Jandek

jandek-iknowyouwell

Outsider musicians don’t get any more outsidery than the mysterious Texas singer-songwriter who, for years, was known to the world only as Jandek. Over the course of 40 years and 91 albums — all released through his own label, Corwood Industries — he’s done everything from minimalist, atonal folk to minimalist, Velvet Underground-ish psych-rock to minimalist piano nocturnes to — do you sense a theme here? Well, you can forget it, because sometimes he also likes to get funky. About the only thing you can expect from Jandek is that he will defy your expectations — including your expectations of what “outsider music” is supposed to sound like.

Jandek first surfaced in 1978 with Ready for the House, an album of nine ghostly dirges performed on a detuned (or, according to Jandek, alternately tuned) acoustic guitar and sung in an oddly affectless murmur, as though all the vocals were recorded at 3 a.m. while trying not to wake a sleeping infant in the next room. The tone throughout is melancholy and claustrophobic; you get the sense that whoever recorded these songs doesn’t get out much. Relief seems to come on the album’s final track, “European Jewel (Incomplete),” when Jandek breaks out a slightly more tuneful electric guitar — until he sings, “There’s bugs in my brain/I can’t feel any pain,” right before the tape abruptly cuts off (hence, one presumes, the “Incomplete” in the song title) and you realize you might be listening to the ramblings of an actual crazy person.

Even though it’s clearly the work of a lone individual, Ready for the House was originally attributed to a band called The Units — until another band of the same name sent Jandek a cease-and-desist. I’m not sure how they even learned of Ready for the House‘s existence, since Corwood Industries apparently had zero distribution at the time. In his classic book on outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, Irwin Chusid describes writing to Jandek in 1980, two years after Ready for the House‘s initial release, and receiving a letter back noting that the album had only sold two copies. Further correspondence yielded 25 free copies of the LP; “I need to move them,” their creator explained. (For years, this was part of Jandek’s appeal; you could mail-order his records from him directly, via a P.O. box in Houston, and he’d often send more records than you requested, swamping his tiny fan base with product.)

Even though subsequent Jandek albums, including 1981’s Six and Six and 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, featured cover photos of a pale young man with a bowl cut and a piercing stare, the project remained essentially anonymous. None of the records included any liner notes, and whatever press Jandek did seemed to be almost inadvertent. He agreed to a 1985 interview with John Trubee, a writer for a then brand-new magazine called Spin, but listening to the full audio of the recording (which has been widely disseminated by Jandek fans eager for any insight into their reclusive hero), it’s not clear that he understood he was being recorded and might be quoted in Trubee’s article. “You don’t want any personal information printed?” Trubee asks at one point. “Rather not,” Jandek tersely replies. “You can quote any of the lyrics,” he adds, sounding like he’s trying to be helpful. Then, true to form, he offers to send Trubee more copies of all his records.

It’s since been revealed, through copyright information and other public records, that Jandek is the work of one Sterling R. Smith, who lives in the Houston area and is believed to now be in his late 60s or early 70s. However, out of respect for his extremely private nature, many fans still refer to him only as Jandek — or, to distinguish him from the musical project, which over the years has occasionally incorporated other musicians, as “the representative from Corwood Industries” or simply “the representative.”

For a taste of early, acoustic Jandek, here’s “The Janitor,” from his third album, Later On, Corwood Industries catalog no. 741. Oh, did I mention that he gave Ready for the House catalog no. 739, for no particular reason? Unless he’s got 738 albums’ worth of unreleased songs like this, which seems entirely possible.

Reactions to Jandek’s early music ranged, predictably, from confusion to disgust and even terror; Chusid called Ready for the House “one of the most frightening records I’ve ever heard.” I don’t find it quite that chilling, but there is something undeniably unsettling about it. There has to be something not quite right, you think as you listen to Jandek, with any man who’d churn out these atonal dirges so prolifically.

Jandek wasn’t a total tinfoil-on-the-windows loner, however. His 1982 album, Chair Beside a Window, featured a guest female vocalist named Nancy on a track helpfully titled “Nancy Sings.” And by 1985, he had even assembled a band and gone electric, though the results — still featuring the aforementioned Nancy — were less Dylan at Newport and more The Shaggs at Lou Reed’s garage sale.

Not all of Jandek’s early work was out-of-tune caterwauling. By the late ’80s, his guitar work could occasionally be bluesy and elegiac, and his deadpan murmur had been largely replaced by a breathy delivery that carried just the hint of a melody and suggested he might own a Nick Drake record or two. Either he was learning on the job, or the earlier, more atonal stuff was a deliberate move and not the mere amateurism his many detractors have long accused him of (and though he has fans like Thurston Moore, Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, he has many, many more detractors).

“Upon the Grandeur,” a rambling, eight-minute guitar idyll from 1991’s One Foot in the North, is especially beautiful, with inscrutable lyrics that may or may not be about religious salvation. It sounds like he’s singing, “Join hands another way/Be born again today,” but it’s hard to tell — and, as always, there are no lyric sheets or liner notes to help decipher his slurred delivery.

In the ’90s, Jandek returned to acoustic solo recordings. By this time he had acquired a sizable cult following who embraced his quirky, lo-fi approach — but even that following was not prepared for 2000’s Put My Dream on This Planet, on which he ditched the guitar and just sang shakily into what sounded like a cheap, voice-activated tape recorder. Two of the album’s three tracks stretched on for over 20 minutes, testing all but the most dedicated fans’ patience. (Don’t worry, if you don’t make it through all 28 minutes of “I Need Your Life,” we won’t report you to the Jandek police.)

Not content to stop there, Jandek released two more a cappella/spoken word albums — the third and (for now) final of which is called Worthless Recluse, a title he probably lifted from a dismissive review in some underground rock zine that could only hang with Jandek if there was a weirdly tuned guitar involved.

In 2004, Jandek got a little less mysterious when he began performing live. At first, he would only appear unannounced, on the bill at larger festivals. But by 2005 he was headlining the occasional show, first in the U.K. and later in Austin, New York and elsewhere around the U.S. and Europe. He also began releasing live albums based on these still-infrequent appearances, each named after the location and day of the week of the show: Glasgow Sunday, Newcastle Monday, Manhattan Tuesday. At these shows, a man who looked unmistakably like an older version of the pale kid on the cover of early Jandek albums took the stage, usually playing guitar but occasionally piano, bass or keyboard, with a rotating cast of backing musicians. Musicians who have played with him at these gigs report that he invariably refers to himself as “the representative from Corwood Industries.”

Playing live seems to have inspired Jandek to expand his sonic palette, dabbling in everything from noise-rock to avant-garde classical to free jazz, sometimes all in the same show. Here, for example, is “Part Three” of Manhattan Tuesday, recorded on Sept. 6, 2005 with several leading musicians from New York’s experimental rock scene and released in 2007.

This new phase of sonic experimentation has affected Jandek’s studio recordings as well. In 2013, he released The Song of Morgan, a 9-disc set featuring nine numbered “Nocturnes” for piano, each about an hour in length. There are no accompanying vocals or other instrumentation — just Jandek’s spare, simple piano chords, which somehow manage to simultaneously evoke George Winston, Erik Satie and a child noodling away after a year or two of lessons (an association seemingly made explicit by the cover photo, the youngest image he’s ever released of the “Corwood representative”). He followed that up a year later with Ghost Passing, a 6-disc set of more hour-long piano-only compositions.

At least two documentaries have been made about Jandek: 2003’s Jandek on Corwood, in which “the representative” never appears (and for which the filmmakers explicitly avoided interviewing him, preferring to tell his story through commentary from various musicians and journalists) and 2015’s I Know You Well, which follows Jandek’s forays into live performing. Though he appears onscreen in the latter film, he remains no less enigmatic. Explaining at one point why he prefers playing to seated audiences, he says, “It’s easier for them to dream. And to feel like, ‘I hate it, but I can’t leave.'”

The debate over Jandek tends to polarize into two extremes: Is he a genius or a charlatan? Personally, I think he’s neither. Like all good outsider musicians, Jandek forces his listeners to decide where they draw the line between “real” music and aimless noise, between art and doodling, meaning and nonsense. Doing that doesn’t take any particular genius, but it does take a singular, selfish vision and a willingness to completely ignore all considerations of convention and commercialism — or even the expectations of your own fans and the precedent of your own catalog. You could made a strong case that no other musician has done this longer, or more consistently, than Jandek. Like I said, when it comes to outsider musicians, he’s the outsider-iest.

I’ll leave you with more late ’80s Jandek — not because I claim it’s his best period, or his weirdest, but just because it happens to be my favorite. Liking this version of Jandek — when his aimless songwriting alit on something that was part blues shaman, part discount-bin Dylan and part Velvet Underground circa “Pale Blue Eyes” — is probably the equivalent of liking Picasso before he discovered cubism, but I don’t care. I love that something can simultaneously sound so transcendent and so like it’s in danger of falling apart at any moment. I think that’s the promise implicit in all outsider music — that coloring so far outside the lines can lead to moments that can’t be reached through conventional means.

P.S. Thanks to every reader who has patiently suggested for years that we add Jandek to the Weird List. Your patience has finally been rewarded. Hope that, like Jandek’s captive live audiences, you didn’t hate the wait too much.

Links:

Advertisements

Stinky Picnic

stinky-picnic

Usually when we — or anyone, really — throw around the term “outsider music,” we use it to connote impenetrably idiosyncratic music made by adults so eccentric they have to work alone because they can’t find anyone else who shares their vision. That’s why we were so delighted when our favorite Down Under reader, Interweb Megalink (not his/her real name), led us to the Australian duo Stinky Picnic. The father/daughter team of A.D. Machine (guitars, loops and backing vocals) and Ponky Pie Pea (singer, songwriter, keyboardist and the brains of the whole operation) make music as idiosyncratic as any Daniel Johnston or Mission Man tune — but in doing so, they transform outsider music into “the most normal, unconditionally loving activity available in the home,” in the words of author Neil Nixon, who included them in his book 500 Albums You Won’t Believe Until You Hear Them.

Stinky Picnic started when Ponky Pie Pea was three years old. You won’t be surprised to hear that she named the band. She’s now all of 10 or 11 and her songwriting skills have grown exponentially in that time. If we’re being honest, A.D. Machine had to do much of the heavy lifting on Stinky Picnic’s early work, fleshing out his daughter’s adorable but fairly straightforward sung-chanted lyrics about hamsters and logs and whatever else struck her fancy at the moment he pressed the record button. But after a few years and a shit-ton of releases, the kid is a budding genius of melody, harmony, surrealism and comic timing. Behold the marvel of all the aforementioned elements that is “Hairy Bananas” — and bear in mind that this was part of a rehearsal for a gig at the Make It Up Club, where all songs are improvised, so Ponky Pie Pea is coming up with this shit straight off the dome. Eat your heart out, Imogen Heap! (Disclaimer: Imogen Heap is great. But she’s famous for that vocal looping stuff and you gotta admit, this kid’s got “Hide and Seek“-level skills.)

Like most kids of her generation, Ponky Pie Pea is super into Minecraft. (I don’t get it, either, but I’m old and the only game app on my phone is Sudoku.) So she and A.D. also made a trilogy of albums with songs inspired by Minecraft, and set some of them to Minecraft videos. Here’s the one for “Pigs” — made when Ponky was about eight — which is in absolutely no danger of being confused with the Pink Floyd song.

I’ll leave you with possibly my favorite Stinky Picnic song: “Maybe a Mongoose,” another epic jam recorded when Ponky was eight or so, from their 2016 album A Horrible Hodgepodge. At one point, she scat-sings like a tiny, Australian Ella Fitzgerald. It’s way funkier than it has any business being — and like all of Stinky Picnic’s oeuvre, it’s a nice reminder that before we were all taught to conform, we were all outsiders, running wild with our imaginations and spouting nonsensical ideas more entertaining and probably just as valid as whatever crap the so-called “adult world” is churning out these days, like This Is Us or a new Chainsmokers album or whatever.

Links:

 

Five Starcle Men

Five Starcle Men

Happy 2016, weirdos! Here’s our resolution: to get back to updating this site on a weekly basis again. Also to drink less, exercise more, and spend more time with family. Yeah, we don’t like our chances of sticking to any of it, either.

Our first weird band of 2016 was suggested to us by a few readers: Djzen John, Jake Kirby and Andrew. It’s no wonder Five Starcle Men comes up frequently when discussing weird music, because even though they’re about as obscure as it gets (their fan-created Facebook page has a mere 56 likes), and haven’t been active since the ’90s, their small catalog of recorded output is about as bizarre as it gets. The most obvious touchstone is The Residents, and there’s also a little Captain Beefheart and maybe early Ween, in their early bedroom-stoner tape experiment days. But really, most of the stuff on Gomba Reject Ward Japan, a compilation of Five Starcle Men material released for free by Lost Frog Productions via Archive.org in 2007, exists in its own universe of psychedelic tape loops, thrift-store drum machines, detuned guitars and unintelligible lyrics.

Not much information on Five Starcle Men is out, but it appears to have been mainly the work of two young men from Lancaster, California named Glen Hobbs and Luke McGowan. Lancaster is an outer suburb of Los Angeles in the high desert, near Edwards Air Force Base, a surreal yet crushingly boring corner of America full of ex-military burnouts and neatly grid-patterned streets that lead to nowhere. It makes sense that two smart, creative kids from such a cultural wasteland would do lots of drugs (particularly DXM, a cough suppressant with dissociative properties, similar to ketamine) and invent a whole mythology of “alien drug torture” and “deadly cartoon culture governments,” as it says on their Archive.org page. Unfortunately, the experiment came to an abrupt end when Glen Hobbs committed suicide in 1998.

Besides Gomba Reject Ward Japan and its cryptic accompanying bio, which also mentions that “using modern cultural, pharmacological, and other technologies, these young suburban punks constructed highly aestheticized, delusional realities for themselves and their viewers,” the other main artifact of Five Starcle Men’s existence is a video from a 1993 performance the band gave at Mondo Video here in Los Angeles. The video (embedded below) was shot and later uploaded by a friend of the band’s who goes by the name Rich Polysorbate 60. Rich was a longtime member of the L.A. Cacophony Society and has a reputation for making up mythical/historical characters and presenting them as real, so at least one person (a guy from fellow Weird List entrants Baboon Torture Division, in fact) has suggested, not unreasonably, that “it could be a fictitious band invented by Rich.”

While this is an intriguing theory, you can see in the video below that there appear to be two young men at the center of the chaos, wearing matching caps and fiddling with gear and cables. Are they Glen Hobbs and Luke McGowan? Perhaps. It’s also possible that this is Glen Hobbs’ gravesite, even though it’s in Colorado for some reason. And Luke McGowan might be the same Luke McGowan who is now a part-time Professor of Psychology at Cal State Fullerton — that doesn’t quite match the official bio’s note that McGowan “now studies science, philosophy, and history at university,” but it’s close.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter who was behind Five Starcle Men. Whoever they are, or were, they left behind some amazing, surreal, alien music. Take a few swigs of Robitussin and enjoy.

Links:

Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin gets animated in new video for “Autumn Leaves”

Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin

Just in time for autumn’s end, lo-fi queen Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin has released a video for “Autumn Leaves,” the seventh in her series of visual accompaniments to songs from her 2012 album, Fish Drive Edsels. This may be her most visually arresting work yet, thanks to animation and illustrations by British artist Jodie Lowther. It’s a bit like watching a painting come to life. A painting that just took a few hits of acid.

The next track on Fish Drive Edsels likely to get the video treatment is “Bagboy Cowboy,” a song about a trip to the grocery store. To buy fishheads, no doubt.

Space Alien Donald

Space Alien Donald

One of the weirdest music and art venues in the world is in, of all places, Phoenix, Arizona. There, the self-described “world’s oldest gay Canadian rapper,” Space Alien Donald, does shows and hosts art exhibits in a little house near the airport called Funny World. We hope to visit soon, because it sounds like the kind of place that The Man could shut down at any moment. Especially in a place like Arizona, where anyone suspected of being an alien is just one broken taillight away from getting deported.

Actually, when Space Alien Donald bought Funny World in 2011, he was apparently told by the city that it would be torn down in six months to make way for a parking lot. But three years later, it’s still there. Even in Arizona, the weirdos are winning.

How did a 70-something gay Canadian rapper wind up hosting semi-legal punk shows in his house in Phoenix? We’re a little hazy on the specifics, but according to this article in something called the Downtown Devil, the man born Donald Roth moved to the U.S. from Ontario in the ’60s to work in electronics. After working in Silicon Valley, where he faked his school records to get jobs, he eventually settled in Prescott, a small city north of Phoenix, where he began developing his sci-fi inspired alter ego, Space Alien Donald.

Donald calls himself a rapper, but that’s not quite accurate. He really just kind of sing-speaks lyrics about science, astronomy, aliens and one of his favorite topics, a hypothetical particle called the tachyon that, like many things in Space Alien Donald songs, may be legit science or may be a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooey. He does this over synth backing tracks that sometimes are just the preset beats and chord progressions built into cheap electronic keyboards. So basically, he’s like nerdcore meets Mission Man meets a less schizophrenic Wesley Willis. Only older and more Canadian.

Donald just released his latest album, Must Be Funny, on Related Records. It’s got songs about how aliens built the moon and it has penises on the cover and it’s awesome. You can stream the whole thing over on Bandcamp and buy it for five bucks if you’re awesome, too. Here’s one of our favorite tracks:

To get more of the full Space Alien Donald story, this documentary, made by one of the residents of Funny World (yeah, people live there, too), tells you all you need to know:

Big thanks to Kai of Toxic Chicken for introducing us to Space Alien Donald’s weirdness.

Links:

Weird of the Day: ZX Electric, “Altered States”

ZX Electric

A gentleman by the name of John Wedge dropped a band from Liverpool called ZX Electric into our inbox over the weekend, and we’re definitely intrigued by their lo-fi, retro sound and especially the strangled, haunted voice of their lead singer, Ben Mawdsley. They have two albums up on Bandcamp called Obsolete (posted May 2013) and Fixed Unknown (posted January 2014). At first, because of the music’s sparse, no wave vibe and squiggly, analog synths, we thought they might be reissues—especially when we found one of the band’s YouTube videos and it was tagged “rare post punk obscure 1981.” But we’re pretty sure they’re contemporary.

Here’s a track from Fixed Unknown, “Altered States.” To quote Julian Cope, who’s a fan: “Kiddies, this artist deploys enormous emptiness as part of his major musical arsenal, occasionally tearing at the heartstrings with hoary chord sequences and anguished vocals so appallingly pained that, veritably, it maketh me want to rend my own garments.” What he said!

You can hear more of ZX Electric’s desolate ditties on Bandcamp.

Bloody Death Skull

Bloody Death Skull

Sometimes we get so excited that people in Poland or Brazil or South Africa are reading our blog that we neglect the weirdness in our own backyard. Yep, Los Angeles is a city full of freaks, contrary to the image most of y’all probably have in your heads of tanned, wannabe actors rollerblading between juice bars and Pilates classes (we have those, too, but no one here cares about them). And in their own, adorable way, Bloody Death Skull are as freaky as they come.

Musically, BDS aren’t all that weird, at least not in a hit-you-over-the-head way. Their songs are shaggy and shambling and cutened up by head Skull Daiana Feuer’s jangling ukulele and guileless, girlish vocals. Lyrically they can get pretty dark, with songs about death and prostitutes and drowning Mormons in swimming pools, but the grim subject matter is always served up with a wink. (Actually, depending on your point of view, I guess a song about drowning Mormons in swimming pools could be right up there with Pharrell’s “Happy.”) They cover lots of old murder ballads and doo wop love songs, which makes sense, and Ying Yang Twins, which doesn’t, but somehow works anyway.

Their live shows delight in the unexpected. They plays shows at strip clubs and former zoo animal enclosures. They dress up in elaborate costumes with inscrutable themes. When I saw them opening for Bob Log III, the theme was “things you might encounter in the forest,” which in Bloody Death Skull’s world includes alien princesses, soldiers in gas masks and a woman in a head-to-toe burqa representing “darkness.”

They have four core members—besides Feuer, there’s Donna Suppipat, Beth McSelf and Gerard Olson—but their live incarnation can have as many as 10 people onstage, many of them sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by xylophones and toy pianos and various things to bang on. The effect is both childlike and somehow psychedelic—by which I mean, they kinda look and sound like a bunch of people on heavy doses of psychedelics. Like, “Mind if I sit? ‘Cause my legs seem to have stopped working” doses.

(For the record: I’m pretty sure no one in the band is actually high. When they were done with their Bob Log III opening set, they all stood up and left the stage in a very orderly fashion, fastidiously picking up their giant collection of instruments as they went. But they sure do a convincing job of seeming out of their gourds during their set—except Feuer, who presides over the chaos with the wry charm and patience of a den mother for a particularly low-functioning Girl Scout troop.)

I’ve done as much as I can to explain the weirdness and adorableness of Bloody Death Skull without showing you some videos, so here they are. First up: a sweet desert murder lullaby called “Psycho,” starring a ravenous tiger/panda. I believe the technical term for such a hybrid creature is “tiganda.”

Next, here’s a little taste of their live show. They did not have the tap dancer when I saw them, but they did have a Theremin. They like to mix it up.

And finally, the video that is quite possibly their masterpiece (at least so far): “Girls Like You,” which uses stop-motion Barbies to tell a heartwarming tale about prostitutes and the non-prostitutes who love them.

Links: