Jimmy Gnecco isn't a tortured artist. Despite how he's been portrayed by critics and perceived by fans, the Ours frontman isn't particularly in love with his pain, nor does he need to feel tormented to write. But considering the turmoil he's endured over the years — from dealing with paralyzing personal tragedies (his girlfriend ended her own life the week the band's second album was released), to having his creativity stifled by a heavy-handed A&R guy, to passing through the hands of four labels over the course of three albums — if he were even half as dour as everyone seems to think he is, it would be completely justifiable.
"People would listen to the first record and say that I had these demons," says Gnecco. "I didn't have demons until I signed the record deal. I was in a peaceful place when I signed the deal. I had two healthy children that I loved that just completely fulfilled me and made me happy. And I was playing music and having a great time. I want to make this really clear, because a lot of people don't realize this, there's songs, like this song on the first record called 'Medication,' the words are, 'We've taken medication so we can run away from the things that pain us.' So many people could relate to that, and they looked at it like, 'Wow, he's tortured.' The truth is, it wasn't about me. The lyrics used to be 'He's taking.' I was actually singing about somebody else. I don't believe in medicating yourself. I believe in working things out. But when we got to recording it, I also felt like I didn't want to judge anybody. So it was like, I'm gonna say 'we,' and I'm going to take responsibility for what I'm writing about. I don't want to judge anyone. In doing that, it made people say, 'Wow, he's got demons.'
"There's another song on that record called 'Miseryhead.' In that song, I'm laughing about the misery of what was going on in music at that time. I never wanted to give that feeling in what we do. I want to talk about deep, emotional things and go into the bowels of emotion and thought and bring it up but then bring it to light. I think that a lot of people just missed that. The darkness or whatever they felt, that was just the beginning of the statement. They would've had to keep listening to realize that I was trying to bring them out on the other side."
Ours, with Plain Jane Automobile and Yerkish, 8 p.m. Friday, November 28, the Toad Tavern, 5302 South Federal Circle, Littleton, $15, 303-795-6877.
Listening has never been difficult for Ours fans, thanks to Gnecco's transcendent voice, which is as riveting as it is confounding. Moving effortlessly from a sturdy mid-range croon to a delicate falsetto and then to a pitch-perfect, vein-popping howl, he sings with an impassioned conviction that convinces you he believes every line he's singing, like he's lived every word. And the music only adds to the gravity of the presentation. Encased in brooding threnodies that sag under a pall of melancholia, the clouds of despair effectively overshadow any undercurrent of hopefulness. You can see why separating the art from the artist might be challenging for some folks — and why some might conclude that Gnecco's a sad sack.
The comparisons to a certain departed vocalist who possessed a nearly identical multi-octave range and tone also make sense. That venerated musician is Jeff Buckley, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single writeup about Gnecco (including a preview penned by this author earlier this year) that doesn't mention Buckley in the same breath. Fact is, the resemblance between the two is uncanny, from the inflections to the phrasing to the modulations. At times, their own mothers would have a hard time telling them apart. With their spindly frames, dark hair and smoldering eyes, they even look similar.
Having stood in Buckley's shadow for the bulk of his career, Gnecco is well aware of these similarities — but from the sounds of it, Buckley just happened to make it to the patent office first. In fact, Gnecco chose to name his band Ours both as a ding on his previous band (it was your band, now it's ours) and because he thought that the music they'd crafted had a sound of its own. Still, these two extraordinarily gifted musicians draw from a similar pool of influences: female vocalists (Buckley was enamored of Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, while Gnecco admits to being smitten with Björk and Sarah McLachlan), U2, classic soul and Indian music.
"I was influenced by the things he was influenced by long before I knew about him," Gnecco says of Buckley. "I'll show you what I mean, and you can take it or leave it." With this, Gnecco sings the first lines of the track "God Only Wants You" in his trademark falsetto and then says, "To me, I'm singing like Curtis Mayfield. I'm singing like Smokey Robinson.
"In a song-building sense," he adds, "Indian music, they drone on one thing and they build it, intensity-wise and rhythm-wise. That's where I got that from. Not from Jeff. Maybe at times where Pete Townshend uses that same kind of mentality, or the Doors, when they play 'The End' and they build on that one chord. Lou Reed, 'Heroin,' builds on that one thing. I'm telling you straight up: I learned from that, not Jeff. That's not taking away from him. When I heard him, I felt like, 'Holy shit! He is just, like, killing it.' That's why, in the short time we knew each other, we felt that bond. But I was firmly planted in my roots and in my place and on my road long before I even knew about Jeff."
Gnecco's been making music in earnest since 1988, and the New Jersey native joined the DreamWorks roster in 1997, putting an end to a rather heated bidding war. Gnecco says he chose that label primarily because it put a high premium on artist development — or so it claimed — and seemed to have decent sensibilities.
"They had Jonathan Fire* Eater, who is now the Walkmen, without the lead singer," he notes. "They had Eels. They had Rufus Wainwright. Now, Rufus hadn't even finished his first record yet, but I knew of him and I loved him. And I felt like anyone who would sign those artists knows what it's all about."
Not so much, as it turned out. After signing, it took three years to release Distorted Lullabies, Ours's first record. But Gnecco stresses that it wasn't the label's fault so much as that of a micromanaging A&R guy who, for whatever reason, wouldn't let anybody else get close to the project. "He was somebody who signed Pearl Jam and signed Rage Against the Machine," Gnecco says. "Now, he isn't used to development. He's used to 'We need a huge hit on this first record or else we don't get to make a second record.' So I'm immediately into a marriage with conflicting views. It was a nightmare, because he didn't allow anybody else from the label to get involved. It was his project, and he was going to keep it under his thumb. So that's exactly what happened. He kept everyone away, and it wasn't until a few years into — I'm saying a few years; that's insane! — a few years into me being signed to them that other people got involved, and once they did, that's when we were able to put a record out, because they were like, 'You're insane,' to the guy."
Gnecco was signed before he really had a band. And with as much time as it took to record the album, there was ample opportunity for him to develop chemistry with the players he'd assembled. All the same, it took a while for him to find the right people and to be confident that his bandmates shared his passion for the music and were capable of elevating the art.
"People would come in just looking to get something out of it for themselves," he remembers. "And if I was going to give up as much as I was for it and offer it up, I wanted to know that they were really going to be a part of it, be committed to the idea that there isn't always going to be money." And just as the pieces finally started to come together, the band was rushed into the studio to record the next record, Precious, which Gnecco looks back on with a note of rueful disdain.
"The second record was taken so far off the tracks," he declares. "I don't even like traditional rock music. And so many steps in the process were messed up that I wouldn't even know where to begin. I don't want to point fingers, but we messed up so many ways on that record. And when I listen to that record, I'm like, 'Who is this?' Right down to having a cover song. We were railroaded into putting this cover on the record. Now, I like doing other people's songs — I do it all the time — but to put it on our own record?"
DreamWorks must have shared his assessment, because the label all but abandoned Precious promotionally within the first month of its release. To compound matters, the week the album was released, Gnecco's girlfriend ended her life. It was enough to make him re-evaluate the whole idea of making music. "It forced me to look at it more than I was already," he recalls. "Now I'm completely losing things that are so important to me. You know, her dying, I felt really guilty about it, because I felt like I wasn't there for her, because I wasn't around. I was just emotionally and physically not there. And I just felt like this is killing me. Literally. This is killing people around me. And then three weeks after that, one of our buddies who bought a van to tour with us crashed his van and died. And that was all within...my girl died, and then I had to be on the road that week; we started a tour.... It became empty, and I wasn't going to do it if it didn't have meaning anymore. I just lost the plot, you know?"
Gnecco spent the following winter holed up at a house in the woods by himself, weeping and working out to the point of exhaustion. "The helplessness you feel when somebody dies, and the anger — I needed to get that out," he says. "So I just worked out a lot and punched and kicked the bag a lot, to the point where I'd fall on the ground. I had to get it out. I was really hesitant to pick up a guitar again and start singing or writing. I didn't feel like singing. And writing...I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror, so how could I write? I just felt like, 'I don't like myself at all.' I felt horrible. I felt guilty. It wasn't until a few months after that when I met up with my girl's family and her mom told me, 'You know, you have to keep doing that. She loved your music and she wanted you to be happy. You should really keep doing it.'"
While his inspiration didn't come back immediately, it did come back. And with the help of Rick Rubin, who produced Mercy...Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy, the act's latest album and its most definitive work to date, he finally made the record he'd set out to create initially. Rubin started working with the band ten years after expressing interest in Gnecco: When DreamWorks folded, Ours was picked up by Geffen and then passed off to Interscope, which cut the group loose, allowing it to ink a deal with Rubin's American imprint.
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Thanks to Rubin's hands-off approach in the studio, Gnecco and his mates crafted a heady, cohesive album's worth of material that at last does justice to his otherworldly voice. The first two records had moments of brilliance, but at times they sounded like they were written around Gnecco's vocals, whereas Mercy sounds like a fully realized piece of art from top to bottom. Although the music is as dark as ever and there's another song about running away, it's much more difficult this time to overlook the inherent optimism of lines like "Don't spend your whole life waiting for your whole life, thinking that it's over."
"I don't think it was the material, because we still play a lot of it, and it sounds great to me now," Gnecco concludes of the shift from previous records. "I just think we didn't have the time to develop to where the band made the songs sound bigger than just about me. There's a sound going on now where I feel like I'm only part of the equation, you know? Back then, I was all of it."
Nothing tortured about that.