The World Provides A Lot Of Color For Jesse Malin
When Green Day performed at House of Blues around the Rock Hall inductions earlier this year, the band recruited singer-guitarist Jesse Malin to open the show. He started things off with a 30-minute set that drew mostly from New York Before the War, one of two albums he’s released this year. Malin and his large band often sounded more like a classic rock act (think Springsteen) than a punk group, but they won the crowd over with his enthusiasm as songs such as “She Don’t Love Me Now,” which he described as a “dance number” and featured soulful vocals and some spirited, woozy horns. Malin has described the album as “metaphor for surviving in an ever-changing, rapidly desensitized world.” It’s an apt description of both it and his new album, The Outsiders, an album of jangly tunes that show just how far Malin has veered from his punk rock background. He recently spoke to us via phone from a rehearsal space on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
You opened for Green Day when the band played before the Rock Hall Inductions. What was that experience like?
It was really cool. I’ve known them for years. I toured with them when I was in D Generation in the ‘90s. I recorded a track with them once called “Depression Times.” It was a late-night drunken jam session. They keep growing. Playing with them at this sold-out House of Blues show in front of 2000 people, I was nervous. I don’t normally get nervous. I tour all the time. We’ve played with the Replacements and Joan Jett but getting in front of their crowd, I didn’t know what to expect. We got out there and banged it out. They played with their first band, Sweet Children. It was a special night. They hadn’t played a gig in America in a real long time. It was the first day of the tour for us. We drove from New York and New York Before the War had just come out so the songs were really impactful. It was a nice way to do it. We felt honored and touched. The gig was really cool. Hanging out during the Rock Hall inductions was really cool. We were looking for the ghost of Alan Freed.
You did a show on your own that night too.
I did a soundcheck at the [Cleveland club] Beachland and went and watched some of the inductions as a guest of those guys. We played a set at the Beachland and then went to House of Blues for some crazy after party and hung out with Paul McCartney. It was a surreal rock ‘n’ roll fantasy trip.
Talk about your background. How’d you end up fronting a band when you were just 12 years old?
CBGBs used to have a regular open mic showcase. New York was up for grabs then for everybody. I saw a kid named Harley Flanagan. He was 11 or 12. He was later in the Cro-Mags but at the time he was playing in The Stimulators. I saw him in the street and I saw the flyers on the street. I said, if a kid in The Stimulators is doing this, I can do this. I got my friends together and we played the showcase. We’d been listening to records of the Ramones and Plasmatics. We grew up with classic rock like Led Zeppelin on the radio. But once we heard the punk stuff, we realized we could write song with three or four chords. We jumped at it. We put out our first single in 1981. I was 13. It’s called “God is Dead.” It’s on the Damaged Goods label. We toured with Misfits and Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys and GBH. I did that for a bunch of years. I went to public schools that would let you go on the road.
How’d you then end up in D Generation and what was that experience like?
Those guys were friends that I grew up with. That was glam rock meets hardcore. We were singing about things from the ‘90s, stuff like the war on drugs. Grunge was unattractive to us; we wanted to bring sexuality and danger and excitement back to music. We met Green Day and toured with Offspring and Rancid. At that point, it got to me that I wanted to be more about the lyrics and less about the mosh pit, the shoes and the hair. I started stripping it down with acoustic guitar and wrote my first solo record, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction.
You started a solo career in 2001 with the help of one Ryan Adams. How instrumental was he in getting your solo career off the ground?
He gave me some confidence. I met him at a D Generation show in North Carolina in a parking lot. We both just loved songs. We drank a couple of beers together and it was a great connection. He gave me the shot in the arm and produced my first record, which we cut in five days. I started to do shows with Counting Crows and Bruce Springsteen and different folks along the way. I made a bunch of solo records. I didn’t have a record out for a couple of years so there was a big build-up of material before New York Before the War. That’s how I ended up with two records this year. Outsiders was produced by Don DiLego, a great songwriter and producer. We got a good vibe on this. It’s really dark and has an arty edge to it.
Talk about New York Before the War. When did you start writing the songs for it and did you know what you wanted the album to sound like?
I wanted a Paul Simon meets the Ramones and the Clash kind of thing as far as a song like “Addicted” goes. New York is the title but it’s a metaphor for a world that’s so disposable and fast changing. People don’t have any attention span. We’re burning through the planet and burning through information. I’m into books. YouTube and the Internet is cool but I like to go to shows and get in the pit. I like to have sex with a real live human being. I like getting out there and sweating under the hot lights. It’s a lot about being in the moment.
The song “Addicted” is so catchy. Talk about what you were going for sonically. It sounds like it could pass as an Elvis Costello song.
I love Elvis and the Attractions. I love those early records. When I was looking to get out of hardcore punk and I needed inspiration, I found artists like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg. They made me realize that songwriting could have an edge. It could help you deal with messed up situations.
“Turn up the Mains” is a great anthem. What inspired that?
Probably “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5. It’s about apathy and following trends and getting fed up. Music can be a place where you blow shit away with sound and volume and feeling. It’s a traditional “FU” kind of song about all the things that might bog us down. It’s a way you can cut through the apathy. It’s a sleazy fun rock ‘n’ roll song. It’s like the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” meets Iggy and the Stooges . . . in my basement.
You still listen to newer bands?
I always need new stuff. Even bands that aren’t that new I like. I love the National and Wilco. I think those bands are constantly moving forward. I like Frank Turner and Hollis Brown. I liked the last Craig Finn record and things like that.
Talk about recording the new album.
It was done in the Poconos. There were bears and turkeys and craziness. It’s darker and edgier and artier and rhythmic. New York Before the War was more on the pop tip but there’s always some kind of dissonance to those songs
What pushed you in a different direction?
Don DiLego making me be fearless. He was rolling tape and told me, “Let’s do this right now.” Some songs we put together as we rolled. There was plenty of late-night tequila jamming.
What’s the rest of the year look like?
We got through the States and to the UK and then end up at The Bowery Ballroom. Next year, there’s more touring and working on new songs and writing. I’m excited for what will come next. With two records out this year, it’s a lot of road work but that’s the treat.
It sound like your productivity has never been higher.
I’m constantly writing things down in a notebook. I might go see a film or go see a band. Joe Strummer once said, “No input, no output.” The world is wacky and Donald Trump wants to be president and people are always talking about Taylor Swift and [constantly] taking pictures and posting them everywhere. It provides a lot of color. If you do it every day, it’s a great outlet. I think everyone needs some kind of art. You don’t have to be a musician or parent or person who meditates or a person who paints. You need a way to get something out and, for me, music has always been the medicine and the focus.
And you own a bar in New York?
A couple of musicians and I opened a place called the Niagara. It’s like a Frank Sinatra/Shane MacGowan fantasy of owning a clubhouse where musicians can get other artists to hang out. It started to take off the last couple of years when I was on the road. It’s downtown, the old Apple . . . the real New York, New York. I was on tour in Ireland when Pat Carney and Jack White had that altercation but hopefully everyone is okay. I wasn’t around. I know nothing.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Lee’s Place – Toronto, ON
Highdive – Champaign, IL
Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA