Welcome to part two of Louder Than War’s exclusive interview with musician, songwriter, photographer, and engineer Stephen Linsley. Rosemary Van Deuren interviews the RIAA gold and platinum award-winner for album production, Stephen is probably still most widely recognized for his dynamic bass-playing in the cutting-edge musical group, The Jim Carroll Band.
In this interview segment Stephen discusses inspiration, the experience of being a founding member in a band fronted by his dear friend and mentor, the residual effects of the touring and recording mindset, and life after rock and roll.
If you missed the first part of the interview you can read it here.
Louder Than War: You have a compelling fine art photography portfolio of spectral landscape and architecture. How did you start doing photography?
Well, I actually have done photography my whole life. I had a camera since I was about ten. I shot through the whole Jim Carroll days, although, I was really not very good. You know, I always said someday I’m gonna learn what I’m doing. But I always had cameras. I studied photography in high school, for a little while.
And in the late nineties, after I started in the film business, it was kind of like I was using skills that I had learned, but it wasn’t as great as making records. And yet, I was making a living. So there was this whole part of me that needed to be, not filled, but for a while, when I first started working, I just kind of felt like, ‘What’s the point of life?’ because for so long I struggled.
You know, when you’re working at a thing you’re making, it’s sort of art and money. You struggle so much, it fills your life up. But when suddenly you’re making a living, and that’s all taken care of, you gotta dig a little deeper. And I did, and I don’t know — photography got me.
Photography is very much like music anyway, I think. I’m certainly not the first person that’s said that. I shoot in an 8×10, which is like an old-style, flatbed-style, large camera — large-plate sheet film.
And I’ve always made a lot of analogies to it being like a jazz guy learning his horn. You gotta learn your chops. But when you’re onstage, it has nothing to do with your chops. It has to do with, you know — it’s magic, and alchemy, and it’s all about what you don’t know.
Yeah. Did you feel that way about your live performing days too?
Well, I was so young then, that I didn’t think about it. [laughs] I was too busy doing it. But, yes. When you’re young, and you’re studying, struggling in an art, you think you’re not working hard enough, even though you probably are. I know that mostly I was driven by — you know, this is why I think, in some ways, rock and roll is sort of a young person’s thing. There’s so much internal emotion, and angst, and terror, and whatever it is that drives us.
Particularly in my style of bass playing, that was very driven, and heavy, and hard. And my experience of that was I always felt — I always felt — like I wasn’t good enough. But that was because I was so driven, emotionally, about what I was doing, that I think it would have always looked not good.
You know, I think that’s a common reaction for artists. Like, in some ways, you should always feel like your art’s not good enough, because that’s what drives you to be better.
I think it would be kind of boring, to be honest with you, if you felt like, “Oh, boy, I was really great.” You know? You’re, like, sitting on your fat at that point. So that’s really my memory of playing. I can still play bass, but I’ll never play like I did then, because there’s not this force pulling through me.
Being in the band, being behind Jim, being a member of this band. You know, those things. And also, not thinking about anything else. I mean, aside from girls —
but they kind of go hand-in-hand with music, so. Unless you’re a girl, you know —
and then it’s boys. Or girls, you know, depending.
Yeah. [laughs] So you said that you, at the time, really took Jim’s words and lyrics very seriously, and took them to heart. So what was the songwriting process like on the albums? Did he primarily write the lyrics, or did you guys contribute to the lyrics too?
No, Jim wrote all the lyrics. We had nothing to do with the lyrics; it’s Jim’s territory. The way songs were written — there was a few ways songs got written. There were a couple songs, like “Catholic Boy,” Jim wrote the music. He couldn’t play guitar, but he came to us and said, “Hey, I got this song.” It was always funny when Jim would — I still have it really deeply in my memory, seeing him do this — where he would take your guitar, he was lefty, so he’d turn the guitar upside down, and he would sort of struggle to play this idea.
The idea was always — I mean, I still can hear him playing “Catholic Boy” for the very first time he played for us. Like, “I have this idea.” You know, obviously, it has to be extrapolated by us, the band. We see the kernel, and then we kind of make it happen.
That was one way songs got written. Another way was somebody in the band would have a song that they had written, and then they put it together. Like later, the second album, “Rooms” was a song I wrote, and I wrote that song completely before I — to be honest with you, I never even heard lyrics until the record came out.
Yeah. You know, that’s one of the things I don’t like about the second record, and the third record. The first record, we played as a band in clubs for a year before we went to studio. When we went in the studio, that record was made in two one-week sessions.
We were so hot, and just sort of together, musically, because we’d been playing constantly for the last year, in San Francisco. And that’s really where songs, in my opinion, get worked out the best, is in clubs. You know, playing live, they sort of — the song takes on its own life, and it morphs into something. And when you go in the studio, that energy is what gets put down.
That’s why Catholic Boy is such a great record, because we ran the truck into the wall, basically. There was so much force behind us, and also, thankfully, Bob Clearmountain was the engineer. I mean, if he hadn’t been the engineer, somebody else that didn’t understand us might have ruined that record.
That’s what recording is about, you know? You gotta get the communication of the energy of a band. And that’s why it was such a blessing that Clearmountain was there.
What about the other records?
The second records were very different, because, you know, Brian [Linsley] and Terrell [Winn] left and so we had to write — and this is typical of second records, where you spend twenty years writing your first record, and then you gotta write your second record in a year.
Oh, yeah. It’s the same with novels.
Yeah. It’s such a cliche. So a lot of those songs were written in rehearsal studios. And my song, that particular song [“Rooms”], I brought completely written. And then Jim sort of wrote lyrics.
As it turned out, I loved what Jim did, you know? What he did lyrically and vocally — I mean, it just totally fit. I was so happy. I still really love that song.
And I actually tended toward sweeter songs, even though I was a rambunctious little troublemaker in those days. So there were a lot of ways that songs got written.
Did that changeover in how the albums were produced contribute to the band ending?
When the band ended, it’s just that, Jim, you know — Jim was a writer. He was not a rock star. The sensibilities of a writer are very different than the sensibilities of a rock star. Rock stars have to travel, and they have to be around a lot of other people, and writers are not about — I mean, you’re a writer, you know?
Yeah, I don’t travel that much. [laughs]
It’s about fuckin’ being alone in front of your typewriter. As sad as I was that the band ended, when Jim told us the band was ending, I — again, because I understood Jim — I understood. Like, I get it. It was fun for a while, for him, and he dug it and got into it. He loved being a rock star for a while. But I think, after a while, it just became tedious, which is the truth of being a rock star: it’s just fuckin’ tedious after a while. And he wasn’t a musician, so he didn’t have this — maybe it’s not quite so bad as a musician, because you kind of want to go out and do that, but I really just think that he just wanted to write. Which is what he did after the band stopped, is he was able to focus on writing. And he wrote a lot after that.
Do you think the joy, for him, was more in creating than performing? I mean, I guess he also did spoken-word poetry —
Yeah. I think it’s just that, the truth is, Jim was a poet, and not a rock and roller. And poet — he was a real poet. It was not an affectation, you know?
And great writers are genetically great writers, as well as learned. But it’s a certain personality type. I mean, I don’t have that. I would probably be a good writer if I had that, but I don’t have the discipline. And no matter what you have to say as a person, if you don’t have the discipline to write, you’re not gonna write stuff. Unless you’re a savant or something. But I’m neither. You know, it’s hard work to be a writer. And Jim had that hard work. He was a monk. He thrived on going into that cave and writing, and that’s why he produced the work that he did.
So I think it had nothing to do with anything in the world in terms of the band, or circumstances of the band, or not succeeding, I just think he really was a writer, and he needed to get back to what he really was.
And again, it influenced me as a young person, and that influence is evident. When I grew up I saw the effect that it had. The process of growing up, for me, was hard, partly because part of me growing up had to do with unlearning what rock and roll had done to me as a young person, in terms of my expectation of the world. I had a set of expectations that were not in sync with reality, because I’d been in a rock band.
And when that’s over, you’re back to being a regular person. And you either kill yourself with drugs, trying to pretend you’re still a rock star, or you somehow work it out. And I did. I mean, for a long time, I actually didn’t even acknowledge the band.
I didn’t talk about it. I kind of shunned the whole thing, because I think I was trying to get my humanity back. Then, later, I realized what I did was really important, and I needed to embrace it.
You know, when I was young, it was my identity. And I had to learn to be valuable for me, not because I was a musician, or in this great band, or all the things I sort of relied on when I was in my twenties — my young twenties — and I think that’s what made it necessary for me to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater for a while.
But in my late forties, I realized this was really something special that happened, and I’ve re-embraced it. It’s just not coming from ensuring my ego, or my sense of self. It’s nothing to do with my sense of self. It’s something I did, and it was important. But my sense of self comes from me, not from what I do in the world.
Yeah. I think when you’re young and you’re used getting your self-esteem and your, like you said, your sense of self, from an external force, which is people liking your music or feeling like you performed and did a good job, when you have to sort of ascribe meaning to yourself just as a person, like you would to anyone, that can be hard. Because you think, “No, I should be doing something. I should be living up to these expectations.”
Yeah. It’s part of growing up. I feel like I’m in my twenties again. I mean, I have so much energy. You know, I got married — after 50. I have a child — after 50. I sort of have re-embraced — I don’t know what it is.
It’s like, whatever I had in the sort of brazenness I had in my twenties, but that was also motivated by insecurity, I have that again, but now it’s not the compensation of insecurity that it was, then. It’s like, real, now. And that’s the main thing.
Well, you don’t have anything to prove, maybe.
Yeah, and you don’t care about what other people think. You sort of just stop judging yourself on what other people do, and you just focus on what you have to do, and you do it. And you do it ‘cause you have to do it, and you want to impress yourself and satisfy yourself, and other people either get it, or fuck ‘em, basically. And, you know, musically, to tie that back, that was what The Jim Carroll Band was all about. That’s why I say, in the very early days, people didn’t understand it. But we didn’t stop. Some, a few people, did get it. That’s all that mattered.
Which Jim Carroll Band songs stand out most in your mind?
You know, “People Who Died” started off as a joke.
It actually started off as us warming up, in rehearsals. A lot of times, what we would do, when we rehearsed, is, you know, just typical musicians — you just sort of fart around. You’re warming up. And we were playing this Chuck Berry shit, and Jim just started riffing on it. And that’s what became “People Who Died.” I really like “Wicked Gravity.”
That’s a good one.
You know, most of them, I judge by what the experience playing them live was, is what makes me like them. I loved playing “City Drops.” Nothing to do with the fact that I co-wrote it, I just loved playing that song. It was dreamy, I loved the lyrics.
We usually opened with “Wicked Gravity,” and it was always just the most amazing feeling when we kicked into that at the beginning of a show.
Later, we had a song called “Low Rider” that was really fun to play. We’d actually been playing that since the beginning, it just didn’t get onto a record until the third album. I tend to listen to live stuff a lot more than do I listen to records, of ours.
You like hearing the live music more than the recordings?
When I listen to Jim Carroll, I really never listen to the records.
But what I do listen to, and I have a lot of it, is live tapes, ‘cause we recorded — our drummer always gave tapes to the house mixers. It’s so evocative, to me, of the early days with Jim.
Like I said, I’d never been around people from New York. So Jim’s accent, to me, as a kid, was really intense to hear — the sound of his voice. And that was part of — when we would play, I sort of listened to this guy. I don’t know what it was, whether Jim just got more experienced as a singer, but as the years went on, his accent kind of tamed. Plus, I’m sure, I just got used to it. But he got less New York-sounding, a bit. I mean, he always had a pretty intense New York sound. But in singing, it — well, in the early days, he had this really New York accent.
Several years ago I found a performance of a song we used to play that never got recorded — “Dead Heat,” I think it was called. And the first time I played this tape after so many years, you know, twenty years after, it was so intense for me to hear this. It brought me back. Like, it brought back all these sense-memories of playing with Jim in the beginning, and the effect of the sound of his voice on me.
You know Jim — Jim was a monumental person in my life. He was my mentor. Who I am, today, I learned from Jim. The best parts of who I am, today, I think I learned from Jim.
I just wish that Jim could see me be a father. ‘Cause raising my daughter, Ondine, is the greatest experience — the greatest achievement of my life. Being a rockstar pales in comparison.
Interview by Rosemary Van Deuren. This interview 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.
Photo credit: Vintage shot of Stephen Linsley. Copyright Stephen Linsley.