Another Order of Joe

Here's a bonus for fans of Joseph Arthur, who's profiled in the April 26 edition of Westword. The published piece was based on an extensive Q&A reproduced below. Among the topics Arthur touches upon: his risky new solo album, Let's Just Be, and why at least one song on it is closer to punk rock than most of the current music labeled as such; the assembling of his current band, dubbed the Lonely Astronauts; his decision to start his own label, rather than submitting to the whims of corporate suits; the issue of how much material is too much to release in a given time period, complete with a defense of Ryan Adams; a few words about his intriguing online tour blog, which can be accessed by clicking here; his participation in a Bruce Springsteen tribute at Carnegie Hall; the almost dada-like sequencing of his new CD; and a hint about what treasures remain in his musical vault.

Go, Joe, go:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I just got a copy of Let’s Just Be, and I’m really enjoying it.

Joseph Arthur: Thanks, man. It’s at an interesting stage right now. Reviews are just coming in, and you never know how people are going to take it – especially when it’s a record of that nature, one that’s pretty experimental and brave in some ways. And it seems that people are really receiving it in the spirit it was made.

WW: I imagine some fans of yours are going to really love it, and some who may really hate it – particularly the song “Lonely Astronaut.” That’s going to put people on one side of the fence or the other…

JA: To me, sort of a punk-rock song nowadays isn’t necessarily about three minutes and distortion pedals. To me, punk rock is about stretching boundaries and provoking the status quo, challenging the way things are.

WW: And so much of what’s labeled punk these days represents the opposite of that.

JA: Right. And to me, “Lonely Astronaut” is a punk-rock type of song, because it challenges the status quo.

WW: In listening to the disc, I felt as if you tried to knock down as many of your personal boundaries as you could – to open up all your creative channels to see what poured out. Is that how you approached making the album?

JA: I suppose so. It was made in the spirit of freedom and fearlessness and openness, and there wasn’t a whole lot of consideration one way or the other.

WW: So when something came out, you didn’t second-guess yourself?

JA: No. We recorded for three weeks in a studio in Arcadia on two-inch analog tape, live mainly, with very few overdubs, and we recorded eighty songs to various degrees of completion. Not everything was finished. But it was just about opening, letting go. That’s kind of the meaning of the title, Let’s Just Be. It’s almost a Zen-like approach – the act of doing less as opposed to doing more.

WW: When you went into the studio, how many songs did you have?

JA: I don’t know. Most of them, I’d say. We didn’t really write in the studio, per say, because we wrote during the whole tour. Like, we wrote over the course of all the shows. So that’s why we recorded so many. It was just the process of being on tour, going in to radio stations and just setting up as a band and recording live. And we wanted to keep it minimal like that. We wanted to make sure there was no reverb on it. And before, when we’d do overdubs, normally we’d have to bounce, because we only had sixteen tracks. So we only bounced on a few tracks when we did more than that many overdubs.

WW: How did your current band come together?

JA: Jen Turner I had known since I was on Virgin Records. She was in this band called Furslide, and I sort of knew her way back when, which was 1999 or 2000. She came through New York and we just started hanging out and writing songs together. And from there, Kraig Jarret Johnson was on the road with Golden Smog, and we began hanging out with him when he was in New York. And I asked him if he’d like to come on the road, and he said he would. Jen Turner didn’t believe that he would, but I he did. And then there’s Sibyl Buck on bass and G-Wiz [Greg Wieczorek] on drums, who I’ve been playing with since Redemption’s Son.

WW: Does this disc sound like what you sounded like the first time you played together? Did you try to capture that sound as straight-forwardly as possible?

JA: Yeah, we developed live. It was our live sound. And we aimed to capture that energy and spirit, so we basically went into the studio after touring for like six weeks on Nuclear Daydream.

WW: That’s another correlation to your punk-rock analogy. Now, labels tend not to want to capture bands they way they sound. They want to process everything to make sure that it’s right for radio. Did this approach represent a rebellion against that idea?

JA: I suppose so. When we were making it, it was more just following instincts rather than thinking in terms of rebellion. But if you compare it to what most things sound like today, it sounds like rebellion. I think basically people live in an environment of fear, not just politically, with terrorism and the manipulation of the media, but also artistically. I’m sort of surprised that artists haven’t been more rebellious. And I feel like there’s an environment of fear, too, in corporate America, and how they run the music industry. I think that’s starting to change with the Internet, and people being able to do things themselves, and get things distributed through the Internet.

WW: That ties in to something else I wanted to ask you. You’ve been a lot of labels of a variety of shapes and sizes, but you’ve just started a new label. What was it about those earlier experiences that convinced you the best way to go was to do it yourself?

JA: Well, I have been on quite a few different labels, and the main thing was, I couldn’t really put out records nearly as fast as I could make them. I’ve been writing and recording way more records than they’d ever let me put out. Because basically, when you’re dealing with a label, you get all kinds of different support within the label to make anything happen. And you deal with opinions and people wanting to remix things. A song like “Lonely Astronaut,” being, like, twenty minutes: You can imagine the naysaying that would go on in a big corporate environment. Something like that would never see the light of day. That spirit of experimentation, ultimately, you’d maybe get talked out of it, or start doubting yourself. So I think that working with a label, it’s much harder to get an unadulterated version of yourself out there – and I think that’s what we’ve achieved.

WW: The counter-argument to that is, you may be trading creative freedom for access to fewer listeners, because you’re not going to have a huge distribution apparatus working for you. Is that a trade you’re willing to make?

JA: Yeah, for me there’s no question. First and foremost, my commitment is to my artistic side. Of course, I work hard to get it out there to people. It takes a lot of energy to have a career in this industry no matter who you are, so obviously I’m putting effort behind that. But first and foremost, I follow my muse.

WW: You mentioned that you haven’t been able to put out your music as quickly as you wanted to, and in preparing for this interview, I came across a blog where one of your new songs had been posted, along with a little bit about how soon Let’s Just Be had come out after your last record. And one of the comments on the blog said, “What? Did Ryan Adams call in sick?” Which I thought was pretty funny – but that kind of comment cuts both ways, since Ryan Adams has been criticized for putting out so much material so quickly, and some people have said his albums might be better if there was somebody there to tell him, “Hey, this song doesn’t really work that well.” What’s your response to that line of thinking? Do you feel like you have a support network of people who’ll tell you, “That’s not going to fly?” Or do you simply want to put out as much of your work as possible and let the chips fall where they may?

JA: First of all, I respect Ryan Adams for putting out his music the way he does, outside of the lines of what’s deemed rational. I think that’s respectable. But I think there’s kind of a line where maybe you overwhelm people, and they kind of shut you out because you’re overwhelming them no matter what the quality level is. I don’t want to cross that line. But at the same time, I think putting out two records every year, year and a half, isn’t really too much. Back in the ’60s and ‘70s, that was commonplace. And that’s when some of the best music was made. Look at the Beatles. They did their whole book in five years. Think of that. And because every move wasn’t considered to the nth degree, they were able to do that. So that’s my answer to that. I’m holding a whole lot back. I have a whole lot of music I’m holding back.

WW: There’s also something to be said for the idea of creative momentum. When you’re really in a flow, do you stop for two years for marketing considerations, or do you follow your muse, as you said you’re doing?

JA: And I think, also, there’s a myth about that – like, there’s only so much good stuff somebody can do in a certain period of time. I’m not so sure I agree with that. I have a blog and I write incessantly on it, and I write tons of them. To me, it’s almost like, the more I write, the better they are in some ways. Of course there’s crap ones in there, but I wouldn’t get to the ones that really hit if I didn’t let those other ones out, too. I think it’s better to be a little less cautious than a little too cautious. Look at Allen Ginsberg. What people remember about Allen Ginsberg is Howl. They don’t remember a poem that tanked. So what? I even feel like that with Charles Bukowski, his book. I like some of the ones that are more medium. I kind of like that those are out. It’s cool to me. Again, it comes back down to fear versus bravery, love and freedom. If you’re living in an environment of fear, I think less of the greatness comes out. Sure, you’re less cautious about making mistakes. But I think ultimately, that’s when you do make mistakes. That’s always been my experience with life. If I’m afraid of something, and I’m motivated in a direction based on that fear, I always create that fear.

WW: You purposefully create the fear in order to face the fear.

JA: Subconsciously. I don’t consciously create the fear. But it always happens that way.

WW: How long have you putting the “notes from the road” on your blog?

JA: I have to say, I’ve been doing that since before the big blog boom. I’m not saying I invented blogging. I know that it’s been around for a while. But I did it when I was touring, and I put out two books of it when I was touring Come to Where I’m From. They’re called Notes From the Road, volumes one and two, and I did it a lot on that tour, and then I quit for a few years. And now, I’ve started it up again.

WW: Does writing these blogs help you in your songwriting, too? Does it keep the creativity flowing all the time?

JA: Absolutely. I write songs off of some of those blogs, get lyrics. That’s my point. You can look at creativity as a well, with limitations, or you can look at it as some kind of psychic muscle, where the more you work it out, the stronger you get. Maybe there’s truth to both ways…

WW: One of the recent blogs I saw was the one you wrote after performing in the Bruce Springsteen tribute, which I found quite moving. Was the experience as emotional for you as reading that blog was for me?

JA: Yeah, because I wrote that an hour after it happened, when I was still at the center of that emotion. And it was emotional. I got really quiet and oddly sad after that whole thing. I don’t know why. I guess just the build up to just performing that song [“Born in the USA”] at Carnegie Hall, and then it’s done. And you’re left to your own devices, and you go home, and it’s weird. It seemed like a magical thing to be a part of, especially for him, because we were all there honoring this dude’s achievement, which is massive. It’s Bruce Springsteen. He’s one of the very best of all time. To be a part of that and to meet him and sing that song, it was humbling more than ego-bolstering. I was kind of like, “Whoa.”

WW: Something just occurred to me that ties into the record-company conversation we were having earlier. If Bruce Springsteen came out today with Greetings From Asbury Park [his first album], would he even get to make a second record and develop into what he became?

JA: That’s a good question. But I’m a big fan of telling people that if I was around in the ‘70s, I’d be a multi-billionaire. [He laughs.] Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I like telling people that.

WW: In reading about the new album, I stumbled upon something about the sequencing – about you using the sequencing of songs that came back from the recording plant. Is that right?

JA: No, it was the mastering engineer. There were four different work CDs, and that was work CD number one. And so that’s the order he put it in. They put it in random order, so that was work CD number one, randomly. And we left it in his order. I sat down and listened to it all the way through, and I thought it had some kind of eclectic, strange, magical flow to it. I liked what it was telling me.

WW: I just interviewed Andrew Whiteman from Apostle of Hustle, and he talked a lot about how important sequencing is to him. Do you think that’s an overrated virtue? Or was this more like a Marcel Duchamp idea of accidents that somehow wind up being art?

JA: Much, much more the Marcel Duchamp angle. I think sequencing is vitally important. But the record and the title, there was a whole Zen approach to it. Accidents were our guide the whole time, even down to the sequencing. But sequencing is totally important.

WW: Do you feel like you’re opening yourself up to those happy accidents more than you ever have before?

JA: Definitely with this record. I’ve always sort of done that live, but I think for sure, with this record, studio-wise.

WW: You mentioned that you have much more material. What are you thinking about in terms of the other three work discs, or future recordings? How soon do you think we’ll get more?

JA: I’m sort of plotting that right now. Judging by the reaction to this, I think we should tour this for a while. We’re getting ready to tour, a six-week tour, and then we’re going to probably go back in the studio and record again whatever we come up with on this tour, and then maybe assemble something from the best of what went unused from the last sessions, and then the new stuff. That’s kind of the game plan. And I have a solo record I’ve been working on for years that I’m still working on – that’s kind of a bigger production. But like we were talking about before, can you overwhelm people. I think we’ll let this one live for a little while.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts