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Jason Webley on ritual deaths, eleven and not being a dangerous cult leader

Jason Webley (due at the Mercury Cafe, Saturday, June 25) started out playing punk rock as a teenager in Seattle, but it wasn't until well into his twenties that he shed that musical skin. It would be difficult to pin Webley with a genre, but it could be said that he mixed performance art and street theater with a forceful Americana hybridized with other folk traditions.

And yet, not really any of that. His stage persona is a kind of crazed vagabond telling darkly colorful stories while keeping you guessing what might come next in the show. With his handy accordion and native beguiling charm and stage presence, Webley has performed all over the U.S. and abroad, including gigs at the gigantic Glastonbury Festival in England and tours with the Dresden Dolls. And like the latter, there is a bit of an Old World appeal to Webley's music. We recently had a chat with Webley as he was en route to Chicago and talked about his fake ritual deaths, the number eleven and his alleged status as a dangerous cult leader.

Westword: You did Evelyn Evelyn with Amanda Palmer? How did that come about?

Jason Webley: We actually met years ago, before the Dresden Dolls started. We were both street performers in Australia at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2000. I was playing accordion and screaming like I do, and she was a human statue. We met there, and years later, when her band started, she reached out and I opened for them a number of times. At the time, I was doing collaborative songwriting projects with a bunch of different musician friends.

Evelyn Evelyn grew out of that. We were going to do one of those collaborative projects, but the story ended up being a bit too big for that, and she convinced me to hold on to most of the good material and put it out as a full album. At this point, she's one of my closest friends that are in this business.

How did you get into punk, and what was it like being in a punk band in Seattle in the early '90s?

Oh, wow, I don't know what it was like. I was in a couple of those. I was in a punk band in high school, and we did all of three gigs in our local community area. And I was in a band with some roommates in college that did two or three gigs. Then I was in another band that wasn't exactly a punk band at the same time in college ,and we did a ton of gigs and nobody ever noticed us. Except that the members of Harvey Danger were our biggest fans.

I wasn't really part of any kind of real scene. I was just going out making music with my friends. In a way, that's still the case. I still don't have any sense of what the scene is like in Seattle or anything like that.

What sparked the transition to make the kind of music you're making now rather than the kind of music you're doing now, rather than what you made when you were younger?

I'm kind of lucky. Back then I was a bit hungry for attention, and I got it in limited ways. When I got into college, I got a lot of that desire wrung out of me. I kind of didn't feel that what I was doing was all that special or interesting. I also didn't really think people would be too interested. Which is actually a good thing for me. The music I wrote in high school and college doesn't interest me too much, and I think it's kind of lucky that life waited a few years to bring people who would care what I was doing.

As to what sparked the change, it wasn't all that conscious. I was just a bit older and responded to different things and wrote the songs that came naturally. In college I had studied a bunch of twentieth-century classical composition stuff and was open to a lot of world music and things. I don't know if those things shaped what I did all that much, but they kind of busted some of the barriers with how I was thinking about things, so when I went back to writing simple songs, the shapes they took and the instrumentation was different.

A big conscious shift happened when I recorded. I did tons of recordings all through college and a couple of years after before I started doing what I do now. The first Jason Webley album was a big departure in that normally I would sequence drums and bass on a computer or a synthesizer and add electric guitars and reverbed-out vocals -- that was always kind of my production style on my recordings when I was younger. For some reason, for that last batch of songs, I had this impulse to take all of that away and to just record with these weird acoustic instruments that I had acquired over the previous few years. So that first album, which isn't my greatest album at all, was something really different for me, and I was amazed by how it all held together, which is why I decided to put it out as an album.

Why did you start that short-lived tradition of "dying" every Halloween and why such an elaborate kind of ceremony or event like that?

It's similar to the last question. I didn't exactly plan, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to ritually die every year and be reborn every year." The impulse was that I had seen this caricature I had become. I liked this shaggy guy with a hat and trenchcoat and played an accordion and screamed at people. I had developed him for a couple of years, and I was losing track, a little bit, of where he began and where I ended. I was very fond of him. At the moment when I looked in the mirror and recognized that as being an archetype or something...there was a moment when I looked in the mirror and seeing the character when I felt very fond of it and at the same time needing to kill him.

Halloween was always a very important day to me, and it's wrapped up in so much costume and the assumption of character and the discovery of personal mythology. So it seemed natural to say, "Okay, I'll kill him on Halloween." That's where that came from. The idea at that time wasn't that I would come back. I just was going to stop and kill him and kill this character off and give myself some space and see what came up next in my life. The pattern of it becoming of cycle came next, just following the next set of impulses. I didn't realize it was a cycle until it had happened for a full year.

What first attracted you to playing the accordion, and what still draws you to playing it today?

I'm going to answer that backwards. I love the accordion because it's a physical instrument. It engages your whole body when you play it. It's also very handy that it's incredibly loud and versatile. You can play bass lines, a choral accompaniment, melodies and harmonies, and still have your mouth free to sing and your feet free to stomp.

Even though it's a really young instrument in the grand scheme of things -- the accordion is only like two or three hundred years old -- there's a very sort of Old World feel about it that's nice. I started playing because when I was in college, I did a lot of plays, and for this show I was working on, I decided I needed something different for the last act. My parents had bought this accordion at a garage scale and I [experimented with] it and learned a couple of songs. That play I was doing was Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. A number of people have written music for it over the years, Hanns Eisler being the most known, but we wanted to do something from scratch for that production.

When did you play Glastonbury and what was it like for you being there and playing there?

I was there three years, I believe those years were either 2001, 2002 or 2003 -- but it might be 2002 through 2004. You know, England, especially when I was getting started there, was hard. England's a tough market to break into. I'm grateful to Glastonbury because it was the first place I got exposure and started building my fan base there. Now I do quite well in the UK.

The first two or three times that I went to the UK, I left swearing I was never gonna go back again. My role at Glastonbury was minor. There's a lot of big stages there and a lot of little stages. I was brought on to be a performer at one of the various circus tents. Over the years I was there, they gave me longer sets on smaller stages. The first year I was doing short bits in front of fairly big audiences in these circus tents.

I wouldn't go back and do it again, actually. I don't like playing festivals. I don't like playing giant festivals. I don't like the energy of them very much. That particular festival I had a lot of mixed feelings, and most of the people that were there that I liked and connected with that were part of the organization aren't there anymore. I'm grateful I was there and that it fulfilled a role. Maybe someday, if I'm massively famous, and they want to book me as one of the big acts, it would be fun to go back. But I feel like, to be actually successful in a stadium or in festival seating situation, to have a show have the kind of energy that I enjoy out of a show, the odds are really stacked against you. There's all this noise everywhere, and you're competing against the sky because you're not in an enclosed area.

 It seems obvious that the number eleven has special significance for you. In numerology it's one of the master numbers and in astrology it is associated with the zodiac sign Aquarius. When did that number become important to you, and why did it start to carry so much significance for you personally?

It's all just a bunch of personal stuff. It was kind of late. I didn't start noticing that stuff until 2001. That's when I was doing my Counterpoint album which was all meditations on things that were grouped in twelve. So it's kind of funny that the number eleven crept in there at that time, because my eyes were looking for twelves all the time. It's actually largely, darkly complicated personal stuff, but at some point I decided to kind of celebrate it at the point when I decided to call the record label Eleven Records and to start doing releases of 1,111 and charging eleven dollars for the CDs. It was kind of a relaxation of something.

I think it's an interesting number, or an interesting picture anyway. I'm on a road, and I've been on a road, for most of the last thirteen years in one way or another. And that road is two parallel lines -- the one that takes me away and the one that will bring me back.

There's some kind of strange poetry about a number that is so lopsided as eleven. Tens and twelves are handy numbers. You can divide them up by things, you can count by them. Eleven kind of floats there. It's one more than you can count up on your fingers. I think odd numbers are somehow feminine, and there's something floating about them. Maybe that comes from a musical thing. Even time signatures are one-two one-two or one-two-three-four one-two-three-four. Those feel like they're in the rhythm of our steps. There's something kind of masculine and march-like to them. Whenever you do something in an odd time signature, like one-two-three one-two-three, it has a sort of floatiness to it. The more you increase that pattern, like if you want seven: one-two-three-four-five-six-seven one-two-three-four... It's very floaty, you don't know where your footing is so much. Not that I write a lot of songs in eleven. Generally music is all subdivisions of twos and threes, but I decided to write a song in eleven a few years ago. It sounded like some crappy Irish-fusion jazz thing. It was terrible [laughs].

How did those opportunities to play abroad come about for you? Not a lot of people seem to get to do that sort of thing.

You know, my whole career has mostly come about to saying "Yes" to some kind of invitation. Those invitation take different forms. The first place I played abroad was Russia. These promoters had done a bunch of stuff with the Tiger Lilies -- who are young kids, younger than me, actually -- and had managed to make the Tiger Lilies into celebrities in Russia back when the Tiger Lilies weren't that well known. With that success in their pocket, they started looking for other things to do. Somehow they found me on the Internet, and I was kind of their second project. I remain very close friends with them and work with them still, and I'll be going back at the end of September and playing St. Petersberg and Moscow.

Things just grew from there. The second time I went to Russia, I decided to try to book some stuff in Europe as well, and remembered the various people I'd met over the years who said they might be able to help me and wrote to them. That included a person that was involved with Glastonbury, and that's how I ended up going there the first time. Everything just kind of flows.

I'm doing a ridiculous tour of Europe, and about half the dates haven't been confirmed yet, but if it comes together as I'm planning it's going to be thirty countries in about sixty days, which is insane.

Why did you turn your Toyota Corolla into a tomato?

The tomato died around the beginning of the year. Um, why not? [laughs] The tomato has been kind of like the number eleven as a totem in my work. In fact, if Tomato Records didn't already exist, my record label would be Tomato Records instead of Eleven Records. There was a tomato around the first time I died.

Do you have any plans to turn future vehicles into mobile art?

Referring to the Tomato, did anyone ever really claim you were a dangerous cult leader?

Yeah.

Really? Someone claimed that? That's crazy!

In my early Seattle concerts there was a contingent of fans. There's been a little bit of that here and there over the years, but that's pretty much died down. The dangerous cult leader thing hasn't really been an issue for a long time. Around the time of the first death, actually before then, the fans got the feeling that something was up, that something being my planning that first ritual death concert. And a group of people got scared and started posting warning letters on my website and on local discussion groups and actually sent something to a bunch of other fans.

They wrote this letter kind of expressing their concern that things had gotten out of hand and that if people go to my shows, they definitely should not trust me or eat any food or drink any drinks that I might be passing out.

So it wasn't a group, just different people that did this?

It was a group of four or five fans. I met one of them years later at a party and he said, "I was one of the people that wrote that letter." He said it was a group of four or five them that had drafted it together. It was impressive that they all really thought about it and felt compelled to do it.

Did he tell you they had changed their mind? Did he tell you why they wrote it?

I don't think he ever went to another concert after that. I know why they thought that. Before the death one, I was having these weird concerts where we would touch on these religious-y things in a very light way. I had this big carrot concert, actually, where we anointed people with carrot pulp and poured carrot juice in everyone's mouth.

I was amused and a tiny bit surprised. It pretty much seemed like I was good buttons, especially back then. Nowadays, I don't really want people to think I'm trying to kill them, but back then it was fun.

What do you plan to do after your last concert on November 11th, 2011 at the Moore Theater before you take a break?

I'm not talking much about what I'm doing at the concert or after. The concert itself is not going to be a death concert, it's not going to be a ritual concert in the same way that those old ones were. But it is a nod in that direction, and there's connecting tissues linking the ideas.

The impulse to take a break is very similar to the impulse that came all those years ago telling me to kill off the accordion guy. I'm very clearly not talking about this as "Jason Webley dying again." But I am taking a break. For me a big part of doing that, and really doing that, there are stipulations. I have to not have a plan for when and how I'm going to start up again. And I have to leave the idea pretty open and whatever shape that takes kind of happen once the break's actually happening. And whatever little inkling of a plan for what I'm doing during that break might develop before then. I'm being a bit protective of that.

As to the concert itself, it's going to be the biggest show I've ever done. It's me playing, for the first time, in my favorite theater in Seattle, which holds about two thousand people. Ticket sales are already really good. It looks like it's probably going to sell out. Lots of my favorite musicians I've ever played with -- a lot of my favorite people I've ever worked with -- are going to be a part of the night. I'm hoping inspiration will step in, like it usually does, and help me to sculpt something really magical. I'm playing a show almost every night between now and then, so the planning for that concert is going to be largely done in the first eleven days of November when I'm home. It'll all be scraped together in a week and a half. There will be a lot of people coming from all sorts of places.

Jason Webley w/Doo Crowder, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 25, Mercury Café (Dancehall), $10, 303-294-9281, All Ages

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Mercury Cafe

2199 California St.
Denver, CO 80205

303-294-9258

www.mercurycafe.com


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