Jimmy Jumpjump of The Sloppy Heads and Al Jarnow :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Last time we checked in with The Sloppy Heads was back in 2017, when the Brooklyn trio of Ariella Stok, Jimmy Jumpjump, and Bill the Drummer had released Useless Smile, a “pleasingly eclectic brew, mixing noisy guitar pop with spectral balladry, rambunctious garage rock with feedback-laced dissonance.” And now they’re back with Sometimes Just One Second, which doubles down on the rambunctiousness and ups the charm quotient, joined once more by James McNew of Yo La Tengo, who adds to the scuzzy riffs and shambolic visions.

Here at Aquarium Drunkard, you might know Jimmy Jumpjump better as Jesse Jarnow (check out his sprawling Blanks and Postage column), who’s written authoritative and adventurous books on The Grateful Dead and Yo La Tengo and hosts The Good Old Grateful Deadcast. The new album even features a Dead cover, incorporating “New Speedway Boogie” into the mix. But it also folds in art by Jumpjump’s father, animator Al Jarnow, whose work was featured back in 2010 by Numero Group with Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow, featuring animations created for Sesame Street and elsewhere. Jarnow illustrated the record’s back cover, but also returned to his pioneering animation practice for the “Love is a Disease” music video.

For his interview, Jumpjump and Jarnow answered questions about art, the Dead, working with McNew, and the other visual artist featured on the record, Gary Panter (Jimbo, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse) from AD’s resident animation freak Mark Neeley and editor Jason P. Woodbury.

Aquarium Drunkard: The music video for “Love is a Disease” is self-described as a “freaked-out cosmic dance party.” Was there any particular inspiration behind the imagery and abstract visuals?

Al Jarnow: Clinically, the word disease (and Jimmy) suggested anatomical imagery. And the incessant rhythms pointed towards the abstracted and repeating patterns. Jimmy set the color motif to pink and blackish, and asked for something to be removed that seemed too digital. All else fell into place.

Jimmy Jumpjump: I want to throw in that the pink and blackish motif was originally Al’s, though maybe filtered through me. One of my favorite pieces of Al’s art that’s hung on the walls of various bedrooms of mine over the years is a poster he made for a community fundraising dance in the early ‘80s with the phrase “Last Dance Fever” in black new wave/disco lettering over a pink background with black dots. In addition to becoming a songwriting prompt for one of the songs that ended up on the album, I scanned some elements of the poster, blew them up and distorted them a bit, printed them out, and then put them together into the paper-and-tape collage that’s on the back cover. That was definitely an inspiration in feeding Al materials for the video.

AD: That frantic, collage animation recalls your earlier films like Shorelines, my personal favorite. I’m curious, how would you compare animating digitally now versus the analogue processes before?

Al Jarnow: Evolutionary! It hasn’t changed my thoughts so much about how to bring images to life, but radically altered the degree to which my thoughts can play out in real time without waiting for a lab to do its thing. In bringing something to a kind of life is basically what animation is all about.

My transformations through mediums have been evolutionary and overlapping. I started as a painter focused  on grabbing moments. Which extended to thinking about time which actualized  by painting changing light in panoramic landscapes. And then animation wandered into my life at the request of my friend Dan for “Owl & the Pussycat”. And it became for me a way of creating life. Also a way of making a living with Sesame Street, etc.. Over time, computers became part of the process of making films, first as a way of controlling cameras and camera stands, then as a way of eliminating cameras and generating images. I moved with the flow, learning to write code as a way of making digital animations. I began to transform my code writing to interact with users which led to projects with museums and a new way of making a living. And as the realization that abstract apps might never reach an audience, I began outputting sequential abstractions to video…and then my son’s request. So has this led me back to animation?

Jimmy Jumpjump: Somewhat recently, I read Brian Eno’s A Year With Swollen Appendices, his journal from 1995, where he talks a lot about early ideas behind generative video, which I now recognize as the term for what Al was playing with in those same years and since then. Those generative concepts ended up embedded in a lot of educational software that’s now in children’s museums around the country, but I’m especially happy to see it come back to linear and slightly-more-intentional image-choosing.

AD: While Al did the back cover, the LP has great cover art from the prolific cartoonist Gary Panter. Were you both fans of his work and how did you first encounter it? j

Jimmy Jumpjump: Like many red-blooded Americans of my generational cohort, I first saw Gary’s art through his work as set designer on Pee Wee’s Playhouse in the late ‘80s. Since it’s relevant, I also have a really vague and possibly made-up memory of one my dad’s super-cool animation assistants wearing a shirt with Gary’s Screamers logo, probably around the same time of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. It’s a pretty striking image.

But I only really became aware of Gary’s name later on, when I was in high school, through some of the cover art he did for Frank Zappa. Probably came across Jimbo in college and, if I didn’t flag Gary as someone who crossed the hippie/punk divide then, I certainly did when I moved to Brooklyn and encountered his work as a participant in the cross-generational NYC light show scene. I saw him perform with the Joshua Light Show a few times, including when they accompanied Yo La Tengo for a few improv sets at Anthology Film Archives in 2004—one of the things that got me even deeper into Yo La Tengo.

Al Jarnow: Me, not so much. I was never really aware of his work. Now, looking more closely, I really like his mediums, lines, and, obviously, his subjects.

AD: How did it feel when Gary included your book Heads in the backmatter of his Crashpad book? How did you find out that happened?

Jimmy Jumpjump: It still doesn’t seem real to me! It’s beyond an honor. Like a lot of good things in my life, it owes to James McNew. I can’t remember the whole sequence, but Gary plays music, too, and has made some really fun weirdo albums with Devin Gary and Ross, as well as Twigs Of Sister Tomorrow. I gave him a copy of Heads at James’s suggestion, I think maybe even at the same Union Pool show when he drew the image that’s now our album cover. Gary told me he enjoyed it and was researching what became Crashpad, so it wasn’t a total surprise but still just mind-bending to see something from my life translated through Gary’s hand. Hope he does more issues of Crashpad!

How does covering a song work for someone who has written, researched, and podcasted as much about the Dead as you have? What new dimensions does engaging with the material directly reveal to you about the Dead? 

Jimmy Jumpjump: I’m not sure my work around the Dead makes covering them any different than anybody else we cover, except that all three of us are really serious Dead freaks with our own lifelong relationships to the Dead’s music and the world around them. Like Tommy Hall said, we’re all heads. It’s a not-insignificant aspect of our collective friendship, and I think our ongoing conversation about the Dead is most of what shaped our choice of that song and how we approach it.

“New Speedway Boogie” is one of the first songs we took up in 2010 after we became a trio. Learning individual Dead songs reveals tons of little things about structures, turnarounds, unexpected complicated chords, rhythmic feels, phrasing, etc., and realizing all the microscopic things that went into making them sound like the Grateful Dead, but solipsistically it probably reveals more about how I hear them. It’s also given me an excuse to focus on the same set of words for 10 years and watch as the world changes—or doesn’t change—around them.

AD: How did James McNew augment what you three were doing at Gary Olson’s studio? How does he inform the process?

Jimmy Jumpjump: We owe so much to James! He more or less corralled us into making our first album at our practice space a bunch of years ago, and we’re all still aglow, frankly. Since then, he’s played shows with us occasionally, which included playing almost all of the newer songs. So, on one hand, he had his guitar parts pretty much worked out by the time we got to Gary’s, but they were almost all spot-on from whenever it was he first played them. His ear-to-brain-to-music process is just beyond magical to witness. He contributed lots of suggestions for overdubs, played a few himself, and was able to help translate mixing concepts into, like, tangible mixes (and actually did the mix on “Speedway”). But his presence and enthusiasm have been incalculable, both at Gary’s and in a much deeper long-term way.

Keep on listening: James McNew (Yo La Tengo/Dump) on Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions.

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