Interview: Jesse Malin

Jesse Malin’s running a little late today. As I prepare for this interview on time, a good 30 minutes go by until I finally have him on the line and he explains that the car had suddenly broken down as he was getting to a show. To his relief, whatever was wrong with it was finally fixed and there won’t be any problems getting to the show tonight.

This is a nice parallel to the last few years of Malin’s life: At age 43, Malin’s seen a lot of ups and downs in the industry and in his beloved hometown of New York City, having been on the road and playing music since the age of 13 in hardcore band Heart Attack (with which he got to tour with Johnny Thunders), and then later through Glam punk band D Generation in the mid-90’s. It was after D Generation broke up that Malin, tired of the usual internal band conflicts, decided to go on his own and release his first solo album in 2002: the Ryan Adams-produced, Springsteen-loved “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction’, followed by 2004’s “The Heat” .

After having released his 3rd studio album, “Glitter in the Gutter” in 2007, Malin found himself confronted with an uncertain future. He thought of going back to school, he DJ’d at weddings, he tried his luck with some Henry Rollins-styled “storytelling” shows, and was ultimately wondering if he would ever play music again; broke and sleeping on his sister’s couch in the meantime. It was only after being offered to write some songs for an as-yet unreleased JD Salinger biopic that Malin started thinking about putting a new band together, finding a new label, and releasing a new album. The result: 2010’s excellent “Love It To Life” album, recorded with his backing band dubbed “The St Marks Social” which was released on Side One Dummy records.

Given the history that led to the making of this album in the past few years, did you ever think you were going to make such an optimistic record?

After I get over being really bummed out I always find a way to wake up the next day and, you know, get excited about life. When I start playing music I feel positive because I feel it’s a place to channel all the demons of life and a place to spit the poison out. So, having that, when I’ve got the guitars and the band and it’s going and the juices are flowing in that way, it keeps me optimistic. And I can’t have that release when I’m bottled up – I get that Travis Bickle mentality “Fuck Everything!”.

Sonically, as much as your songwriting ties it all together, your albums do sound very different, and Love It To Life definitely has a more “street” feel to it. Was this something that you proactively went for, or is the result of the new band?

With Love it to Life we wanted to make a record that was written with The St Marks Social band vibe – just with friends, and jamming. The Fine Art was more written really stripped down, just acoustic guitar and piano. And with (Malin’s 2nd album) The Heat and Glitter In The Gutter I was going for a different thing. “Heat” had this wall-of sound approach and Glitter was like, a pop record that I made in California, kind of trying to join the competition up to some point…Made at a time when I was living in this kind of world and it was a bit more polished than anything I’d done, whereas with Love It To Life, you have the same power in the songs and you can hear that it’s driving and rhythmic but it’s a little more raw. It was made on the cheap, we had Ted Hutt producing and he comes from a real punk rock background, and it helped make the record sound more, I think, like a distilled version of everything I’ve done.”

New York City plays a big part of what you write about. Your songs lyrically preserve that aspect of a New York that’s slowly fading or just simply lost by now – and there’s the sense of nostalgia and romanticism that lurks around your stories. What is it about that New York that you miss most of?

I think New York now is so expensive, corporate and so transient that it just feels like a mall. There are aspects of it that are cultural, but now it’s so marginalized… When I was a kid, I always felt we were different from the rest of the world…almost that we weren’t even in America, we’re just New York. I write about that city because I think it’s a good metaphor for renaissance: just tearing your shit down and finding a way to survive. My songs deal with that concept of ‘the fine art of self-destruction’ – you have to learn how to die to live. I think New York has that through different changes, and even though it gets all cleaned up, it still creeps out. People who need to create, who need to connect or need to find something out of life can (still) find it there because of the mixes of cultures and the people that come from all over the world. And I think New York might be, where I come from, these parallels of it – the New York that was, the romanticism of it; James Dean on 42nd street; Martin Scorsese’s 70’; or in my youth also CBGB’s and the hardcore matinees. But for me, I also use it as a metaphor and a backdrop where I can be singing about anybody’s town, or any place or any relationship…the things that go through changes and come & go.

At this point, do you feel comfortable in knowing that, for better or worse, music is something you can’t escape and that you will probably be doing it for the rest of your life?

Well, at least for a good long time! (laughs) It’s something that I don’t think I wanna stop doing and right now we’ve got such a great band together too – it’s something you just get hooked on, being on the road and being out there just feels really good. I think in different forms too you know. I did an acoustic show last night, and then it’s nice getting back to the full band. I like being able to tell stories, to do my spoken-word-ish kind of rant and I just think it can lead into a lot of things that whether in New York or the whole world has a lot of possibilities. I’d like to be able to do a book of stories and go out and do that. I like to see people like Henry Rollins that can do the music thing, the books, the spoken word. For me, we can do bars, clubs, bands, touring, but the main thing has always come from the idea of doing rock ‘n roll or whatever it’s called this year (laughs). If that keeps me out of the day job and keeps me out of society then I’m happy. Right now I’m excited about writing some new songs and the good thing about where the world is now is that you can put out a records out and do whatever, it’s like the Wild West. You don’t have record companies saying “You gotta wait 3 years to put out a new album!”. You can just write a song, record it and put it up on the Wild Web.

Your live shows also standout for your storytelling, and it would indeed be great to have you write a book of stories, is this something that will come out in the near future?

The book thing is definitely a work in progress, but if you wanna write something, it’s tough, because you don’t want to come off like some pretentious fucker, it’s gotta have some kind of sense of humor. For me, all the stories I tell or the things I’ve experienced, it’s the Woody Allen/Lenny Bruce thing: Tragedy plus time equals comedy. You have to find the irony in your life and somehow that gets you to go on and evolve. For me, punk rock and rock n roll has always been about change. Staying in a root of some sort but being able to branch out into a lot of things, like when I was a kid watching The Clash, or The Beatles or the bands that were able to keep an essence but then also really change. Ryan Adams is great at that, bands like Wilco and Radiohead as well and it’s interesting to see. Having started out in punk bands and ending up in acoustic tours, some people think it’s kind of funny, but to me, it all just fits into that attitude that it’s about what you’re trying to say in songs. And the ultimate thing is just telling a story to somebody.

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