Q&A With Jason Falkner

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Even though he likes to pick and chose his projects carefully, Jason Falkner has had an amazing run of recording dates—both on solo albums and as a sideman with the likes of Beck, Air and Paul McCartney—that would turn most musicians pea green. And Falkner has also been a crucial part of critically lauded releases by ’90s indie-rock heroes Eric Matthews, the Grays and Jellyfish, as well as getting his feet wet with original Paisley Underground cult combo the Three O’Clock. Falkner has a stellar solo set due out this summer called All Quiet On The Noise Floor that threatens to pass his previous solo release, I’m OK, You’re OK (from February), like a slow runner being lapped on the bases by a real speedburner. Falkner is guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“The Knew” (download):

MAGNET: I’d forgotten you were in the last incarnation of the Three O’Clock. I have a copy of their 1988 LP Vermillion in front of me, the album with you on it.
Falkner: Wow, one of the few. I was just a kid—19—when that record came out. I had been a huge fan in high school of all the Paisley Underground bands: the Last, Rain Parade. I’d seen the Three O’Clock maybe five times. In fact, my high-school band in Agoura Hills covered “With A Cantaloupe Girlfriend” and “I Go Wild.”

It must have been a trip, playing in a band you’d revered as a kid.
Yeah, I’d put an ad in L.A. paper The Recycler for my own musicians to start a band. I got a copy the week my ad came out, and I looked down a little further to “Bands Seeking Musicians” and there was an ad from the Three O’Clock. To be honest, I’d moved on to other stuff so I hadn’t really been paying attention to the Three O’Clock for a couple of years. So I called the number, and it was (the band’s drummer) Danny Benair’s home phone. We spoke for about three hours. I was really into the Scottish pop scene at the time, the Postcard bands, like Aztec Camera, Josef K and Orange Juice. Danny was like, “Just judging from our conversation, you’re probably a shoo-in.” They auditioned a crazy number of guys. And I got it. Then my first meeting was with the manager, who says, “First of all, Jason, there’s no money.” So, there goes that part of the dream. [Laughs]

After the demise of the Three O’Clock, Roger Manning talked you into joining Jellyfish?
Oddly enough, he was the one person who called me from that Recycler ad. We had met a year earlier, before I moved up to San Francisco to start Jellyfish with those guys, Roger and Andy Sturmer. They were still called Beatnik Beatch when I joined, one of the all-time worst names ever.

Frankly, I wasn’t a big Jellyfish fan. I thought the first record was OK. But I played it this morning, and it sounded pretty good.
Well, I was really proud of that record. I think we had a good team working on that. We were all really young, so there was a kind of sophistication to that record in contrast to our age and experience. Andy’s a great songwriter and singer. I wanted to contribute more to the band than they kind of wanted me to. They had a real stranglehold over the songwriting.

Is that why you left?
That’s exactly why I left.

All right, next up was something that I really loved: the album by the Grays. What do you think of it nowadays, or have you even listened to it lately?
It’s kind of filed away. But I pull it out every once in a while and listen to it. That’s another record I’m really proud of. That was made when I had just left Jellyfish and was doing a bunch of demos. Jon Brion called me and said, “Hey, man, you probably haven’t been in a room in a while, just playing a bunch of Kinks songs. You want to come down to this rehearsal studio in Hollywood?” So, yeah, that sounded like fun. It was these three guys from Boston: Jon, Dan (McCarroll) and Buddy (Judge). And this other friend of theirs who was there held up the pay phone connected to somebody from Capitol. And the guy from Capitol left a message that night to say he’d sign us, sight-unseen. You know, “I love all you guys independently and can’t believe you’re a band” kind of thing.

Pretty hard to turn that down.
I’d been vowing for months that I’d never join another band. But offers were being thrown at us and money. And they asked, “Who do you want to produce you?” And I said, “I have this great relationship with Jack Puig because of the Jellyfish record.” So it just kind of snowballed into this thing where we were a band. And I don’t think any of us, especially me, really wanted to be in a band. I was just on fire because I’d been under the thumb in Jellyfish, so I kind of led that band. I’m playing the majority of the instruments on everything. It was really fun record to make, a kitchen-sink kind of thing. Just any idea, just try it, and we’ll put it down.

To me, it sounds like a blend of the late-period Beatles and Todd Rundgren.
Yeah, that’s fair enough. I’d been listening to Todd Rundgren all my life. And you’d have to be living in a cave to not be influenced by the Beatles—or you have no musicality.

Or you’re stupid.
Yeah, or you’re probably stupid. We were always influenced by the bands who were influenced by the Beatles, like XTC and Elvis Costello.

Has anybody ever told you that you have the exact same speaking voice as Matt Piucci of Rain Parade, a good friend of mine. It’s almost creepy. I feel like I’m talking to Matt.
Wow, no, I’ve never heard that before. What’s he doing these days?

He’s actually thinking of putting Rain Parade back together with Steven Roback and John Thoman.
Awesome. I’ll be there if it happens. Tell him I said hello.

So, next on your agenda was working with Eric Matthews from Cardinal. How did that come about?
Eric came up to me at a Grays in-store in Portland, Ore. There was this weird-looking guy lurking in the corner where we were playing. He gave me a cassette tape with this hand-drawn artwork and told me I was one of his favorite musicians. And he had all these plans laid out right on the cassette artwork, like a crazy to-do list. He was talking to Sub Pop. I put the cassette on in the van, and I was really into it. We started talking on the phone and writing letters. And he was like, “It would be my dream to have you involved in any way.” So that’s the way it happened, pretty organic. That first record had this unique momentum. Certainly nothing else on Sub Pop sounded like that. It wasn’t credited that way, but I kind of co-produced with him. Almost all the electric, a lot of bass and almost all the piano are mine. That was really cool.

In ’96, you released your first solo album. How did that come to be, and what did it do for you that other projects hadn’t?
My first solo record, recorded in ’95, was probably the most exciting time of my life. I got a solo deal with what I perceived to be a cool, boutique major label, Elektra. l certainly loved their lineage. I got signed by this charismatic dude, and the week I started my record, he got fired. I was like, “Oh no, another brick in the wall.” But making that record, I was finally free from anyone else’s opinion, something I had been trying to do for a long time. Unless I ask, I don’t want to know. Oh man, that first record just represents me completely unleashed. It was also the first time I played every instrument on a record, always my dream. It would be frustrating for me to play with other people, because sometimes I can play drums better than the drummer. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

I did a couple of interviews with famed guitar session man Jerry Cole, who played on practically everybody’s records back in the ’60s. Is that the kind of thing you’d like to become?
I’m pretty picky and finicky about what I want to work on. I get calls to do stuff all the time of things that you and I know very well but might not really like that much. And I just don’t do it, even though I need the money. I work with Beck a lot.

Yeah, tell me about that. Love the guy.
He’s a friend of mine, known him for a long time. He was asking me to be in his band all the time, right after Smokey Hormel. I was always like, “Dude, I’m flattered, but I do my own stuff.” However staggered, it’s still my own. So, finally he started working on records with me and gave up on the me-being-in-his-band thing. I worked with him on Sea Change. I don’t really enjoy being a guy who’s called in to play on records that much. But for certain people like him and when I worked with Paul McCartney, that was ridiculously cool. The envy of every musician.

How did that happen?
My friend Nigel Godrich, a Radiohead guy, was producing, and he called me. He said that Paul has so many yes-men around him. I mean, what else are you gonna be? He told me he needed me to help him because I have great taste. He wanted me to come in and help do all the skeletal rhythm tracks for Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. It would be Paul on bass, this wonderful drummer named James Gadsen who was in Bill Withers’ band, and then myself on guitar. The first day we started working, I was setting up my gear. And, not being some slick kinda session guy, I’m thinking, “Shit man, I don’t even know if all of my stuff works.” I’m looking at my ’50s Fender amp when I realized I hadn’t turned that on in six months. I’m getting nervous because I’m looking over at the guys setting up Paul’s stuff, and it’s really pro. Then I’m looking at my thing and all the cords are different. I don’t even have a tuner because I usually just hit a note on the piano and tune the guitar to that.

So, did Paul arrive in a flaming pie?
Well, somebody taps me on the shoulder, and I turn around. It’s Paul, and he’s standing right in front of me. And he says, “You must be Jason.” I never get this way, but immediately my knees got really wobbly, and I almost fell over. But he’s so cool. Obviously, he’s aware that everybody who’s talking to him is freaking out, but he’s very very good at defusing that and making you feel comfortable. He was an absolute prince.

So you got to cut the entire album with him?
I did, but the understanding was—and this was totally fine with me—that he was gonna end up playing almost everything on that record like he did on his early solo stuff. I think I’m on, like, three songs on that record. But it was cut as a trio with James the drummer in a different room. So the only people who could see each other were me and Paul, and we’re looking right at each other.

He must be a pretty damn fine bassist to play with. [Laughs]
Yeah, he’s the best. And at one point, it was really funny because Nigel goes, “Hey, Jason, you want to try playing bass on this song?” And I was like, “Uh, wait a minute, you’ve got Paul McCartney playing right here.”

Tell me about playing with French duo Air.
That was super-cool. I’ve always enjoyed doing different things. Something on my solo albums might sound like a Cole Porter song, weird torch/string ballad kind of thing, and then there’s other stuff that sounds kind of like the Damned, quite a cross-section. My friend Brian Reitzell was starting to play with Air, and he called me one day and asked if I’d be interested in going up to Sundance to play with Air for the Sofia Coppola movie they did the soundtrack for.

Yeah, The Virgin Suicides. That’s my favorite Air album. Very moody stuff and perfect for the film. It’s an addictive record.
Yeah, it’s a cool little universe they created. So that’s when I started with them. Then up in Sundance, they asked me if I’d like to sing on the new record. And I said, “Yeah, for sure.” So, I sang a bit on the next record, 10,000 Hz Legend. Then they asked if I would ever consider being in the band to tour. They were about to tour the world. Man, we toured for two years. We went to Japan and toured all over Europe twice. And then twice in the U.S. It was a shitload of touring. Every show was fun, just an amazing event, even when I was sick. And they were even paying me really well, which made it really hard to leave.

I’m a little confused about your current release. I think I read that it was cut some time ago but is just getting a U.S. release.
Here’s where it gets confusing. What’s called the new record here, I’m OK, You’re OK, has been out in Japan for three years. That came out here in February. Then there’s a brand new record (All Quiet On The Noise Floor) that’s been out in Japan since November that will come out here in the summer. I ask a lot of my fans.

—Jud Cost