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January 3, 2023

Containers for the Colossal: A Conversation between Jeff Jackson and Meghan Lamb

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Author/musician Meghan Lamb in conversation with author/musician Jeff Jackson:

Meghan Lamb: These days, it seems like almost every writer I meet wants to become a musician, and every musician I meet wants to become a writer. It seems odd, therefore, that there aren’t more people who invest themselves deeply in both creative practices. Is it a matter of time and energy? Is it simply too difficult for most people to transition from one mode to another? And—for that matter—are there essential differences between the processes of writing books and writing music?

Over the course of several weeks, I carried on a conversation with writer and musician Jeff Jackson (the author of Mira Corpora, Novi Sad, and Destroy All Monsters, and a singer/lyricist in the band Julian Calendar, which recently out out two EPs: Forgeries of the Future and Severed Tongues Speak. This conversation came hot on the heels of my fourth book publication—COWARD—and the release of a fourth album—MASQUE—by my band, Kill Scenes. We had a lot (too much!) to talk about, including: the writing of lyrics versus sentences, our lyrical and performative influences, the qualities we look for (and strive for) in music writing, and the ways we’ve evolved as dual-minded artists.


Jeff Jackson: I find myself thinking differently about language when I’m writing lyrics than when I’m writing fiction. There’s something about writing lyrics that’s closer to poetry - as well as writing plays. I’m more interested in simple and provocative phrases that can carry complicated and contradictory meanings. Something that might be able to quickly shift the atmosphere of a room. There’s an ideal bluntness that doesn’t seem to enter into my prose, at least not that I notice.

In a song lyric, the unit of measure for me is the phrase. One great phrase is worth more than a well-written verse. And while I care deeply about sentences, in my fiction I’m more concerned about writing compelling chapters than crafting memorable individual phrases.

What’s the difference for you between writing lyrics and fiction? Are your ambitions different for how you’d like the language to work? How would you like audiences to receive them?

ML: Well, in my particular band, Sean does a lot of the initial lyric-writing and my lyrical contributions are more editorial: tweaking a verse or a line in the chorus (or eliminating lines that feel like overkill to me). Usually I “edit down” songs with the aims of thematically unifying the imagery, making a particular lyric more “surprising” or “unexpected,” or just simplifying the lyrics (to help individual “phrases” stand out more, along the lines of what you said). I mentioned this in my playlist for my novel–COWARD–but I think a lot of my lyrical ethos is derived from something Michael Gira said about writing lyrics like the language of advertising. Keeping things pared down–and, sometimes, even colossally/idiotically “open”--gives listeners room to project in their own imaginations, and there’s so much power in that.

The songs that I write entirely myself are usually rough musical tracks Sean comes up with and then can’t wrap his mind around lyrically. I’ve noticed that they tend to be the softer/more ballad-y songs (like “Word of Warmth” on our latest album) or (conversely) the weirdest songs (like “Teeth”). Sometimes, they’re songs that Sean’s ready to give up on even though they’re songs that excite me (usually because there’s an unusually long/intense build, or some dark, intriguing layer that complicates the most prominent surface layer). When I’m writing lyrics, I think my foremost goal is to just surprise Sean with the song’s potential, to show him what an interesting song it is (by lyrically illustrating the weird capability I perceived in the music).

JJ: I’ve come to think of surprise as really important in terms of process and the end result. There’s a John Ashbery quote about how “surprise is the one essential ingredient of great art.” At the most elemental level, surprise is much more than plot twists and unexpected reveals–it’s one of the main ways we convey pleasure in art.

ML: On the surface level, writing fiction is obviously different in the sense that I’m not working from a literal “track” or some literally recorded music. But in a strange way, I actually am working from different kinds of figurative “tracks” in my head. I spend months and months in latency periods not writing at all, just moving around through life and thinking intensely about what I want to write, then sit down and spill out a list of everything that “happens” in a piece of fiction (then step away from it, and when I return to actually “write,” I write in a similar way to how I interact with Sean’s tracks: sticking to some basic rhythm and skeletal structure, but improvising and experimenting a lot within it at the sentence level, usually with the ethos of “showing” myself something new about something I’ve been cycling in my head for a long time. I also write sentences to the beat of a little metronome ticking in my brain (and revise to perfectly fit the beat of that little metronome), so my fiction can be a lot like lyric writing in that sense.

I guess the main real difference, for me, is that writing fiction involves a different kind of self-exposure and vulnerability than lyric writing. I think both are equally sneaky (and involve an equally subversive kind of confession), but you have different layers to hide behind in the two different mediums.

With that said: I definitely feel less pressure to be emotionally honest in lyrics. For me–in part because lyrics are just shorter than fiction–lyrics are less about embodying an experience than swirling around a void in interesting ways.

JJ: The wonderful writer and editor Jeremy Davies considers Mark E. Smith of The Fall to be one of the great poets of the last 50 years. He’s been trying to put together a Collected Lyrics that would show how his work shines on the page. For you, who are some of the most literary musicians and songwriters? Or is being “literary” a value that’s even worthwhile when it comes to writing lyrics?

ML: I have no idea what “literary” means anymore as applied to literature, let alone song lyrics, but there are definitely a lot of musicians who have a singular lyrical ethos/aesthetics I admire.

Elizabeth Fraser is one of the first musicians who comes to mind. I’m always telling people how much I love Cocteau Twins lyrics, and they usually think I’m joking because you can’t really make out what most of the individual words even are. That’s a big part of what I love about them, though! What imaginative freedom that offers (while also developing such a distinctive emotional atmosphere through the sounds and textures of the words rather than the literal meanings of them).

I greatly admire Diamanda Galas, particularly the ways she appropriates and transforms other texts, as she does with “This is the Law of the Plague” (wherein the first portion of the song is taken directly from Leviticus chapter 15, Psalms 22, 58, and 59 of the Old Testament). She contorts her voice like an absolute demon to embody the grotesqueness of those Psalms, the grotesque performances of moral purity and righteous judgment. And then, in the very end, she switches the lyrics and vocal performance from the grotesque persona to her own voice disdainfully analyzing the other: “The Devil is an impotent man/He says it nice and plays himself off as the friend. [...]/So you will miss when you aim at this evil man/Who cannot get it up/Except/In the TV public operating room/Of another man's misfortune.” I can’t think of a more apt lyrical compendium of “the times we live in” than that!

JJ: The way Diamanda is able to inhabit and transform such a wide range of different songs and texts – from Delta blues to AIDS-inspired poetry to traditional gospel to Led Zeppelin to classical forms – is astonishing. I used to dream about being able to study singing with her, but that’s another story.

ML: That would be my dream too, gah! I think she’s the only person in the world I’d actually want to study singing with.

She has such a wonderfully wicked sense of humor too. I’m thinking of the introduction she gives to her cover/transformation of the song “Gloomy Sunday,” describing how Billie Holiday’s producers made her change the last verse to make this otherwise depressing song (that’s called “Gloomy Sunday, for goodness’ sake) into something “more cheerful” and “upbeat.” Diamanda says something like: “And thus, the first pop music was born!” Obviously, Diamanda’s version of the last verse is soul-shattering.

I could talk about so many more inspirations–and initially wrote down a dozen more–but I’ll refrain for now, knowing we share a lot of the same influences!

JJ: When I was young, I was into classic songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Elvis Costello—people whose lyrics could stand up on the page as literary artifacts. Discovering punk gave me a keener appreciation of how words can play wildly different roles in the overall equation of a song. One of my favorite songs is “Split” by the Swiss band LiLiPUT. The words are almost nonsense, but they still propel the song and inject moments of startling emotion.

Critic Chuck Eddy wrote that the stutter in The Who’s “Can’t Explain” says more about teenage angst than their entire rock opera “Tommy.” And I agree. The way Corin Tucker sings “It’s a dumb song, but I’ll write it anyway” in Sleater-Kinney’s “Good Things” twists five different emotions out that simple phrase and makes it profound. The way PJ Harvey inhabits the overblown lyrics of “To Bring You My Love” is a dare that she wins – the song is utterly convincing on her own terms.

ML: YES! We’ve talked a bit about songs that are a kind of femme or masculine burlesque, and I think PJ Harvey’s embodiment of that song is both: in equal (and in equally huge) amounts! When I think of that song, the first adjective that comes to mind is: engorged. That song is totally engorged.

JJ: My impulse in writing for Julian Calendar was to make the words as simple as possible. It’s important they leave room for different musical approaches and pockets where the musicians can twist and explode the song when necessary. I thought about bands like The Minutemen, Stooges, Swans, and especially Vulgar Boatman, this forgotten indie band from the 1980s who wrote amazing hyper-minimalist lyrics that still contain a lot of depth. Maybe because I write novels, I never felt the need to prove anything by making the words overtly literary. But one thing the lyrics share with my fiction is what Mark E. Smith calls “The Three R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition.”

ML: I LOVE that! I’m always telling my creative writing students (repeating, repeating, and repeating, haha) that repetition is a flag for narrative change: a simple, direct signal for the intervals where everything else is shifting, morphing, becoming more complex.

JJ: In many ways, it’s easy to see how people are the sum of their influences. But how does what you like and listen to *differ* from what the band does - and maybe also what you find are your own particular talents?

ML: Oh wow, Jeff, that’s such a loaded question! Yes, we all listen to very different things, but we do have a lot of common heroes, namely: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Killing Joke, and NIN. And we’re constantly discovering common loves and/or amusements during practice when, say, Jon will play a warm-up riff that sounds like a B-52’s song, and Sean and I will both automatically start singing, “It wasn’t a rock/It was a rock lobster!”

My bandmates don’t lean quite as far as I do in the direction of harsh/brutal/a-melodic noise and industrial music, but they’re coming around to moving or gesturing in different directions. Every now and then, Sean will show me a song with some rather pared down layers (pared down for him, at least) and say, “Hey, I’m taking your advice and keeping this one simple,” or he’ll strip down the backing track to “no more than what’s necessary,” and that makes me really happy. As much as I appreciate his big ambitious compositions, I feel like some of the most exciting “big” moments in music come from open chambers where things can grow and expand, where you have room to surprise yourself. I feel like my voice is its most powerful when I have no lyrics at all: just minutes of building instrumental layers to interact with, where I can be as feral and crazy as I want. And I think when I have space to be crazy and feral, I often show how we can push the song further, or even push part of the song into another distinct movement of the song.

In terms of pooling influences, though, I think we’ve felt some pressure–especially recently–to assimilate into a style that’s both singular and consistently identifiable enough that audiences can find us. When we’re writing songs, recording, and playing live, I don’t really care about what genre people situate us into, but when I’m reaching out to publishers to promote our work and venues to book shows, I really struggle to find appropriate, non icky-feeling terms to describe us.

I think part of this weirdness around style/genre is related to how much the makeup of the band’s members has changed over the years. For example: before I waltzed back into Kill Scenes, most of their songs featured a female vocalist–Margo Elena Mejia–who has a lovely, hauntingly ethereal voice, so the band was marketing itself as “dream pop.” I don’t really have a dream pop voice (damned if I do know what to call my voice, though), so the moniker fits us a lot more awkwardly now. I’ll still call us a “dark dream pop” band from time to time if I can tell that term will mean something to the person I’m talking to, but I feel kinda like a fat guy in a too-small t-shirt drawing attention to my squishiest rolls whenever I do that.

Does Julian Calendar experience similar tension between the music you play and the obligation to describe or summarize the music you play?

JJ: We don’t, though sometimes I worry that’s because we don’t have a good way to describe our music. “New Wave meets No Wave”? “Post-Punk plus Funk”?

In some ways, we’re “Post Genre'' -- we love many types of music and there’s nothing we won’t try. On our Crimson Static EPs, we have a disco song (“In Your Love”), riot grrl surf punk (“Men Are Canceled”), country-tinged dirge (“This Darkness”), hardcore tune (“Soundtrack of Your Life”), industrial noise (“Last Transmission”), R&B inflected slow jam (“Numb”), ethereal ballad (“Lost Lost Lost”), B-52s pop (“Maraca”), and so on. There’s a stylistic current that connects all the songs, but it’s hard to put into words.

Maybe we’re trying to destroy any notion of a Julian Calendar “sound” as much as build one up. Our new series of EPs Forgeries of the Future and Severed Tongues Speak push into that even harder. During the pandemic we had to find new ways to work and used loops, samples, and more electronic textures. We never thought about whether we could recreate anything live. We leapt into the unknown.

The song “Strt Frm Scrtch” is a manifesto about embracing new ways of creation during tough times. The song purposefully has lots of empty space as well as an infectious chant. Even though the new songs are weirder, many of them are the catchiest things we’ve recorded: “Property Is Theft” is squelchy power pop. “Language Lessons” has a electro-roc swagger. “Dekadenz” is a slinky glam rock ballad.

ML: Haha, for a second, I read “slinky” as “stinky.” Maybe it’s “slinky meets stinky”?

JJ: Over the years as a novelist and playwright, I’ve developed something of my own private artistic language around how I create work. It’s closely related to both process and sensibility. It’s not something I usually articulate to myself, but I find myself running up against it when I get stuck or struggle to do something new or radically different. I wonder if you’ve developed a similar language around your fiction writing – and if so, how that’s translated to your work in Kill Scenes?

ML: I think my brain works similarly in the sense that I don’t naturally articulate it to myself while I’m writing. Teaching–and leveraging my own experiences as a writer for students–has kind of forced me to put certain modes and processes into language when I might otherwise have forgotten them (which has been both helpful and inhibiting).

But with that said: I think my whole practice revolves around miniaturization and looking at big things on a miniature scale, finding ways to make small things a kind of elegant shorthand for big things. When I feel stuck in my writing, I’ll often stop writing “the story” or “the novel” in the shape of a “big” container and write odd little prose poems collaged from copy/pasted phrases I pull from the text (some of the frame sections in Failure to Thrive actually come from these poems). These little poems feel like little shorthand compendiums of the project, and they help me converse with my own brain, my own language. It’s interesting to comb back through my own work and just intuitively cherry pick whatever sticks out to me. I definitely notice things I didn’t notice when I was trying to make phrases build and accumulate into some kind of verisimilitude.

Lyric writing feels like it comes from a similar impulse. There’s a whole associative world in your brain, and the “small” object you collage from that associative world helps you commune with its essence, turn it into something tangible (and therefore shareable). In that sense, the small thing can feel so much larger than the big thing: a container for the colossal.

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