ilona pamplona talks to Jesse Malin about New York City, the road, vegetarianism and Bruce Springsteen …
The more I go to shows, the more I notice a certain overlap in the crowd. Some are groupies, others maybe scenesters, and we must not forget industry types. Some groups we may try to avoid, some try to avoid us. Whatever the case, it is often through this overlap that I have fostered new friendships and, most interestingly, expanded my musical horizons.
In the past couple of months, this was the case for me with Jesse Malin. I knew I had heard of him, but I couldn’t recall why. Was he playing a local venue? Was he appearing on TV? Was he touring with someone already on my radar? The more I researched him, the more I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already seen him live. While his list of friends are very main stream and noteworthy, he too has quite the established career. Starting with the Heart Attack and D Generation, then moving on to a successful solo career. In fact, I now find myself singing “Disco Ghetto” (off of his most recent album Love It To Life with his band, The St. Marks Social) while preparing breakfast, or driving home from work. I caught up with Mr. Malin on his way to Pittsburgh to kick off his tour with Alejandro Escovedo.
Pop-Break: So Jesse, I hear that you are from Queens and I lived there until I was 8. I love that some of your merch has the Flushing Meadow Park Uni-sphere on it.
Jesse Malin: Oh yeah! I used to go there and see the scuttle boats out there and we had a zoo with wolves. I remember people barbecuing and picnicking on the weekends. Definitely the World’s Fair imagery is something … Queens is where I was pretty much until my early teens, and I had to go back there — that’s where me and my friends come from definitely.
PB: Certain parts of New York that are neglected and obviously Manhattan tends to be the focus, so it’s cool to see that this borough definitely influence your music or you.
JM: Gotta represent!
PB: Word! I read recently that you discovered the East Village by accident?
JM: Back when I was 12 years old, I was going to see a movie called Rock And Roll High School, a Ramones film that Roger Corman had put out and Allan Arkush directed. It was playing in some place at 8th Street playhouse, and I got on the subway in Queens and went into the city by myself in the daytime. I was walking to 8th Street to go west, but I actually walked east. The name of it changed and it became St. Mark’s Place. I was standing in front of a record store and the bookstores, there was a standee 7-feet tall of The Ramones, people were dressed all different and selling cool clothes on the streets and on the sidewalk and I was like, “Wow, I found my tribe. It is not some main-street suburb of Queens. I am here and this is somewhere I want to explore.” It was a little scary and dangerous-looking, and, you know, it seem like you could get into a lot of trouble too when you’re 12 years old.
PB: Do you feel the East Village still represents that same vibe, or do you think that other parts of New York represent that a little more now?
JM: I think things are always changing. That used to be an area where you could go and rent was cheap and you could be an artist and create and rehearse or paint and live cheap. A lot changed in the ’90s when Giuliani was mayor. He cleaned up the city and brought in chain stores — you know, made it safer. So safer is nice. You don’t get mugged or your shoes stolen or stabbed or raped or whatever awful thing that could happen, but you also gotta pay $3,000 or $2,000 in rent, and you’ve got Starbucks, Subway, Duane Reade and all these things on every corner.
So a lot of what is happening in New York is not that many New Yorkers anymore. It’s people from America. I used to feel that New York was its own state almost or country, really. It really became just part of America instead of some separate British or European colony or I dunno. [laughs] It really became a mess and there are still elements of it and some great clubs and bars, and in that article in the [New York] Post, I talked about some of the places — record stores and bookstores, and they are what was the East Village was and what remains on some level, but people have migrated to Brooklyn and Lower East Side or maybe even back to Queens to be hip and artistic. It’s kind of reverse in a weird way.
PB: Speaking of Europeans … touring is a great part of your life, and I saw that recently you sold out shows in Italy and there is talk of a D Generation show in Madrid. How is your interaction with overseas fans different than stateside?
JM: Well, both are great. European people, especially in England, they come early and they wanna get their money’s worth. They come to see the opening act and are not too cool for school. They’re very interactive and there’s a lot of clapping and singing along and jumping about and there’s a connection where the “punters,” that they call them. I think they really throw themselves in. There’s different parts of Europe where they’re more reserved and quiet … a little more just watching you and you don’t know if they’re loving you or hating you, but they’re just watching. A lot of the Italian audiences are really strong and really passionate.They get really involved in the show, and that’s the kind of thing about The St. Marks Social and this band on the last record — it’s very much made to be played live and not to be just watched on Youtube and to sit there with your cat. It’s an interactive experience. It’s a live interactive rock game.
PB: I travel for work and I know it’s not as easy or glamorous as most people make it sound. What are the best and worst parts of being on tour?
JM: The best part is that you get to play every night, in a different place. You get to see (somewhat) pieces of the world and get out. Have guitar, will travel. You get free booze … free alcohol or sodas or whatever. That’s the great part, in being with your people out on the road with a band and traveling, there’s a kind of pirate ship thing. You get to put together a group of people you wanna be with, the road crew, whoever, and create this little box. It’s you guys against the world. There’s something about being out every night and playing these songs in front of people and meeting great people. We meet so many fans that become friends or supporters and people do a lot of great things to help you out and you get to see that circle. There’s a real community out there in rock ‘n’ roll.
The bad side is that you don’t get to see that places very long. It’s like the Henry Rollins thing: “Yeah, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve seen all these places” and you can tell some chick, “I’ve seen all these great countries” — meanwhile, all you’ve seen is the van, the airports and the hotels if you’re lucky. We try to go for little walks after soundcheck, but the way the economy is now with gas prices and the whole record industry you have to play live almost every night like we do, so you’re constantly traveling. It’s a big world, a lot of miles to get under your belt and we have this van — the sliver machine. We get in it and we find ways to sleep. Like David Lee Roth once said, “If you are in a rock band, you gotta learn to take a lot of cat naps.” You just gotta learn to sleep on your arm or in the bass cabinet or in the bed. These hotels can be kind of scary. I know some people in the crew have caught bed bugs, probably people have caught worse things you can bring home.
It used to be that the road had a privacy. What happened on the road stayed in the road. Now what happens ends up on Facebook or some distorted version of it! People broadcast every show on Youtube, or Twitter, or twatter, or whatever people do. In one way its a good connection to what’s happening, but I like the mystery of waiting till the band came to town to see what they’re gonna look like or what their opening song’s gonna be or what they’re doing this year.
I think eating bad food is another downside. I’m a vegetarian and I like to live healthy. In some of the more hipper cities, you can find vegan or vegetarian spots, but sometimes the health food meal is a pizza or a garden sandwich made in the microwave with a plastic glove at Subway. It really depends. The traveling, the lack of sleep, eating at a gas station, trying to learn how to open a bathroom at a gas station with your elbow, kicking the toilet seat up with your sneaker, and those glamorous moments … peeling back sheets to make sure there’s no blood or hair, even at a five-star hotel … missing your friends and family … having your girlfriend tell you you’re never around and “What’s going out there?” … or having your family say, “How come you don’t come out to any of the holidays?”
But it’s a lifestyle — an outlaw traveling carney/pirate lifestyle that feels good, and we’re spreading a message and it’s the connection that you have between the audience, the band, and the people you play with and it becomes a life. You get to go home a lot. New York is a central place. If you’re flying from overseas, you stop in New York. If you gotta do TV, you do it in New York. There’s a lot there and we touch home base often, more than someone that would live in Iowa.
PB: I’m not a vegetarian, but when I can, I try to eat vegetarian, and when I’m on the road, it’s just so difficult. Have you found any little gems on the road for vegan or vegetarian food?
JM: Somebody pulls up one of these iPhones gadgets that everyone is so happy with these days and they look up Whole Foods and go there. One of the guys in the band calls it “Whole Pay Check.” If there’s a way to knock half of the salad down before you get up to the counter and they weigh it, I dunno. We go to Panera, which is pretty frightening, but they have salads. You can ask them — they give us stuff in the rider in the dressing room — they give you the veggie tray, sometimes you get the sweaty meats in the plastic.
The world has gotten a lot hipper, I gotta say, since I started touring in my teens, to vegetarianism and healthy foods. You can go to supermarkets and get a garden burger or they have organic sections in some. The world and America in general has gotten a little bit easier. It’s just the “on the run” stuff, the stuff on the highway. Believe it or not, Starbucks will have some salads and granola. You can go there sometimes and get hot cereal at 3 in the morning. I mean, I’m not always a big fan of these chains, but we’re never looking forward to see if McDonalds can take the edge off a little, but at 3 a.m., you can be the first guy in there in the Jersey Turnpike and you can get your Egg Mac because they start breakfast that early for the truckers of the world.
There’s better spots. I eventually wanna do a book of where to eat on the road that’s healthy. These guys in the band eat different things, but I usually take these walks and try to find vegetarian restaurants . Find it in Montreal or a snobby place like Paris where they’re all very proud of their meats and their cheese, and yet you can find this needle in the haystack. But I wanna kinda do a book or funny TV show or something about where to eat. It could be interesting.
PB: I think that would be so amazing! I have a number of friends that are local musicians and who are vegetarians and eating on the road can be quite the battle. They either have to bring their own food or it become quite the hunt as you’ve described. So getting back to the traveling, do you and the band have any travel rituals?
JM: We listen to a lot of music together. There’s a certain rhythm of what we do every day. The schedule kind of remains from whenever lobby call time to how we load the van. There’s a certain method to packing a certain way to sound check to how merch is set up. Each person has different duties that they do to keep things moving. On this tour, we’re opening for Alejandro Escovedo, so we have to move much quicker than when we’re the headliner. When it’s our show, there’s a little bit of a difference, but we get into a venue everyone has their different duty. The ritual would probably be a shot of tequila before we go on a just a good power handshake, and a little fisting. [laughs]
Some homosexual ballet, we do little back-flips, put on a little Freddie Mercury tutu and we sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” standing on our head to warm out voices up, jump around on a broom and pretend it’s a horse and to go the Waffle House and sing songs from other artists with Waffle House lyrics. If you go to the Waffle House, they have their own jukebox with their own lyrics and own songs. This is true — it’s their own version of Waffle House lyrics. It’s very interesting to see the jukebox with their version of music.
For the most part, just warming up, getting on, making sure the band is unified, writing the set list, figure out what we’re going to play that night. Sometimes there’s less time to even do that. If its festival style or opening for somebody or we just at South By Southwest with no soundcheck or setup, it’s like you’re just on, thrown into the fire, you just go for it. Sometimes it’s just that you don’t have much time to really think, you just have to get there and figure it out. We’ve had days where we’ve pulled into venues and we’ve been late and the crowd is there and we just throw our stuff on to the stage and say we’re the good old boys we’ll just go. It’s like the Blues Brothers.
PB: So, I wanted to ask you about the Top 10 list on your website. I love the idea! Having seen and lived so much, what made you create this list and what made these 10 things list worthy?
JM: Its sort of things that have inspired me. Like someone once said, no input no output. It’s having different things — movies, books — or listening to people talk or obviously listening to music. Its things that I’m excited about and I’m essentially a fan of. You know, before a player, I got into music as a fan. I love going to see films, and books and music as well and that kind of culture, so I just make a list of things I’m into that month. Usually, I have to narrow it down from 20 things to 10. It’s just a way to give it insight.
People over the years have told me, “Hey, I read that book” or “I figured out what PMA means” or “I checked out that song that Hold Steady song” or whatever. It’s just a way of sharing things. I figured if websites are gonna be all personal and people are putting up what they ate for dinner or how they went to the bathroom or what girl they were with last night, I’d rather use it to talk about the things that just inspire me and maybe share it. I always needed as a kid someone to say, “Check this record out” and some of these moments changed my life. It’s a little insight to what’s going on. So we do a monthly Top 10.
PB: By they way, because of your list, I’m a big fan of that Brazilian band Little Joy’s …
JM: Oh yeah, that’s a great song — “Brand New Start”. They’re like the Brazilian Strokes and more. That’s cool to know. That’s a song I’m listening to recently
PB: Thanks for sharing. Other than being on tour with Alejandro, what other projects are you working on?
JM: We’re working up a new record with the St. Mark’s Social. Me and the band have been working on new material in between any day off. We’re just trying to hit the studio and rehearse some new songs. Beyond that, I’m going to do some dates with the D Generation — a reunion thing in September in Spain, South America, and New York at the Irving Plaza. I recently did a side project with the guys from Green Day called The Rodeo Queens, where we did a song called “Depression Times,” and that was a lot of fun to write a song with those guys. You know, the drunken late nights and last minute goof that turns into a little punk pop song. But mostly focused with stuff like this. We’re going to do an acoustic duo me and Derek from St Mark’s Social where we’re going to play the City Winery [in New York] on June 25. It’s going to be a night of stories and songs. We’re going to strip down the songs and give a lot of back story and insight into the songs where they came from and that kind of thing, so that’s going to be June once the St Mark’s Social band thing winds down.
Recently I worked on a Bad Brains documentary with Mandy Stein and Ben Logan. That should be finished pretty soon. I was just in a Bob Gruen documentary that Don Letts did that been running on BBC that’s going to come out here in the fall. I have a bar called the Bowery Electric. When I’m home, we do shows or I DJ sometimes. I’m keeping busy. It’s enough to do. I need to take Vitamin C and get at least three hours sleep and I’ll be alright.
PB: Wow … you ARE keeping pretty busy. I’m surprised you actually have time to sleep! So Jesse, I’m pretty much a Jersey Girl and I know that you have played with local guys like Bruce and The Gas Light Anthem. Because I feel the Garden State is the redheaded stepchild of the tri-state area, I am curious to know how has the Jersey crowd has treated you.
JM: When you get a guy like Bruce who invites to you to stay with him and you get on stage in Jersey with him like I did a few years ago, suddenly the Jersey crowd opens its arms to you. In fact, if Bruce supports you, he’s such a fan of music and is such a generous guy, and he has such a loyal fanbase that you get close into that, these people follow you, too.
I dunno, I’ve been pretty lucky enough that a lot of people I’ve toured with — whether it be Ryan Adams, or Counting Crows, or Bruce — you pick up some of their audience and it becomes part of your crowd. Same thing with the Gaslight people, which are much younger people, but I think they’re just as rabid for music and dedicated to the work that Brian Fallon and that band do. To gather fans from playing with these bands, which I’ve done shows with both, has been super.
Jersey is becoming the sleeper. It used to be the brunt of the joke … I lived there a year or two when I was a kid, but I think it’s become a lot cooler.
You know, Bruce Springsteen is respected by indie rock artists across the board like the Arcade Fire to The Hold Steady to everyone. The influence to the connection has changed. It’s not the perception that the people had of the Jersey Shore. The whole thing is like its cool to be from Jersey. Everything changes. When I was a kid, it wasn’t cool to be in Brooklyn or Queens because you wanted to be in Manhattan and that’s where all the action was at and all the subversion. But now, somehow its all going on in the places that we fought so hard to get away from. I have a song called “Brooklyn” which is about breaking out of Brooklyn for your dream, but that person in the song gives up their dream and goes back to a dead end job into the mainstream society, back to Brooklyn. If I wrote that song today, it would have to be written in reverse — it would have to be called “Manhattan.” I dunno. New Jersey became a sleeper and a late bloomer as far as respect in our own culture. Thing of all the people that come from there- from Jack Nicholson to Frank Sinatra … and Brian Fallon and Bruce … you know.
PB: You are the musician’s musician. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue a full-time music career?
JM: Stick to your heart and be passionate. Play with people that you vibe with. Form something with your friends — people that share a certain like mindedness with you so there’s a unity and you’re creating a thing with other people that you can do together. People in the world wanna be part of a “thing,” so if you’re creating something that’s a gang or a bond, or a duo, or a trio, or a five-piece band, that you guys have something to focus and doing something (guys or girls) that you create something you love and be fearless. Listen to a lot of records and be open minded. Take from everywhere that excites you and stick with it. Be dedicated and follow your dream through to the end. Be fearless and fight the world with it, and you’ll get through. If you connect when you get up there and you can find somebody that likes it, you start to feel better about it … you feel vindicated, justified. It’s empowering. Enjoy each step and follow that dream, like Elvis Presley said.
You can find Jesse Malin & The St. Marks Social on tour with Alejandro Escovedo on May 4 at The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J.; May 5 at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia; and May 6 at Maxwells in Hoboken, N.J.