Sunday, March 05, 2006

Al on Al: an Exclusive Interview with the Minimalist Jug Band

…I’m a physical moron
A physical fool
I should have gone to guidance
Back in high school
Instead of Joy of Sex
I read John Paul Sartre
Instead of falling in love
I just fell apart
And I’m not bragging
I’m not gay
I’m just a lousy lover
I’m a lousy lay…
No good in the sack
No good in the hay
Conversation that’s my forte
But I’m a lousy lover
I’m a lousy lay…

-- “I’m a Lousy Lay” by the Minimalist Jug Band

I’d worked at the same used book and record store with Al Mader for a couple of years before discovering that he was a performer with a CD recorded. It took me a couple of months after that to remember to ask him to bring me a copy of his CD, For Crying Out Loud – they’re made with homemade covers drawn on the back of cardboard boxes, one of which is pictured above, but they’re factory-pressed, not CDRs – and a couple of weeks further for him to do that. Seeing him play live took another few months, since usually I would be filling in for him at the store on nights when he had a gig; finally managed it at the Marine Club last week, where he opened for Rodney Decroo. After he tried to warm the crowd up with a few lighter numbers – “Posting Crap on eBay,” for instance – he got down to the gut-wrenching, self-deprecating, morbidly humorous matter at the heart of his work, and the audience – particularly those who had been drinking a bit – gave more than a few whoops and cheers during such numbers as “Making Myself Sick” (“I’m having dizzy spells, things are shifting, turning/ and every day my guts are churning/ and I ask myself, well what’s the answer/ Is it a brain tumour or stomach cancer?”) and his Reveen-impersonating “Problems in a Box” (particularly after the box overflowed). I went into the store, on a night when he was working and I wasn’t, to interview him, as a doo wop record by the Spaniels (Great Googly Moo!) played in the background. I started by asking him about how he conceived of his work; it’s designed, he said, as a vehicle for a “songwriter who can’t sing” – someone with plenty of musical desire, but no ability.

“In my mind, they’re songs, but when people hear it, they often go ‘oh, spoken word.’ But yeah, I think of it as music, though there are obviously connections to poetry... Initially I began playing in clubs, opening for bands, but then I chanced on a slam poetry event at the Press Club, and I thought I could do it this way, too. You have to do it without props, so I did it without the bass. Actually, I started doing this in the 1980s, before slam poetry existed, but I’ve known about the scene for awhile now, so it may have subliminally influenced me...” Al accompanies himself on a washtub bass during his club performances – it’s basically a washtub with a hole in it and a string attached. That's the whole band, and the inspiration for his song, "A Washed Up Guy on a Washtub Bass."

Al lists influences like John Otway and John Cooper Clark (“a punk rapper, a rapper before there was rap”), and admits to being encouraged by the existence of bands like the Nihilist Spasm Band, who also can play no conventional instruments (my review of the NSB’s sole Vancouver show is here; I’m rooting for a collaboration – the Minimalist Spasm Band, or maybe the Nihilist Jug Band) and Eugene Chadbourne, who self-markets CDs with homemade covers. He has one Jandek record in his collection (“the one with a faded grey cover with a photo of Jandek on it,” he told me, prompting me to explain just how unhelpful that was as a means of narrowing down which recording it is) and thinks that it’s pretty interesting. I asked him how he feels about the term outsider music– the existence of the genre seems to suggest there’s a target market out there that Al could pitch himself to, but he bristles a bit at the suggestion.

“Yeah, I’ve had people say that before, but ‘outsider music’ suggests a performer who is deluded and oblivious, who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. The performer is found art – you’re like a piece of wood that happens to look like something else, and it’s the person who ‘discovers’ you who gets to define you as an artist. You’re the soup can. I’m not that concerned with defining what I do, and I don’t want to close any doors, but I don’t really want to be compared with Wesley Willis. Hasil Adkins might be all right.” (Some readers may be familiar with Hasil Adkins through the Cramps' cover version of "She Said," the one with the "Oo-ee-aa-aa" chorus that appears on Bad Music for Bad People. An odd archive of various pieces that could be considered outsider music is included on Ubuweb, here).

Al got started in Toronto in the 1980s, on the fringes of the punk scene. Initially he’d just bring objects, and “play on pots and pans,” and busk his lyrics until someone gave him the washtub. He’s performed with various roots and bluegrass musicians – some conventional musicians are “less disappointed than others” by what he can do with his bass – and he’s performed with Rowan of the local trio the Creaking Planks (who cover, somewhat more tunefully than the original, his hilarious thrift-store-shopping opus, “Dead Man’s Pants”); he’s also a long-term co-conspirator with the Hate Filled Man himself, Chris Houston, who produced For Crying Out Loud gratis. At various points, though he rarely gets paid more than $50 for a gig, he has opened for Nick Cave, Blurt, They Might be Giants, and, to his great pleasure, John Otway; he’s played festivals and poetry slams in Providence and in Minneapolis, and toured around Canada. He appears on a tribute album to former Rank and File member Alejandro Escovedo, doing a cover version of Escovedo’s “Thirteen Years” (“No Depression magazine reviewed it; they liked most of it but they hated me”). His unreleased, unfinished, but hopefully eventually upcoming CD features collaborations with rockabilly artist Ronnie Hayward and former Ray Condo sideman Stephen Nikleva. Al also notes that on the upcoming release, “finally the jug band has a jug;” the artist currently known as Petunia, with whom Al has toured, provides blown accompaniment and some background vocals. (Hey, Al -- did I link to the right Petunia? I mean, how many Petunias could there be?).

Most copies of the run of 250 of his first, self-released CD have sold, though Al thinks there are probably some left at Red Cat Records, or maybe Zulu. You might be able to get one off him if you can figure out when and where he's playing next -- he sometimes gigs at the Railway Club. Or you could phone Carson Books' Broadway store on a Saturday night... There is no release date yet on the second disc. His stuff is really designed to be appreciated live, anyways, he notes.

I asked Al if “I’m a Lousy Lover” (which has also been covered) has gotten him laid and he responded, “People ask me that,” and that’s about as far as that went, so I asked him about crowd responses to his work.

“Well, I used to play in clubs where there were a lot of old guys still in there, drinking from the afternoon, and they’d sometimes figure that this was some sort of open mike event, and they’d come up to the stage with their drink and wait there for a moment where they could cut in or interact with me, but since I don’t really stop, they’d just be standing there, right in front of me, with their drink… I’ve played a lot of shows like that,” he chuckled. “I’ve had people stand on stage beside me, too. Sometimes people can just hate what I do; other people have said, ‘you’ve got a lot of guts,’ which is a kind of mixed review if you think about it… Sometimes there are small pockets of attention in the room – you can feel that a few guys over there are listening, and if they look interested enough sometimes other people start listening too. It really varies. I’ve had standing ovations and I’ve had the plug pulled, so to speak.” (Al gestures the traditional head-being-cut-off semaphore signal for “get off the stage”). Thinking of a story, he smiles: “One time this young guy was heckling me at the start of the show and then by the end he wanted me to come with him and help him quit his job.”
Some pieces on the disc are autobiographical -- "I Feel Great Today 'Cos I Ate Today" is about a period of homelessness Al survived in Toronto in the '80s -- but not everything should be taken at face value; like a novelist, Mader bends facts to the needs for emotional authenticity, which is his main concern.

One of the funnier aspects of the Minimalist Jug Band’s performances is his tendency to insert ironic references to pop songs and pop culture into his lyrics; he’ll close a dark tour through his emotional difficulties and eccentricities by dropping a deadpan “You may be right I may be crazy but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for;” “I’m a Lousy Lay” ends with him tossing off – no pun intended – a reference to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (“...it ain’t me you’re looking for.”) Often he would use a collage of these quotes as a way to build bridges between songs, but he also acknowledges that part of his intention is to point up the hollowness of the source material. “A lot of stuff that you hear out there is pretty insufficient, emotionally. Take a song like the Flying Lizards’ ‘Money.’ They’ve taken the song and they’ve actually removed the emotion from it, made it just a pure flat product, which is all right, too, I guess, but what I try to do is to reattach the emotion. These words should have meaning.”

Whenever the new CD comes out, there’ll be a track on it about a guy who uses music to get through emotional difficulties. Al admits there’s a cathartic element to his work, and if the Marine Club show was any indication, he’s helping at least a few of the people who paid attention to achieve their own catharsis, too. It’s a pretty positive social function for any artist to aspire to. Godspeed, Minimalist Jug Band!

10 comments:

Rowan Lipkovits said...

Do a little ego-surfing and you just might find out a bit about something more interesting to you than even yourself. Cheers for revealing another side to the man behind the mystery wrapped in a stutter -- any other quick readers (Fri, March 10th, 2006) may be pleased to find that Al is performing tonight at the Behind the Scenes bookstore (243 W. Broadway) at 8 pm, reading from a monologue written by Rogue Reese Murphy. That Rowan Guy is still doing occasional improvised musical accompaniment on the wretched accordion. $10.

ammacinn said...

Woo! Thanks for the heads up -- now I just gotta scrounge up some cash...

A.

ammacinn said...

Hm... I seem to be havin' some health issues over here. Hope the gig goes well -- my attendance is not confirmed.

Other people should go!

A.

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