Jason Anderson: "Whether there are five people or fifty people... I just give everything I have"
Jason Anderson's startlingly unvarnished yet well-crafted songs and his intimate and charismatic performance style evoke the sense of a compassionate and unpretentious friend offering nuggets of wisdom gleaned from being out in the world, living life and being keenly aware of the limited time we all have on this earth. Anderson got his start in the mid '90s performing intimate shows in his dorm room for his friends while still a student at Lewis & Clark College, using the moniker Wolf Colonel, a handle he dropped sometime in the last decade. In advance of his show tonight at the hi-dive, we recently caught up with Anderson about his stint as a teacher, the profound influence of Elliott Smith and life as a very active, touring musician.
Westword: In your early days and well beyond that, you've done shows where it feels like you're playing to a close group of friends. What inspired that kind of approach to performing your own music? Were there other artists you feel did something similar that you saw when you were younger?
Jason Anderson: Some of my earliest shows, in college, took place in my dorm room. I would invite friends over, and we'd sit and sing, all cozy and cramped. I was very lucky, not only to attend school with some incredible musicians and songwriters -- Katy Davidson, Marianna Ritchey, Jake Longstreth, Ryan Wise, Adam Forkner, Franz Prichard, Alex Bundy -- but also to be living in the Pacific Northwest at a time when people like Phil Elverum, Khaela Maricich, Kyle Field, Dennis Driscoll and Mirah were all coming into their own as well. Not to mention folks like Chris from Bad Weather California, whom I quickly met out on the road.
It was truly a "right place at the right time" moment where I found myself, somehow, in the company of some wildly creative, fun, funny folks who were making ace music while also exploring and, to some extent, radicalizing the traditional stylistic paradigm of performance, eschewing microphones and stages, standing in the crowd, experimenting with group sing-alongs, booking non-traditional venues, etc. Needless to say, this was deeply inspiring, especially at such an inchoate time in my own "artistic development."
Do you try to preserve that intimate feel of a show with larger audiences, and how do you approach those larger shows in terms of how you present your music that may or may not be different from a smaller crowd or even a house show?
Whether there are five people or fifty people in attendance, I just give everything I have and play as if it's the first and last chance I've got to put on the best show of my life. And, of course, the shows are still relatively small. But, yes, connecting with each and every person there is a priority. Inclusivity is important to me, and I make no distinction between how I rip in a living room or a club, a basement or a bar.
You've often cited seeing Elliot Smith in a coffee shop in 1996 as kind of a life-changing experience. What was it about his songs and how he performed them that struck you that day and perhaps when you saw him live after that?
I think it's hard to overstate exactly how strange and beautiful it was for Elliot Smith to be doing what he was doing, to say nothing of when he was doing it. In a post-Bright Eyes, post-Dashboard Confessional world, the melancholic punk with an acoustic guitar has become a trope, myself included. But, man, in early 1996, for me, anyway, it seemed almost bizarre. I honestly couldn't understand why this dude with messy black hair and tattoos was playing an acoustic guitar.
Granted, I had recently moved to Portland from central New Hampshire; I had never heard of Nick Drake or Big Star or anything. I was mostly listening to Guns N' Roses. Around that time, some friends had been playing me Palace Brothers and Built to Spill and "Needle in the Hay," and it really had an impact on my tastes and trajectory. After that show, I immediately wrote four or five Elliot Smith rip-off songs. I never saw him play after that first time.
When you were living in Portland and performing your music, did you feel like you were connected to a larger local musical community? Do you feel like you're connected to a kind of creative community these days as someone who seems to tour more often than not? Do you feel that kind of connection is important for how you operate as an artist now?
As I mentioned above, I definitely felt connected to some other folks around the K Records scene. And, these days, when I think about the country, I almost get overwhelmed -- in the best of way -- knowing how much amazing stuff is out there. I totally imagine a Lite Brite board flickering: little, colorful bursts of energy everywhere. I feel infinitely lucky to have met so many awesome folks in all these different places.
It really is incredible, visiting big cities and small towns, getting to interact with all these terrific, open-hearted people putting on shows, making art, building and supporting their communities. It's humbling and inspiring and so encouraging. And it also makes touring rather addictive, because I am constantly daydreaming about all of these people and their towns and scenes and I mainly want to be everywhere at once.
When you were teaching in Brooklyn, did any of your students know you had -- and have -- a life as a touring musician? Did you feel like you had to or wanted to keep that separate from your job as a teacher?
I tried to downplay it. I wanted my energy to be totally focused on the kids and the curriculum. When I was in grad school, a few of the students in the sixth grade room I was working in looked me up on Google; it was pretty embarrassing and flattering.
Are there things you learned as a touring musician that you could apply directly to your teaching position?
Oh, definitely. I was teaching music and theater in NYC; both passions completely informed each other. I connected so completely with the wide-eyed energy and enthusiasm my students had for singing, dancing, and acting. They possess such a pure love for performance. It was kindred and nourishing.
You have a song where you mention the guys from Fugazi. What is it about those guys that has impacted you in a way that you felt merited a mention in one of your songs?
The reference itself was a goof, but obviously those dudes are legendary. I've booked nearly all of my shows myself; I've made so many great friends by staying directly connected to venues and promoters. Fugazi was my first teaching in the DIY ethic, so to speak, and it's something that has impacted nearly every facet of how I've approached touring.
Having toured extensively and having played so many different kinds of shows, do you feel there are measurable cultural differences across America in how people react to your shows? If so, how might you characterize those differences? If not, why do you think there perhaps isn't much difference? Obviously it needn't be as cut and dry as that.
Hmm, that's a great question. To be honest, I haven't noticed any radical differences or nuances. I just try to go hard, have a blast, and hopefully that positive energy is contagious. Although, now I'm remembering, there was one gig a real long time ago where I was playing Des Moines and, all whimsically, before playing a cover, asked the (rather meager, clearly disinterested) audience, "Okay, do you guys wanna hear a Prince song or a Whitney Houston song?" and somebody in the back shouted, "What we want...is for YOU...to shut...the fuck...up!" So there's that.
Do you still trade or accept mix tapes while on tour, and why has that been a special and important thing for you over the years?
It's just another nice way to connect with people from town to town and find out what's inspiring them. I have no interest in hiding backstage or fleeing to a motel room. When you think about it, the actual concerts themselves are such a small part, relatively, of the entire touring experience. I love the drives, the conversations; patronizing awesome restaurants around the country seeing old friends, making new friends, and just experiencing this gorgeous, weird country we're from. I just found out that my awesome buddy Carrie is working at some vegan breakfast spot in Denver that I cannot wait to check out.
A handful of years ago, Tiny Mix Tapes asked you in 2006 about the presidential election of 2004, and you had a very thoughtful, informed response. How do you feel about the field this year, and what gives you hope in the face of how bleak things might look to a lot of people?
I have felt pretty disenfranchised with national electoral politics, but am totally inspired by community organizing and bottom-up projects that seek to directly empower residents. When people are given the agency -- and the respect, really -- to develop their voices and leadership skills -- as opposed to being "shown" the way -- and then work together at a grass roots, local level to foster positivity in their neighborhoods, the process and the results can be tangible and inspiring.
They can also come slow, and be fraught with the same hypocrisies and in-fighting that distinguish beltway wrangling, but it's ultimately -- in my opinion -- more relatively immediate, and certainly much more organic and worth investing one's hope and time in than this November's "big race."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.