Southern culture on the skids: Jim White's baptism of fire
Hearsay #17 / 1998 / Interview with Pete 

"I'm not interested in music, I'm interested in sound"

Wherein Jim White and fellow Southern country boy (East Sussex) Pete Pawsey rise and converge in the middle of the bustling metropolis, a few Hare Krishnas away from Oxford Circus, to discuss JW’s stratospheric debut album Wrong-Eyed Jesus. JW takes his hat off and Hearsay scrabbles around in his cranium for mystical experiences, sensory phenomena and other anomalies. We even manage to invent a few new English words along the way.

HEARSAY: A friend of mine once said that the image of angels used in songs is a symbol for mental illness. What do you think it's indicative of?

JIM WHITE: Oh, I have a simple answer to this one! I drove a cab in New York for ten years and there are a few rides that I remember distinctly. I picked up this little Puerto Rican kid about eight years old outside the movies. He was with his mother but he did all the talking. He climbed in and he said, 'I feel like I could trust you, sir, you look just like my best friend. I have an important question to ask you.' I said, 'what is it?' and he said, 'Do you believe in angels?' He was an honest kid, he met your eye... perfectly. So I said, 'Well, that's a hard question. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. What about you, do you believe in angels?' And he said, 'I think that if someone tells you they've seen an angel... it means they want your money.'

Right now angels are fashionable, and it saddens me because in their fashionability what is essential in them is being forgotten. But that's a beautiful idea, it's true many times. Using it as a metaphor for mental illness makes perfect sense.

Do 'Southerners have their own rules'?

I think that because of the inclement environment, whenever you take a northern people and displace them and put them in a southern context in terms of heat, something happens to their minds that makes them a little crazy. I think Southerners are quietly insane. That's why I'm very grateful to writers like Flannery O'Connor who are kind enough and observant enough to point out the insanity with such clarity and conciseness.

At times Wrong-Eyed Jesus reminds me of lyric writers like Terry Allen and Townes Van Zandt.

People have talked about Townes Van Zandt the last week or so a lot. Somebody was telling me about his songs and it sounds like he has a better understanding of the scope of human emotions than I could ever understand. My forte is in an obscure metaphysical realm. I wish that I was intimate with the human experience but I don't think that I am.

Some of the people on your record (Victoria Williams, Joe Henry) hoe a parallel thematic furrow. Were you familiar with their work?

I had never heard Victoria Williams sing before my manager said, 'Victoria's gonna sing on the album.' I said, 'what does she sing like?' and she said, 'Go to the record store and buy one of her albums,' and I heard her voice and I said, 'God bless my manager!' because she's got the perfect mountain hillbilly voice. In fact, when I presented her with the songs for the album I gave her her choice 'cos I wanted her to feel comfortable with whatever she was singing. I had hoped she would pick the most hillbilly one of the bunch, and she did.

So did a lot of the fine musicians come through management connections?

My manager is a great friend to outsider artists whether they be in music or in painting or whatever. She organised the first Sweet Relief for Victoria Williams. She's a person who's not in her line of work for the bottom line. So anytime I needed somebody she would start making calls, if I needed a bass player... Actually Victoria Williams suggested the bass player for the album. Sylvia [Reed] asked Vic and Vic suggested three people: the first two didn't sound very interesting and then I talked to David Piltch, who plays with kd lang and Paul Young and he said he had a background in jazz improvisation and I said I think that maybe that will help, because what we're doing here is not playing standard basslines, we're playing sounds.

Like: 'Here, Kitty-kitty-kitty!'

[Laughs] Y'know what? Me and the producer, Paul Rabjohns, actually used to say 'Here, Kitty-kitty-kitty'!! It must be something English because my producer was English, he's from the Isle Of Wight. He's a composer for film in California and worked in London as a music engineer with Was Not Was and Swing Out Sister, a few people like that. When we were looking for a producer for the album, the record company had very high hopes that people like Mitchell Froom or Daniel Lanois would wanna do it… course the budget for taxis for their services would be higher than the budget for the entire album if they had. So finally I called a friend who suggested Paul—I'd met him just once—and Paul's very game, he said, 'Sure, let's do it, I'll lose ten thousand dollars, so what!' ...which he did, he lost probably twenty thousand dollars making the album.

This is your first album, right? You do plan to make more of them?

Well, I signed a deal [with Luaka Bop] for six records. That may sound impressive but it's the opposite. Everyone suggested to me that I sign a one-and-out deal when I started with this and I had to get them to explain to me what that was and why that was good. Six albums means that they own me for six albums. It was worrisome at first 'cos I didn't know who they were, what their dispositions were, I only knew David Byrne, but now it makes me very happy because they've showed a lot of faith and belief in me in the process of this when no-one else was interested.

Are there any songs by other people that you wish you'd written?

The Ode to Billy Joe; Gun Street Girl by Tom Waits; anything from Gorecki's Symphony number 3; anything from Anouar Brahim, the oud player from Morocco. I could go on for ever. I think that's sort of symptomatic of the way I think too, I start with Southern music and then I immediately end up in Morocco.

You use natural phenomena a lot in your writing. Do you feel disorientated in cities?

It's quite the contrary. I moved to New York when I was 23 years old because I wanted to develop an orientation in cities. In an elemental environment like my home which is kinds quiet and subdued I'm too busy watching abstractions - the elements are abstract. So in big cities I feel a great sense of focus because there are all these faces passing me by, all these activities, and I choose which ones I wanna look at and which ones I don't wanna look at. I didn't have that talent before I moved there, I had to pay attention to everything, which is why I was completely disoriented in the first two thirds of my life. Living in a big city helped me establish an ability to focus.

Do you have a preferred medium for the prolonged derange­ment of the senses?

[For some reason this question is the cause of much hilarity...] That sounds like something I'd say! You have accomplished some real English gymnastics there! Comes with the language. I think it would be words, I can get lost in words. Music is fine but everything finds its way back to a clearer expression, an articulation of literal ideas in my mind. Words are the fountainhead for all different artistic meanings, I think. When somebody wants to talk about that painting there, they would have to talk about it in words. Maybe not for long...

Do you think you're happiest indulging in genre polygamy?

Quite the contrary. I'm not interested in music, I'm interested in sound. So my lack of fidelity to a genre only suggests my great devotion to the larger and less structured world of sound. So there! I had a background in cinema before this: I went to film school and I made a film, I worked a little bit in the industry. It was so liberating having a picture in front of you that you could put music to. It's a beautiful experience when a visual world and a world of sound seem so dialectically well-matched. I took all that information which I had learned in my own ass-backwards way and applied it to making the album. We did the album on Pro-Tools, and with that you can make samples, you can create tones: there are some songs where I put a tone through the whole song, if the atmosphere felt right for it to be there...

I thought it had been cut up a bit...

It's been edited like a film. The genesis of that was when it was clear that we were gonna do the album, Sylvia said, 'You have to get the best possible musicians because lesser quality professional musicians are gonna be confused by what you're doing and try to change it.' So we paid every penny we could to great musicians to come in and sit in the studio for a day, and when they were gone I spent a week or two organising what they did. So David Piltch would come in and play five bass tracks to a song and then I would decide with the producer which ones worked, and sometimes we would edit it. Sometimes the whole track stays intact like on Burn The River Dry, the very strange percussions. The producer said, 'Oh, we can't have that weird percussion there,' and he made a loop. So we built the whole song around this loop and then one day I was listening to the original track and I said, 'It's better! The chaos is better!' and we put it back in. If I had a talent in all this it's that I'm always willing to re-listen to something that doesn't fall within the parameters of established thought. I don't care about peoples' sensibilities or tradition, all's I care about is hearing a complete sound in my mind, and if someone else can come to that and say yes, then that's two blessings for the price of one.

You're playing a couple of festivals in Europe. What's the live band like?

My guitar player is one of the founding members of the Mavericks. D'ya know the Mavericks? It's a country band. I think he felt a little cloistered by their formula music, he wanted to be a little more experimental. He plays a lap steel, two lap steels, and keyboards and banjo and wahwah banjo and mandolin. It's different than the album, but it's really vibrant and lively. My drummer's a contradiction in terms: he builds a beat with his feet and he deconstructs it with his hands. A lot of sound comes out from the three people. It's not quite as sweet as the album, the album has a lost sweet dreamy quality and the shows are a little bit more aggressive. And that's fine; I think that at a certain point I'll be ready to create a sweet ambience but it's not right now. I have to walk out and say hello to people with a good firm handshake.

So are you bringing out a different character of the songs live?

At times, of course. Here's a word for you, there's an entification... what would it be? 'Entitification'? It doesn't necessarily have to exist in the dictionary... but that song which I play that has a life force when I play it, which is different than the song on the album, it has different needs and demands and requirements because there's different people and they're sitting in a room. You have to honour what it needs to exist in its proper form. I could try to duplicate the album, but not without four more musicians. Right now it's three people in a band, we have no bass player: my guitar is tuned to a baritone. It's a hell of a lot of fun during the shows 'cos I can tell the musicians just by looking out in the audience and seeing the guys... I pump up the bass on my amp and I pump up the bass in the mix and they're like, 'Where's the bass? I see three guys!' So they start speculating and then they get really disoriented and they think the lap steel is the bass and they wonder where are those sounds coming from! So I can always see those musicians getting all worked up out there and wrapped around the axle trying to figure out... And finally a friend of mine came to a show in Holland and said he thought that we were using bass samples and triggering 'em with the bass drum. He had all these ideas!

Jesus is... ?

Jesus is a highly charged archetypal name that I would like people to re-examine. I would like them to look into their own hearts and not trust external representations. That's why it doesn't bother me at all that there are conflicting representations of him on the album because it's a word that you say under your breath when things don't go right and yet it's...

I had a friend who died in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine, and they took him into the area where they keep the dead people and in his mind he was travelling to a beautiful green valley in Hawaii—he was from Hawaii, he was a surfer—and at the end of the valley there was a small grass hut. There was a sharp shadow falling over the door, it was daytime. A hand came out and gestured for him to come in, he walked closer and closer and he made out the figure of a man he presumed to be Jesus. At that moment he realised that it was Jesus calling him and that he couldn't go 'cos among other reasons he was an atheist. He returned to the world to tell the story. He woke up screaming in the room with the dead people and he had been dead for thirty minutes at that point. So he's got a better idea of Jesus than me. I can define it in the negative: Jesus is not what the world presents him as, and I think that the story inside the album cover suggests that. I will encourage people not to make Jesus such a sad bastard.

You also use a lot of dream metaphor and sublimated experience. Do you write from dreams/life/art? (delete as applicable)

There's a very subtle confabulation that goes on in the album. It's like this: the things that you think would most likely be dreams are real, and the things that are most likely real are dreams. I have a sleep disorder and I wake up dozens of times a night, and because I wake up dozens of times a night I'm passing in and out of REM sleep the course of the whole evening, so when I wake up in the morning, first I'm exhausted, and second of all I've been seeing these visions all night long. I thought this was normal for people until I was in my twenties because I was a very quiet, self-contained person who never spoke personally about anything. I started asking people when I was in my twenties, do you wake up at night? and they would say, No! I realised that this might have something to do with why I was always regarded as a fuckin' freak and an outsider, so Dream-World and Regular-World, they're intertwined.

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