A CONVERSATION WITH JOE JACKSON
This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST
MIKE RAGOGNA: Joe, how are you?
JOE JACKSON: Doing well, Mike. Thanks.
MR: LIVE MUSIC is your sixth live album, isn’t it?
JJ: Is it? (laughs) Wow. I don’t know. I haven’t been counting. (laughs)
MR: You like performing, don’t you, Joe?
JJ: Yeah, I do. I think it’s the best part of this madness that I’m involved in. It’s better than being in the studio or anything else, I think.
MR: And you’re constantly playing out.
JJ: Lately, it seems. The last few years I have been touring every year.
MR: This particular album is a culmination of recordings from your tour in 2010, right?
JJ: That’s right.
MR: You’re also popping up on TV. What was that like?
JJ: That was very cool, actually. It was a treat.
MR: On this new album you have quite a few tracks from your catalogue, including GOT THE TIME, which was covered by ANTHRAX, right?
JJ: Yeah, actually they did do a cover, though I could never quite understand why they were called a speed metal band because we played the song about twice as fast as they did. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) That’s true. Going through this tracklist, you also perform your song STEPPIN OUT that also appeared in a little game called Grand Theft Auto.
JJ: Yeah, it did.
MR: Have you taken a peek to see how it’s used in the game?
JJ: No, actually I haven’t. I was very happy to take the money for it though. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Now, this project was recorded live with no overdubs or fixes. Does that add any extra pressure to you during a show knowing that each of the tracks may wind up on the album untouched?
JJ: I don’t really think about it too much. But that’s one thing that’s really great about the technology that we have available now because we were able to record the entire tour. I mean, in the not too distant past, you’d have to hire a big expensive recording studio in a truck to come out and record the shows if you were lucky enough to be able to afford it. But in this case, our sound guy was able to record every show on the tour just by bringing along a couple of extra microphones and a hard drive or two. So, I think we were very fortunate in having a lot of material to choose from.
MR: I can imagine that would be great because your set lists have to change fairly regularly, right?
JJ: They do change quite a bit. We don’t do the same songs every night. We don’t even do the same songs the same way every night. But there were certain songs that we played a lot because I was thinking all along that I might want to use them for a live record. For the most part, the album came down to choosing between the handful of versions of each song.
MR: Did you also do any video recording of any of your performances?
JJ: No, we didn’t.
MR: You performed many originals on this tour, but you also did some pretty great covers. How did you choose those songs? For instance, what made you choose THE BEATLES’ GIRL?
JJ: Well, choosing covers for me is all about whether I think that I can bring something different to the song and put a new slant on it. I can’t think of anything more pointless than doing a cover version and just trying to imitate the original. So there are really two things involved – the first is that the song has to inspire me in a way that I think I can do the song in a different way and the other thing is that it has to fit me vocally. I’m not the most confident singer in the world. It’s the hardest thing for me out of everything I do. I’m better at it than I used to be, I think, but it’s only every now and again that a song comes up that I feel I can sing in a convincing way.
MR: Joe, you’ve got a terrific voice. What are you talking about?
JJ: (laughs) Well, thanks.
MR: I also love your cover of DAVID BOWIE’S SCARY MONSTERS. Possibly even more than the original. What inspired you to change the arrangement in the way you did?
JJ: I don’t know if I can really explain it. A lot of it came from trying to use a trio to our advantage, using the bare minimum and making it sound as varied and interesting and big as we can. I just try to go about that in different ways and always try new things.
MR: Have some of these covers been in your head for some time, like maybe your version of IAN DURY’S INBETWEENIES?
JJ: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of IAN DURY. He was not an artist that gets covered very much. Actually, that was my drummer’s suggestion to do that song and it works very nicely. I actually got an email from (IAN’S) band THE BLOCKHEADS. They’re still trying to keep going, which I think they find difficult because as great a band as they are, it’s really hard to keep going when the leader of the band dies.
MR: Right. Now, once you’ve chosen a song to cover or even when you shake up your originals, do you get together with your band and figure out arrangements together? Does everyone have some idea of how the arrangement should sound?
JJ: It’s a little less democratic than that. (laughs) The arrangements are pretty much mine. Of course, these guys do make a huge contribution. But primarily, the arrangements come from me.
MR: Having played together for so long, is it easy for you guys to play and anticipate each other’s musical inclinations?
JJ: Yeah, of course…and even though I say that I’m the arranger, a large part of the decision and creative process comes fom knowing these guys and knowing what their strengths are musically and giving them parts that I think are going to suit them, so they really do make a very big contribution.
MR: On another topic, you are also the author of A CURE FOR GRAVITY.
MR: One of the things that I find great about this book is that you start from your childhood and take us through your mid twenties before you became a pop star. Actually, you find that period less interesting, right?
JJ: Yeah, I ended it around the time that I was making the first album. I really did feel that a lot of the stuff that came before that musically was much weirder and funnier and more quirky and unusual. That’s what I wanted to write about. But I also wanted to write about music and I used the structure and framework of a memoir as a way of writing about music. It’s sort of two books in one.
MR: It was a very nice approach. I’ve never seen it done that way before.
JJ: Neither have I. (laughs)
MR: Speaking of things I’ve never seen before, lets talk about your wonderful duet with WILLIAM SHATNER: COMMON PEOPLE. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
JJ: That came through BEN FOLDS, who’s a big fan of mine. You’d have to ask him how he got hooked up with BILL SHATNER. I don’t remember. But I think he did a really great job of putting an album behind BILL SHATNER that is fun and not completely cheesy, though when it is too cheesy, it’s deliberately so. (laughs) It’s just a very musically satisfying record…and when he asked me to be a part of it, why would I not? How could I refuse? I went to Nashville for a few days and hung out with the two of them and we created a couple of masterpieces.
MR: (laughs) I also want to talk about another wonderful duet you did with SUZANNE VEGA called LEFT OF CENTER. How did that come about?
JJ: Wow, you’re going way back. (laughs) You know, that was a long time ago and I honestly don’t remember.
MR: Is there a chance that there’s going to be a LIVE MUSIC VOLUME 2?
JJ: You never know. Right now, I’m taking a break from touring and I’m working on my next project. But there’s always a possibility of more live stuff because I don’t ever plan on giving up playing live. It’s the most fun you can have.
MR: Of course…and your next project is a DUKE ELLINGTON tribute, right?
JJ: Yeah. It’s a sort of reinvention of the music of DUKE ELLINGTON. We’re just doing very different arrangements with using very different sounds and very different grooves from what DUKE ELLINGTON did. I’m very excited about it. There are lots of really great people on board and most of it is already recorded. So I’m really looking forward to finishing that later this year. There are a couple of people on the album that you would definitely know, but I’m not going to mention them until their parts are actually recorded. (laughs)
But so far, we have AHMIR AKA QUESTLOVE from THE ROOTS playing, CHRISTIAN McBRIDE, an amazing bass player, REGINA CARTER on violin and STEVE VAI is playing guitar on a couple of tracks. We have some really great people. I did want to make sure that I wasn’t producing something that sounds like watered down DUKE ELLINGTON, you know? I’m trying to put a completely different slant on the cover versions. I don’t see any point in imitating anyone. But Ellington’s compositions are so strong that I think they’re amenable to different interpretations. In fact, that’s what he did for decades – rearranged and reinterpreted his own music. So, I took this inspiration from the man himself.
MR: Nice. I’m a very big fan of your work and always have been. It comes very naturally to you, doesn’t it?
JJ: I guess it’s the only thing I’m really good at. So I’ve stuck with it out of sheer desperation. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) OK. What advice do you have for new artists?
JJ: I’m not in the business of giving advice to new artists, really. I mean except the obvious advice that unless you really love it and are prepared for all of the worst possible scenarios and still want to do it anyway, don’t do it. That’s what I sort of live by.
The other piece of advice comes from a Japanese samurai who said, “Expect nothing, but be ready for everything.” (laughs)