Exclusive interview – Stephen Linsley (The Jim Carroll Band): Part One
Louder Than War is pleased to present this exclusive interview by Rosemary Van Deuren with Stephen Linsley. In the most in-depth interview he’s given to date Stephen – and RIAA gold and platinum award-winner for album production and powerhouse bassist with groundbreaking musical group The Jim Carroll Band – talks candidly about recording methods, his newest project and time in The Jim Carroll Band and the drugs that plagued the music scene during his performing years.
Louder Than War: What was the album you were recording this week? Is that something you can talk about?
Oh yeah, absolutely. So all summer, into the fall, I was working on a record for a band called Bigelf, which is a band that I have been a fan of and long-time friends with for over twenty years.
I met Damon [Fox], who basically is the brains behind the band, within the first week of moving to LA Bigelf a progressive rock band, which partly is why I fell in love with them originally, because I grew up in the seventies, listening to good progressive rock: King Crimson, and stuff like that.
For the last twenty years I’ve actually worked in the film business doing film sound, mixing and editing foreign languages for American films.
Oh, that’s cool — I didn’t know that. That’s interesting.
And before that, since the end of The Jim Carroll Band in eighty-five, I have been an engineer — recording engineer, and a producer.
So, when I left New York and came to out to California in the early nineties, I actually met Bigelf, when I first moved to LA, ‘cause he was looking for a guitar player, and he’d listed his influences. And at that time nobody was really into, you know, bold style. Like, Lenny Kravitz had just come out, so it was kind of a new thing for people to be into that sort of organic seventies sound, which was what I specialized in when I was engineering and producing.
It was kind of love at first sight. I’d done a couple records for them in the early / mid-nineties, and then I got into film sound and it was a steady gig, so I wasn’t doing any records for a long time. So it was the first record I’ve actually done in twenty years —
Since like ninety — no, it’s about fifteen years. But it was a lot of fun. So that’s the record that I’ve been working on.
Basically, it’s been about the last nine months ‘cause we were doing it — he has a home studio up in the hills, in Hollywood, so we were just working up there and taking our time, which was nice. You know, nice to be doing it in a home studio; you’re not tied to hours at a recording studio.
Nowadays, we were doing it all on Pro Tools, so the drums — which were played by Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater — had been tracked in a large studio and then we took the sessions up to the studio.
That’s nice. If you weren’t rushed, then you probably got some good stuff out of it. It sounds like something you were happy to be working on again.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was interesting. I mean, I’ve been working in Pro Tools for years in doing film sound, but when I sort of stopped doing records in the late nineties, even though Pro Tools was kind of around, digital hadn’t really — that kind of digital hadn’t really taken off. So it was actually the first record I had done in Pro Tools. I mean, I had used early versions of Pro Tools.
The last record I worked on before I got into the film business was this very sort of Beatles, ELO, you know, “retrograde” record. But I had done a lot of mega-tracking, which is where you, basically — it’s sort of similar to the way the Beatles recorded, where you’d record some tracks and then you’d mix it down to another tape and then you’d have a whole bunch more tracks. So this was a way to do super heavy layering, where you’re doing like triple-track guitar solos and ten tracks of vocals and then you can mix it down and take it back over to the original tape.
Anyway, I don’t wanna get too techno-geeky on you. So I had used digital in the past but it’s different than doing everything in Pro Tools, like it is nowadays. So it’s fine.
It sounds like you’ve been really good at adapting with the industry throughout, because it’s been a transitional time — the time you’ve been working — and you’ve been able to find a lot of longevity by being pretty versatile.
Yeah. And I’ve been always simultaneously interested in the past and the future. Even in the late eighties I was using DAT machines, which — I was working for a record company, so I talked them into buying a DAT machine, one of the first DAT players. Which, in those days, they were like three-thousand dollars.
You know, and it’s changed so much. I mean, after the Jim Carroll Band, when I first started engineering records, you still had to pay to go into a studio to program MIDI tracks, which is like keyboards and stuff. I mean, let alone record.
Nowadays, you can do a whole record, obviously, a good one, in your house. That doesn’t mean that if you’re just some crappy, talentless person you’re — you know, it’s only as good as what you do with it. Like all technology, the ease of it doesn’t make it better. You still have to have to have musical talent. You still have to be able to write real songs.
Computers — all the digital technology shows if you’re using it as a crutch, which shows the state of the record business nowadays. I’m not really a very big fan of modern music.
What about the scene when you were performing with The Jim Carroll Band?
What The Jim Carroll Band was, it was something nobody had — in fact, in the early days of the band, and even, really, the time when we were playing, even though we had an audience then, I think a lot of people just didn’t know what to think about us. And certainly, in the very beginning, before we made the record, we’d do shows with Jim and people would be in the audience just looking at us, like, “What the fuck is this?” They just didn’t know what to think of what Jim was doing.
When I was doing research for this interview — and I’ve been a fan of the band since I was in high school — I had never really thought much about categorizing the sound. But I saw that somebody called it “new wave punk rock.” Do you agree with that?
No. No, I would not call it new wave. I mean, I’ve sort of always — I guess you really would refer to it as punk rock, but in the same sense you refer to Patti Smith as punk rock. I mean, granted, there’s a lot of styles of punk rock, you know, for whatever that’s worth. And I feel the same way about Jim. Like, it’s punk in the sense of what essentially punk is, which is, aside from musical style, it’s something sort of groundbreaking. I could see why somebody might call us new wave. I would never refer to us as new wave. I do generally kind of refer to it as punk poetry. You know, poetry is kind of punk, anyway.
What was the overall experience like for you, in the band? You were younger than the other members, right? At the time?
[laughs] Yeah, I was the youngest by ten years. I was eighteen when I met Jim, and we first started playing, and I was twenty when the record came out; the first record came out.
And everybody was ten years older than I was. So yeah, I was very — not impressionable, but maybe open, ‘cause I was younger. I think of myself as having taken Jim’s lyrics a lot more seriously and to heart, I think, than other people in the band did; and I’m sure I might get some arguments from somebody else. But I listened to the music. It was so new to me, ‘cause I was young. I grew up in California, you know — I’d never been around a New Yorker before in my life.
It was a very intense experience, sort of spiritually and psychologically, artistically, for me, to be around Jim. And I really took his words very seriously throughout the band. I mean, I kind of lived by them, and thought about them. I was on stage listening to them when I was playing, which created a very unique experience for me, for a fan of Jim Carroll.
Obviously everybody was influenced by Jim’s imagery and his lyrics. But for me also to be in the band, and playing in the band, gave me a unique experience because I’m getting all this energy from being in the band and creating the music, at the same time. I was listening to Jim while we were playing I think as much as anybody in the audience was.
And so it was a really three-dimensional experience for me. And again, I took the lyrics really seriously. I — there were a lot of little credos in there that maybe wasn’t always so healthy to take so seriously.
Well, I know the lyrics, so it’s hard not to, at least from my spectator standpoint.
Although, on the other hand, one of the lyrics that I’d really, always adhered to was the lyrics from “City Drops [Into the Night],” which was, “It ain’t hip to sink that low / Unless you’re gonna make a resurrection.”
That even though I — we all, and I — did a lot of crazy stuff, experimented with a lot of drugs, and everything else, to me, that was really the main credo for me in doing the shit I did. Because Jim wasn’t just saying, “Hey, go get fucked up and get weird,” he was saying, “It’s fine, but it ain’t hip to fucking kill yourself.”
Like he says, literally, it’s not hip, unless you’re gonna make a resurrection. It’s a means to an end — it’s not a means in itself. Which is something I always tried to echo to people — young people that I ran into on the road. It’s like, pay attention to the whole thing. Don’t just go, “Oh hey, taking drugs, getting crazy, that’s really cool,” because it’s only cool if it’s transcendental. If you learn, and like he says: make a resurrection.
So there’s a very good example of how those lyrics operated on my psyche, and in a lot of ways, saved my life. Because I got into a shitload of trouble in those days, and very nearly — I mean, I had a near-death experience when I was twenty-two.
If I hadn’t had, I think, the sort of philosophical point of view that I got from Jim, to some degree, I wouldn’t have learned from it and not just been like so many other people that were doing what I was doing — musicians that died. I knew a lot of people who died from doing drugs, and I’m 54 years old, and I’m fucking glad I’m here today. ‘Cause it’s bullshit to die. I’m sorry, it’s just bullshit to die — young.
It’s sad. And people sometimes cherry-pick, like you said, imagery that they think is cool. Obviously when they’re younger, people tend to do that more. So it was nice that Jim had a presence in your life where he would help orient you to a larger meaning, where it might be more tempting, if you’re processing that alone, to go off into the dark paths that would be really harmful.
Which is what Jim was saying to everybody. I mean, that is what Jim’s message was, period. People often only focused on only the drugs. But the fact is, if you listened to Jim’s interviews, which, again, I did — I studied him. I listened to him when he gave interviews. And I was struck by things he would say. People would ask him, “What are you trying to say to people?” And he would say, “I’m just creating this space and I want people to think up their own take on what I’m saying. It’s not just that I’m dictating something to you. You gotta fuckin’ have your own experience,” is what Jim was saying.
Which, I think, is really an essential part of who Jim Carroll was, as a person. For somebody that was as talented as Jim was, and I definitely think that Jim — you know, you wouldn’t be far off the base to call Jim a genius. I hate to put that word on anybody, but he was certainly — whatever he was, well, most people that are that way, they’re not generally very generous people. Because they’re really caught up, and even if it’s by necessity, focusing on their own thing. But I was always struck how egalitarian Jim was with people. I would watch him interact with people on the road, and I was always surprised.
Particularly also that Jim was incredibly shy. I mean, he was like, really, amazingly shy. And yet, he was really open with people. I was always shocked to see how much he would give to people on the road, you know, to fans. Kids would come up and want to talk to him, and he could have easily just been like, “Ah, I got no time to talk to this kid.” He always really kind of made time to do it. And I was always a little shocked by that. I mean, I was social ‘cause I was twenty and of course I was chasing girls and things like that, but I think he was a lot more generous, certainly, than I was.
He had a lot of sides to him, maybe. He was the artist, but he also was very in touch with his humanity. I think the street cred, and the poet side, and that whole package sort of mixed together is part of what made him such an interesting person.
Yeah. I mean, I knew Jim as a human being. Throughout the band days, Jim and I — particularly the first couple years when it first took off, it was really like stepping onto a merry-go-round. And Jim and I, I think, were closest — you know, for a long time I think I was probably the closest person to Jim. It was an amazing place to be. I mean, it came out of that I was his bass player; I think he saw something in me.
I’ve always referred to Jim as my mentor. I just think that I saw a part of Jim that very few people ever saw. And it was very human. At the same time, I do know that Jim sacrificed, essentially sacrificed is what — you know, he’s really like Burroughs was. Everything went in the pot. There was nothing held back.
Yes. He seemed like someone who was very in touch with the human side of his work, and his surroundings, too.
Yeah, he was incredibly aware. I mean, I think I learned to be observant from Jim. You know, I look at myself today, and how I’ve looked as an adult, ‘cause in those days — I was a child, then. The whole band happened before I was 25. I was a kid. And men, in particular, they don’t just become men with age. You have to grow up.
It happens spiritually and by initiation of some sort. And even though I knew Jim in those days, in my youth, I think that he gave me tools to become a deeper man as I grew up. I mean, who I am, today, is definitely because of my association with Jim. Who I am as an artist, and an intellectual, because he really took me under his wing. I think that’s why he and I were so close. Because the other guys were older, I think they were not probably as vulnerable and open as I was. Because I was so young.
Yeah. Because of your age, maybe you were more receptive to what he had to offer.
Yeah. Even though I was certainly having a lot of fun with being famous, I immediately recognized that this band was about something else, aside from just being famous. I mean, I didn’t care about that, and I would be so bold as to say I don’t think everybody else shared that so much. Wayne, the drummer, certainly did, ’cause Wayne stayed after the band broke up. Or, you know, after the first album. The original guitar players — as you probably know —
– quit. And Jim asked me, do I mind — now, one of the guys was my uncle, so [Jim] asked me, “Are you going to go with Brian or are you going to stay with me?” And I’m like, “Well, duh. I’m going to stay with you.”
And so did Wayne. So Wayne Woods, the drummer and I, were in The Jim Carroll Band through the entire Jim Carroll Band. We got other guitar players. After the first record, we got Paul Sanchez, who then, in my opinion, was a real member. As was Lenny Kaye, don’t get me wrong — so was Lenny Kaye.
But there were other people who kind of flew through that were more hired. And those guys were the guys who were really part of The Jim Carroll Band: Paul Sanchez, and Lenny Kaye, of course, from Patti Smith’s band.
The band formed in San Diego then moved to New York after Catholic Boy, right?
No, The Jim Carroll Band was not formed in San Diego. I think what you may be referencing there is something that’s come out in later years, in interviews, which was: Jim got the kernel of an idea for a band in San Diego, when he was visiting Patti.
He went down to San Diego to see Patti’s band play. The first time Jim was ever on stage with a band was that show, because Patti’s opening act cancelled, or didn’t show up, or something. And Patti, I guess, said, “Hey, well, we’ll just jam behind Jim, and Jim can play.”
So what that was, was that Jim — again, this is second-hand, ‘cause I wasn’t there — but as I know that story, that was Jim sort of his getting his feet wet, in that Patti’s band played behind him. I don’t know what he did. But I think that’s what put the idea into Jim’s head that he wanted to have a band himself.
It sounds like being in the band made a lasting impact on you, too.
Being with Jim, it became much more than just being in some stupid rock band, and I knew that right away. I appreciated that from the get-go. It was something that was important to me. It informed my decision, when the band ended, not to continue playing music. Because my attitude was: I’d been in this amazing band. And you’re not going to be in two amazing bands. So I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to make lightning strike again. I wanted to do something else, which is what I did.
I went off, I went on to produce records, and then, in the nineties, I got serious about photography.
Interview by Rosemary Van Deuren. This is Rosemary’s first piece for Louder Than War. Rosemary is a novelist, essayist, interviewer, and press writer. You can find her on her website and follow her on Twitter.
Stephen Linsley with Wayne Woods. Copyright Stephen Linsley.
Band image – The Jim Carroll Band (Stephen Linsley on left). Copyright Ryusi Arita.