Damien Jurado :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


2016 was a good year for Damien Jurado fans. In addition to Sub Pop Records reissuing two of his sought after early albums, Rehearsals for Departure and Ghost of David, Jurado released the final album in his Maraqopa Trilogy, the hypnagogic Visions of Us on The Land. Owing to psychedelic folk and dub influences, the album finds him teaming once again with producer/sonic magician Richard Swift. As if all that wasn’t enough, this year finally saw the release of an early Swift and Jurado collaboration on vinyl, Other’s People Songs, which finds the duo covering Chubby Checker, Bill Fay, John Denver, Kraftwerk, Yes and more, which originally appeared on Aquarium Drunkard in 2010.

We spoke with Jurado before soundcheck for an episode of our Transmissions podcast. You can listen to that episode here, and below you’ll find a minimally edited transcription of our discussion, which found us covering everything from The Twilight Zone to Jurado’s cinematic inspirations. The Transmissions podcast returns in January 2017 with new episodes. Subscribe on  iTunes  or via  RSS feed.

Aquarium Drunkard: We’re here with Damien Jurado at the Valley Bar in Phoenix, Arizona. I wanted to start off by asking you about the new record, Visions of Us on The Land, which is a beautiful album, finds you moving even deeper into psychedelic sounds. This is your fourth record with Richard Swift. You guys started working together — is it 2010 with St. Bartlett?

Damien Jurado: Uh-huh.

AD: What was it about Swift that made you want to go record with him in Oregon?

Damien Jurado: Originally, it was the label’s idea. I had been a fan of Richard Swift’s for quite a while at that point. I owned The Novelist and Walking Without Effort. Those albums, and then later on the Ground Trouble Jaw stuff. I was a fan of his, and then Secret Canadian was like, “Hey, maybe you should do a record with Richard?” And I was like, “I don’t know man, I love his music but, musically but we’re not really the same genre, you know?”

AD: Sure.

Damien Jurado: [But] we’re open to the same kind of styles. So they’re like, “Yeah but you guys, we think you guys would be working good together.” I liked his production, so I was like OK I’ll give it a try. We hit it off immediately. The first day we did Saint Bartlett, most of the time we just sort of hung out and listened to records that we liked a lot. Through hanging out with him, I realized, wow, we actually like a lot of the same music. The difference between Richard and I was that Richard, you can clearly hear his influences on his recordings.

AD: Yeah.

Damien Jurado: And mine you can’t. My records, ended up before Saint Bartlett, all sounded like me trying to be everybody else. [With] the exception of Ghost of David, actually. That record is sort of like its own thing, but that would be a preview of what I think I’d later become with Richard. That’s like the real me. So he was like, “You like Sergio Mendes Brasil 66, and you like Herb Albert, you like Ray Conniff, you like Rod McKuen, you like West Coast Experimental Pop Art Band, and you like Captain Beefheart, Johnny Hooker. But you don’t hear any of this stuff in your music.” I just said, “Man, I think I’m just afraid to reveal myself.” He made it okay to really wear my influences on my sleeve a bit more.

AD: So prior to that, you know, I love those other records that you were talking about. Now That I’m In Your Shadow and Where Shall You Take Me, those are fantastic records. But you said you don’t feel like you were necessarily doing what you…

Damien Jurado: No.

AD: Why do you think that was?

Damien Jurado: Because that was me trying. I think because initially, when I started out doing Waters Ave S. and Rehearsals for Departure, those are two records where the label [Sub Pop], I think were trying to mold me into being this urban folky pop singer.

AD: You were kind of coming out like a punk or indie rock.

Damien Jurado: I came out of hardcore punk. Like all these other guys, too. But punk became — it’s funny, I was having this discussion with someone the other day about this punk thing. I love punk, but punk to me was kind of full of hypocrisy. Where it’s like, well it’s not about rules! But punk is really all about rules, there’s lots of rules.

AD: Yeah.

Damien Jurado: If you like the Dead Kennedy’s, you can’t like the Carpenters, you can’t like, you know? You shouldn’t have a Captain & Tennille record. So, I don’t know.

AD: That sort of aesthetic kind of stifling thing, did that impact the way you approached those records of the time as well? Because one of the things that strike me about the Swift records is that they’re insane sounding. There’s drums, and there’s…

Damien Jurado: They’re really bombastic drums, they’re huge sounding.

AD: Huge sounding drums. There’s all these dub influences.

Damien Jurado: Yeah.

AD: Not in that it sounds like a reggae record…

Damien Jurado: No, but you’re taking the influence of sound. For me it really is…I was really into sound exploration. I like the idea of, I mean, for instance you mentioned dub records. I liked dub music; I was a big fan even in my early days of being a teenage punk rocker. I was really into dub music. Hearing King Tubby on what was then KCMU FM, what later became KEXP in Seattle. Hearing King Tubby and Scientist for the first time and U-Roy. Albums like Screaming Target by Big Youth. You heard those sounds and they just sound otherworldly. The reverb, the delays, I was really into that.

AD: So, you were into that, but at the same time the records [you were releasing] the Sub Pop records…

Damien Jurado: None of those, there’s absolutely none of that going on [on those albums.]

AD: They’re sparse albums for the most part. I know that when I listen to those records that I definitely hear a very sparse approach. A very restrained [approach]. I mean, there’s obviously sort of a melancholy sound to them.

Damien Jurado: Uh-huh.

AD: I think that it fits the lyrics in so many ways. Whatever happened leading up to Saint Bartlett, and then furthermore on the next three albums, it seems like it was a wholesale change in approach…

Damien Jurado: Yeah, it really was.

AD: Those [early] records, those are the records that we’re talking about. They mean a lot to me, but there’s not the same kind of lyrical sensibility. There’s not the same kind of sonic sensibility [either]. What was it that informed some of that change?

Damien Jurado: I think just being sick of trying to fit in. I think Swift kind of called me out on it, like, “You’re kind of a fraud.”

AD: Did you feel like a fraud?

Damien Jurado: Oh yeah, God yeah. I would say from my first record on, up until Saint Bartlett I was a fraud. Isn’t that weird?

AD: That is weird.

Damien Jurado: It’s very strange, because it sounds like I wasn’t heartfelt, but I was.

AD: You meant it?

Damien Jurado: I did mean it. [But] it’s like being a vegan barbecue chef, you know what I mean? You’re the world’s best barbecue chef, but you just happen to be a vegan and you don’t eat your own meals. That’s kind of how it was for me. I was not eating my own meals. I’d show up for work, I’d play the part, and I would go home. I’d get in the van, on tour I’d go on stage and play my role as a sad singer-songwriter, and then I’d get in the van and I’d listen to hours of reggae, punk, noise, and Jandek records. And psychedelic records, and Captain Beefheart records, so I don’t know. It was just very, very strange. I’m just saying I did it well. I did it well. I’m not saying I was fooling people, but I think I was fooling myself.

AD: So I mean, it’s the weird thing to [grapple with] because those records, so many of them, feature really intense and I think personal things from you.

Damien Jurado: No, that’s the thing, they’re not. These are all just fictitious stories. That’s the thing, is that I’ve gotten so many questions. There’s some really heavy lyrical songs, like “Ohio.” There’s a song in particular when I think of heavy songs that I’ve written, there’s one in particular. There’s a song called “I Had No Intentions On Leaving Town.”

AD: Yeah.

Damien Jurado: Right? Off of Now That I’m In Your Shadow, about the brother who gets shot. That’s a really intense song, and then the next song is this instrumental called “Hotel Hospital;” before that there was that song “Medication…”

AD: On Ghost of David, [about a brother praying for his brother’s life to end.]

Damien Jurado: Yeah. But to me I’ve always said, people have always asked me, “How can you write like that? How can you pour so much emotion into [the songs]?” And I honestly say this: It’s no different from an actor, like say like Daniel Day Lewis, taking on a role. You take on the role, and you act it out. You do your best to act that role out, and that’s what I did. [But] that wasn’t me. That’s the thing, it wasn’t me. Even musically, it wasn’t me. I didn’t really care for it.

AD: You were writing stories, essentially.

Damien Jurado: Yeah, I was writing short stories to songs.

AD: It was really, this almost feels like a digression, but I guess what are podcasts for if you don’t digress every now and then?

Damien Jurado: Sure, yeah.

AD: But I mean it was through reading reviews of your records that I looked up Raymond Carver.

Damien Jurado: Oh wow, cool.

AD: So many people would say Jurado seems inspired by Raymond Carver, and so I dug that stuff up and of course I fell in love with how direct and how simple and how — I keep coming back to the term — sparse [his writing was].

Damien Jurado: Right.

AD: There’s a lot of sparseness to those stories. So that’s how it felt to you as well, like you were writing short stories?

Damien Jurado: Yeah, but again this is what I mean but sort of feeling like a fraud. So like, people are comparing my stories to Raymond Carver and I’m sort of going with it, but I never read one Raymond Carver book in my life. The only thing I knew about Raymond Carver was that he spent some time living in eastern Washington and that’s all I remember about Raymond Carver. He wrote Shortcuts, that movie, which I didn’t like that movie at all.

AD: I like that movie a lot.

Damien Jurado: Yeah, a lot of people love that movie. I get sort of crucified for not liking it. I didn’t like it. I still have not read his writings.

AD: So who was inspiring your approach? [Were you reading short stories?]

Damien Jurado: No. You know, what really inspired my approach to those early records was films. I’m not a reader, I don’t read fiction. If I read a book it’s gonna be about a band or someone else. Back then, I was watching a lot of movies. A lot of different movies. There was a Wim Wenders movie I liked a lot called, I think it’s called Travels With Alice.

AD: Yeah.

Far Away So Close was really good. A few Jim Jarmusch movies, like Stranger Than Paradise, I was really into.

AD: That’s a great movie.

Great movie. Films like Buffalo 66 by Vincent Gallo was really inspirational for me. There’s a movie with Ashley Judd called Ruby in Paradise. Which is really funny, in fact that movie was so inspirational to me, that if you look at the artwork of The Ghost of David on the inside, there’s a writing that’s backwards. That’s a Polaroid of the end shot of that movie, where it says “step down or step up.” It’s taken from a still in the movie. I just paused the VCR and took a photo of it. That movie was very inspirational to me. A lot of people won’t see the correlation. But also movies like Paris, Texas were huge for me too. So it was movies. It wasn’t other songwriters, it wasn’t other writers, it was just movies.

AD: So, you’re still writing about characters extensively.

Damien Jurado: Sure, yeah.

AD: What’s changed? [You’ve always written] about characters [and] situations. You were making stuff up. Has the process by which you make up these new stories [changed?] Is it different than it was with those first records?

Damien Jurado: It’s different because the other records were based on…short, tiny, little vignettes. Every song on a record has its own story, or maybe there [was] a slight connection to another song. [With] Saint Bartlett it was sort of like a concept record about a friend of mine. And then Maraqopa the trilogy is all about, based on one dream I had, which played out like a two-minute movie trailer, but I’m having to write a narrative around it. I’m writing a narrative [based on] flashes of little scenes I remember, and that’s it. So it has changed, because Maraqopa is more fleshed out. It’s really long; it’s a long thing. I think that in some ways I kind of regret not releasing Maraqopa the trilogy all at once. All three records at once.

AD: I hear you tending to refer to it as Maraqopa, all three records.

Damien Jurado: Yeah. I just didn’t have the heart to call it Maraqopa one, two, and three…because that’s stupid.

AD:…I love the way that these records… flow, and I love the way that the difference is so apparent…in your approach. These records are more, I don’t know. They’re more rhythmic. Far more rhythmic than the earlier stuff.

Damien Jurado: Yeah, they’re very rhythm heavy.

AD: There were eerie moments on those other albums. Ghost of David is super eerie [and] there’s lots of stuff about mortality…But I think that this stuff is so much more ecstatic sounding.

Damien Jurado: Yeah [but] someone recently called this last record the darkest record I’ve ever made.

AD: Does that track with you? Do you feel like it’s a dark record?

Damien Jurado: I didn’t at first, but now I do actually. Yeah, because of what’s going on in the story. Maraqopa is hopeful; Brothers and Sisters [of the Eternal Sun] is sort of this middle ground of like, this can go bad at any moment. Then record three, it goes south. But, I’m still seeing a light in it for some reason.

AD: Is this the end of the story for you?

Damien Jurado: This is it for me. But you know what’s funny though, is that I’m living the story now. I feel like — my girlfriend Lindsey once said to me not long ago — “This is you. This story is about you. I mean you didn’t end up in some commune, or whatever, but this is you. You’re going through this journey.”
I feel like I am all the time. I think Maraqopa is, for me, it’s not just an album or a concept. It’s an experience, a life experience.

AD: Did that surprise you when she said that? The idea that you’re this character?

Damien Jurado: I think so. Yeah, I think so. I think I knew it all along, you know? I think I knew it all along, but I was in denial. I have this thing about attaching myself to my art. I don’t want to be attached to it, you know what I mean? So like the whole mentality of like, this is my job, it’s not me. Like, I make pizza, but I’m not a pizza maker. You know what I mean? It’s not who I am, it’s not my identity.

AD: So many artists I think choose to find their identity through their art. Or define their identity, or sort of create an aspirational identity. That’s not your approach? That’s not what you think of it?
Damien Jurado: Not at all. I like the idea of being completely separate from it. I like the idea that it’s just something I do, or something I made, but that’s about it. It’s not who I am. Because I make a drawing does not mean the drawing is me.

AD: Right.

Damien Jurado: It’s not even a part of me anymore now that it’s on the paper. It just sort of was given life by me, and that’s about it.

AD: There are some really fantastical elements in the art and in the lyrical content of these records. I don’t know [like] UFOs ….basically, I guess where I’m going with this is it feels to me like you’re pulling from all these different places, and I know that people like Rod Serling are an influence.

Damien Jurado: Huge influence on me.

AD: The Twilight Zone, and I’ve heard you discuss Lonnie Frisbee.

Damien Jurado: Yeah, totally.

AD: Who, for listeners who aren’t super familiar with him, he’s sort of a…

Damien Jurado: He was the reason the Jesus Movement happened in the 1970s. He was a prophet.

AD: [He was] sort of a continuation of and awakening [in which] hippies found in Christianity [as] a different take on the same psychedelic movement that seemed to be happening.

Damien Jurado: You know what’s weird is that, even I still to this day, just in the music alone, I still to this day say you will not find weirder sounding psychedelic records like those [Christian] records. You just won’t. I don’t care what you put in front of me; I will match any record that you put in front of me with some of the weirdest, craziest stuff out there.

AD: So what kind of stuff are we talking about?

Damien Jurado: Like there’s this group call the Search Party. There’s this group called RFD, and they only made one record…the All Saved Freak Band, that’s one of them. There’s a group called, gosh I wish I had my computer with me. I have a lot of this stuff on my computer. I don’t know man, there’s a lot of great, really weird, just bizarre [records]. There’s a guy named Ted Smith, actually. For any of your crate diggers out there listening to this podcast. There’s a guy named Ted Smith. Ted was an organ player for the Billy Graham crusades. He made two records that are some of the weirdest sounding records I’ve ever heard in my entire life. They’re like concept records. They’re kind of spoken word. The time changes, the production, I mean it’s just like mind-blowingly cool. They’re just cool sounding records. Those two records are really great, some of my favorite ones.

There’s a record by this guy, I don’t know how to pronounce his last name. But it’s like, his first name is John, his last name is like Y-v-i-s-k-l-e-r [Ylvisaker]. Whatever. He made this album called- what was it called? Like “Cool City” or something like that. Just really cool music. [The record is John Ylvisaker’s Cool Livin’ from 1967].

AD: Was Larry Norman an influence?

Damien Jurado: Yeah, Larry’s a very big influence on me. The early Larry Norman. Some of the later stuff just kind of…

AD: Yeah, it’s not quite as far-out sounding. But some of that early stuff, I think is [incredible] like “I’m The Six O’clock News.”

Damien Jurado: Yeah, totally.

AD:…so there’s all these kind of swirling influences. These ideas [about] this psychedelic Christian stuff. [And there’s] a paranormal element via the UFO stuff. [And also the influence of] Buckminster Fuller…

Damien Jurado: Buckminster Fuller, totally. I don’t know if you’ve listened to any of his talks before.

AD: I have not actually listened to any of his talks.

Damien Jurado: If you could follow it, it’s pretty mind blowing. He’s such a genius, but at the same time he was also, as he would get going he would talk so fast, and stumble over his words. But he’s a genius, great mind. Rod Serling obviously we just mentioned, I love Rod Serling.

AD: Was there a connecting thread for all that stuff that you were able to identify? When I think about all of it, I think of it as it’s all interested and concerned with the unknown, or ideas of greater powers. Or higher influences.

Damien Jurado: A lot of it is also, I think actually, it’s funny that we’re doing this interview and you’re asking these questions in Arizona, of all places. I spent some time here as a kid. I found a lot of my comfort in shows like The Twilight Zone as a kid. Also, living here in Arizona, I don’t know. I mean I don’t live here now, I don’t know how much it is now. Mid-to-late ‘70s there was lots of talk about UFOs, the new age movements were really big. My mom was really heavily into, she was in UFO committees. As a kid I would go to these new age meetings with her. But at the same also a lot of her family is, a lot of them on my mom’s side of the family is also very Mormon. Which I actually left and denounced at a very young age, I think I was like 8 or 9 when I left that whole scene.

AD: Still, some very spacey concepts [there].

Damien Jurado: Oh yeah, we’re talking like celestial planets, Joseph Smith, I mean the whole spiritual bodies thing. So I grew up around that. But I also grew up around local television. When I was a kid, I don’t even know if she’s from here or not, but Elvira?

AD: Oh yeah.

Damien Jurado: Mistress of the Dark. I grew up watching her on Friday nights, Saturday nights, maybe at midnight. There was also, I grew up watching weird shows like Kung Fu with David Carradine. Shows like The Outer Limits. This was my zone.

AD: Did you feel like that stuff all sort of came bubbling back with Maraqopa?

Damien Jurado: It all comes back. It’s like the music palette [too] where I have all these musical genres that I’m influenced by, like I’ve mentioned. But there’s also the other stuff too. There’s the spiritual influence, there’s the television influence as a young kid. It all plays into it. It all plays into it.

AD:I love to engage in the paranormal stuff. To really listen to Art Bell on YouTube or whatever [or] catch Coast To Coast sometimes. I would never apply the term “believer” or anything like that. But for me it’s an interesting thing to engage with and to listen to. There’s this sort of atmosphere to that kind of stuff that is particularly enchanting to me.

Damien Jurado: Sure, yeah.

AD: And it feels like there’s a little of that when I listen to these records too. Sort of just a weird, just outside of frame of view something.

Damien Jurado: For sure. You gotta picture this for me: it’s like if other people don’t get it, it doesn’t bug me. For the first time, I’m making records and music for me. I made it for everybody else for so long. I spent twenty years making my music for everybody else but me, and now it’s my turn. So these are also very personal records I mean, on many levels…Now, I’m making the records that I would want to listen to.

Interview conducted by Jason P. Woodbury, May 21, at the Valley Bar in Phoenix, Arizona.  

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2 thoughts on “Damien Jurado :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

  1. Man, I hate to see Jurado disavowing his early work, because it’s his best work. Everything that’s followed “Now That I’m In Your Shadow” has been–in my mind–a falling-off.

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