can’t break up with myself unless I get really strange and schizophrenic and reinvent my name and become Francis Blackwell or something. [Laughs]
You mentioned the Finger, which was with Ryan Adams ... You have a great history of collaborations, and on the new record you feature the likes of Peter Buck and Alejandro Escovedo ... you’ve done all these great partnerships, and you say you have more in mind. What do you have in mind? What are some of your ...
Dream things? I’d like to make some kind of nasty, noisy, electronic record. I love Suicide and Moon Duo, I’ve always wanted to do something like that that’s just aggressive and simple. I’m not really into industrial, but something that’s minimal and primal. With who? I don’t know. I mean, I always wanted to make a record that was produced by Mick Jones of the Clash, but I don’t know if that will happen. Chris Thomas who did the Pretenders' records ... but I do love working with the people I work with.
Randy Schrager, who was in the Scissor Sisters, now is in St. Marks Social and in my band, he’s an insane drummer. Paul Garisto was on my first three solo records. Catherine Popper bass. Don Dilego, they're all just really high-quality people. I feel grateful, they’re the superstars for me. Brian Thorn who did the record, he did the last Bowie record and he’s done a lot with Jon Spencer; I feel very lucky to have these cool people just be there for me. Michelle Casillas is the keyboardist and she sings on “Dreamers.” She has a band called Ursa Minor, they’re under the radar but they are really great.
I’ve been working over the years to connect with the best musicians who I can also relate with. When you get into a van or a bus, you’re creating your own pirate ship. You have to travel around so you want to bring people who you have a chemistry with and you can stir things up with, you know?
I’m always curious when someone releases a new album ... are you the type of guy who really dwells on the process that led to its release, you know, with a lot of reflection, or do you just close that chapter and start looking forward?
I didn’t always look forward. I used to just get drunk and be happy I had a record out and do interviews and read the reviews. Now, I think more like Woody Allen. When I’m done shooting, I’m onto the next screenplay. I’m already working on another record called Outsiders that I want to put out. I have half of it done and I have to make the next half really meaningful, but the idea is that you keep doing this and you keep that muscle strong.
No input, no output. I read new books, I go to new places, I listen to new music.
I’ve gone long periods where I didn’t pick up the notebook or the guitar after just building stuff up in the tank -- and there’s definitely something to that -- but you really do need to just exercise your mind and that muscle. You also want to put things in, though, you know, it’s the Joe Strummer law: No input, no output. I read new books, I go to new places, I listen to new music. I just got into Randy Newman in the last couple of years. I just thought it was this crappy s--- from a movie, but that guy has some really dark and smart and angry lyrics. That influenced New York Before the War.
You mentioned at the beginning of this conversation about Queens and how now it’s full of hipsters and galleries. Are you saying that in a good or bad way?
You know, it’s both. In the ‘90s, D Generation, we were living in Williamsburg and Greenpoint and rehearsed out there because we couldn’t afford to live in the city until we had a record deal. When we got that deal, I got my first Manhattan apartment. During Heart Attack, I lived in the studio, I slept in a lawn chair, that’s how I lived in the city. Now, to see it happening, it seems like it’s just this normal thing where this type of gentrification spreads and knocks people out.
When I came down here, it was all Dominican and Puerto Rican, and we were these white kids coming into the city because of music. We were part of gentrification in some weird way, but we embraced what was happening because it was low rent. We dealt with the dangers of drug sales and gangs and burnt out buildings.
There’s good and bad. It’s great that I can go to Queens and know I can get a tofu sandwich in Jackson Heights and go to a bar and hear Johnny Thunders on the jukebox, but the other side is, will I be able to afford to live there? Where is the whole world going? Look at Williamsburg. People follow something that’s cool and they make it into a huge commodity and a huge business and suddenly there’s no place where people just walk their dogs and get old and want to live simply without feeling like they’re always in an American Apparel ad. Then again, those girls look good in those tights, too. [Laughs] There’s good and bad. For the most part, though, there has to be a place where people can exist and live without your dad paying your credit card bill. People without trust funds need to be able to get up to the mic and say something.
Do you think New York is still the type of breeding ground that it was when you were 12 years old?
Absolutely not, but the upside is that there are still a lot of people coming through here and there’s a lot of energy here. There are a lot of cultures clashing outside your door. People are still coming here for dreams, even if they don’t last that long because they can’t afford to stay.
I think there is still an attention and a focus here, and the streets still have some vibrations, you know? The history. There’s a little bit left. You can feel the ghosts of Kerouac and Ginsberg and Joey Ramone and Lou Reed. Patti Smith is still alive and she still goes to St. Mark’s Church and does a poetry thing. Alan Vega, he still plays Webster Hall. And if they’re not alive, there are still tracks that are connected. You can follow the crumbs to Manitoba’s on Avenue B and see Handsome Dick and see where Joey Ramone sang his last gig. Charlie Parker’s house is still over there. [Laughs] It might be shined up, but it’s still there. I hope there are new people who still want to challenge things, and challenge my old lazy f---ing ass, too! I work pretty hard and I’m pretty energized, but there is always that next thing and you have to be open to that. Sometimes a really polished thing needs to be pissed on to make it the next character.
I chatted with Tom Paxton a few months ago -- he arrived in the Village in 1960, right on the cusp of Dylan and everything in that folk movement. And he told me when he got there in ’60, people were saying, “You should’ve been here two years ago.”
I showed up when I was 12 and they told me I missed it, the whole punk thing was over. They told me I should try something new like rockabilly or new wave. Then I heard the Stimulators and then I heard Bad Brains and then I walked further east than CBGB, which was this area, and it was scary as hell and I saw fliers pasted on the wall about clubs like A7 and 171A. I found kids who wanted it raw and fast -- it was going on in D.C. and it was going on in California and there were ways to put your own spin on it.
For me, that was hardcore, you know? It wasn’t the same needle in your arm or cut yourself type thing, we didn’t have to be on drugs. We were f---ed up and we were raw and we were fast ... and we were sober, some of us, and in your face. That’s even more dangerous! Sometimes you feel like the culture and the government want the hippies to burn out. I mean, they have a great message, peace and love, and then they turn into junkies laying in a bed hooked on some s---. The drug stuff has been a thing that has diluted the message or the strength of a community. We took that on in the ‘80s, not to follow a movement like straightedge or anything, but we just had this awareness that you should respect yourself and your body and try to live long and not burn out. When I play, I’m fully there. I want that in my tank.
From 12 years old to 2015, from Heart Attack and D Generation to your solo work and beyond, why do you think you’ve been able to do it and keep doing it? I mean, I think not doing drugs and being a vegetarian has definitely helped.
I’m just excited about it. I watched a Clash video on YouTube last night and it just made me want to put on a cool shirt and write a song and jump around. I love watching a new band and the singer is just screaming into the mic in this tiny little room. I don’t know what it is. When the spring comes, when the winter comes, when the leaves fall off the trees, I just want to continue to do this because it feels good. This is all I know and I can always challenge myself to be better at it. I can always write better songs and I can always make my records sound better. It’s what I love to do. Love It to Life was the last record and this is New York Before the War -- it’s a constant battle and struggle but it’s also a constant celebration of life ... as hippie as that sounds.