Jason Molina R.I.P.
I’m going to be writing a proper obituary for The Guardian later today, but in the meantime here’s a reprint of the cover story to Careless Talk Costs Lives #8.
As Sean Adams wrote on Twitter, it doesn’t make sense that someone can write a song this powerful, and not be invincible.
R.I.P. Jason Molina
Words: Everett True
Photography: Steve Gullick
This is a late night confessional for you.
The rehearsal space is in an old warehouse, funk metal blasting out on one side, bad loud rock the other: a lot of Chicago artists rehearse here, like Liam Hayes from Plush. It’s hard for Songs: Ohia to practise sometimes, because they have all this noise around them. It’s not a professional recording space, you understand, just a place where everyone works. During the quiet bits of their songs – and they have a lot of quiet bits in their songs – it’s hard to concentrate.
The room is small with a carpeted floor, and has an ornate fan set in the middle of a high wooden ceiling. There’s a sign saying “No Stage Diving” on the wall. That’s funny. There are also some paintings – abstract green and blue and yellow. One wall is brick, and an old mattress leans against the window. There are mattresses leaning all around the room for sound installation. Jason has to play through an amp his drummer made, because his one is fucked. The drum kit is red, gold and green.
There are five of them in the room.
S/D Songs: Ohia
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I’m looking to write a conceptual article for Careless Talk Costs Lives around Jason Molina and his spooked, changing circle of musicians…
Does anybody have any opinions or favourites or stories? I have 24 hours — Jerry
“We just wrote the songs today. I had lyrics and chord ideas and the band did the arrangements. We finished the record a whole day early, booked it for three days, but we didn’t want to waste the third day. I always try to have a couple of songs on the backburner – good, but unfinished. The new songs sound roughly like a cross between Bob Seger and Crazy Horse, with a little Jackson Browne. Don’t print that.”
Jason is short, has heavy eyebrows and a semi-mullet haircut. He’s 28, from Indiana, with a straight American accent. He started smoking the day before he recorded the album because he feels his voice sounds better that way, but he doesn’t generally smoke – only when he’s going to record.
He lived in England for a while. On his second night there he was sitting around, and this bloke comes up and starts talking to him. He asks if Jason needs a job… so the next day he starts work as a removal man, replacing old equipment for new in schools around the country. All his co-workers are waifs and strays picked up in similar fashion. They work for food, not money. He does that for a while and plays gigs while the food is being cooked.
Jason says he doesn’t like playing England now, because the reaction is never very good.
This is the cold moonlight, the guitar picking out gentle beauty amid the red sky’s forked lightning. This is burnt out shipbuilding and the distant clatter of busy steel forges. This is where the water cascades unchecked. This is a deeper, more resonant Americana than most artists are familiar with. This is hope and the slowly migrating drift of aimless youth, transient in their privilege. This is memory, stark and crisp. This is death as it shook you. This is Songs: Ohia.
Halfway through a show in Toronto he realised he was chewing gum, apologised to the crowd and got rid of the gum. Just him, a mic and his acoustic guitar. Never let the crowd see his face either, kept it hidden with a cheap baseball cap — Mr Noodles
“Spontaneity is essential for making these kind of records. On this session, we have musicians the quality of Nashville players, but rockers tried and true. I’m not like that. I spend most of my time worrying how to write lyrics down. It’s an evolution over a lot of records. This new one will be a double. We’re going to be called Magnolia Electric Company – it’s time to retire the Songs: Ohia world. Something has changed fundamentally. I can’t put my finger on it.
“Now I’m freer to let musicians call more of the shots. Before, I had no idea how to arrange a song – other than to dump the lyrics in with the music and get it onto tape. It’s never been a steady band. I play with whoever is available. Now, they all make themselves available.”
He seemed to imply that British audiences are ungrateful and rude.
“I wrote these two songs that set the tone for a new era. One used the pyramids as an example of being a family unit – the smaller ones are the kids, the bigger one is like the mother. I run into magnolia trees a lot while I’m on tour, and even on my street in Chicago… they’re like mythical objects to me. During Songs: Ohia I was interested in palm trees, and an Ohia is a tree too. So maybe I have a tree fascination, ancient and deep.”
He intends to drive round America, and tour there. His last album Didn’t It Rain sold 20,000 copies worldwide.
This is my lover’s vow.
“I really enjoy playing music with people these days. We had 10 human beings make the songs come alive, and you can’t beat that. They were all joyful, and we all listened in. Everybody was free to do what they wanted.”
Conversation in the rehearsal room centered round keeping the songs loose. If anything got too accomplished the band would stop playing so they’d be free to improvise in the studio. They didn’t end a single song
Scout Niblett played later at The Hide Out, its roof lined with fairy lights like someone’s back room. She wore a red dress with 50s style hair curled under at the sides and a fringe, dark blonde hair. It looked like it could’ve been a wig. Jason said she wears wigs. She had a nice smile. She was great – trying to steer away from the Cat Power thing. It was an accomplished performance: sometimes she’d play guitar, sometimes drums – and she’d always sing. There were maybe 50, 60 people present. One of the other bands sounded like Thom Yorke singing with Play Dead.
She just played the songs and fucked off. She didn’t play for very long.
Proof the man had no eyes that night — Mr Noodles
This is misunderstanding. This is a voice pure and cracked and forever looking on to the next solution. This is darkness and solace and ineptitude. This is thirsty music: drumming spirals and minor cadences and the whistling I can never capture. This is Songs: Ohia.
“Even when I was a kid I was writing songs. It could be that I never had any creative outlet where I grew up in West Virginia, and also Northern Ohio – caught between a steel mill town and a mining town. Any bit of music we could smuggle in across the borders we just loved, any tape would have been exciting because there weren’t record stores around and no one listened to shit. So we had our own approach to making rock’n’roll. Geography has been a major source of contemplation in my day-to-day world, so it’s natural it would bleed over into the lyrics – I don’t mean physical earth you pick up in your hand, but more how the people of a place are the geography of the place. People leave their mark behind them.”
There are dying palm trees splashed about outside. The studio is in the industrial district. The road to it from downtown Chicago follows the El train track, all the way to the warehouse. From the roof, there’s a fine view of the diner where all Songs: Ohia tours start, and also the city itself, past barbecue debris and the cooling tower, where the red sun goes down in the embers of the day.
I’ve only heard Axxess & Ace and the single track off that My Morning Jacket EP… I’ve really enjoyed both — Jack
“As a kid I wrote about what I do now – the way I feel about a place or a thing or a person. I don’t need to write about the big events. I write a lot of songs about the atmosphere of Chicago – riding the train out on the West side, really shitty, got my eyes open, I’m part of that landscape. I’m drawn what’s right in front of me.
“I’ve played out live a lot over the last six or seven years. Now I’m just spending time at home writing records. I don’t worry about how to perform. I worry about trying to get a good version of the song across – if it falls apart in real life I let it go and try to do it better the next time.”
He’s a workaholic, talking about this album being at least a double, got enough for a triple, trying to work out a non-contrived way of releasing it. First day, he was wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt, jeans and Converse. Second day, he was wearing a dark green baseball cap, black T-shirt…
This is the moonlight, the serious moonlight.
Shitee, meant to mention classic: ‘Cabway Lingo’, ‘Take Five’ or ‘Captain Badass’ or whatever he calls it and ‘Hot Black Silk’ from Axxess & Ace, ‘Tigress’ from The Lioness.
Destroy: I don’t know what it is exactly and I can’t blame any song in particular but I can barely make it through The Lioness without being bored off my rocker. Maybe it’s the sequencing, I don’t know — Mr Noodles
“I’ve released about nine records, because the people keep changing and the room keeps changing – the music I write is so rooted to environment, it’s no surprise they sound different to one another.”
This is the moonlight, the serious moonlight.
He’s got a regular band he records with in Chicago, but he records in other places as well. He gets session musicians in and he tells them what he wants – ‘Didn’t It Rain’ was recorded with a session band. He recorded an album when he toured Australia but the soundman didn’t get the vocals high enough in the mix so he scrapped it. As soon as this album’s done he’s going to be writing a new one. He just can’t stop.
He forewarned me he didn’t like being photographed. I told him it didn’t matter because I didn’t like taking them either. When we met the first day he didn’t have his baseball cap on because he knew photographers didn’t like baseball caps but I told him he should’ve brought it because I wanted to take his photo the way he was – and if that was part of the way he was, that’s better. He wasn’t awkward. We were just talking: he’s just done a record with Will Oldham and the singer of Appendix Out, the three together, singing individually. Will put out his first two singles. I told Jason I’d been talking to Will about Songs: Ohia, but that I have no idea precisely what about Songs: Ohia because I was pissed – I think I must have told Will they made better records than his own recent stuff, because I’ve been listening to them non-stop.
Jason’s aware of Will, but he isn’t a sycophantic Palace fan. He’s totally engrossed in what he’s doing himself.
AXXESS & ACE (1999)
“That’s an example of using half-musicians – the drummer knew the songs, and the rest of the musicians didn’t. It was a truck stop. It contains some great work from Edith Frost. It’s a relationship record lyrically – there aren’t a lot of images in there. It’s back and forth. Not necessarily man to man, or man to woman or woman to woman, but conversations you have with yourself about evaluating the situation.”
It’s strange, because in the last issue of Careless Talk, you compared Didn’t It Rain to After The Goldrush [Neil Young], and Jason’s motivation behind that album was try to make it sound like the demos for After The Goldrush. He seems to want to make stuff that sounds like demos for classic records – he doesn’t want his music too polished. He wants to keep it raw and loose.
This is a Hawaiian flower, a blossom. This is one man and a thousand oddly tinted photographers, yellowing at the edges because eventually everything yellows at the edges. This is the soundtrack to as many late nights as you’ll never experience again. This is a giant version of the check out card for a library book. This is a colour projector showing films of local boats, street theatre, folk music and children. This is a snow-filled square. This is Songs: Ohia.
MI SEI APPARSO COME UN FANTASMA (2001)
“Many of the guys who play on that, play on these new recordings. The album’s got a good raw rock sound due to those musicians. Most of those songs were written on tour in Europe, so the arrangements and lyrics were picked up from then. It’s a dark record. I’m very happy with it. We won’t go into a studio to record those songs. We played way out in the middle of nowhere for a very small audience – 30, maybe 50 people who had to travel for hours to get there.”
He’s getting married next year to his girlfriend Darcy, and moving back to Indiana. He doesn’t feel he needs to be living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s tattier side when he could have something half-decent for the same money in Indiana. He seems to live out on a limb from everyone else – everyone else concentrates on the fashionable parts of Chicago, but he doesn’t seem to be one for going out. He is a reluctant socialite. He’s very sociable but you can tell there are things he’d rather be doing – writing records, probably.
He looks like a cool rock star in photos – Chris De Burgh. He’s a metal kid, really into Black Sabbath. It shows in the music, in its dark side and in the slowness.
I’ve enjoyed each one more than the previous, although they take some time to hit. At first I thought Didn’t It Rain was shite, but now I think it’s the best album so far. I heard he’s gonna do a Waits and release two new albums on the same day — Baxter Wingnut
Jason got onto the El train in Chicago after being abroad, and fell asleep, and ended up in a really dodgy neighbourhood on the other side of the city. The train terminated and the driver somehow realised he wasn’t a vagrant because they sometimes let vagrants sleep in the train, but didn’t think he should get off there either. So Jason travelled in the driver’s cab with the armed guard to another side of the city that wasn’t quite as bad, but still dodgy. He got out with his guitar and his suitcase, and started wandering the streets. He had no money on him, only foreign currency. He sees this bunch of blokes by a knackered car, and he’s scared shitless but he faces up to them and offers them $100 if they take him home. They do. He pays them in guilders – “that’s a hundred dollars, honest.”
This is understanding.
DIDN’T IT RAIN (2002)
“The one before that, Ghost Tropic, was really dark, gothic, with long nebulous creepy songs. I wanted to make Didn’t It Rain a little more structured, so I learnt how to play a few chords, instead of making it up as I went along. Ghost Tropic  is a record about dislocation. Didn’t It Rain is about coming to terms with the city, coming to an understanding of your place. I personally am not dislocated from the world – you can’t look at yourself in the context of the whole world, you just look at yourself in the context of your own small world. It’s not my goal to stick out, to purposely be noticed. Especially when I’m making music. It’s a fine line. If you want to go on tour all the time, and make bigger and bigger records, that’s easy. I just want to focus on the songs.”
Jason is prone to exaggerate for the sake of a story.
In his estimation we spent three hours trying to find somewhere to park, but it was half-an-hour. We couldn’t find anywhere to park – so we ate elsewhere at one of those trendy mishmash places, and sat out on the street eating. He mentioned that Billy Corgan is recording in his new super-group with Dave Pajo [Slint/Will Oldham collaborator] at Steve Albini’s place Electrical Audio – the same studio that Songs: Ohia recorded Magnolia Electric Co at. They had trouble finding accommodation there, because Corgan’s lot have taken most of it already.
This is a hefty undertaking, a smaller perspective, a superior evolved metal, a place where you can say nothing and no one will notice because that’s common enough. This is life, slowed down for a few precious moments so you can take note of the beauty that surrounds you. This is a force of nature. This is not a grey, grey horizon.
OK, so ‘Captain Badass’ has got to be one of my favourite songs of all time. The guy is a depressing wreck, but the music he puts out is timeless. He is def. rocking the Cohen Bible in his spare time, but Didn’t It Rain is a real treat. ‘Blue Factory Flame’ is worth checking out on that album. He played here in Harrisonburg, VA for a college music festival. They kicked everyone out of the theatre he was performing in, so he took the show to the front of a courthouse and did an acoustic set. It was jaw dropping. Def. one of my favourite singer/songwriters right now — Brock K.
I was staying with another Secretly Canadian artist called Dave Fischoff – his record is like Beach Boys crossed with Sebadoh. I slept on his flatmate’s couch: the apartment was an ex-bakery, blinds on the windows but if they’re open you can see straight into the front room, and at the back there’s a little dining area with a kitchen, and the equivalent of a garage, where they kept stuff. Wooden floors, white walls… On the walls were photographs of little girls taken by a friend – not deviant, just stuff like one girl without her front teeth, another pulling a funny face, a woman at the end of a bar with the light streaming in behind her. I thought I’d tried a shot like that for the cover of Careless Talk, but I didn’t succeed. I should have got him to do them. His name was Stu.
THE LIONESS (2000)
“That’s another tour record, written about moving around a lot. The stronger songs have similar themes – being away from home. Not really evaluating that, but understanding that you’re not in your home, connected more to people. It’s a good follow-up to the Axxess record. People or places, it’s one or the other.”
Spoke to Jason briefly first night. He wasn’t very decisive. Went to local bar with Dave and his friends, instead. At two the next day, Jason and his girlfriend took me to keyboard player Jim’s barbecue. I didn’t eat, and stayed in the living room the whole time talking to Jason – travel, music, jokes… The joke I told everyone in Chicago was the joke Lou Reed told me. What does 90-year-old pussy taste like? It depends. (Lou Reed was very off with me. I went to shake his hand and looked at me like I was a piece of shit, and carried on talking to secretary. So I started telling him jokes and he finally caved in. The session ended with that joke, I was like – “I’ve got to go, it’s too weird for me.” There’s a product in America for old people, incontinence – nappies. It’s called Depends.)
This is the moonlight, the serious moonlight.
Songs: Ohia is absolutely fucking amazing. Sorta.
S: Everything on the absolutely brilliant Axxcess & Ace; ‘The Raven’ from Hecla & Griper; ‘Tigress’ from The Lioness; ‘Didn’t It Rain’ from Didn’t It Rain.
D: Most of the stuff that came between A&A and DiR — Sean
He toured Europe with Arab Strap while the Scots band was quite trendy – presumably soon after that Guinness advert. He wasn’t going down too well with their audience, so Arab Strap would go round listening to people’s conversations while Jason was playing, then Aiden would spend their first song with a screaming rant incorporating elements of what he’d heard. It would freak people out.
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He said he had a few songs on alternative country compilations but didn’t listen to them because most of the bands are shit. He seemed to think Kurt Wagner would have no idea who Songs: Ohia were – he thinks Songs: Ohia are totally unknown. He’s not far from the truth.
A preview of the MAGNOLIA sessions from JASON:
“We’re going for a sort of 50s sound, ancient echo techniques on the vocals, doo wop back up singers (Jennie Benford, Scout Niblett, Lawrence Peters), dirty guitars, and as usual, as much of this is going to be done live as is possible.”
This is barely audible in places. This is Songs: Ohia.
Next day he didn’t want to meet up till 7.30pm, so instead of going round Chicago and hanging out and arranging the photos, I stayed in and watched Jacob’s Ladder and Goodfellas at Dave’s – I didn’t have any keys, and I was a little freaked out because I didn’t have what I needed for the cover. I suggested Dave should start writing songs for a boy band, so that when the audience grew up a little bit he could gradually introduce them to his music. He liked that.
At 7.30pm I went and got the train. Jason wanted to meet outside Chicago theatre. I arrived there and he was waiting for me in the car, and we drove down to the rehearsal space. We had half-an-hour there before the band arrived. We drank beer on the roof, in a chilled out atmosphere. At 12.30 they all fucked off, and guitarist Dan gave me a lift back to Dave’s. Four and a half hours later I got the train back to the airport and flew home, and I’ve been in the dark room ever since.
Here are some details of the new Songs: Ohia records: the two LPs should be released the same day
1. Pyramid Electric, Co recorded by Mike Mogis at Presto Recording Co
JM (vocals, piano, guitar)
2. Magnolia Electric, Co recorded by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, Chicago
The intended musicians are:
Jeff Panall (drums)
Jim Grabowski (piano, Hammond)
J.M. (vocals, electric guitar)
Dan Sullivan (electric guitar)
Rob Sullivan (bass)
Mike Brenner (lap steel, slide bass)
Scout Niblett (vocals)
Jennie Benford (vocals, mandolin)
Lawrence Peters (vocals, washboard)
Jeff Mueller (guitar – not 100 per cent confirmed)
Dan Macadam (violin)