If you’ve ever walked alone at night near woods, then you know what it is like to hear the strange cry or whisper from some otherworldly animal coming from the creek side or somewhere far and unthinkable in the middle of the night–perhaps a night owl or a coyote, maybe just the wind through the tree tops. It frightens you in the best way, makes you look over your shoulder, shudder, or just run. However, these noises are comforting—a reminder that there is something mysterious left in the world, and hidden in a depth of nature that will never be seen but makes you quiver and run and cause the imagination to see images of a black-cloaked spirit cooing from some branch high in the trees. The music of Jolie Holland has the same effect.
But forget metaphors to describe her music–it is a metaphor for everything in that mysterious night howl. The songs embody a folksy nature, with a twang of country, a touch of blues, the swing of Dixieland jazz, and a Cajun spice–something you may come across on the corner of Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans. The sound is unique, distinguished by Holland’s voice–she wraps her mouth around each syllable as though she were holding a butterscotch candy under her tongue while fighting back a well of tears. The result is unsettling yet lovely, and fulfills the “three poles” by which Holland judges her work (and others)—1) it must be artistic, “me trying to be Thelonius Monk in my brain”, 2) it must be communicative, “moving forward artistically in some direction”, and 3) it must be beautiful, “if it’s not beautiful then fuck it.”
After Catalpa, a collection of demos released in 2003 followed by her studio release debut Escondida released on Anti in 2004, this rambling gypsy girl’s music has consistently blended ethereal vibes with romantic themes to ironically explore real-life instances of alienation, heartache, death, love, and other outlets for the misery of humanity. The socially alienated outcast makes regular appearances, passing trains call out with promises of adventure, anonymity comes with poverty, and moonshine and morphine settle the nomad’s troubled soul. Her latest release (and best to date), Springtime Can Kill You, wilts gloriously with all the beauty of a defeated rose as we see the dichotomous relationship between the lushness of spring and the fickle emotions of love clash in a parallel of beautiful and ugly–“We’re lost in the shadows of a beautiful spring / Empty-handed lovers, and all we do is sing”, from the song “Mehitabel’s Blues.” Despite admitting indifference for Robert Johnson, (“He’s like the McDonald’s of blues writers,” she says, “I’m just not interested in most of his stuff.”) the album echoes the romantic sentiment that all love is in vain.
“That’s the real mindfuck of what was going on in my life. It was like all these really good things were happening but I couldn’t stand it,” Holland comments on the emotional state that produced SCKY. Her manner of speech is littered with “likes” and “you knows” as she continues in her hazy Californian slang, “Like, I was going through a breakup and I was trying to keep my life together and at the same time, nobody could identify with me because my career was blowing up. I felt horrible because all this crap was going on in my life and I didn’t have anybody to really keep me steady.” And spring persisted: “At the same time, it was this beautiful, beautiful season, and things were going really well in my life on paper and I just didn’t care. I couldn’t enjoy it because my life was hell.”
That “hell”, when introduced to the tempting beauty of spring, resulted in songs like “Mexican Blue,” “Please Don’t Tell ‘Em,” and “Nothing Left to Do.” The theme is connected by threads of Dylanesque imagery throughout the album—“hydrangeas blooming in the alleyway,” “a Queen at the bus stop,” “old roses blooming in the ghetto.” “It’s like that beautiful, sexy power of spring and so it’s just lush and wonderful and then, you know, then there’s your heart, and sometimes your heart can’t take all that,” Holland explains.
While the new album is a work of careful studio production, it serves as the much anticipated follow-up to the above mentioned releases, which are known for there richly organic, live feel, as though Holland had recorded the songs on her back porch for an audience of friends on a summer night. “I wanted to make a record with more instruments than Escondida that would just sort of draw in my community a little bit more,” says Holland, “but I wanted it to have like, the spiritual quality of Catalpa.” With every song on SCKY recorded live and Holland’s increased know-how as a producer, the album preserves the vintage, spontaneous sound of its predecessors, while capturing a complete flow of thought in time. “I appreciate records that are sort of like a movie and have like an integrated theme that they are presenting,” says Holland, “It just happened to feel right to put all these songs out together and they just happened to be about this one really rough time.”
Although Holland has only been on the music scene for a few years, her prolificacy and talent as a songwriter and singer has earned her world-wide attention, and scored her blurbs and name-drops in publications such a Rolling Stone and Paste. Her collection of fans is even more impressive. Tom Waits nominated Catalpa on shortlist.com in 2003, referring to her music as “like creek-dipping at Birdland.” Because most of her own musical heroes are also her personal friends, she can’t digest the acknowledgment of admiration from such a highly revered “fan.” “There is only one musical hero of mine that hasn’t actually become a fan of mine,” she claims, “And Tom Waits … there is actually no place in my mind for that to sit. That is like an indigestible piece of information, so I’m still waiting for that one. It’s like impossible to absorb.”
And about her … just how much of the romantic, mysterious figure, that her songs describe and her voice represents, is she?
As a child growing up in Houston, Texas, she always harbored a “private obsession” for music, playing the piano, guitar, and viola, among other instruments, from a young age. “I’m self-taught. My parents never got me lessons,” she says, curtly, “And that’s pretty much all I have to say about my childhood.” The decision to leave home at the age of 18 probably sprung from the same feelings as the above comment, and by 1994, she found herself bumming around between Austin, Texas and New Orleans in the company of artists, musicians, circus performers, puppeteers, and the like. She ended up on the West Coast by 1996, moving between Vancouver and San Francisco.
But homelessness suits her, and not just because she’s more productive musically while on the road. Her need to be itinerant, and her explanation for it, are nearly as developed as the rounded sound of her voice in song. “I have a problem living in houses,” she explains, “You know, my dad was a total freak and houses are actually really … the idea of me living alone in a room is really painful, so I don’t do it.” She continues: “If I’m in a house, I’m like battling my demons. So, it’s like I’m just running. And I don’t even have an address now, like I just stay with friends and lovers when I’m off the road.”
With accumulating success, her comment that “poor people make the best art” causes the question of “what if?” to loom overhead in the near future. “Some artists have a really bad problem with money in that they think they can’t respect themselves if they don’t die in the gutters. I don’t have that problem,” Holland says with a measured amount of sarcasm, “Even if I do get to the place where I don’t look immediately to the price of something on a menu, even if I get past that point of poverty, which I’m not, I still don’t know how to buy new clothes and I barely know how to get my hair cut … like, I see the money as supporting the music.”
That urge to be on the run, a conscious relationship with financial success, along with a soul betrayed by love and an innate loneliness, helps create that Romantic mindset from which Jolie’s songs come, whether it’s an actual mindset or an artistic one. But, she assures, her songs are “all very true stories.”But any attempt to describe Jolie, her music, and that elusive, unearthly “feel” that each album, each song, each syllable is so carefully wrapped in, truly transcends a written description. In the midst of a worldwide tour and rave reviews from the press for SCKY, she’s tottering on the cusp of a success that might challenge the inspiration for her “true-story” songs. “Tom Waits and Keith Richards actually wrote a song that is really fucking beautiful. I love this song so much,” she says, and then breaks into “That Feel” from Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. “‘Oh, there’s one thing you can’t lose, it’s that feel / You can pawn your watch and chain, but not that feel,’” she sings in her loping voice, and then shares an encouraging thought: “If you come from the bottom and you remember where you come from, I think you’re all right.”
Photos by Claude Shade
Dreams and Devotion: An interview with Strung Out’s Jason Cruz
For Strung Out’s Jason Cruz, art is more than just the music he’s known for. It’s the dreams and emotions he writes and paints as well.
For almost 30 years, Jason Cruz has been synonymous with the art he’s been crafting. That art of course, is his work as songwriter and vocalist for Simi Valley melodic punk rock outfit Strung Out, who since 1990, have been writing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged music that became part of the wave that brought punk’s into the mainstream consciousness in the mid-1990s. Strung Out’s three albums of that decade, 1994’s Another Day in Paradise, 1996’s Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, and 1998’s Twisted By Design, proved to be the perfect answer to those who sought out the deeper underground of punk that bellowed below the surface of Green Day’s Dookie and Offspring’s Smash.
For many listeners like myself, Strung Out and many of their Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph brethren meant a world of new music wrapped in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, punk attitudes, and a vibrant urgency that echoed sounds of rebellion and independence. While pop culture acceptance for just about any form of art and music seems fleeting, Strung Out have never wavered from what they do; now three decades into their history and nine albums deep into an ever-impressive catalog. Songs of Armor and Devotion is perhaps the band’s finest work since they first burst onto the scene. Composed, yet still breathing fire, its tracks still exhibits that “debut album energy” but comes with the benefit of the wisdom of touring, writing, and experiencing the world three decades over.
However, for Jason Cruz, art is more than just Strung Out. He has quietly and not so quietly been honing his craft as an artist and a painter, coming to light on a musical front by painting the cover art to his band’s 2011 “Best Of” album Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out, and NOFX’s 2013 EP Stoke Extinguisher. But one look at the wide spectrum of art he’s painted and you can see that it’s more than just album covers. His painted work, like his music, seems to come from the same passion and emotion that drives his lyrics and songwriting. Now he embarks on a new chapter as a children’s book writer, taking inspiration from his daughter to write There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams, a bedtime story born in dreams.
We spoke to Cruz not long after the release of the band’s new album to talk about the long-lasting influence of Strung Out and to discuss his art and how they share the same creative head space. We also spoke about his upcoming art exhibit and his new book and the toll and triumphs of the tour cycle.
Congrats on Songs of Armor and Devotion. It’s stellar work; how do you all feel about the release and response to the record?
Cruz: I’m glad people are digging the tunes. I’m anxious to get em out on the road and see what they turn into. See if I can keep up with RJ. It feels like another new level to explore.
But you’ve been busy with a lot of projects- tell us a little bit about the children’s book you have written? It was inspired by your daughter?
Cruz: The book is called There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams and it’s basically a bedtime story. My daughter just spoke the title one day as we hangin’ out having one of our talks and it stuck. I thought it was the most beautiful thing she ever said.
What’s the story of the book?
Cruz: It is basically a bedtime story trying to explain to a kid what the hell dreams are and how cool they can be. How the adventures you dream at night can only pale to the ones that await you when you wake kinda thing.
How long did it take to write and create the book?
Cruz: I worked on the story, which is more like a poem, and all the illustrations for just over two years. Anywhere I could set up and draw. In between shows, on planes, at the desk at home, wherever. Once I told the kid I was gonna do this book she made sure to ride me pretty hard about getting it done so she could take it to school and read it to the class.
What’s the approach like writing the book in comparison to writing songs for a new Strung Out record?
Cruz: Pretty similar process I guess since they both involve rhythm, flow and the use of imagery and imagination. With a song, it’s a collaborative process. Each member adds an element to construct this thing. With the book, it was all me. Inventing as I went along until I had enough elements to unify the idea as a whole. It’s a lot harder flying blind like that. I guess I kept this first attempt as simple as possible for that reason.
Where can we buy the new book?
Cruz: All the usual modern day outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Baby. It will also be available on my site as well.
I’m looking at some of your art and I like how different the pieces are. For instance, the difference in emotion, style with pieces like “Choke”, “Rise & Fall”, and “Church Fix”. What are some of the things that inspire your art and what were some of the inspirations behind these pieces?
Cruz: Oh I guess just the love of doing is what really inspires me. To be an artist. To challenge myself. To learn my craft and grow. I could never stick to a certain style or look very long because I’m just too moody I guess. I need the freedom to move around and explore. Always trying ‘get it right’ whatever that means.
Is creating art a completely private and solo process for you?
Cruz: Completely. I guess that’s why it can be so maddening at times and so fulfilling at the same time. Like what nerve do I have to even attempt this?!?! What is this whole art thing?!?! Is this good?!?! And somewhere in between all that doubt, there is joy and fun. Problem solving and improvisation.
What are some of the things when looking back at this 20+ year career with Strung Out do you hold as the most important to you? Is it the records? The consistency with the work or the influence you’ve had for listeners around the globe?
Cruz: To be able to keep living my life in a such a way is all I can ever hope for. Making true connections. As long as I am a good person, as long as I am good to my muse and never take anything for granted and always be awake and alive I am grateful.
Is there one album you look back as particularly important to the band and yourself? Say one that you felt like thing were heading in the right direction?
Cruz: For me, I’d have to say it was the pseudo acoustic record we did called Black Out the Sky. That record was super important in our development as a band and as human beings. It kinda loosened any restraints we thought we had and really showed our fans and ourselves the possibilities of our union as a whole.
I’ve always loved Suburban Teenage and Twisted By Design because I think both records hit at the right time for me (I grew up in Indonesia and discovering your music was a big part in who I was and am); plus I learned that bands could hit hard just as much as they sang with emotion- but I think Songs of Armor and Devotion is very much in the same vein. What was the songwriting process like for Songs of Armor… and when did you guys start writing the record?
Cruz: It all happened really quick. Once we set aside the time to write and record we wasted no time and the ideas all came very fast and effortlessly – for the most part. We had a lot of ‘pent up‘ energy and angst I guess you say.
I love the song “Crows”- did you feel like it was a great stand-alone song- were there reasons why you didn’t want to put it on a record?
Cruz: Who knows? Looking back I don’t even remember. It seemed like it didn’t really fit anywhere but it was too good to just let go, so yeah, that song is kinda like a sad pretty little island.
You’ve got an exhibit coming up in October that will showcase your art and your new children’s book. Is the process of creating a new exhibit the same for you as say, planning an upcoming tour? What can we look forward to at the exhibit?
Cruz: Luckily I have help from some really great people. I’ll be painting up until the last minute so any and all help is greatly needed and appreciated. Along with the illustrations from the book I will also have on display a series of new oil paintings.
Steve Caballero is also part of the exhibit, was it a natural process working together with Steve on this? How did this come together?
Cruz: Steve is a blossoming artist and a great human being. I guess I just got extremely lucky on this one.
Strung Out have a North American tour coming up with The Casualties. How’s life on the road these days, are you guys all still enjoying being on the road?
Cruz: Ask me that on the last week of the tour and you’ll get a different answer than now.
I got to see you guys twice the last couple of times you were down in Australia; will we see you here sometime next year?
Cruz: Yes, I believe something big is in the works for Spring.
Do you have a road map for the next few years or are you happy with playing things as they come?
Cruz: It’s more a map of the ocean and I am chained to the wheel.
Jason Cruz’s Fine Art Exhibition and children’s book launch takes place Friday, October 25th, 2019 at the Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles. Tickets can be booked here. More information can be found on Jason Cruz’s official website. Strung Out’s new album, Songs of Armor and Devotion, is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.
All Work and All Play: An interview with The Drowns
The Drowns prove that having the right work ethic goes a long way
It’s been a busy year for Seattle punks The Drowns. The band, whose individual histories stretch back some 20 years, are a rough and tumble blend of street punk bravado and positive attitude that found its footing with their 2018 debut album View From the Bottom. With tours, festivals, and new music already checked off in 2019, The Drowns put the “work” in working class rock n’ roll with no rest in sight. Fresh off the release of a new 7″ titled The Sound, the band are prepping for their first ever Japanese tour in October and are working on their new full-length album due in the near future.
On top of the globe trotting, the band will take part in this year’s Rock The Ship Festival, their label’s annual punk rock escapade on the high seas, anchoring a lineup that includes noted bands like Cock Sparrer, CJ Ramone, and Subhumans. We spoke to vocalist Aaron Rev about the new 7″, the terrific street punk anthem “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”, and what they’re looking forward to next to cap off an already packed 2019.
I really enjoyed the new 7”- how has the reception been, and how are you guys feeling about these new songs?
Rev: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. So far, so good. The reception has been incredible. And we love the new songs. We just got back from a month and a half tour, and the new jams went over great.
It sounds like the band is very in tune right now and that things have continued to go strong since the debut album?
Rev: Totally. We also have a pretty intense work ethic, so right when we are finished with something we are already working on what’s next. Just keeping the ball rolling.
The songs on the new 7” SOUND amazing- where did you guys record and produce the record?
Rev: We working with our brother Jesse O’Donnell from the band Noi!se at his studio the Autopsy Room in beautiful Tacoma WA. Working with Jesse was great. He’s a great guy, and a great engineer. He’s really got an ear for this type of music, and he pours his heart in to it.
What’s the story behind “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”?
Rev: I live in the south end of Seattle. Years ago I moved to a neighborhood called Georgetown. It was incredible. Tons of artists living in a kind of shitty area, just for cheap rent so they could keep creating. When I’d first moved there, it really was one of the greatest points in my life. I was surrounded by incredible people who inspired me to create. But, we all started to see the gentrification coming, because nothing that great could last forever. The Georgetown neighborhood has a huge building in the middle of it called Rainier Cold Storage, where they used to make and store Rainier Beer. They ended up tearing part of the building down, and for me that symbolized the beginning of the end of what we had. When they were tearing it down, I broke in at night and stole some bricks for the old building, and when I have them around, they serve as reminders to carry the spirit of what we once had along with me wherever I go.
You’ve been playing a bunch of shows over the last few months- how have they been? How are these new songs translating to the live setting?
Rev: The shows have been CRAZY! We’ve gotten tons of support and a great reception to all of the new material. It was a killer tour.
For those who may not be familiar yet, share with us a little history of the Drowns.
Rev: We were all friends in different bands, and we’ve all been in the game for 15-20 years a piece. Our respective bands started to slow down, so we all decided to start a project together. Also, not many bands we knew of were playing the style we wanted to play. So we got together, started writing, and just haven’t stopped.
Are you guys splitting time between Seattle and LA?
Rev: Our drummer Jake lives in LA so we just fly him back and fourth to accommodate, and we head down there. With the internet, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a long distance band going these days.
Speaking of Seattle, I saw on your Twitter that some of you were at a Sounders game- is soccer the sport of choice for The Drowns?
Rev: Totally. Huge soccer fans. MLS and Premier League. Some of us are big hockey fans too.
It’s funny because I felt that “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier” has that stadium anthem feel to it (at least in my head), that its a great song for thousands of people to sing together.
Rev: Hell ya. I’ve worked with the Sounders in the past with my old band. I’d live to have The Downs work with them. It’d be a perfect fit.
Pirates Press has been releasing some great music this year; you guys are in great company. What were some of the reasons for choosing Pirates Press as the new home for your music?
Rev: First and foremost, they are incredible people over there. You be hard pressed to find any other label active right now that gives a shit as much as they do. They are hands on, they are passionate, and they care about the bands, and the music, and the fans. They are truly a great example of how a label should be run.
You were at Punk Rock Bowling this year- how was it? It’s such a massive looking festival from the outside- Did you guys have fun?
Rev: It was KILLER! The lineup this year was insane. The setup of the festival this year was perfect. And, we were crazy surprised when we started playing at 3:30pm and right after we hit that opening chord and turned around, there was a sea of people! We felt so humbled by how many people cane to see us. It was insane.
Are there already plans for a new full-length to follow View From the Bottom? What are the plans for the rest of the year?
Rev: We are definitely always working. So you can bet that you’ll hear about new material soon. But for now, we are going to hit Europe and Japan later this year. And keep on moving.