Interview by Adam Foster
It’s 6pm and I ring Jesse Malin. He seems a little distant, but then explains that he had just woken up. He’d been having a nap “I had a really messed up night.”
What constitutes a really messed up night?
Too many tequilas. We had a lot of fun at the Borderline [London] last night, and we just went on to enjoy ourselves too much.
I was there. It was a great gig. I want to start there, if I may. I had a lot of questions worked out based on the album, based on your background, history. But the set live answered a lot of those questions. It was a lot more punk than I expected.
My history comes with me. It’s different in some ways, but you come from the same place.
I found some stuff by Heart Attack and D-Generation. I really liked the Heart Attack stuff – but you were only 12 when you were in the band. How does that happen?
I founded the band and sang in it. It was a great time. But there’s going to be a difference. I was 12 then: I’m 34 now. That’s a lot of time. I just needed to find some direction in my life, and music was it. When I was 10, I was playing Kiss covers at talent shows. Then, at 11, I heard the Ramones. And I thought, shit, I don’t have to practice to be better. I only need three or four chords. I sometimes regret that now but at the time I was just keen to get on stage as soon as I could. And New York was a lot looser in those days; nobody had a problem with you getting on stage, playing with your band – even when you were 12.
It seems like you had a pretty tough time growing up.
That’s just the way it is. Everyone’s got a tough story. Look, I’m American. My parents split up when I was young, so I was basically brought up by babysitters, hanging out on street corners. You get exposed to a lot of good things that otherwise you wouldn’t. Queens is a pretty happening place to hang out, but not so good in other ways. To get the records, go to clubs, you had to get out: go into Manhattan, wherever. And the more you found out – music showed you didn’t have to fall into the same life. You didn’t need the pot belly, two kids, car in the garage…You found out about things – I mean, the Clash were a revelation…
You mentioned Strummer last night. Obviously a sad loss at such an age, but particularly so for you. You got to know him quite well. How did this come about?
Bob Gruen, the photographer. When I was in D-Gen, Gruen became a fan, and he bought Strummer to see us and introduced him. We just continued that relationship. And he was the type of guy that liked to support new bands. He was just that kind of guy.
You have a lot of champions. It brings me perhaps to a question I wasn’t going to ask until the end – because you must be sick of it. But it also ties in with my first question about the album. Ryan Adams produced the album. But do you think his production changed the way the songs were presented? Do you think it was Adamised?
Yes, I am getting a bit sick of the Ryan Adams question. Well – look, I’ve always thought there should be a difference – the live performance should be a lot harder. I mean, growing up, there were bands like Cheap Trick. Their studio albums have a lot of melodic songs, harmonies. But live, they were really hard rock, you know? It’s got to be more energetic live. Keep the difference.
Let’s talk about the album. The title – THE FINE ART OF SELF DESTRUCTION – seems a bit unlikely for a man who’s been performing since he was 12.
It was tongue-in-cheek. It seemed an appropriate title, for a first solo album at the age of 34. People always say it’s a dark album, sad. But I don’t think so, although I have to say I’m always most comfortable writing when I’m sad. The thing is – I won’t be – you got to end up on the – top end. Excuse me, can I answer, I’ve another call coming in.
Given your background, the spirit of the album – on your website and in almost every review, you’ve been compared with Bruce Springsteen. Does this piss you off?
Listen – the early stuff, his early songs, have a great sincerity, a truthful, cinematic quality which I really dig. Even though I have more of a punk rock background there’s a lot in early Springsteen which I admire. Look at Nebraska – it’s dark, misunderstood. Like people thought Sid Vicious and The Ramones were all about hate and violence, when they were exactly the opposite. Springsteen wrote anti-American songs and people adopted them as the theme to the Rambo generation. People just get the guy wrong.
The album was produced in six days between Christmas and New Year 2001 –
that’s right – it was a very winter album. And so close to 9.11.
That’s what I was going to ask. I’m sure that 9.11 was in your mind, but there seems to be no mention of it in the album – unless I’m missing something. Was it just too close?
Yes – I mean – I wrote a song called FALLEN ANGELS, but I didn’t want it on the album. It could come off pretentious. I just thought that those kind of songs are best left to Bono and Springsteen, guys who deal with big things. I look at the smaller things, more intimate, but it was a weird time. It was so close. We actually did the demos for the album on Sept 10. It was a very weird winter. No one went out. There are a lot of kids being born about now, I… you know what I mean. Sorry – the phone is ringing again.
I’ve two quick questions. Queen of the Underworld is your first single – was that your choice or the label?
A combination. I love all the tracks on the album, but it would have been obvious to go with Wendy.
That would have been my choice – that or Almost Grown. Or Riding on the Subway.
Queen shows clearly the line between where I was and where I am at the moment. It’s not as tied in to my past as Wendy. Wendy is kind of what I’ve always done and I wanted the first single to show the way I’m moving. But Wendy will be the second single. Have you heard the single? There’s two non-LP tracks – I’d point you to Cigarettes and Violets. It’s actually on the American version of the album.
So are there are other track differences?
No. Just that.
Because last night you didn’t play Xmas – which I thought was the weakest track on the album. Yet I see that it has appeared on your EPs and white labels prior to the album proper. Why did you not play it?
I’ve just played it all over the New Year and Christmas period. I like it. It’s a lot of people’s favourite track on the album.
Finally – Jeff Klein (Jesse’s support act on this tour) – did you know him prior to this?
Yes – I’d played some shows with him in Texas. I’m a fan of his stuff.
On the Ryan Adams tour last year, you opened with just a guitar, playing on your own. Now Klein’s opening for you in the same way.
Yes. I’ve thought about him doing that on this tour. It’s a tough thing to do. But it’s a good experience. You learn a lot – it toughens your performance up.
I’d better let you get to on. Thanks for last night. It was excellent. Good luck for tonight.
Thanks for this. And for letting me delay the interview earlier. I wasn’t really in a place I could do it earlier.