John Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes” (pronounced “Wez”), since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. I’ve known the guy since he and I both sat cooling our heels, waiting to speak to a very late-arriving Howe Gelb before a Giant Sand soundcheck at San Francisco’s I-Beam in 1989. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead (just released on the Popover/Rebel Group label), depicts an artist well aware of what he does best. Harding’s marvelously witty lyrics are surely being used somewhere by hip high-school English teachers to explain the wonders of poetry to gangling youth. Harding’s singing voice has become more emotion-wracked over the years, as clearly seen on a McCartney-esque performance of “My Favourite Angel,” which finds Harding soaring from hard-boiled to heartbroken in the space of a few measures. Backed by Scott McCaughey’s all-purpose utility infielders the Minus 5 (featuring ear-popping guitarist Kurt Bloch), “The End,” on the other hand, gives Harding a chance to rock hard for the first time in donkey’s years, a task he handles as deftly as he does a morning-time interview.
When MAGNET caught up with Harding at his Brooklyn pad, he politely declined a cup of digital espresso for obvious reasons: “It’s noon. I’ve got two small children. I don’t need coffee to get me going.” Well, actually, he might, as he will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.
“Top Of The Bottom”:
MAGNET: The only time I’ve been to Brooklyn is when a friend picked me up at LaGuardia and took a wrong turn off the Triborough Bridge. What do you think of Flatbush these days? Has it become overrun with bohemians?
Harding: Well, it has a little bit. It’s certainly a haven for writers and music, as the rest of the world knows. There was a cover of Time Out New York, just after I moved here in 2001, that read, “Manhattan: The New Brooklyn?” I just noticed that when I found out a move to New York was on the cards, I spent most of my time hanging out with friends in Brooklyn. I never even considered moving to Manhattan.
The only one I know who actually lives there is Steve Wynn. He told me once he’d always wanted to do it, and he’s doing it.
Yeah, he’s a real Manhattan hold-out. The funny thing is that when I see him, we spend most of our time down in the Village. It’s very close indeed for me, a short train ride. I can be at 14th Street in 20 minutes. And after saying all that, we are, indeed, moving. We’re going to Philly. That’s where my wife is from, and she knows the school system very well there. We’ve bought a house, but we’re not moving for a year or two. It’s always been a good city for me because of the excellent radio station WXPN. I know some fantastic record stores there, some great book shops and plenty of good friends. It’s definitely a child-oriented move.
I see by your current tour itinerary you’re about to play one of my favorite clubs in London, the Borderline.
Yeah, mine too. I’m really excited about that, because for the first time in many moons, I have a record label, a proper agent and a really good press company working on the record, which means it’s being reviewed in The Word and Mojo and all the places you want to be reviewed in. So, I’m optimistic it’ll be a fun tour. I’m taking Chris Von Sneidern over with me. I’m hoping that Jon Langford will alert some of his friends.
Is he playing with you?
No, no, he’s terrible at publicizing his own shows, but very good at helping his friends out.
My favorite song on the new album, and maybe my fave Wes song ever, is “Top Of The Bottom,” your autobiographical epic about life in the record-business food chain.
Well, it’s autobiographical up to the fourth line, up to “abattoir.” There wasn’t an abattoir in Hastings, and I’d never have considered working there if there had been one. The idea for the song came from a Bret Easton Ellis novel called Luna Park, which had as its protagonist a guy called Bret Easton Ellis who was married and living in the suburbs and teaching at a university, which are three very funny things. But he’s become slightly delusional, and the character Bateman from American Psycho starts haunting him. It gave me the idea to write this mock autobiographical song, which is more a critique of what’s happened to music since I’ve been in it. Of course, it plays around with my autobiography, but I wanted to tell a story with roughly the same trajectory as me but went completely differently.
It’s been 20 years since your first albums on Sire, and in the interim you’ve probably been on more labels—major, tiny and in-between—than anyone in the history of the record industry.
It could well be true. But that’s kind of the way things are going. Back before I began, it would be very usual to be on the same record label for ages, that whole concept of growing an artist, then developing. If the music industry had been then what it’s like today, there’d have been no Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.
They’d have broken up back in the Peter Green days, long before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Exactly. But on the other hand, one has to take advantage of the way things are today. For the first time, on this record, I had my shit together, or got together for me, and put it out in a way that suits the size of artist that I am and the way I make music and the way it could all make sense financially. My great failing over the last few albums was just to give ’em to whatever record label will have them. It’s better to have control of your own stuff, but it’s more work. And it’s worked very well.
And you got to record with your old Minus 5 pals Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck.
That just happened because I was offered some free studio time in Portland, Ore. So, who do I know near there? Well, duh! Of course, I always like recording with Scott—we’ve made lots of stuff before—and he suggested using the Minus 5 as a unit for this one. I thought, “Great, I’ll bring up Robert Lloyd (from Los Angeles).” The Minus 5 don’t really have a lead guitar player, so Kurt Bloch was the obvious choice for that. We all hung out in Portland for a week. We were also very lucky. When I told my engineer in New York, David Seitz, I was going to do this, but I haven’t got any money—I wasn’t even asking him to come—he said, “God, I’d love to record that.” I made it with a nice, but not a huge, advance from my publisher. David said, “I just want to come,” because very rarely, in his New York studio, does someone like him get to record a live band for a week. Because he has high, persnickety standards, he brought a lot of stuff with him, rented some other stuff, and that is why the album sounds so good. Not only does it have good playing on it, but mainly it’s because I had a perfectionist behind the board. Then we took the tapes back to New York and waited until friends of mine came through town—waited until Steve Berlin, Kelly Hogan, Mike Viola and Earl Slick could appear for their little cameos here and there.
I’m knee-deep in putting together a Jimmy Silva tribute album with many of Silva’s old friends (the Minus 5, the Young Fresh Fellows, Sal Valentino, Freddie Krc, Roy Loney, Christy McWilson, Kim Wonderley), which you will be on. What first attracted you to Silva’s music?
I think that every great songwriter, like Scott McCaughey, has some person he thinks is fantastic who has not necessarily gotten a lot of limelight. In my case, that’s my friend David Lewis. That’s why I’m always happy to make music with him. In Scott’s case, that’s Jimmy Silva. The first I knew of Silva’s music was when we all drove out to Foothill College (in 1995) to do Goathenge, the Jimmy Silva memorial radio show (on college station KFJC). I quickly fell in love with his Heidi album after that. I think I’ve probably played five or 10 of his songs at gigs over the years. He’s just a wondrous songwriter whose managed to turn out songs of Tom Petty-ish and Byrds kind of stature on just a shoestring budget, with musicians who realized he was the shit.
What’s your next book about?
The next book should be coming out next year. It’s about a classical composer in the English musical renaissance in the beginning of the 20th century. He’s involved with Cecil Sharp in the collecting of folk songs and the manipulating of them into art songs. He’s just about to have his first opera performed when he murders his wife and her lover. And the opera’s shelved until much later. Then, just as it’s about to be revived, his longtime friend, a music critic, decides to tell the true story of his life so the opera can be better understood.
Did you have to do plenty of research for this one?
Sure, I have no problem reading Vaughan Williams’ essays. But I feel that research can be a trap. People are willing to make large leaps. They don’t need you to be exact. It’s good to avoid having an iPod in the background, of course, but you don’t really need to know the name of the gramophone they were using. You should have all that research, but then you want to forget it, so the book just reads as a book about real people.
I spoke recently to Ray Davies, and he turned me on to an English composer I didn’t know, Percy Grainger. Great stuff.
Oh, fantastic. Complete pervert! I’ve got a book of Grainger’s letters with a photo in it that is absolutely terrifying of Percy Grainger self-flagellated in a St. Louis hotel room. He was completely balmy, absolutely racist. He wouldn’t use French words because he thought they were a bastardization. He wouldn’t call it chamber music; he called it small-room music.
Tell me about the Cabinet Of Wonders tour, your ongoing mixed-media carnival.
I thought it would be fun to tie together the fact that I’m a novel writer with the fact that I make music. Previously, I’ve kept those things apart, which is why they’re done under different names. Purely because I don’t think that people who like my music should necessarily feel that buying a novel completes the collection. Musicians who become writers have often had a hard time because people think it’s just some piece of crap they’ve done in their spare time. My first novel took seven years. So, I know all these writers, Rick Moody and David Gates, and they’re kind-of singers. Rick Moody and I do “In My Room” in German. We do Incredible String Band songs, and David Gates and I play a bunch of Merle Haggard songs. Then I realized it worked really well as a series of album-release parties, in a funny kind of way. I started to think: Who could I get who would be wonderful, so we got Graham Parker, Josh Ritter, Rosanne Cash, Rosie Parsley from Shivaree, all these people I really like. Then I had my friend Eugene Mirman, who’s a comedian on the Flight Of The Conchords TV show do little bits before we went on, and it went really well. When it came time to take it on the road, I decided to call it Wes And Eugene’s Cabinet Of Wonders. We’ve taken it almost all around the country. The great thing about it is it’s a shell into which anything can go. In Portland, we had Colin Meloy and Lucy Wainwright Roche and a wonderful writer called Monica Drake. In L.A., we had Jill Sobule, Al Stewart, Mike Viola and Patton Oswalt. Every night is like hanging with your friends, except you don’t have to be onstage for an hour and 45 minutes while they look at you. It couldn’t be more fun.