I’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table in my Chuck Taylors and say that Simon Joyner is every bit the songwriter Townes Van Zant was. To me and many other appreciators of fine songwriting, Joyner’s status as a songwriter nonpareil is objective and self-evident. Aristotle warned that “when the storytelling in a culture goes bad, the result is decadence,” and I often take comfort in knowing there are a few left like Joyner to help at least postpone what is perhaps inevitable.
Simon’s music moves me. On a recent tour together, I found myself just as affected by his songs on their twentieth performance as on their first. What sets Joyner apart from other songwriters working in the arguably antiquated tradition of earnest, narrative songwriting? Irish novelist Colum McCann said “An ounce of empathy is worth a boatload of judgment,” and Joyner’s embodiment of this ethos is key to understanding his music and why it is special. Though Joyner’s songs can be scathing, even vicious, they never forsake the core humanity of its subjects. In his new song “Nostalgia Blues,” from his remarkable new album Grass, Branch and Bone (Woodsist), Joyner admits to a ne’er do well friend that he won’t be attending her (presumably imminent) funeral, but he has a couch if she ever needs a place to crash. By standing on the shoulders of giants, Joyner has also learned to not repeat their mistakes: absent from Joyner’s music is the self righteous banality, casual nihilism, and inherent male chauvinism that occasionally blemishes the otherwise irreproachable corpora of Neil Young, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, respectively.
I was very eager to talk to my friend Simon Joyner about songwriting, clairvoyance, and ping-pong. Our unedited conversation follows. words / j jackson toth
Aquarium Drunkard: Your previous album, Ghosts, was very sonically dense. Grass, Branch and Bone is more minimalist, placing your voice and guitar front and center. Was this deliberate, born of a desire to not repeat yourself, or did the songs you were writing simply dictate the method of recording?
Simon Joyner: A little bit of both, I guess. I did a few living room tours with a minimal, acoustic-based band during the time I was writing the songs, so I became accustomed to hearing them stripped down. But it also seemed like the songs I was writing for this record required a different approach than the songs on Ghosts. Much of what I was dealing with on Ghosts was death and grief and loss in the moment and the disparate emotions and higher tension of those confusing feelings in the characters in those songs. The new record seems to have a lot of memory and reflection, very out-of-the-moment. Many of the events happened in the past and are being re-created in the minds of the characters after some time of processing, which means they are shaping the events, minimizing and softening things, blowing up others, assigning blame and finding meaning instead of merely reacting. It made sense to implement more structure and control in the recording of the record to reflect that theme, I guess.
AD: You were playing a lot of these tunes on tour in advance of recording this new album. I know you spent many years not touring. Having operated both ways, did you find that “road testing” the new songs ultimately affected the way you recorded them for the album this time? How much did they change?
Simon Joyner: I don’t think the songs changed too much from touring. I knew that they were going to be presented more like stories and that the music would be complementary but not the focus for this one. With an older album like Skeleton Blues, I played the songs with a full band for a year because there was a lot I wanted to see grow musically out of the songs and by the time we recorded that album, the songs had undergone drastic transformations, which seemed right for that batch of songs. There was a lot less freedom possible for the other players on this record just because of what I was hoping to do. There were many great parts that the players added to the songs during overdubs that I ended up stripping from the songs despite the parts being exciting and inspired. I found that the fuller-sounding the songs got, the more I wanted to cut things so I could hear the song unadorned. I’m sure it was frustrating at times for Ben Brodin who engineered the record and mixed it with me. I knew what I wanted but I sort of had to go through the motions of recording way too much and hearing the songs more dense just to confirm that my instinct was right that the songs should stay relatively bare.
AD: Do you find that touring inspires new songs, or is it a sort of creative dead zone? I’ve heard songwriters say both.
Simon Joyner: Absolute dead zone. I can’t write anything on tour. I can barely read anything. I always take three or four books with me and I’m lucky to make it through one. My notebook just ends up being used to make set lists, not for new songs. I think it may just be that touring means performing and that’s a different suit to wear, it’s creative but in a distinct way from writing. It happens when I’m waiting for a record to come out too, I can’t really write any new songs until an album is released, so I go months and months without writing anything. Maybe it’s laziness and it’s not until a record comes out that I realize there are no excuses left, it’s time to get back to work. It works out because it’s usually a good thing to just spend some time doing things and get out of the world you were living in when you wrote the songs on the previous record.
AD: I think that’s my experience, too. I often record demos in groups of eight or ten, because that’s the maximum amount of new songs I can remember before I start forgetting them, so, in a sense, recording is like cleaning out my internal hard drive or something. What about listening to your records once they are released? Do you go back to them? Do you ever revisit them years later? I find, pre-release, I’ll listen to my own albums obsessively, giving them all kinds of tests: the car test, the home stereo test, the increasingly important iPod test, etc. But after they go out in the world with a bar code on them, and can no longer be altered, I never listen to them again, except to occasionally re-learn an old song for tour (and even then, it’s torture). I mostly hear concessions, compromises, and mistakes. Is this your experience?
Simon Joyner: Yes, I think we feel the same way. I wince when I hear my voice and listening to the albums just makes me want to re-do everything or hang it all up. I don’t know if it’s unusual to be incredibly confident on one hand and ruthlessly self-critical on the other but that’s the bag I’m in. I, too, listen to the recordings a lot leading up to the album coming out and then I’ll listen to the test pressing and then once when the actual album comes out, just to confirm that everything ended up as it should. But I never go back. Don’t look back! I will occasionally have to listen to a song to re-learn it for a show or something but it’s kind of painful. I remember once an artist I can’t remember gave me a CD of his music on tour and I said “Cool, I’ll tell you what I think after I check it out” and he replied, “No thanks, I didn’t give it to you because I want to know what you think. If I didn’t think it was great, I wouldn’t have given it to you and I wouldn’t be putting it out.” I mean, that’s a maniac, right? But, it got me thinking about my own stuff. I never feel that way, ever. I want to know what’s weak or wrong or not measuring up, that’s what it’s all about. I feel like most music sucks because people set the bar as low as some successful contemporary instead of realizing that the real bar is Blonde On-fucking-Blonde, you know, or Tape From California, or On The Beach or name your greater elder, depending on what you’re doing. It’s easy to feel good about your music if you don’t realize that you’re up against much stronger, much more powerful forces than in your immediate neighborhood. It keeps me from being lazy and it keeps me very, very humble about how good anything is that I put out. I want it to last, I want it to compete, and so I keep trying new things and digging as deep as I can, but it should be a struggle, it should feel Sissyphean, if you’re really aware, if you’re listening to the right records. “One-hundred floors above me in the tower of song,” as Cohen said, right?
AD: Your approach to band personnel has always been rather mutable. Even during the tour we did together, the membership was in a sort of flux: guitarist Dave Nance joined for a few days and then had to leave. Likewise, Noah Sterba seems to come and go, while Megan Siebe and Kevin Donahue, two more recent collaborators, seem pretty integral to the sound of this new record. Is this simply a matter of logistics, or do you use specific people for specific tasks and try to play to their strengths?
Simon Joyner: I think that keeps things musically interesting, switching people around, playing with different musicians for different projects. I’m more interested in playing to their weaknesses than their strengths, just to keep the music raw and unvarnished, if that makes any sense. I’ll ask a lead guitarist to play bass or pedal steel because he’s less comfortable on those instruments. That doesn’t make sense to some people and can even offend the musician who has spent a lot of time perfecting his playing on a particular instrument, but it makes sense to me. I was really moved early on by learning that Al Kooper’s organ part on “Like a Rolling Stone” was a spur of the moment thing and he was a guitar player, not an organ player. Similarly, Neil Young asking Nils Lofgren to play the piano on the album After the Goldrush instead of guitar. Keep those great musicians on their toes! This approach doesn’t work for everyone but in general, the less comfortable people are, the more I enjoy what they do in my band. And I like what happens to the songs when I take this approach and what it does to me as a bandleader. I have to be on edge too, to a certain extent. It keeps everything honest and inspired. When things get too rehearsed or too perfect, I feel the urge to break up the band and change things around. It’s probably because I’m not really a musician, I don’t want to be the only one struggling to sound good! Another device I use is to let musicians play their instruments of choice but not rehearse the songs before recording. The stand-up bass player on this album had never played with me until the night before the recording session. We ran through the songs once and that was frightening because I had booked the session and had no idea if it was going to work. I’m sure he would have preferred to rehearse the songs and come up with more defined parts but I wanted the songs to feel loose and it’s easier to get that sound by putting a great musician in a place where they legitimately aren’t adequately prepared instead of asking them to play less or play as if they were hearing the song for the first time. To me it’s the same as turning the lights down or having a drink before playing, it’s just something you can do to sort of influence the outcome.
AD: Are you reluctant to discuss the meaning behind or inspiration for your songs? When I’m asked to do so about my own work, on the one hand, I usually think, “Well, if I was able to communicate this idea in any other form–in conversation or in a painting or on an analyst’s couch–I would do that.” On the other hand, when someone challenges me on the meaning of a song I’ve written, I find that, in explaining it and hearing myself talk about it out loud, I learn something about it I hadn’t known before.
Simon Joyner: I’m not reluctant to discuss meaning or inspiration. I just don’t know how useful it is, ultimately, for anyone to hear my take on a song’s meaning. I wouldn’t want to limit the song by putting a fence around it. It’s natural that we’ll interject our own experiences and interpretation of experiences into whatever art we are engaging with. Songs tend to trigger unusually visceral reactions in people so I’d hate to deny anyone whatever their experience is of a song by saying it’s definitely about this or that. That being said, it can be pretty alarming when someone is getting something out of a song which is really different from what you thought you were doing when you wrote it. It can make you want to bring the song a little more into focus for them, you know, or question whether you did a good job if the meaning is so easily misconstrued. But, ultimately, people are looking to relate to this stuff so you just have to be happy that you’ve given them a means to do that. I’m not always writing about people that I particularly like or want to hang out with, but I try to make them real and if I’m able to do that, they become mirrors and draw me out of myself. It seems like that’s the only path to empathy and the only way to really forgive people who can be so horrible to one another.
I also realize that there is an unconscious force at work a lot of the time when I’m writing. A song I think is about one thing reveals itself to me later as obviously about something else that was also going on that I wasn’t able to face or articulate deliberately. For example, an old song of mine called “The Lousy Dance” was written during a difficult time in my first marriage. I was trying to write about romantic relationships that reach a crossroads, a point where decisions need to be made. The song was objectively informed by my own marriage, on the rocks, so to speak. But years later my friend Michael Krassner told me that he didn’t think the song was about that at all, he thought it was about my relationship with my father. It took me aback, I thought he was crazy, but he went on to remind me that I had also been going through a really rough patch with my dad at the same time. I had been staying with Michael in Chicago and apparently talked at length about this father/son impasse I was experiencing with my dad and how I didn’t know how the relationship could be repaired. I even anguished over sending my father a letter from Michael’s place in Chicago and was then rendered completely debilitated once the letter carrier took the mail and everything I had said in it became irrevocable. That night I wrote the song “The Lousy Dance” and played it for Michael the next day. I didn’t remember all of that until he shared his memory with me. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I figured he was probably right. On some level I probably was working that out too. I’m sure it helped me to know that about the song but I don’t know if it would help anyone else since the song is not objectively dealing with autobiography so much as something more universal that anyone can bring their own emotional business to.
AD: A lot of your songs “name names,” and I happen to know that you generally don’t change these names to protect the innocent (or the guilty!). This definitely lends your songs a certain depth of experience absent from the work of many of your contemporaries. That said, it never feels as if you are “over-sharing” or sacrificing personal relationships on the altar of, to use your own lyric, “cheap laughs.” How do you navigate this? Has a song ever come back to haunt you?
Simon Joyner: Oh, yes. Anyone I’ve written about, whether I changed the names in the songs or not, has been offended at one time or another by something I’ve written. When I first started writing songs I was pretty confessional, in the Loudon Wainwright III and “Positively Fourth Street” school, you might say. I got into a lot of trouble then, hurt some feelings. I quickly found that it wasn’t necessary to use my own life so directly, I could instead merely inform the songs with real life experiences. You don’t want to hurt people, that’s never the intention. And not having to write autobiographically is actually liberating. But decent writing is going to explore human relationships and so real-life scenarios and familiar voices may feel like violations to people who see themselves in what’s being laid out in a song. The kernel of truth, however slight, has the power to ripple throughout and envelope everything invented, at least for the person experiencing it as a violation. What can you do? I don’t hang people out to dry, I really don’t. If you are an important person in my life than surely there will be experiences that end up in songs, but usually kaleidoscopically, not as non-fiction or confessional reportage. Say my wife and I have a disagreement about something. We handle it a certain way because of how we interact. But as a writer, I think about how the same disagreement would be handled if we each felt about it differently than we do, or if one of us was very insecure, or if we had spent years not talking honestly about our feelings. I use the real event to explore other issues. And sometimes I really am writing pretty directly about my experiences, although those cases are rare. In any case, only I know which is which, and that’s why it can be so contentious for others. A certain amount of respect is required to write about people and a certain amount of trust is required if you get close to an artist type, whether it’s a comedian or painter or writer or whatever. There is a section in the song “Nostalgia Blues” which deals with this. I’m very aware that one person’s artistic expression is another person’s actual life and that it doesn’t always feel so good to have it manipulated for someone else’s artistic pursuit. I have had people think I’ve used them and it’s terrible. You can tell them they are wrong, they are extrapolating too much, but it doesn’t change their experience. So, I put myself in those shoes in that verse of “Nostalgia Blues” and really try to let myself (and other songwriters) have it from the other side of the equation.
It’s true that some songwriter’s motivations are not always respectful either and much of what is written by so-called singer-songwriters can be selfish, egotistical, self-mythologizing, woe-is-me bullshit. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing at all, but I’m willing to use my powers to make that case as strongly as possible against me in the song and see if I can stand up to that criticism. There’s another song on the record, “I Will Not Be Your Fool (the Muse’s Song)” which deals with this from the point of view of a woman resisting the role of muse for very good reasons.
AD: I was definitely a little confused by the second verse of “Nostalgia Blues.”
Simon Joyner: Yeah, well, that part of the song actually comes from something strange that did happen. I was on tour in Europe with my band and an old friend of mine invited us over for dinner. This is someone I had done some touring with in the mid-nineties but we hadn’t seen each other in a really long time. Anyway, as we all sat down to eat, he started cutting loose with all of these scorpion-tail compliments and sarcastic jabs, officially joking, but mostly revealing a bitterness towards me that I hadn’t been aware of until that moment. One of the many mean things he said during dinner was that while my show that night had been canceled due to insufficient ticket sales, he saw online that Glen Kotche was actually playing the Sydney Opera House with Wilco, so “I guess Kotche made the right choice, didn’t he?”
It was a very uncomfortable dinner because no one in my band knew this guy and they were trapped at the table while he attempted to wound me for some reason. To be clear, the lyric isn’t me stating my feelings about Glen at all, he’s a friend of mine and one of the sweetest guys on the planet. He played on the records I made in Chicago but he was never even in my band, he was just a friend who played with me when I recorded there. The verse is a conversation and that lyric is meant to be this other person talking, thinking, incorrectly, that he could hurt me by rubbing someone else’s success in my face. Being successful, in those kinds of terms, was never something I wanted though, it wasn’t important to me, so it was more mystifying and sad than truly hurtful. But what I realized later was that while I was happy with the kind of career I had made for myself, this old friend (and I did change his name in the song) had had some dreams that apparently went unrealized, and somehow I had come to represent something painful for him. So that was how he handled it. It was a real bummer, it still is. But, you know, worse for him really, and that’s what the song is dealing with there. I remember when we left and got back in the van–to drive to the hostel since our show was canceled!–everyone let out a collective sigh and my guitarist, David Nance, said, “you realize that guy hates you, right?” So, that’s one kind of interaction with the past that goes on in the song. Each verse represents a different encounter. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m dissing Kotche in any way, he’s just a weapon one of the characters attempts to use against the other.
AD: Going back to “I Will Not Be Your Fool (The Muse’s Song),” something I’ve become more aware of as a writer as I’ve gotten older is avoiding those ‘male gaze’ sort of songs, not just because they’ve become their own sort of cliche at this point (pretty much everything since “Isis” has been redundant, right?), but because they too often mistake creepy, voyeuristic sexism for romance. Do you find that your wife and daughters have influenced or affected the way you write about women in your songs?
Simon Joyner: Yeah, “Isis” and “Sara” from that album are a litle deranged but Dylan was always one of those men who put women on a pedestal as if that wasn’t really putting them in a cage, you know? Women aren’t very three-dimensional in his songs, most of the time, they’re mystical creatures, whores and virgin mothers, often nothing in between. He was always old fashioned in that respect. The songs like “Isis” and “Sara” can be good but the oppression of that kind of worship is really palpable and kind of uncomfortable to hear, especially when the music isn’t quite as transcendental as it is on Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited. I guess it’s no wonder things rarely work out for people who feel that way about the people they’re loving. Even before having daughters I never wrote exclusively from male perspectives. But of course having a very strong wife and two daughters definitely helps keep the mind nimble about sexual attitudes. I’d like to think that in my songs I’m equally hard on men and women for the things they do to one another. Men are crazy, women are crazy. Everyone is selfish sometimes and self-loathing and everybody is coming from somewhere you haven’t seen and going somewhere you haven’t been. I try and respect how complicated things are for everyone.
It’s funny along these lines that I have used the name “Sara” a few times as pseudonyms in my songs (Folk Song For Sara, When She Drops Her Veil, Four Birds) because of Bob Dylan’s “Sara”. It was sort of an homage. Not because his “Sara” was a real person but because the version of her in his song is actually so un-real, so unbelievable, such a mythologized character, that she might as well have been a pseudonym. Later I married someone named Sara so now I can’t use the name as a stand-in in songs anymore, and people unfortunately think that all those old songs are about my wife! Not the case, she’ll have you know.
When I was much younger and trying to figure out what I was about, I was selfish and arrogant and I’m not proud of how I treated every person I was involved with. But having been that guy, I feel like I can write from that perspective or about that kind of person much better than if I had never been an insensitive jerk. I feel like everyone is born a feminist, it just makes sense, right? But then society and/or the poisons of teenage brain development lead us astray for awhile and narcissism is all that seems possible. Then you have to come back to it deliberately, when you begin to get honest about how things work, yourself included. A lot of people never come around but as John Cougar once said, “some people ain’t no damn good.” That seems to be true too.
AD: Werner Herzog said “I could have made my films anonymously and still people seeing the films would know me pretty well.” Do you feel this way about your albums? Do they present a sort of biography or narrative arc, even if only in the preoccupations, themes and characters which reoccur in your work?
Simon Joyner: I’d like to think so. I hope so. I think you can learn a lot about someone by what they care about or who they empathize with. I have tried to “stand up for the stupid and crazy,” as Walt Whitman instructed. I hope there’s some a measure of consistency in what I’ve been writing about and caring about over the years. I think you should be able to find me in there.
AD: “I remember your bed sheets smudged with ashes and burns when you stayed up all night reading The Brothers K[aramazov]”; “When a junkyard shivers, rust floats down like leaves.” These are very vivid lyrics, and two of my favorites from the new album. You also write more broadly, though no less beautifully: “I thought your love was like a river I didn’t really need to swim across / So I stayed safe beside and I watched you roll by.” How important is it for you to walk the line between universality and specificity? Are you conscious of this line?
Simon Joyner: Thanks. I guess it depends from song to song. There are songs in the vein of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” where the focus is broad, even abstract, where ideas are the focus of the song. Then there are songs where you are focusing in on a specific human experience, and you are describing an emotional landscape, so although you want to write broadly about it, you also need some details if you want people to relate to it. With that lyric about the river, the only way to convey the narrator’s remorse was to have him reflective and self-conscious enough to see what he had done and try to make sense of it metaphorically.
AD: Have you ever played an older song only to discover that it predicted some future event or calamity, whether personal, political, or otherwise? As if the Simon Of The Past was warning the Simon Of The Future about something very specific? This has happened to me and I attribute it to a specific sort of mutation of the subconscious, like maybe we were fortune-tellers in a previous life.
SJ: It would be nice if predicting tragedy took ESP but the odds are decidedly in our favor since people keep doing the same things over and over and suffering the same ways. I was performing an old song, “Open Window Blues,” recently and there’s a verse about war and jingoism and it seemed like I was singing from today’s headlines because this kind of thing keeps coming around again and again. There are numerous examples of things like that, couples who had no idea they were doomed, but as a witness, you can see where this is heading. It feels bad to have written about these failures ahead of time but it’s not surprising either. If anything, you write about it hoping to somehow prevent its inevitability. As if making a joke about the plane crashing as you hug someone goodbye at the airport could really prevent it from crashing. I do that. I also count the babies on a plane and think, there are too many babies on this plane, we’re probably going down, think of the headlines it would make. I played a festival in the Netherlands in the mid-90’s and Beck and I were on the same plane traveling to the festival. I was sure the plane was going to go down then, he’s worth a hundred babies!
AD: “Old Days” deals with nostalgia and alienation: the former poisonous, the latter inevitable. Is there no wisdom to be found in the scrapbooks, Simon?
Simon Joyner: I think there is wisdom in the photographs and scrapbooks, for sure. It’s regret that punishes people so severely. If you feel haunted by what you find in the past, that’s the problem. We all have things we wish we handled differently or people we did wrong and we have to deal with the responsibility. I think if you’re generally satisfied with what you’re doing and can accept whatever you’ve done, then looking back can be a pleasure, but it’s poisonous when that isn’t the case or if something that happened once ends up sorta calling the shots forever. Anyone living in the past is either alienating themselves or courting alienation and it’s difficult to see. You want people to be more at peace.
AD: Is songwriting compulsory for you at this point? What I mean is, have you ever tried to not do it, even as an experiment? Maybe try your hand at a novel, or poetry? Do you still get the same satisfaction at making a song exist? Sometimes I finish a song and feel as if I’ve just cured some rare disease; other times, it feels like I’ve just conquered a Sudoku puzzle.
Simon Joyner: Are you trying to get me to quit writing songs? No, I’ve never tried to not do it. It’s been my main artistic outlet for so long that I don’t know how to stop. I would like to do more regular fiction writing. I do some, but music seems to get in the way. When I have an idea for a story or a situation, songs come out. I think I will have to completely stop writing songs for a while if I really want to write stories or a novel. It requires a whole other kind of self-discipline and patience, and like touring, it’s another suit to wear, I don’t think I can do both at the same time. I tend to write in bursts rather than daily, so I do still get the same satisfaction when I write a song, at least when I write a good song. I read somewhere that Paul Simon goes to an office every day and works on his songs, like a job. I think if I worked on songs like that, I might begin to see it as a puzzle to be solved. I just can’t approach songs that way. Which isn’t to say I don’t work hard on my songs. When inspired to write, I work hard, I revise a lot, but I can go months without being inspired to write in the first place. Then, suddenly, I’m driving somewhere and I have to pull over and write something down on the back of a receipt so I can work on it when I get home, and that’s all it takes to get me back in the zone for a month or two of writing all the time.
AD: This is what brings me back to the ‘fortune teller’ thing. It’s uncanny how often songwriters report these same sorts of things, right down to the word “receipts.” I’ve certainly pulled over and scrawled things on receipts, and I think a lot of writers can relate to that. Which is why the Paul Simon approach, to me, does not compute. Whenever someone asks my advice about songwriting, one thing I always tell them is to never sit down with a blank piece of paper, or a blank Word document or whatever, with the intention of writing something great. My strong feeling is that it doesn’t – shouldn’t – work that way. The Muse needs to pester you, it isn’t something to be summoned. It sounds like this is your experience, too.
Simon Joyner: Yes, I think so. But then again, it can be a fine line. Sometimes I do need to work on some stuff just to remain in the habit of working things out creatively, especially when it’s been awhile since I wrote a song. I find that I can sit down with a notebook full of scribbled thoughts (the inspired stuff that pestered me into being written down), and having that germ of an idea, then I can work on it. I definitely can’t sit at a blank page and expect anything to happen but if I gather those receipts with little lines or images and write them all down and give some time to them, often a song can grow from there. So, it’s a little bit of both. I guess I feel that if an idea hits me so hard that I have to pull the car over or roll out of bed and write it down, I should then look at it later with the intention of making an effort to turn it into something and see if there’s anything there. But I agree that the inspiration has to come first. I wrote “Nostalgia Blues” on one trip to and from Lincoln, Nebraska. It just hit me. I was picking up some African masks from a collector there which I was going to auction on eBay and I must have pulled the car over to write three times on the way there and a few times again on the way back. By the time I got back to Omaha, I had the skeleton of the song pretty much done. It’s such a great feeling when a song happens like that. I wish I had more excuses to drive other than being on tour because I definitely think it helps me somehow. I used to have a night job picking up dry cleaning from sixteen One Hour Martinizing stores all over Omaha and I probably wrote most of the songs on my early records because of all of that driving by myself at night. I was on the clock so the extra money from pulling over so much to write things down probably constitutes the only “royalties” I ever made from those albums!
AD: Tell me about Sing, Eunuchs!, the label you ran in the 90s, and Grapefruit, the label you currently run with Ben Goldberg of Ba-Da-Bing. Some of the releases on these labels, specifically the ones on Grapefruit, seem to represent the more ‘experimental’ (for lack of a better word) music you’ve always championed. On this same topic, you referenced the Dead C’s Harsh 70s Reality as an influence on your own double album, Ghosts, which is one of the only albums I know that naturally reconciles both the tradition of Bob Dylan and a certain strain of 90s ‘noise rock.’ Would you say that Dead C, Sun City Girls, Harry Pussy, et al are, in many ways, part of our own ‘folk’ tradition?
Simon Joyner: Sing, Eunuchs! was a label my buddy, Chris Deden, and I started in the early nineties. I had put out a couple of tapes on another local label called One Hour Records but the guy who ran that label wanted me to sell those tapes for $6 on tour and I wanted to have a $3 tape to take on the road to increase merch sales. So, Chris put together Iffy, a collection of odds and ends and demos. We started the label to do that one tour-only thing but then quickly found that there was a lot of interesting music being made in Omaha at the time and we might as well keep the label going to document some of it. We were inspired by Shrimper and Xpressway, two labels whose taste and aesthetics we were way into. We put out a lot of tapes of local Omaha artists (The Bruces, early Conor Oberst, a band I was in called Ender, among others ranging from bedroom singer-songwriter stuff to noisy punk rock) as well as some 7″ records and some LPs other than my own stuff. As my music became a little more known and there were labels willing to release my records, we stopped doing it because we were losing a lot of money! Back then it was difficult to get distributors to pay you if you were a small, independent label. So, it ended up being extremely difficult to operate and we hung it up. Having my last album, Ghosts, officially released on Sing, Eunuchs! was just an inside joke because it was self-released and it was a record that Chris and I recorded together in my warehouse, the way we recorded The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll, Heaven’s Gate, and Songs for the New Year back in the Sing, Eunuchs! days. I didn’t mean to get anyone’s hopes up that we were getting the label going again after a sixteen-year hiatus.
Grapefruit Records was sort of born out of a desire to try again to release music by artists who were great but lesser known. The first four years we ran it as a subscription series and did four albums a year, hoping to get enough people to subscribe that the more well known artists in each series would help sell the lesser known artists. It worked pretty well but going forward we’re going to just release one album at a time, one or so a year, and sell through mail-order. We’ll still be championing experimental and lesser known artists but we gotta take it a little slower so we don’t go bankrupt! We are also going to expand into offering a variety of titles by other labels for sale on our site in addition to our own records, so we’ll be distributing records that we could see our regular customers purchasing while getting one of our releases. It just makes sense to offer some music in a similar vein and taste to what we have already put out so people can use us for one stop shopping. If the distribution end goes well, we’ll be able to release more again ourselves, I think.
As far as my own music goes, I’ve always been into noisy and experimental music alongside the rock and singer-songwriter stuff and never really saw them as needing to be different things. I mean, Neil Young combined the two without a problem and Lou Reed put “Candy Says” and “The Murder Mystery” on the same album, so anything goes, right? My dad definitely played Cohen, Young, Hardin, Ochs, and Dylan records for me growing up but he also played The United States of America and the Velvet Underground and psychedelic rock like Moby Grape and the Jefferson Airplane, and the psych-folk stuff like Tim Buckley too. Later I discovered the New Zealand music of Alastair Galbraith and This Kind of Punishment and the Tall Dwarfs and that whole beautiful scene and it felt like a continuation of that education for me. Not to mention all the weird punk rock that I absorbed through SST and Homestead when I was cutting my teeth as a teenager. When making Ghosts I definitely felt inspired by The Dead C’s Harsh 70’s Reality, it’s one of my favorite albums (I stole the catalog number for the spine of my record) as well as Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbert and Yoko Ono’s Fly. Those were the top three inspirations, I’d say. I’m glad you feel like it worked. In a way it was a sequel to The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll, which I made in 1994 after listening to an awful lot of This Kind of Punishment’s A Beard of Bees and In the Same Room/5 by Four reissues on Ajax. That crossed with a whole summer of Eitzel’s Songs of Love record on repeat, if I’m going to be honest.
AD: Many people who are fans of your music might be surprised to learn of your prowess at the ping-pong table. How did you come to become such a formidable table tennis player?
Simon Joyner: The Boys Club. My dad was in the Air Force and my mother was an anchor on the local news. In the summer they made me go the Boys Club because I was becoming a juvenile delinquent. They each worked long hours. I was getting into trouble all the time, breaking out people’s windows, getting into a lot of fights, that kind of thing. If I wanted to be home by myself instead of with a family member, I had to go to the Boys Club during the day. It was great for me, I channeled a lot of the rage and unhappiness I was feeling as a kid into competitive table sports! I would love to do a tour where there’s a ping-pong table in every venue. I’d never want to sing.
AD: What is your all-time favorite song?
Simon Joyner: Wow, I don’t know. You’d think I’d have been asked that by now but I don’t think I have. I have a lot of favorite songs. I guess, if pressed, I’d probably say “Visions of Johanna,” but since this is the last question, maybe I should say, “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”