Jerry Joseph Makes Conscious Contact
After Widespread Panic’s April 28th show at Oak Mountain Ampitheatre in Pelham, AL, the commonly debated question of what qualifies a jamband was brought into discussion. As various members of Widespread Panic and special guest and longtime friend Jerry Joseph settled into the post-show unwind backstage, they began to determine criteria for this genre. A timeless and usually endless debate, it was Panic guitarist Michael Houser who made the witty suggestion that a jamband doesn’t sell many records.
If that is one of the criteria, then Jerry Joseph may soon have one less factor to keep him and his Portland, OR band the Jackmormons coupled in the jamband genre, an affiliation that Joseph will occasionally disagree with. “I get so associated with that jamband thing,” says Joseph about a month later before a gig in Colorado Springs, CO. “In some ways we are the furthest thing from a bluegrass, jazz festival band.”
The jamband connection may root from Joseph’s early days in the reggae rock group Little Women out of Boulder, CO. They played a significant part in exposing bands such as Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler to potential fans in the western part of country. But as Panic and Blues Traveler moved into larger venues Little Women eventually called it quits.
After stints in Montana then Utah, Joseph eventually locked in with bassist Junior Ruppel and former Little Women drummer Brad Rosen to form the Jackmormons. Seven years later, as they tour in support of their Terminus Records release of Concious Contact, Joseph realizes the unfamiliarity that lies ahead.
“We have already sold more copies going out of the gate than anything we have ever done in less than two weeks,” says Joseph with a little bit of amazement. “I was just saying to those guys we just have gotten further than I had ever gotten with Little Women. Not in numbers as far as our crowds, but as far as the professionalism, the quality of the people around us and who’s working on stuff has eclipsed anything that I have to base it on. So this is very unknown territory.”
With the support of Widespread Panic’s bassist Dave Schools at the production helm and Dave Barbe of Sugar fame engineering the album, this unknown territory Joseph speaks of could be very welcoming to someone that has undergone his fair share of music business mishaps over the years.
A melodically dark and hooky pop aggregation of the Joseph’s songwriting abilities and the Jackmormons lack of musical limitations, Concious Contact is the Jackmormons fifth and possibly toughest album to date.
“I think it is the best representation of any record we have ever made,” says drummer Brad Rosen, “including Little Women. It doesn’t really capture our live performance because it doesn’t have any roar to it, but is a good rock record.”
“I think we made a record that is pretty representative of what we do,” states Joseph with a certain sense of confidence. “I think this record has a certain amount of sensitivity to it. I don’t think this record is by anything a feel good record. When we come out, we’re not fucking around emotionally. Usually we try to be pretty honest with that.”
While Joseph’s songwriting abilities may go unnoticed by the mainstream, the conviction and soul that is put into his music has drawn plenty of adulation from fellow musicians, including producer Dave Schools.
“I have the utmost respect for his songwriting craft and his vocal ability and what people are just now starting to pick up on is that he is a bad ass guitar player too. He is the whole package and he is a great guy,” says Schools from his home in Athens, GA.
The conjunction of the Jackmormons with Schools has been in the works for sometime now. “We have grown pretty close over the last two years, him and I, and have discussed making a Jackmormons record” says Schools. “It is something that I have wanted to do and I definitely made the time with Jerry.” With a laugh he adds, “Even though his constant quote was, I wanted to work with Dave, because that way we have someone to blame if the record sucks.’
Conscious Contact testifies to the knowledge of each other’s music and the similar musical destination they had in mind.
“One thing that I felt was important was that in listening to the last five records or soJerry Joseph solo records, Little Women records and Jackmormons recordsit seemed that no one had really captured the band,” says Schools. “They would either make a Jerry Joseph record and put a bunch of sessions players behind him and make one of these songwriter records that doesn’t really sound like the band. And I think Jerry would get a little stifled by not being around his compadres in the studio.
“So what we decided would be a good thing to do was to make a balls-to-the-wall, rocking hard Jackmormons record. So of course what happens was Jerry shows up with 43 songs and they were all great.” Eventually those 43 songs were cut down to the 11 that made the final cut, but Schools was obviously happy with the excess of songs. “It didn’t turn out to be the hard rocking balls-to-the-wall record we wanted, but it is still a Jackmormons record. I think it is a little more melodic and I think Jerry would agree with that. But we are all really happy with the results. We left some hard rockers off because the takes weren’t as good as the other ones,” says Schools, “but what a great place to be in.”
Although the Jackmormons are based out of Portland, the album was recorded over a month period in Athens, GA, where some consider Joseph an honorary citizen. This allowed for a myriad of special guests helping to flesh out and create a layered album. With certain luminaries like songwriter Vic Chestnutt, Todd Nance and Michael Houser of Widespread Panic holding down the contemporary end of Southern rock and Chuck Leavell and Randall Bramblett lending the veteran’s fuel, the selection process proved to be a daunting task.
“The list of people that were available that wanted to play on the record was
ridiculous,” says Joseph. “I think, except for Barbe, Mikey [Houser] is the only other guitar player. So immediately we x-ed all the other guitar players. The Fastest Horse’ has been a song I have wanted to do with Mike forever. It was always one of his favorite songs.
“So pretty much anybody that was a guest on it was pretty much because there were things they knew how to do really well. We kind of used who was there and it really wasn’t that methodical. It was most of the time us saying no. And most of the time Schools saying no’ and I’m saying I can’t fucking believe were not going to have this guy on our record.’”
The resulting product has potential to initiate a new Jackmormons fanbase while satiating the urge of veteran listeners. “The idea was to flesh out the melodies and arrange the songs in a way that makes it palatable not just to longtime fans but also a whole new audience,” says Schools as he describes the album. “I think the potential is there for Jerry Joseph to be as big as he wants to be. I think he writes songs, although they might be a little dark lyrically, they are hooky, they’re melodic and I could hear them side by side with a lot of the stuff on the radio these days. And heaven knows we could use some quality songwriting out there.”
And for Joseph, the quality of his songwriting seems to be improving as the years go on. With Concious Contact exhibiting many of the tries and tribulations Joseph has experienced over the years from addiction to abandonment, it is done with a cut and dry approach leaving no room for false pretense.
“I think I am getting better at it,” he notes. “I still think if I was to sit down and listen to Aimee Mann or Richard Thompson, some kind of person that is kind of a songwriter songwriter, I would feel pretty lame. But compared to a lot of the stuff I listen to I think I am hopefully getting into a thing where I feel like some of the people I like are a little bit more in my peer group than on a pedestal. But that’s real hard. People write so differently. It always surprises me when I get reviews that say I am blue collar. I don’t feel like I am writing blue collar, but apparently the press does. I ask people What’s that? Does that mean I am stupid??’
“It is one thing that you should be able to get better at as you get older,” he says about songwriting. “Whether you are a socially viable rock band or not is some question. But are you aging well as a songwriter. Like Tom Petty. I look at people like that and they still fucking cut it. Willie Nelson does a new record and his songs are great. If I could right songs that mean something to me and mean something to the person that is listening to them as well, then I guess I have accomplished it.
“I think as a writer, whatever you write, or whatever kind of art you make that
ultimately you try to be as honest as you can with it,” says Joseph. “I mean hopefully you don’t get to a point where you are whiny. That is the one opportunity in life to open it up. It is kind of scary I think to put yourself out that much. And then I think, worse than that, it is kind of weird people’s interpretation of what it is that you put out. Everybody has a different opinion of what it is you just said. Sometimes the things that are the most honest and revealing things I could possibly write, nobody gets it.”
The sincerity and honesty through which Joseph reveals himself (Taste the whiskey on your breath/It's as much as I can drink these days/And I haven't finished yet/Just keep breathing in my face,’ he sings on Pure Life’) has not always come with the utmost of self-confidence. He recalls a recent article relating to the subject. “I was reading the cover article of Mojo today about the Stone Roses,” says Joseph with an introspective tone. “The one thing they recall when they got together when they were 19 or 20 was that they were unstoppable and they never had a doubt of their greatness. And I think it is a cool thing I read about Bono the other day. Somebody asked him If you could go back and look in your own eyes when you were 21 and tell yourself something, what would you say? That you were right.’ I have never had that kind of self-confidence and that has probably hurt me.
“Same thing in my work. I don’t sit and finish a bunch of songs and go God, man, I am fucking brilliant’ and go out and pour myself a drink. I feel like I know when I have done well at night, at a show. But as far as things that are really important, at least as far as music, I don’t have a lot of self-confidence and I think that has probably hurt me
because you always tend to overcompensate. I have been described by different
people like that a lot. A person with really low self-esteem but totally self-absorbed.” He adds, “But it is true, I am my own worst critic.”
“I don’t think any of us are as critical on ourselves as Jerry is,” says bassist Ruppel. “Jerry really pushes us. Sometimes I get really mad that he is so pushy with the way he is like Concentrate, don’t make mistakes, practice.’” He adds with admiration, “But we have come to what we are because of the energy we have.”
A band that has experienced sometimes dismal tours and low album sales and undergone the worst of what can happen in an industry that thrives on back-stabbing and under-cutting, exhibits the timeless quality stamina. “It’s the carrot that they nailed about two face in front of my face,” says Joseph in jest. “It is how I make a living. And I feel fortunate to be able to do that. And I feel fortunate that anybody comes and cares. You get real addicted to attention. So I think I am motivated by getting up there and wanting to be good at it every night. There is always something that keeps me going. A new record, a cool tour. The key is trying to be good on nights like this when it is a 10-foot restaurant with pictures of Jerry Garcia hanging everywhere and you try and deliver” says Joseph referring to the Utopia Cafn Colorado Springs. “And unfortunately it is when this band is the best. That is when we are the fucking best band, when there is nobody there.
“That is what you do in your career is you strive to be something that is unique and different,” say Joseph. Then he pauses and acknowledges an ideal accomplishment. “Everybody wants to be recognized at being good at something. I think we would like it if people just thought we were good.”