Monday, March 9, 2009

5 Questions with Matt Eckel of Jack Wilson Jr.

PhotobucketClockwise from top: Mike Corwin, bass / Dave "Mustang" Lang, piano / Matt Eckel, guitar & vocals / Brian Demski, drums

It's another Friday night in Los Angeles. Haloed streetlights lace the quiet fogginess of Echo Park, casting shadows along the quiet stretch of Glendale Blvd. between Temple & the 1st St. Bridge. Behind an unassuming, rolling metal gate, a small crowd of brown baggers in a tiny parking lot assures you that you've found just where you need to be... welcome to Pehrspace.

It's Friday the 13th to be more precise, and Jack Wilson Jr. will be killing it here tonight. The house lights cast a dim red glow over the band as they warm up into their fitting 1st song of the night, "Red All Over." A slow bass groove notes the tempo as "Pt. 8: Jason Takes Manhattan" looms in frozen frame on the back wall. Next, guitar and high hat lead into vocals.

With total "tell it like it is, brother" honesty, the love-life advice lyrics evoke from the crowd heart felt "uh-huh's" & "damn, that's true" laughter. There's no other way to properly express the feeling in the room. By the time that the verse has reached the brutal truth, "'ll never be in love until you're happy on your own," someone cries out, "THAT'S COLD!!!" The crowd nods, claps, dances and raise their drinks.

This is how Jack Wilson Jr. works a room.

1. To date, what is the Jack Wilson Jr. story?

The idea for Jack Wilson, Jr. came at the tail end of 2007. At that time Brian and I had been playing for several years in a band called The Natural Disasters. We had just released an album earlier that year, but by this point we'd been performing some of these songs for a very long time. In addition to that, I was feeling like we weren't really getting the recognition we deserved, specifically with regard to the blogger/promoter community. In retrospect, I could have been more proactive in terms of soliciting this kind of attention. I think my attitude at the time was that it was their job to find us. At the same time, I found myself wanting to write more musically expansive songs. Don't get me wrong; Brian is a great drummer. He plays with a lot of taste. One thing I loved about Natural Disasters was that he was able to come up with a unique "signature" for each song, whether it be the beat itself or some kind of fill or set up. That's not an easy thing to do, especially when the songwriter shows up with so much similar-sounding material. But in the end, there's only so much you can do with just drums and guitar. That was kind of the point of that band, to see how far you could go with it. And we did. But then I started wanting to play ballads.

During this time I was also playing in another band called Lucinda & the Lost Dogs (they have since changed the name to Dustin Fire). There were some lineup changes throughout the years but for the most part it was Lucinda, Mustang, and myself. Lu is a huge lover of country music, among other things. The three of us collaborated on probably 20 different songs and it was a great learning experience. Thinking back on it, this is probably what inspired me to want to write songs with more of an ear for melody, or to experiment more with different feels and tempos. You can get a whole new depth of feeling out of a song just by slowing it down a little bit. Towards the end I brought Mike in on bass. He had been a friend for a while but we hadn't had too much of a chance to play together up until that point. A lot of people know Mike as, like, a genius guitar player, but I think he actually likes playing bass more!

When the Jack Wilson band started up, we had Mike on guitar and his old buddy Noah from Cal Arts on bass. It was really rad to be surrounded by all these great musicians; they'd be warming up to Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and then I'd have to show them my little four-chord song. Eventually Noah left the band when his other group got signed [the Airborne Toxic Event]. Actually, I just heard today that their label merged with Island, which is huge. It's funny seeing him on TV with all his ridiculous rings and necklaces. I get a real kick out of it.

2. What's behind the name Jack Wilson, Jr.?

The name Jack Wilson, Jr. comes from a historical figure I learned about while working as a teacher at the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. Brian worked there also, along with Joey Siara, artist Michael Hsiung, and Grant and Justin from Echo Curio. Jack Wilson was the English name, or "white name," given to Native healer and self-proclaimed prophet Wovoka by the Wilson family, for whom he sometimes worked as a teenager. Wovoka became a national celebrity among Indians in the late 1880s as the originator of the "ghost dance" phenomenon. This was a communal dance involving a large number of people, who would join hands and dance in a circle sometimes for hours, to the point of fatigue. Performed correctly, the dance was supposed to result in a mystical erasure of the white man and the return of the buffalo to the plains. Dancers would occasionally collapse with exhaustion and later claim to have experienced visions of the new world. This was during the time just after the close of the frontier when the last of the tribes were being forced onto reservations. It was an act of desperation.

What's interesting is that Wilson's philosophy incorporated Christ's teachings of forgiveness and non-violence. Ironically, the hysteria of the dance was seen by the US Army as a prelude to war, and resulted in the assassination of Sitting Bull. He was actually shot by a member of the Indian Police. The fallout of that event led to the Wounded Knee Massacre just two weeks later, an ugly, shameful end to one of the ugliest and most shameful chapters in US History. Jack Wilson though, as a person, was never really qualified as a political leader. He was a self-mythologizing con artist, whose "magic" was fairly close to magic as we understand it today-all illusion and slight of hand. We did a song on the Natural Disasters record called "Ghost Dance." Robbie Robertson and Patti Smith also have songs by that title.

Then there's also Jackie Wilson, "Mr. Excitement," whose unique style of dance was derived from his training as a boxer. If you watch his videos on YouTube with that in mind, you can see it right away. They're the same moves that "made" Elvis. Not to say that Elvis wasn't a great dancer, because he was. But a lot of what you might recognize as his signature moves actually came from Jackie.

Lastly-and I didn't realize this until after we'd settled on the name-Jack Palance's character from Shane is also named, guess what, Jack Wilson. He's one of the baddest dudes in the history of Westerns. So there it is: cowboys & indians and rhythm & blues.

3. What are your thoughts on the local LA music scene?

God, there are so many bands. Probably the highest number per capita anywhere, ever. But it doesn't bother me. I think it's great. It's the harvest to the proverbial seed planted by bands like The Minutemen and Beat Happening. I think what bothers me about it is that the bands that wind up getting attention are not necessarily the best bands. Some of them are. There doesn't seem to be any correlation; it has more to do with promoter politics and a willingness to play that particular game. I'm probably being na•ve by pretending it has anything to do with anything other than hustle and, eventually, money.

I'll clue you in on something I'm a bit hesitant to admit-for the past several months, we've only played two venues in LA: Pehrspace and Echo Curio. I can't say enough about either of these venues, or rather about the people that make them what they are. Five bucks, tops, the bands get paid out, you can drink for cheap as long as you agree to be discreet... you can't beat it. I don't want to name names but we've had situations before dealing with other clubs where you have last minute changes to the lineup, to set times, and then a real hard time getting paid to top it off. Which would be one thing if the organizers made any effort to promote the show (did any "organizing" as it were). But if it's all on the bands, then they should receive a larger portion of the profit. Or retain the option to limit the door price.

To be honest, I don't know how much of a "scene" it really is. In my mind, a "scene" is a bunch of local bands influencing each other, resulting in some kind of unifying "sound" (ie. "the Seattle sound"). LA has everything. Except hip-hop, which is lamentable. I'm talking more about the Silverlake/Echo Park scene, not the city at large. There are so many talented people pursuing so many different musical paths that it's hard to define what the so-called Eastside Scene is really about. I remember one night playing poker with a bunch of musicians from different bands. We were listening to Creedence and someone said, "God, how can you guys listen to this? I mean, didn't they ever hear of distortion pedals?" Which really shocked me, you know, because most people we tend to play with don't own any guitar pedals... maybe an old Metal Zone or something, for sentimental value. But that shows you how diverse it is. And I love that about it.


4. What's one quote or piece of advice that forever changed your perspective on music...particularly songwriting?

I'm reading a book right now called Songwriters on Songwriting, which is full of good stuff. One thing a lot of people say is that you can't lead the process too much. You have to let the song lead you where it wants to go. You have be able to sort of "unfocus," I don't know, like one of those magic eye paintings or something. I was never any good at those; I could never see the sailboat or whatever. Paul Simon does this thing where he throws a ball against the wall to preoccupy his conscious mind. He says if a line jumps out at you, just take it down, don't start worrying about what it means. I tried it a day or two after reading his interview, and sure enough, I got a great song out of it. At first it didn't seem to be "about" anything, but after I had most of it down, I was able to step back and see that it was very specifically about two things that were very current and very personal.

Tom Petty is really annoying. Most of his big songs came instantly, or "in as much time as it takes to play the song." But then you look at a Tom Petty song, "Free Fallin'" for example-the whole chorus is just one word that gets repeated. I wish I could write a song like that; I don't know why I feel like every song has to be a page long. He talks about trusting in your subconscious. Like with "You Wreck Me." He had a placeholder lyric-"you rock me"-which he knew was corny but he left it because something about it sounded right. Then one day he had the idea to change it to "you wreck me" and boom the whole song came into focus. And I think a lot of what makes that a powerful lyric is that it does sound so similar to "you rock me." There's a lesson.

When I was in college, I sang in this band called The Dirty Tanners. The rest of the band had no musical training at all, with the exception of the drummer, who was a jazz guy. Because we were limited in terms of what we could do musically, the songs all evolved from jam sessions in the basement. I couldn't just walk in with a song and start calling out chords. So I would take these jam tapes and play them loud on my bedroom stereo, and kind of walk around singing nonsense syllables in order to get ideas for a melody. And I would record that. And what was cool about it was that listening back, I could hear myself using certain vowel sounds or words or even phrases. So once I could figure out what I was trying to say, the conscious mind could then kick in and finish it. That was productive for me, and I don't know why I haven't tried it since. Maybe I will.

If I had to single out one specific quote, I guess it would be something Bob Dylan said, in that same book. Which is ironic because he absolutely refuses to take the interview seriously. It was hard for me because I'm a huge fan and it's sort of childish... I mean it was cute when he did it in 1965 and the press was coming at him with all these dumb questions about what does he have to say about "x" as the spokesman of his generation? My girlfriend doesn't like Dylan, she says he's "a liar" for all the stuff he came out with early in his career about having been in the circus as a kid and living in New Mexico or whatever. I mean, when you look at some of the stuff, it's not to be taken seriously: [telling his life story, Playboy, 1966] "I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down." But anyway, after 15 pages of jerking this guy around (most of which I skimmed, or skipped) he finally says, "There's something about my lyrics that have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them." And that's the end of the interview. I think that's true. Songwriting is not like writing a short story, or a magazine article. If anything, it's like... instant messaging. It has to be simple. Fragmented. Ordinary. It just has to sound right.

5. What's your favorite bicycling in LA story/experience?

That's hard... I guess it was four or five years ago, right when Midnight Ridazz was starting to get big. I lived in an apartment with a couple and their two cats and a dog and an injured bird. We met some people on the ride, and afterwards everybody came back to our place. I cooked breakfast burritos and we continued to drink and at some point someone had the idea to play charades so we did that for like an hour, taking it totally seriously, you know? With these kids we'd barely just met. I haven't done any of those group rides for a while now, but I used to love it when someone would roll down their window and yell, "what are you riding for?" The best moment was when someone did that and this guy wearing a chicken suit cruised by, screaming his head off. I don't think I've ever heard a more perfect answer to that question; if there is one I'd like to hear it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview Matt! I can't wait to see you guys perform again!