Having been a beacon of light in an otherwise largely subdued world of music and entertainment over the past 18 months through his weekly live streams from New York, Jesse Malin now brings us his latest album, Sad And Beautiful World. It’s another outstanding collection of songs which, as ever, seek to challenge and inform but ultimately entertain and get you dancing. Ian Corbridge reviews for Louder Than War and also catches up with Jesse to discuss the past, present and future of this quintessential New Yorker.
From the very start of Jesse Malin’s solo career back in 2002 with the release of The Fine Art Of Self-Destruction, he has, through his music, consistently told stories of the world around us all, raised important questions, and reflected back on his own life experiences. So it’s no wonder that many of Jesse’s lyrics are relatable to our own everyday lives, and are consistently imbued with a sense of hope and the positive mental attitude which he has always tried to instill in all those who attend his live shows.
Alongside this, Jesse is never far away from his acoustic guitar to ensure we can all hear what he is singing about, in contrast to his earlier hardcore days of Heart Attack and D-Generation when his art was more focused on the noise (albeit a wonderful noise at that). Having said that, Jesse never shies away from deferring back to that rock’n’roll and punk rock attitude that dominated so much of his formative years. It is really this blend of styles that has made his solo albums such compelling listening over the years, not to mention his incendiary live shows which form such a key part of his very existence and the strong relationship he has with his audience.
Of course, it’s those live shows which were so suddenly curtailed by the pandemic back in March 2020, but that was never going to hold Jesse Malin back. His weekly series of live streams throughout 2020 became the stuff of legend, and single-handedly kept live music alive for me and so many others around the world. This also meant that as soon as the pandemic restrictions allowed it, his stellar band kept finely tuned both through performing his existing repertoire and also road testing some of the new songs that started to emerge from Jesse’s relentless songwriting.
Jesse had already set himself an exceptional benchmark by releasing Sunset Kids in 2019, which I am not alone in thinking is one of the finest albums of his whole career. But here we are now in 2021, with many restrictions finally lifting, touring plans being finally shaped for the future and Jesse Malin releasing his first double album in the form of Sad And Beautiful World.
The album title itself speaks of current times with so much death and destruction around the world, either through political unrest, climate change, disease or as a result of sheer greed, whilst at the same time recognising we can have so much to love and look forward to, if only we would all focus our attention on looking after one another and the environment around us. And through this album Jesse clearly set out to portray his contrasting styles with a tale of two sides, the ‘roots rock’ side being focused on more mellow and acoustically based songs, and the ‘radicals’ side being a more electric and rock’n’roll infused collection of songs. Although in typical Jesse Malin style, the borders are somewhat blurred in some cases.
The album as a whole draws on the tried and tested formula Jesse has developed throughout his solo years, leaning on all the classic influences that have informed his sharp and incisive song craft. And whilst it was put together over a more protracted period of time than would normally be the case, you would never know that from listening to it as it has a consistent feel throughout, no doubt helped by the fact that Jesse and his fine band of musicians have been working together consistently to support the live stream broadcasts.
Alongside Jesse on vocals and acoustic guitar, the nucleus of the band comprises Rob Clores on keys, James Cruz on bass, Randy Shrager on drums, and Derek Cruz on electric guitar and pretty much everything else. Derek also co-produced the majority of the album alongside Geoff Sanoff. Notable guests include Lucinda Williams, Tommy Stinson, Don DiLego, Ryan Adams and Joseph Arthur amongst many others.
The opening song on the roots rock side, Greener Pastures, is immediately familiar from Jesse’s live streams as one that often closed the shows. As this stark and wonderfully mellow song conveys how “this fragile world’s so bittersweet”, it’s clearly a song about surviving as it offers a real sense of hope out of adversity. Before You Go ups the tempo as it speaks of endurance “hanging on for better things”.
State Of The Art hits a swinging beat as Jesse observes the people on the streets through lockdown, a time which provided the space for uprising by the oppressed. Oh and I couldn’t miss the reference to “Johnny on the jukebox singing born to cry”, no doubt referencing our mutual musical hero Johnny Thunders.
Tall Black Horses, a song resurrected from Jesse’s archives, is another mellow, rootsy and heartfelt ballad which Jesse explains is about, “Taking your worst fears and insecurities and owning them, conquering them, without fear and regret.” Meanwhile a cover of Tom Petty’s Crawling Back To You links back to Shining Down on Sunset Kids as it connects with the sadness that Jesse experienced when he saw Tom Petty’s last ever live show at the Hollywood Bowl shortly before Tom’s untimely death. Then, in Dance On My Grave, Jesse explores more of his country influences.
Backstabbers kicks off the more radical side of the album in an autobiographical way as it appears to explore the sense of curiosity and naivety within those who grow up in the suburbs and then move to the big City, surrounded by those who are out to exploit them. The Way We Used To Roll has a real swagger as it extends that theme of manipulation and control.
Todd Youth is a heartfelt tribute to the loss of the prolific New Jersey guitarist who had a long and close association with Jesse and who also had a pivotal role in the development of the hardcore scene in New York. Also featuring HR from Bad Brains, it’s sung from Todd’s perspective of his last night on the planet. Dance With The System in contrast has more in common with late 60’s Stones with its rebellious undertones.
As if we didn’t need reminding of Jesse’s never ending musical references and versatility, we also get the big disco anthem A Little Death. Having already performed the song on several of his weekly live streams, the world already knew this song as Nikki Disco in honour of the drum software from which it was created. With a subtle renaming and a big nod to Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, a band with whom Jesse retains a strong affiliation through his strong New York roots, this is one that will definitely get you on the dance floor.
Whilst often reflecting back to difficult and challenging times, Sad And Beautiful World is an album full of wonderful melodies and heartfelt stories of rebirth and redemption within a classic blend of Americana and rock’n’roll. Ultimately it conveys a joyful celebration of life and a sense of positivity which is exactly what we all need right now as we all search for a way forward in this brave and sometimes frightening new world.
And as Jesse Malin brings us another great album which, for me, ranks as one of his finest, Louder Than War caught up with Jesse to find out more about life through lockdown, the inspiration behind the new album and the world of a singer-songwriter.
Louder Than War: Your gig in Manchester (UK) in March 2020 was one of the last ones I saw in 2020 before lockdown cancelled everything up until very recently, which proved very frustrating for an avid gig-goer like myself. Knowing how much you love to travel and perform to live audiences, how did you cope with that sudden shift in your whole lifestyle?
Jesse: I tried to stay busy, I tried to stay connected. It was isolating, it was a lockdown, I was in the house alone. I did a stream, a livestream from my bedroom that I tried to make into a kind of children’s TV show punk rock hootenanny where I talked about things I was reading and watching, records I liked, invited everybody into my house. So the livestream, working on the record, interviewing other people just to feel how other people were, what they were going through and how were they getting by during this time.
You always have a strong message to your audiences to have a positive mental attitude and I’m fortunate that’s something I have always carried through my life. But as the pandemic took hold with no apparent end in sight, which is enough to dent anyone’s positive outlook when most things you enjoy and hold dear in life seem to have been taken away, I wondered how you coped with this on an emotional level and how much did this challenge your approach to life in general?
I think from the early days of hardcore, besides DIY, do it yourself, you found ways to make things happen. There were ways. I had a friend called Victor Murgatroyd, he would say “there’s ways” and we’d always just believe that: if there wasn’t a magazine to write about your band, you made a fanzine; if there wasn’t a place to play, you took over a club or basement or a loft. You know, it’s what we tried to do during the pandemic, just find ways to stay in touch. Music always spoke to me and said, you know what, you’re not alone. That’s what music said to me, punk rock and rock n’ roll, and we needed to know that, that there are people out there, that the whole world is going through this at the same time. So, the news and the media can get kind of depressing but staying in touch with people, using the time to write, to read, to watch films, to try to grow as a person, there was some kind of real humbleness that came – I still try to carry that with me even as the world’s opened up more.
Having watched virtually every live stream you put out through the pandemic lockdown period I know you kept very busy right throughout this extended period of time. But how did you re-attune to playing to a virtual audience especially as an artist who loves to interact so much with your audience?
Yeah it was hard, after each song there was no applause. You had to feel like a telepathic thing like there were people there listening, knowing that they were out there you know you could kinda feel them in other ways. It took a while to get used to that. We tried to, you know, keep the livestreams going with different records and themes, doing covers, doing all my albums, going from acoustic to electric to full band, telling stories, bits, backstories, characters, Bob Strauss visits.
Did you have any idea of the positive impact your live streams had on people around the world as the weekly series gathered momentum?
I felt that we were going to places that we never got to go to on tour, so, that’s the thing with the internet – as much as I hate all that stuff, that I want people to be there in person, flesh and blood in the crowd, sweatin’ and dancin’, we were going to Asia, and South Africa, we were going to see people that hadn’t come out of the house in a long time or can’t go to gigs anymore cause they have health issues. So those were the perks. And anybody could join you for an interview, we could be talking to Rat Scabies in England, we could be talking to somebody like Pete Yorn in LA.
Your appreciation to those who come to your shows is something that you have always strongly conveyed at every live gig of yours I have been to. Alongside this, you have always raised a challenge to those who live their lives more through technology or the “googlebox”. Has your view on technology and its benefits changed in any way as a result of your experiences of the past 16 months?
Yeah, the googlebox. Well, I always liked record stores, I always liked the in-person thing. Like I said, we had no choice, so we had to make the best of it, and use it in every way we could. We did the benefit for Save Our Stages to get the government in America to support independent live music venues. We did it on Joe Strummer’s birthday with the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, and like I said, you can’t always get all these people in one venue to play a show, but we were able to get them to send something in from all parts of the world; from Josh Homme out in LA, to somebody in England to Bruce Springsteen in NJ to folks all over sending stuff in. So they were all there somehow.
I have observed that in some areas of the music business there seems a greater sense of community between artists and fans with an increased level of online interaction which perhaps did not exist previously. How do you think the impact of Covid and the prominence of live streaming has impacted the relationship between artists and fans?
Well, just them writing to me, even since we have gotten out and played, people have said that has really mattered. I thought they were just gonna get sick of me but I guess, I was trying to keep everybody hangin’ on and it was helping me. I mean, just as much my fans helped me – buying merch, being there, doing the talks, supporting the shows, buying a ticket, it really kept me and the band going financially.
Did you have any concerns about your own ability to continue to make a living in the future as a musician, given all the challenges that lockdown posed for all those in the entertainment sector and the ongoing debates about the financial model adopted by streaming services?
Like I said, I stayed in touch with the fans better, I felt more appreciation and love for them and realised the audience I’ve built over these many years, how they have my back. I was really touched by it, it really blew me away.
You have always written songs from experiences within your own life and what is happening in the world around you which makes it easier for people like me to connect with the songs. However, from listening to your superb new album I get the sense that this is not really a lockdown-focused album, although there are some songs where these factors may have influenced the lyrics. Is this a fair observation and, if so, was this deliberate on your part?
I’ve always written songs from experience from my own life. This is not really a lockdown or pandemic album, but you know, it’s hard not to have the outside world seep in. You hear people looting and rioting, you hear people protesting out your door, you know, applauding the healthcare workers with pots and pans at 7 o’clock, you hear ambulances and fire trucks, or people screaming or silence when it used to be noisy and it’s gonna seep in through the windows when I’m sitting there. I went for walks as well in desolate streets, watching things close, but there’s a lot of hope in this record as most of my records are, and I really didn’t wanna get too locked in to being some kinda souvenir handbook for the pandemic covid era. So I think it’s stuff that we’re always fighting to avoid, being isolated, feeling alone, being beaten down, trying to overcome things, that’s always been a theme in my music.
Given the critical acclaim given to your previous album Sunset Kids, which I immediately considered to be up there with your best, how did you approach putting the new album together?
I had a few songs that didn’t seem like they fitted on Sunset Kids. There was another record speaking to me, and that was Sad And Beautiful World. Songs like Backstabbers and The Way We Used to Roll started in Sunset Kids, that’s why Lucinda Williams worked on them, but they grew, and they fitted this other sound. With Todd Youth, Backstabbers, and A Little Death, that rock side of the record, plus the mellow stuff was pretty mellow, things like Greener Pastures and Tall Black Horses were more ballads and were more roots story songs. So the combination of making a double record was something that – we had a lot of songs with Sunset Kids and people did appreciate that record, but we got stopped in the middle of touring and promoting that record, it got cut off, so here we go again two years later.
I know you are a prolific walker, often as a means of finding inspiration for song writing, and this is not always a common thing around the streets of the USA. Did lockdown in any way inhibit this or your inspiration for writing songs?
Well, I read and watched a lot more films, I looked through my notebook at things I’d written down and wanted to go back to, where I was disconnected from a relationship, somebody I’d broken with. A lot of those emotions are in there. We’ve walked around a lot of streets and had a lot of experiences, so it’s easy to pull from that and the imagination. And I would bundle up and mask up and go for long walks by the river, down empty streets.
How did you decide which songs to use for the current album and have you got a bunch already lined up for the next album(s)?
I had almost everything – when you get the vinyl you get everything, you get the extra songs and the whole deal. I don’t have too many lined up for the next album, I think I cleaned out the closet pretty good on this and I feel ok about it. It’s a snapshot of this time, it’s two years after Sunset Kids, it’s my first double record and it’s a record that has the roots side, the rock side, the Sunday mornings, the Saturday nights, the city, the country, the soft, the sad and the happy. It’s all in one, that’s kinda what our shows are like, really. You can dance, and hopefully you can feel something else too, get sentimental and sappy romantic and cry a bit, look at things.
You are always very open about the great songwriters and performers who have influenced you over the years, including the likes of Jim Croce, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen through to the likes of Johnny Thunders and that whole New York punk scene. Are there still artists emerging today who are inspiring your music and songwriting?
Yes, I saw Jason Isbell recently. I heard a band called Strand of Oaks, I like a band called The Clockworks. There’s a band out of Dublin that I really like, Fontaines DC. There’s a group I produced called Hennessey out of New York that I really like. There’s just constant stuff coming in, you need stuff to come in.
In those formative years, through the likes of Heart Attack and D-Generation, you have often said that, in spite of the social lyrics that you were writing, the messages never got heard and were often misunderstood as everyone was just into the rock’n’roll. Do you feel this has changed throughout your solo years?
I feel like people in my solo years have, yes, listened to the lyrics more – they sing them back, we’ve talked more about it, the interviews seem to be more focused on the songs and the stories. That wasn’t the case so much, especially in D Generation.
Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?
I’m always writing down ideas in notebooks for lyrics, scribbling on my hands or pieces of paper, or the popcorn bag in a movie or a napkin in a bar, and then I come home and sing into my tape recorder – or now my iPhone – songs, chords, melodies in a freeform way. Sometimes the lyrics are all there and the chords and the melody and, boom, you get real lucky, and other times there are pieces of it, it’s like a Rorschach test, you have to figure out what you’re saying and sit down and finish it in the latter part of the day or another day. You know, dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, digging in and understanding what you’re singing about, trying to figure out what you’re saying. Sometimes it’s not all there but it’s a sketch, and then you full fledge that colour of it and finish it up.
You are a prolific storyteller at your gigs, certainly since I first saw you in 2003. Have you ever considered documenting your life or experiences in music in a book?
Yeah, I’m thinking of doing a book, it’s scary. I like a lot of books like Just Kids by Patti Smith and Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, I like more of a slice of life kind of story that other people that don’t know, Iggy Pop or maybe The Ramones. I want to write some kind of story about coming of age and growing up and something that’s still going on now. It’s still a process for me, but yes.
How important do you think music is in the modern day world?
Well I feel music is like a heartbeat of us and it goes beyond religion or favourite sports teams or wars or your race, your skin, all that stuff that separates us. I think music just brings us together, it’s dancing, it’s laughing, it’s that heartbeat. But you know it’s not worth a lot to some people because we get a lot of stuff free on the internet from these digital services and it’s hard to be an artist, you gotta really wanna do it. But I think people love to dance, they love to connect, they love to hear people singing about the human situation, it gives a spirit, a soul, and a life.
Aside from the forthcoming UK tour which I am so looking forward to, how do you see the next 12 months shaping up for you as the world starts to regain some new form of normality (whatever that may look like) both in terms of touring and recording?
I don’t know what to say, how do I feel about the next 12 months? There’s an unknown, there’s a scariness too think. I mean the one thing is, even with vaccination, people aren’t on the same page – forget left or right or Democrat or Republican in this country, or the mainstream vs the artist and the underground vs that straight world. No, it’s in our world in the subculture, in the music culture, in that scene, in the punk scene, that people are anti-vax, pro-vax, there’s so much of this split, and that makes things kinda scary. What we’re doing to the planet, we keep having hurricanes and rainstorms and global warming, but I don’t know, I somehow still believe that we’re strong and we’re gonna get there and there are a lot of good people on the planet, and I like to feel that me and my friends are on the right team. It might be a crazy team, but we want the best. We’re gonna fight with love and power. Yeah it’s to be seen, but there will always be music and we’re always gonna find a way to get through.
You can buy Sad And Beautiful World here.
All words and live pic by Ian Corbridge. You can find more of his writing at his author profile.