Friday, August 31, 2018

From the Original Sins to Brother JT: a John Terlesky interview

(Above: the Original Sins, back in the day. Note: almost all links in the following interview lead you directly to clips of the Original Sins or Brother JT performing; as of this writing, many of the Original Sins' classic LPs are on Youtube in their entirety. DO check this stuff out, because it's pretty GREAT; but if you come to agree, BUY SOMETHING FROM THE GUY, here!). 

I sometimes wonder about choices I made in the early 1990’s – especially (though not exclusively) in regard to music. There were more than a few bands that I loved that I walked away from, albums by bands who I had counted as utter favourites, whose follow-up recordings I didn’t even bother with until ten or more years later. For instance, Tad’s momentous 8 Way Santa was and remains one of my favourite rock records ever. Yet two years later, in 1993, Inhaler came out – and I totally ignored it, having heard not a song. I had no reason to think there would be anything wrong with it, and – though I was teetering on the cusp of getting into free jazz and noise, which dominated my musical tastes for the latter half of the 1990’s – I still liked and owned God’s Balls and Salt Lick and 8 Way Santa, and still sometimes listened to them. So why did I ignore Inhaler? I honestly can’t quite put together what was going through my head.

Maybe it had something to do with overexposure to Seattle grunge, which had peaked the year previously – because there were also Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and Nirvana albums I ignored from the same period, having been turned off by the crashing hypewave that followed the massive success of Nevermind.

But the so-called “grunge backlash” doesn’t explain why I didn’t buy the Original Sins’ 1992 double LP, Move, until this year. The band, fronted by John Terlesky, who nowadays records as Brother JT – was from Philadelphia, far from Seattle, ostensibly untainted by what was going on there, and (the odd song, like “All In My Head,” aside) never all that grungy, to begin with.

I had followed the Original Sins more or less from the outset, musically. They put out an astonishing debut, Big Soul, which I nabbed via Midnight Mailorder back inn the late 1980’s, while it was still their first and only LP. I quickly and completely fell for it; it remains one of my best-ever blind buys, containing everything from 60’s-punk style rave-ups (Try “Possession” - also on Youtube in a non-LP version; or “My Mother’s Mirror,” “Can’t Feel a Thing”) to depressive dirges (the aforementioned “All in My Head”) to glowing, bouncy garage pop (“Help Yourself”) and relatively gentle, 60’s-ish folk rock (“Why Don’t You Smile, Joan?”). Their next album, The HardestWay, was maybe a bit less inspired, but is true to their '60s garage roots, and has some great songs on it (like “Don’t Fit In,” which is as tough as anything on their debut). Then they’d gone full-on Stooges/ MC5 for Self-Destruct, a meaty, acid-soaked, power-punch of an album that fed my own self-destructive tendencies, particularly with the playful, spiralling, organ-enhanced acid anthem “Alice D,” which accompanied my own late night forays into my neon-synapse’d psyche-scape on more than one occasion.  Everything suggested that the band was poised to become a hugely successful rock contender – except that in 1992, maybe the poisonous hypefog out of Seattle was so extreme that people with an investment in underground music just didn’t WANT any more rock success stories, no matter where they were come, since they were synonymous with bands we’d loved – Soul Asylum,, anyone? - suddenly starting to suck…?

Nothing sucks in the slightest about Move (all of which, like I say, is presently online in a high quality rip, so spend some time with it, eh?). It’s a ballsy, confident, 2-LP feast, co-produced by REM's Peter Buck, that combines all the best elements of the Sins’ three previous records, and has some awe-inspiring, balls-out rockers (“Like an Animal,” say) that show no sign of commercial compromise or down-watering. Wikipedia reports that “the album was intended to be a break into mainstream music for the band,” and you can see why maybe THAT didn’t happen – it’s simply too strong, too creative, too fearless for mainstream success. But the fact that the album sold poorly, that fans like me ignored it, and that even to this day it has no review on the AllMusic  site – which features accurate, respectable reviews of their previous recordings: none of this can I explain.

So can John Terlesky? With the interviewer having recently picked up an armload of his Brother JT solo albums – which are as good as, but vastly more varied than, his Original Sins’ recordings – that question is where we start this email interview (omitting the preamble I sent to him, which more or less replicates the above). People interested in exploring Brother JT’s back catalogue or buying his music should go to his webpage; with little fanfare and absolutely no mainstream success, he’s never stopped putting out fantastic records. Check out “Snakebit” on Tornado Juice, his current release, in particular; a black-humoured look at his own musical career, it’s the high point on the album, for me, and the focal point – along with his reference to “Zabriskie Point” in “Zabriskie” – of an upcoming feature in the next issue Big Takeover magazine, drawn also from the following conversation.

AM: So what happened to rock music in 1992, anyhow? Why didn’t Move sell?

JT: That was an odd period. I seem to recall Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Nirvana's "Teen Spirit" hitting at around the same time and that they sounded similar to me, like Metal and Punk were sort of coming together. I had no problem with Grunge because it was a lot better than the hair bands that had dominated things and wasn't that removed from what we were doing. But then everyone kind of aped the style and there was no humor or contrast. There was Rock, but not much Roll.

AM: You have a song on the new album, Tornado Juice, called "Back to the 90's." It makes me wonder what you miss about being in the Original Sins? Are there any particularly crazy or chaotic moments, shows that really stand out? Do you have any memories or stories of playing in Vancouver, by the way?). 

JT: I think I mostly miss playing with those particular guys and feeling like no matter what the high energy approach of the set worked. With Brother JT a lot of the songs are much more about improv, so it's not such a sure thing like the Sins' songs. But I went more in the improv direction because I wanted to have deeper means of expression, so I like both. Brother JT sets usually feature several Sins songs these days.

There were many great nights with the Sins. Opened for the Ramones, Replacements, Screaming Trees, Living Colour, Butthole Surfers, etc.

I remember little about playing Vancouver except that the people seemed very friendly and the town seemed very clean. It was almost 30 years ago, so...

AM: I wish I’d gone. I had no idea until recently that the show even happened (the cartoonist and painter known as ARGH!, of DOA colouring Book/ NO FUN cassette cover fame tells me that the band played the Town Pump in the early 1990’s). Do I gather the band opened for the Kinks at one point?

JT: We did open for the Kinks at the Tower Theater in Phila., two nights, set up by our manager at the time who knew the booking person. It was good, but kind of weird because it was a big stage and the audience seemed so far away. I never like playing big places. I'd rather set up on the floor and be eye to eye with the audience.

AM: Where did the cover idea for Self-Destruct come from? One of the great 1990’s album covers, by me. Did you “grow out of” the self-destructive tendencies of youth?

JT: I had a fairly realistic looking 45-style bb gun and just had some pictures taken with it. Just kind of a knee-jerk reaction image that I thought might go with the music on that record.

AM: Is “Alice D” actually a real slang term for LSD, or is it your own coinage?

JT: I think it came from hearing Merle Haggard's "Okee From Muskogee" where he says "We don't take our trips on LSD" and it sounded like he said "Alice Dee" or something. Many years later (not being a Deadhead at the time) I discovered the Grateful Dead had an early outtake called "Alice D. Millionaire".

AM: More recently, “Head Bizness” is a great psychedelics anthem... it's kinda almost hip-hoppy. Do you listen to hip hop at all? (Ever do New Kingdom's "Mexico or Bust?" It's sorta kinda LIKE "Head Bizness," spiritually speaking). 

JT: Yes, I've listened to some hip hop. Liked the Madvillain and Spank Rock stuff from a few years back. Mainly interested in the grooves and how they could be applied to a rock context, not so much the lyrical content.

AM: Each of your solo albums seems to have a different personality or approach, but be cohesive unto itself... How would you describe the approach on Tornado Juice? I hear a sort of Dylan/ Blonde on Blonde quality (the verses on “Mississippi Somethin’,” for example). But other people on Youtube mention Bowie… What moods or events help you decide a direction for an album? Do you record one song and then decide where to go from there…? 

JT: The songs just kind of spilled out without a lot of conscious planning. If you had the album the dust jacket has a collage of my notebook from when I wrote the songs, and the lyrics are scrawled out furiously, like automatic writing. Sometimes the music came first, and sometimes both came out at once. And they're all filtered through influences of the artists you mentioned as well as many others. Also thinking about how the songs will work in a live context plays a role. I usually try to imagine playing the album in sequence live as a test for balance and diversity.

"Metallized Saran Icicles Made It So," by Brother JT; more of his art here

AM: I’m just listening to a download and I’m not seeing credits on the Bandcamp page, so I have no idea if there’s a band on Tornado Juice, or if you're doing most of everything yourself – who is playing what? Do you play live regularly with a particular group of musicians? (Are you in touch with any former Original Sins?). 

JT: It is largely the band I've been playing with for the last 5 years or so: Jamie Knerr on drums, Ron Kuhn on bass, and Mike Logan on guitar. They also recorded the previous CD, On High, with me. "Back To The 90's" and "Oh Me Oh My" is just me. I am occasionally in touch with the guys from the Sins (Dave Ferrara played drums on the first 2 Drag City albums) and there has been talk of a reunion this fall, but I’m not sure if it's possible.

AM: Whoa! Very cool. Coming back to automatic writing, what are these three books you published under the influence? Are any of your albums more purely the result of an acid experience than others? Are any mostly written or recorded while on acid? (Don’t you find it gets hard on the body as you get older?).  

JT: The books are the result of journaling while on LSD. They're kind of like channeling. I found that under these circumstances I could sort of offer up my pen to...personalities? my consciousness at the time. While the results are at times hard to read, I thought they were worth preserving. I sensed that these personalities appreciated the opportunity to express themselves. Many of the songs I've written in the last 10 years have come out of the same sessions, usually later after the initial flood of thoughts has passed. I feel like this way I am writing in another, more spontaneous voice.
I don't notice any physical stress from these experiences, kind of the opposite.

AM:  What is your life like when you are NOT Brother JT? (Do you have a family? A dayjob? A garden? Horrible non-sequitur hobbies like playing golf? I gather you have a cat…).

JT: I'm pretty solitary, never wanted a family, my main interests are various creative endeavors.  I'm 'avoidant', as they call it these days. I want to take the path of least resistance at all times. Sort of like a Taoist, except I'm not. I just like the 'non action' part of that ethos. Seems to come natural to me. My cat feels the same way.

AM: Going back to your origins – were you raised Catholic? (with a band name like the Original Sins and the occasional Biblical reference – “there’s something wrong with my right eye” – I wonder if you also went to Catechism classes, etc. (Did they ever get you to confess?). What was the milieu you grew up in? How was rock and roll received in your home? Did your parents ever see the Original Sins play?

JT: I was raised Catholic, did confession, communion a few times, but then just kind of stopped in my early teens. My parents wern't sticklers for that.

My folks were both 40 years older than me, so big band was more their preferred musical genre. I remember sitting with my father watching television when I was very young and there was an ad for the late movie double feature that night. One was a horror movie, and the other was for a Herman's Hermits movie, and he said, referring to the latter, "That's what scares me". Guys with long hair was a big thing back then. It's funny that I actually sat in with Peter Noone on guitar for two shows my old drummer Dave Ferrara is still playing with him). It didn't work out.

Anyhow, my involvement with rock music was not a subject of much discussion. I think my parents probably saw video of me playing, but not in person. I wouldn't have wanted them in that environment.

AM:  What was the live music scene in Bethlehem when you were young? Did you have to commute to get to see good bands? What city was closest? What was happening there when you were getting into rock? What made you decide you wanted to be a rock musician?

JT: Bethlehem was where bands were happening, also the home of a college radio station I DJ'd at for a while. Met a lot of music people through that. The Funhouse was the constant, the only place that has consistently let original bands play in an area where it's mostly cover acts. Just played there last month, still pretty much the same experience. Set up on the floor with people two feet away. Very basic engagement. 

My one brother was in a band in the early 70's, so I was exposed in that way. He showed me the basics on guitar, barre chording etc. I think when I first heard the Velvet Underground, I thought, "I could do that." I could grasp it because it was so primitive.

AM: Did you ever, early on, identify as a punk? (Were there punk bands you played in before the Original Sins?). How did you get into the 60’s garage thing? When did you get into, say, the Sonics, or the Dave Clark 5, or…?

JT: I never really got into the punk thing, though I did play bass in a band (Senseless Hate) that did some Angry Samoans covers very early. My cousin lent me his copy of Nuggets when I was 18 or so and that interested me in 60's garage. But as a really young child I grew up with the Beatles albums my brothers would play, so I was already a fan of that basic genre. Read about the Stooges and Velvet Underground in this Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock book and finally tracked down their records (they were hard to find in 1980) and I was off to the races. I was interested in anything that had a dark side but also a pop sensibility.

AM: Your videos are really entertaining. Do you direct most of them yourself? (I gather you did so with “Sweatpants” but I don’t see credits on many). Who is the fortune teller in the “Zabriskie” video? Have you done videos for anyone else?

JT: Yes, I am mostly doing the vids myself, though “Baked Alaska” was shot in a studio at Woodshop films where we did the internet talk show "Trippin' Balls". The person in "Zabriskie" is just a friend who helped me out with it. Have not done any videos for anyone else.

"I Like Things," by Brother JT; more of his art here

AM: If we could touch on a couple favourites from Big Soul, what was the backstory to the song “My Mother’s Mirror,” anyhow? Were any actual mirrors harmed, or was it always figurative? Where did the lyric “my mind’s got a mind” come from?

JT: Lyrics for "Mother's Mirror" about when a friend of mine related a story about him rocking out to Mott the Hoople's version of "Keep A' Knockin'" and inadvertantly knocking over a mirror that belonged to his mother--might account for the Little Richard via MC5 vibe of the music too.

"My mind's got a mind of its own" just kind of popped out. Song about possession, sort of made sense.

AM: What is the furthest afield you tour, nowadays? Do you ever contemplating DOING a major tour again? (Europe? Canada? Japan? Where would you go? Would you do it with a band?). I imagine you  have weird pockets of devoted fans all over North America, but I wonder if it would be economically feasible? (I caught Wreckless Eric last time he was in Vancouver and gathered from his between-song stories that he was simply driving from city to city by himself, a man and his guitar...). 

JT: I really don't tour anymore. I would be happy to, but it's difficult to get an agent and/or find players who'd be willing to take off from work/family etc for the dubious rewards of such a venture (at my level, anyway). Occasionally fly to San Francisco and Austin to play a show or two, sometimes with local friends backing me, but recently took the band. It really wouldn't be feasible unless we were opening for a better known act, and those kind of tours are hard to come by. I'd like to do what Wreckless Eric does, but he's been doing it a long time and has a solid fanbase.

AM: Do you have a source of income other than music? I always wonder how people subsidize their passions (or do you make enough to get by, just on bein’ Brother JT?).

JT: I usually have driving/delivery type jobs so I can make my own hours. Some Uber recently, some odd jobs. I make very little from music.

AM: Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for keeping at it. Is there anything I've missed? Future ambitions? Favourite acid trip stories? A Brother JT video everyone should watch?

JT: If anyone wanted any of my music you could order it from my website or if it's something not available there, email me at and we could work something out.

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