Jarboe Part 1
by D. House
December 27, 2008
Jarboe’s musical explorations have led to select comparisons to other female musicians with regard for their success in penetrating the otherwise maledominated "rock" subculture. Her work is remarkable and unique and while much of the attention she has received as a member of the legendary SWANS, her collaborative has received international critical attention. The eclectic roster of her musical collaborators includes: Michael Gira, Bill Laswell, Jim Thirlwell, Lustmord, Mark Spybey, Steven Severin, Chris Connelly, Alan Sparhawk, Neurosis, Edward KaSpel, William Faith, David J, David Torn, Bill Rieflin, Blixa Bargeld, A Perfect Circle, Cobalt, Byla, and Jesu.
We’ve been talking for a while but the recorder’s not been on, so I'd like to get this interview officially started. You were talking about the music scenes that were occurring in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and how the fashion and music seemed to be developing on a similar trajectory
I was talking about the trajectory of how they carried over and how I began to see the slim degrees of separation; how connected things were, both between fashion and music and between different scenes at the time. The first thing I noticed was image, with fashion, not with male to the female. The people that I knew there wound up being a connection. We were traveling around touring on a bus with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Alex Hacke from [Einstürzende] Neubauten was playing with Nick. We were all traveling together to go throughout Europe, and one of their friends was on the bus with us. I began noticing her appearance, her sense of image, how she put herself together with her smeared lipstick and all that. When I met Kat from Babes in Toyland, I began to see the full circle, not just with black eye-makeup and lipstick, but also with the baby doll look and the ripped clothes. I began to see a trajectory, a line, and it was with Kat, with Lung Leg , with Courtney Love of course. I also saw it with Lydia [Lunch], and Lydia had a lot of those dresses too, but they were black Victorian baby doll dresses.
And you saw this as a fashion extension of what was going on in Seattle?
Literally, one of these ladies gave their wardrobe to another girl when they were moving. In other words, it was like musical wardrobe, hand-me-downs. It was really interesting when that whole look exploded with Courtney. I began to see the trajectory of the look, and that’s when I began noticing the image. It made me connect the dots with the various scenes having a relationship. Prior to that, living in New York City and traveling to Europe and living in London, I really had zero idea what was going on in the Northwest. My attention span was on Swans.
Swans more or less came from the tail end of the whole New York no-wave scene, correct?
Yeah, the post-no-wave scene. Even today the post-punk scene and the post-no-wave scene still inform me. It’s still part of the way that I hear and the way that I approach work. It’s funny how those things come together. But for me, I had no awareness of what was going on. The only recognition that I had in those days, Nirvana was going to be doing a tour with us, traveling with us, opening for us, and I remember their van. They were traveling around in a little van in those days, and it had broke down somewhere in the middle of the country and they couldn’t show up to the concert. I really had no awareness of the entire scene that was happening until years later. It’s funny how when you’re in a group and you’re in a city with its own vibrant art scene and you’re traveling and touring extensively and then traveling to different countries to record, you really do live in a bubble. I can understand celebrities and artists, their personality and their world is so inward and so connected to just their perspective. I can understand what happens, how mega-celebrities go through a self-destructive phase. In my life, I’ve been in that bubble where you are so consumed with your project and your music and what you’re doing that you don’t have any awareness of what’s going on elsewhere. It’s funny because entire years of fads and TV shows and styles and phenomena and trendy cultural things come and go, and if you’re totally focused on your creative output, that can just catch you right back. It’s like entire years didn’t happen for you because you were too busy cranking out your vision.
That’s a good thing don’t you think? If you become too acutely aware of what’s going on in another scene, it maybe distracts you from your own vision.
Yeah, and the beautiful thing about it is then you have the joy of discovering things later. That’s fun too.
...and sometimes rediscovering things years later again, things that you had forgotten about.
ou can look at it from the perspective of knowing history and knowing what happened, and so I think there’s even more enjoyment in a way. You don’t have a personal emotional ownership of it, you don’t feel a proprietary sense of ‘that’s mine.’ And it’s the same way that someone could describe the New York scene from another part of the world or the country. They weren’t part of it, so they don’t have the vision of it that I do, they have a different perspective than I do.
Who do you think are the bands that are around now that are really still sort of inadvertently connected to that whole scene that you came from back in the 80s that are maybe from New York or maybe from somewhere else?
There’s a band in particular in the New York scene right now that I love. They’re called Bloody Panda. Without knowing them personally, just based on what they’re doing, I’d have to say that there’s a pretty direct relationship of them having some kind of not influence but inspiration with Swans. It’s given me a lot of joy, I think they’re incredible. I was talking to somebody who got into them recently and they said, “Wow, I really want to go out with them.” I think I’m ahead of the game there because to me they should be a household name, but what they’re doing is very extreme. I feel like there are tons of groups with jangly guitars and feedback and fuzztone on their guitar and maybe there’s less of this heavy bass and really extreme beat and dirge stuff going on, and that’s something that I personally prefer. I’m happy that Bloody Panda is doing that.
Going back to Swans, when I first heard that stuff, and I think this was maybe before you were in the band, it was some of the most stunningly heavy music I had ever heard, both textually and lyrically, and over time the band shifted to a more ethereal and melodic sound, and I’ve always assumed that this was largely due to your influence, beginning with Greed and moving forward.
There was a time when Michael [Gira] shifted from being purely a front person to playing guitar and singing. At that time, some of the reviews were using the term ‘folk-influenced melodic rock.’ People always bring that up in terms of the shift and the change, and I agree, it’s damned dramatic. If a person were to study trajectory of say, let’s use a really extreme example, The Beatles, if you listened to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and then listened to “Helter Skelter” or “No. 9” or anything on The White Album, there was a time when there was news that they had changed their sound and they kept re-discovering themselves. Another extreme example would be Bob Dylan, who literally was booed when he picked up the electric guitar for shows with The Band, and in a way that’s cool because you’re re-inventing yourself and you’re finding new elements.
So is that just a very natural kind of progression that happened with the band or was it something that was conscious?
I don’t think there’s any black-and-white answer, but I do think based on obviously being there that there was a sense of taking things as far as they could go, and then wanting to go somewhere else. I do feel that my ideas and conversations that Michael and I had had some kind of impact on the initial change because at the time I really was enjoying a lot of the industrial-dance, really extreme industrial drone but more of the rhythmic kind of thing. This resulted in the Time Is Money and A Screw (Holy Money) 12-inch’s, and they were indeed played by Anita Sarko the huge New York DJ at the Palladium. I remember Michael and I walking into the Palladium, and this was the biggest club the city had ever seen, it was like a football field going straight out. She was playing it, and I’ll never forget hearing the thundering. It sounded amazing; this club was a cavern it was so huge, and I was jumping off the walls. I love the idea of a steady, pulsing beat. There was some direction shift there, but in terms of the melody, there’s no secret that I had seven years of formal vocal lessons and keyboard lessons on a giant Hammond organ that had two keyboards as well as a giant keyboard of pedals. When I was just a little kid I started lessons on that, and my father was really trying to direct me into light opera as a singer. When I became interested in pop music and rock and roll, I went against the grain and there was a wedge put between me and my dad. He had a vision for me, literally he wanted me to be playing the organ in some huge cathedral and he wanted me to do more of the operatic stuff. I worked my way up to the choirs, but what happened was I developed an extreme articulation. When I first met Michael and I started singing, not speaking or the experimental screaming work I was also interested in, but when he first heard me sing I was overly articulating my D’s and my G’s and my T’s. I sounded like what you might think a goth singer would sound like, overly articulated. He told me, “You’re an American, sing like an American. It’s ‘gonna’ not ‘going to.’ It’s ‘don’t wanna’ not ‘don’t want to.’”
What did your parents think of the music that you ended up creating?
When the “A Long Slow Screw” video came out that Southern Studios did, I was playing that when I was visiting [my mother]. She came into the room and saw it and just stood there for a moment, with Michael shirtless on his knees screaming something like “coward.” She said, “What do you call that? What do you call what he’s doing?” I said, “He’s performing, he’s singing.” She didn’t know what to make of it. This is when things began to shift because there was a 12-inch that came out and it had my song on it, “Blackmail.” And of course Michael and I worked on the lyrics, but it was all my song, my melody. I played the piano and sang it in the studio for the 12-inch. At that time, Al, the bass player, was in the room and he said, “You’re wasting time on the keyboard, you need to get out there and sing.” That was the first time Michael and I looked at each other and went “hmm.” Before that I had sung some other stuff for Greed and Holy Money, but this was my song, so this was the first kind of shift.
Was that before or after Skin?
Before. The turning point was when Michael said he wanted to produce an album showcasing me as a singer and as a writer of melodies and music and playing the keyboard. It went from that to the idea that it would become a project, and so that became Skin. Blood, Women, Roses was written and produced and developed before Children of God, so you can see how all of that melody and me and my voices obviously influenced Children of God. If you just go with the tangible facts: date Jarboe joins and performs with the group for the first time: 1985, date of first recording on album, date of her first full-length album, and date of Children of God. If you just look at the facts and figures of my introduction and how it shifts, this is why I feel like I can lay claim to most definitely having influenced the direction of the band. I don’t even have to offer my opinion, I can just say look at the facts, look at the tangible evidence.
I’ve always been a fan of the version that you guys did of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” from The Burning World album. I was wondering how you decided to cover that particular song, and looking back what are you thoughts and memories about working with a major label versus doing recording for independent labels?
There was this interest in exploring cover versions to reinterpret them, and I think originally the idea of doing this came from a sense of showing how a person can interpret something else, ergo illustrating their prowess or their imagination or their ability as a performer. The first came along with Skin as I did “Cry Me a River” and really made it my own version. A lot of people consider that to be one of the best versions that anyone has ever done, other than Julie London who originally did it. That, and “The Man I Love.” That was really the idea that this is a beautiful song and now I will make it my song by showing how I understand these lyrics and how I understand what this song is about. Those were the first ideas of doing covers that came into the group. Of course, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was a turning point because Michael wanted to cover that song because he loved the melody so much. We did two versions and he interpreted the song in a way that got the ear of MCA Records and Michael Alago, a rather famous A&R person who signed Metallica. Then you look at my version, where my version was channeling, and I say that without being sarcastic. I was really trying my best to connect, to feel what Ian Curtis was feeling when he wrote those words, so I gave more of a somber, almost a Patsy Cline sort of interpretation. You get to The Burning World album, and it was just an extension of this interest in exploring songs that we both felt were good song-writing and trying to make them our own. There’s a theme running through The Burning World album, which was influenced from things that we were studying at the time and books that we were reading, like The Sheltering Sky. I felt that my version [of “Can’t Find My Way Home”] was really about spiritual loss. I’d seen this little card at a truck stop and it had said something like, “Dead God, I’m lost. Please find me.” I thought to myself, you could extend on that theme. You could say, I’m lost and I can’t find my way home, meaning I can’t find my way back to myself, I can’t find my center, I can’t find the reason to live, I can’t find who I am anymore. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that, but the lyric is “Oh lord, I can’t find my way home.” I really felt that was about a sense of lament about spiritual loss. That was my interest in doing the song because that subject in-and-of itself interests me a great deal.
This is the end of the first part of the interview with Jarboe. To Continue reading, go to Part II.