Jim White :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Nearly five years is a long time to wait, but it’s been that long since Jim White’s last official LP. Though he released a live EP and a soundtrack for a play in the meantime, it’s been a tumultuous span of time – White left Luaka Bop, the   label that had been his home since his auspicious 1997 debut and, in the middle of recording his latest, separated from his wife. Thankfully Yep Roc Records is releasing White’s fifth LP, Where It Hits You, on February 21st. AD sat down with Jim at the Yep Roc offices in Haw River, North Carolina to talk about leaving Luaka Bop, landing on Yep Roc, prescient song writing, the financial hazards of touring and why raking leaves in England would have been a good thing.

Aquarium Drunkard: You’re on Yep Roc Records now – this is your first record for a label other than Luaka Bop, the label you’ve been on since the beginning. How did you end up on Yep Roc and why leave Luaka Bop?

Jim White: Luaka Bop sort of, quote unquote, discovered me. I was sort of a mentally ill cab driver in New York City writing songs about life in the South. No one was interested. No label was interested. And they said, ‘yes, we want to make a record with you.’ It was very puzzling at the time. So I feel a great sense of love and gratitude toward them. We made four records and a bunch of other little things together. The music industry has collapsed and as the industry has collapsed, the ability for labels to stay in business has become more and more dire. When they offered me the budget for this record, it was a very small amount of money. What they’re basically saying is ‘there isn’t enough money in the music business for you to make a living and us to make a living, so we’re going to trim it back to nothing.’ And they would own the whole record if I made it with them. It was a really hard decision to make because I love those people and I really care about them and I feel such gratitude, but I couldn’t starve my family to stay there at the label.

So I went off on my own and I made this record on my own dime. Yep Roc didn’t fund the record – we came to them after the fact. And I ran out of money mid-way through making the record and I did a Kickstarter campaign. And people all over the world pitched in and helped me finish the record. It wouldn’t have gotten done. I would’ve lost my house if they hadn’t pitched in what they did. When the record was done, we loved working with Redeye Distribution [located in the same building as Yep Roc] who distributes Luaka Bop. So my manager went to Yep Roc and they were open arms. In some ways, at this point in my career, it’s a better fit. When I first started, it was kind of an anomaly that this guy singing songs about life in the South was on this world music label, so it got a lot of attention because of that. But after awhile, the fan base they cater to isn’t that much interested in what I do, I don’t think. So hopefully this will be a good fit. They deal with a lot of American singer-songwriter type people like John Doe and Nick Lowe and other people whose names end in ‘o.’ [laughs] So hopefully it will be a good fit. So far everything’s been great – a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of encouragement.

AD: How much did you raise through the Kickstarter campaign?

JW: We set our sights low because with Kickstarter, if you dont’ meet your goal, you get nothing. So we set a very simple level of $7,000. I made a bunch of art and did a bunch of things as incentives and it ended up bringing in $10,000. I don’t get that full amount. Kickstarter took some, PayPal took some, I had to give my manager some. So in the end there was about $8,000 I got to put toward the record.

AD: You went and raked someone’s leaves.

JW: Yeah, I like yard work. I went to England – some people asked me to do it, to sing for them – but they didn’t let me rake the leaves. Which would have made me feel more like an honest man. I would’ve felt more honest about it. I don’t like exalted worlds, special worlds where there’s special people. I like people to be everybody rolling up their sleeves and pitching in. That was one of the offers on the Kickstarter thing.

AD: The new record is called Where It Hits You and it came at kind of a traumatic time for you. I know a lot of the songs were written prior to what happened in separating from your wife. But how does something like that affect songs when you’re in the middle of recording them already?

JW: Several of the songs became a lot sadder after the fact. “Chase The Dark Away” became a real lament, whereas previously it had been a celebration song. I had written it for my wife and was going to present it to my wife as a finished product. It’s like turning the Queen Mary around. You can’t just do it on a hairpin turn. I had written these songs over the course of a year full of the emotion and hope when you’re married to someone and then all of a sudden, this person was gone. I couldn’t sink the Queen Mary. [laughs] I was stuck with this Queen Mary and I had to slowly turn it in another direction. It was painful turning it. It was hard because I had to sing these songs about a person I had loved who had vanished from the face of the Earth as far as I knew.

AD: And then there’s one song that seemed kind of prescient in “Epilogue to a Marriage.” My wife and I looked at the name of the track and said, ‘oh, well, that’s about his situation,’ but you actually wrote that song prior to all that.

JW: I thought I was writing it about somebody else, but I wasn’t. I was writing it about me and didn’t know it. Sometimes something is in the air and you intuitively sense it, but you don’t really want to know. So you find conduits for the worry in surrogate material or surrogate human beings or situations. I think I was doing that. I didn’t call it “Epilogue to a Marriage” until after my wife left. Then it sort of made sense. It was called “On the Best of Days” before that. It’s about two people who’ve come to the end of their road together and they just get blown apart by a gust of wind in Arkansas.

AD: The album has this interesting flow. The first few songs are melancholy and somber in that sense, and then it has this interesting uptick with songs that might have that feel lyrically to some extent, but the music around them is more upbeat or even goofy…

JW: Like the Beatles used to do. [laughs]
AD: And then the record comes back down. Was that a conscious decision?

JW: No, it wasn’t. I found 15 songs I liked and recorded them and then, after the fact, I thought, how do I reconcile a happy song like “Here We Go!” with a song like “The Wintered Blue Sky” which is as dark a song as I’ve ever written. How can, on one record, I expect people to listen from one to the next? It made sense to me – a record is a representation of your psyche at a point in time and space. I think there was a lot of sorrow on the outside, but in the center of me there is still some sense of joy and celebration.

I didn’t want to have sad and happy, sad and happy, sad and happy, because I thought that would be asking too much and wouldn’t tell the right story. So I just thought, well, as weird as it may sound, I will walk through this – it’s a moderate melancholy place in the beginning, then we’ll go to a happy place, and then we’ll go really deep down. It’s like you listen to a great composer who deals in liturgies and dark sounds. They offer you hope for a moment, and they carry you down, they offer you hope and they carry you down. Because they can’t take you straight down. It’d be too fast and too far. It’s like coming up from under the sea and you get the bubbles in your blood and you die. I wanted a logical sequence to it and it seemed like all the happy songs wanted to be together, so it was a question of where do the sad ones go. And do you start off with a broken heart, or start off with a lonely, winsome feeling and end with a broken heart.

AD: You mentioned “Here We Go!” which starts off with a small bit of a dialogue between you and your youngest daughter, and she becomes one of a lot of musicians on this record. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like one of your broadest records in terms of how many people are playing on the record.

JW: There are more than normal, but not that much more. I’m always getting many different people to pitch in. I have a home studio and over the course of a year in Athens, friends come through and I say ‘hey, come over to the house and sing and play on this record.’ There’s a little more because I’m now established in Athens and I can draw from this amazing base of musicians in town which I haven’t been able to do before. I lived in Pensacola. Recording in Pensacola, there were good musicians, but not inspired to the point where I can say ‘do what you are good at’ and I can stand back and do nothing, where as in Athens – there are a few wonderful people on here, like Rob McMaken and Marlon Patton, who wouldn’t normally appear on a record – they live here in Athens and I can call them up and have them come over tomorrow afternoon and play. It’s a really wonderful resource in that town that I’ve never tapped into before. I made a record last year [Sounds of the Americans] with Dan Nettles, the guitar player I work with in town, and met all these incredible musicians through him. So he introduced me to all these people and all of a sudden I have 50 more wonderful tools than the last time I was trying to chisel something out of stone.

Will Johnson from Centro-matic played on it. When my daughter Sadie was little, a guy in Europe handed me a South San Gabriel CD [The Carlton Chronicles] about the cat. And I didn’t know who he was and didn’t know it was about a cat. I just put the record in and thought ‘wow, this is exquisite.’ And I listened to it a hundred times in a row, that’s kind of what I do, before I realized it was about a cat. It was such a beautiful record and finally I decided I needed to track him down somehow. He was in town for Vic Chesnutt’s memorial show and I felt weird going to talk to him there about it – I didn’t want to use Vic’s thing for networking, but I figured, when am I ever going to see him again? And we struck up a friendship and he’s a lovely person. Just a magical voice and magical musical sensibility. He sings on “Why It’s Cool.” I wish I could’ve done more with him.

AD: One of the things I’ve noticed – seeing you live a few times last year leading up to this record – are the differences between how these songs sounded before and how they are on the record. When you were playing “State of Grace,” it had a reggae feel to it. Now, most of that is gone.

JW: Well, the bluegrass, crazy version pre-dates the reggae version. We were rehearsing the live version and decided ‘well, let’s do it like a reggae song.’ When I’m doing a live show – if you want to hear the record, go hear the record. When you come to a live show, prepare to hear things different. I get bored playing things the same way. Plus, there’s 62 tracks on “State of Grace.” I’d need 40 musicians to play that thing – 37 of them with mental problems. [laughs]

AD: I think I can maybe think of one show that I saw of yours where the live show did reflect the record, but that was back in 2001 when you were touring No Such Place.

JW: Yeah, well, the record label wasn’t so happy with that band. I was happy with them. They played their hearts out. The guitar player was 18 years old and bagging groceries when I met him and a year later he’s playing on Letterman and in London. He was a quick learner. They were all misfits and mutts. It was real fun taking them on a funny ride like that. That record had big expectations – Mojo had named it one of the best records of the year, so I knew we had to kind of deliver what sounded like the record. I’m not going to do that much anymore.

AD: Well, I haven’t seen you do it since. Even the live EP you put out [2008’s A Funny Little Cross to Bear] didn’t really reflect the recorded versions of those songs.

JW: I think there’s a second part of it, too. In 2001, there was still money to pay a band. As it goes further on, I’m going out with a three piece at best. I just can’t afford to pay a full band on the road. The live show has to be re-jiggered in extraordinarily profound ways. I hear orchestrally, you know. To take this orchestral idea and whittle it down to a guitar and bass and a second guitar or saxophone or something – that also informs on the music industry and that there’s no money anymore. Used to be a label would give you a touring budget. Not anymore.

AD: Is that not going to happen with Yep Roc with them having not invested in the recording of the record?

JW: Yeah, I pay people. Touring with a five piece band, you lose $500 a day. You have to pay them every single day and if you want good musicians, you’re paying $1,000 a week. That’s $5,000 a week just for musicians. Then you have to pay for hotels, airfare, per diem. We’re talking about $10,000 a week. You’re not going to get paid $1,300 a night every night of the week. So it’s a huge money losing proposition. Labels used to take it on the chin to recoup on the sales end, but when the sales disappeared, labels couldn’t offer you a touring budget anymore.

AD: That’s interesting, because you hear a lot of people who say touring is the only way musicians make money anymore.

JW: Yeah. I think it depends on the size of the band, the age of the band. I don’t see a lot of grown up people – guys my age – in five piece touring bands. You see young kids going out. But basically there’s a big long spectrum of break even, break even, break even, break even. And touring by selling t-shirts and CDs at shows and the door doesn’t cover much. That’s how you fight your way through this huge spectrum of ‘break even’ to ‘make money.’ It’s like ‘break even’ is two miles long and ‘make money’ is a 30 yard sprint that they finally get to if they run the two miles at a good pace. If you’re an established artist, you can make money, but only if you’re crafty. If you go out with just you and a guitar, you can make money. But if you go out with a five piece, I don’t think you’re going to make much money.

AD: So what’s the touring band going to look like for this record?

JW: I’d like to go out with a four piece. I’d like to. Just have to see if I can afford it. Have to see what show offers are. That predicates a lot of how you go about doing your business. On the last record, I wanted to take a four piece out, but saw the budget for the touring and the show offers and had to cut two people and had to do the whole thing with just a three piece with the drum machines and that kind of thing. Which is just a reflex because I can’t afford to take people out. I turned it into a part of the art of it, but if I had my druthers, I’d have Marlon Patton with me every night of the week. words/ j neas

MP3: Jim White :: Infinite Mind

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10 thoughts on “Jim White :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

  1. “break even break even break even” — then, a 37 yard mental problem sprint to to the finish! bagging leaves and raking groceries is a fine career move, as long as the orchestrations keep the magical musical upbeatle tour comin’… dear dear mr. white, kickstarted along the highways from pensacola to athens, i hope the best of days are ahead of you.

  2. This was a great interview, and a cool look into the mind of an artist! Loved how he talked about the evolution of his songs as his life circumstances changed.

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