New York’s finest troubadour Jesse Malin has been on the road touring his critically acclaimed new album ‘Sunset Kids’ since last summer. We caught up with him on his UK tour last month prior to a sold out show in Leeds to discuss punk rock beginnings, songwriting influences and hanging about in Dublin with Johnny Depp and Bono.
This interview was conducted on March 4th, prior to lockdown. At the time, Jesse had two more tours to the UK pencilled in for 2020. While we hope those will be rescheduled at some time in the future, for now this could be the last tour related interview you read for some time. Enjoy.
Jesse: I guess around that yeah, if you don’t count the live and the covers record, so yeah something like that.
RPM: And you collaborated with Lucinda Williams on this album?
Jesse: Yeah, she produced it along with her husband Tom Overby and we made it in California and New York. We’ve been friends for a long time and it turned out to be a great experience making a record with her. I had an instinct that she would have a great feel in the studio and she’s great with storytelling and just being a friend. But also, being a fan made me wanna, you know, step up my game. I think the band I have came through and we just had a really great time making the record. It was one of those records where we recorded 20 plus songs and narrowed it down to 14, which is still a lot, but you know I’m real proud of this one
RPM: Yeah, there is just something about this album; it seems to be the right album at the right time. There was a lot of personal tragedies leading up to and during the recording of ‘Sunset Kids’. Can you elaborate?
Jesse: Yeah, it was a heavy time of death and loss. Life is for the living and I don’t wanna be all bummed out, you know, “woe is me”. But yeah, one of the engineers who started the record with us; David Bianco, who did Tom Petty’s ‘Wild Flowers’ and Bob Dylan and Frank Black. But he also did D Generation my first band, so there’s history there, He had a stroke in the middle of the record, and then my Dad passed away right before we finished. Also, Todd Youth, who played with me in D Generation and St Mark’s Social. Inside the album we dedicate the record to those people we lost. So it was one of those crazy runs when all this was happening, but despite all that, going through heavy times, the best thing to do is play music and be around people you love. We started the record around Christmas time, we were in the studio in LA, no snow or cold, it was kinda surreal. But me and Lucinda kinda got the holiday blues, so we had the mindset to work through that.
RPM: I think tragedy and tough times brings out the best in a songwriter, wouldn’t you agree?
JM: Yeah, well we went out to see her (Lucinda) open for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in L.A., which turned out to be his last gig. We didn’t know it was going to be his last gig, nobody did. And we met with her the next night over dinner and said we wanted to do this album and she and her husband seemed to be into it. We started to make plans, but a week later it was the Vegas shooting and the same day Tom Petty died, so everything ground to a halt.
I mean, I didn’t know him, but witnessing that show really impacted on some of the writing on songs like ‘Shining Down’. So we started working on it in December when we could meet in-between her touring schedule and my touring schedule. We would sit around in her kitchen and I would show her lyrics or they would come to me and sit in my apartment. And every time we would go away from each other something else would happen and I’d write a few more songs. Like I went to Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday to sing, and I came back and wrote a song (‘Shane’) about how weird it was to be the strange guy standing next to Johnny Depp and Bono and Nick Cave, and being in this country pub for like 3 days.
RPM: Going back to songwriting, I read you take yourself away to hotel rooms to write in isolation, is that a regular thing?
Jesse: Well, I was living in L.A. for a little bit and I’m not a big L.A. guy. But it was a nice change this time and it felt good, we were staying right near Sunset Boulevard actually. But I like to be in places that are not my usual place to write, not where you might do your usual routine in your apartment. So you kinda have a place that’s a blank canvas, a transient place. You get a lot of those on the road because every night we are somewhere different. We’ve been touring this record a lot. Since August we’ve been on the road non-stop.
RPM: And the reception has been good on the road?
Jesse: Things have been growing. These aren’t the biggest rooms, but most are sold out. In the States this record seems to connect more. Sometimes I’m bigger in the UK or Europe than America, but this record had a lot of support from some magazines and press, and people seem to know the words more. I notice that in the crowd every night, that’s always a funny thing. You write a song in your little room somewhere and people sing the words in other places. The songs take on another life when you take then in front of a crowd. It’s one thing to say something privately, but then say it in public, you kinda see if it rings true or if you’re full of shit or not.
RPM: A lot of our readers will know you from your days fronting D Generation. Do people in the audience still shout for you to play those old songs?
Jesse: In certain areas, yes. Some places they don’t know that band and others there will be guys with dark black hair and leather jackets yelling out for a D Generation song. You know, D Generation is something I am not ashamed of. I’m proud of those records and I loved working with those guys, you know… we were a gang. But I’ve been doing this for so much longer than I did that. I’ve had this band, these cats, for a bunch of years now.
RPM: It seems a lot of punk artists go down the singer/songwriter or Americana route. Do you think there a connection between the two?
Jesse: I think there is a connection. It’s the same 3 chords, a message, sad lyrics and a lot of fuckin’ attitude. It might just be louder through a Marshall amp with a punk band. But with an acoustic guitar, there is this thing. Its street music, its folk music…Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams… You know, I think they were all pretty punk rock. As well as Neil Young, who I think is a great bridge to that, as well as Joe Strummer, even The Clash had this folky edge to it. But for me personally, I always liked songs that painted pictures, told stories. Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ was always a great influence on me wanting to play solo and Billy Bragg’s records, as well as Elvis Costello. It’s great to hear Frank Turner, Brian Fallon, Chuck Ragan, all these great people who have a great punk spirit but also have a great craft.
RPM: Ok Jesse. Now we get to the fun part of the interview we like to call the ‘Rock Star’ questions where we get our subject to challenge themselves and think outside the box.
When people think of Jesse Malin, what do they associate you as being?
Jesse: What do they think I am? Well, that’s hard for me to say. I’m just gonna repeat a lot of bullshit that people say about me. A singer/songwriter, or a Troubadour. A Rabbi Rasta, jack-off, goofball, vegan-nut New Yorker. A positive mental analyst!
RPM: Is that what you get shouted at you then?
Jesse: Um, yeah! “What’s the name of your band”, “who are you?”, “what does Jesse Malin mean?”, “where you going”?,”what’s the future of the planet?”.
RPM: what’s your morning routine?
Jesse: I wake up, I drink a herbal tea. I jump out of bed like anything could happen. You never know what’s going to happen in life. I do a bunch of push-ups. I keep the gadgets and devices off for a while, put on a little music. Sometimes I write, as coming out of a dream state is a good place to write. I’ll write in notebooks with an old fashioned pen and some real paper. Then I turn on the computer and wait to be slapped by the world.
RPM: What was your first guitar and what did you learn to play on it?
Jesse: It was an acoustic guitar, one of those nylon string $20 jobs. I sat around and tried to learn how to play ‘Jingle Bells’ on it. But then I got aggressive and I took a microphone from a reel to reel player and I taped it on there and I tried to play Kiss songs, Ted Nugent songs and Led Zeppelin songs. I wasn’t so great at it so I started to write my own songs instead, and just play Ramones songs because right away that was instant gratification.
RPM: You knew Joey, right?
Jesse: Yeah, D Generation toured with The Ramones. Me and Joey became friends, he was just a lovely person that just loved rock music.
RPM: If you could go back to your 20 year old self, what 3 pieces of advice would you give?
Jesse: To stay on the road longer, to be fearless, more loving and compassionate, and to not give up.
RPM: And would you have listened though?
Jesse: To half of it…the other half I would’ve pissed out into the toilet or something!
RPM: When you hear the word successful what comes to mind?
Jesse: Happiness, having enough money to be able to have the freedom to live. To have good love in your life and to be happy with what you do every single day.
RPM: Have you ever written a song, only to realise it had already been written?
Jesse: I’ve had melodies that have been familiar to other things or lines here and there, but never full songs. I’ve come close though, I remember somebody in the band, I think it was a wisecrack from the drummer saying “that sounded like that song by Oasis” and I’d be like “No, Oasis took it from there” and I guess…well Martin Scorsese said “good ones copy, great ones steal!”. It’s how you steal it and what you do with it that counts.
RPM: Ok, and to wrap up Jesse. If you could have a billboard anywhere in the world where would you have it and what would it say?
Jesse: Oh man…somewhere in the Middle East I guess. Saying ‘peace and love – stop the fighting. We are all flesh and blood, we all bleed the same… just peace’.
Jesse Malin is currently holding a YouTube residency every Saturday evening at 9pm UK time entitled ‘The Fine Art of Self-Distancing’, playing songs and telling stories from his apartment in New York. It’s free to watch but donations to help the band and his crew are more than welcome. Tune in, grab a beer, tell your friends. And join in the new normal for live music experience right now.
Author: Ben Hughes
Buy ‘Sunset Kids’ Here