TT with HD: Jim Roll
[Ed. note: Jim Roll and his new line up will rock the Old Town (corner of Liberty and Ashley in Ann Arbor) on
Sunday, 28 May at 8:00pm. If you know his music, you're practically already there. If you don't
know his music, you should change your schedule so you can make it to the Old Town.
For more information on Jim Roll, check his MySpace or his Web 1.0 website.
Also his car is for sale. There's contact information on those websites.]
JR: I haven't been on one in a while. I weigh like two hundred and ten pounds. Is that going to work?
HD: Yeah, sure. Just let me scootch back a little further. Yeah, that's the beauty of levers, that you can ...
JR: ... right, adjust 'em! Wooooooo!
HD: Okay, so you have the ability to leave me up in the air.
JR: [laugh] Let me try moving forward just a hair.
JR: That is funny. I guess I should ...
HD: Well, it's a cooperative endeavor, this'll work. [laugh]
JR: Okay. Now I don't know if I've got enough leverage, I feel 'dependent'. [laugh] Okay, cool.
HD: You know what, given the way the sunlight plays through the leaves, right now it's perfect, because there's not a lot of shadows on you. Do you mind if we go ahead and get the picture out of the way?
JR: Go ahead.
HD: [Ed. note: picture taking finished] Originally, I thought about asking you to pose with a football, because in my background reading I discovered that you started off college on a football scholarship?
JR: That's true, actually!
HD: As a quarterback.
HD: So I wanted to put the following hypothetical question to you. Let's say you've just scored a touchdown to make it a one-point game, one second left on the clock, you have a choice between a two-point conversion to win, or kick an extra point to tie? What do you do?
JR: Arggggh! I always said that if you're at home, you go for the tie and if you're on the road then you go for the win.
HD: That's sort of by the book.
JR: Yeah, that is sort of by-the-book, so let me think about what I would do. I have to say it would be by how confident I felt, if we felt like we could move the ball really well in a tied situation, just definitely kick butt in the overtime. I guess my answer is that I'm definitely a gambler, so my true nature would be to go for the win.
HD: Were you a throwing quarterback?
JR: Yeah. Much more than a running quarterback.
HD: So do you still chuck the old football back and forth with people every once in a while, or is that just totally ...
JR: ... totally in the history books. For one thing my shoulder's just shot and it has been for like twenty years. I can throw, but not like I used to be able to. I play softball with whoever ...
HD: ... like in a league?
JR: Yeah, for All Music Guide. I'm the oldest guy on the team and kind of the most athletic, so it's kind of an interesting combination. But I can't really throw it much any more. It doesn't interest me a real lot, although I like to watch. I'm a Chicagoan, so if the Chicago Bears are doing well, I'll watch it. And when I first moved here in '91, I did make it to a few Michigan games and they were really pretty cool, I thought.
HD: So when you moved here, was that directly from Frankfurt, Germany?
JR: No, I moved here for Social Work school in '91 but then in '93 I went to Frankfurt and then I came back.
HD: Okay, I got the timeline screwed up.
JR: Yeah, I had met a girl here, who was from Bonn. She was on an exchange program and she was German. We had a really intense relationship. She was here for like a year, and I went there and tried to stay, and then we tried to do it long-distance, and then finally sanity prevailed.
HD: So you were playing music on the streets of Frankfurt?
JR: Yeah, there were two different areas, one was by the college, which I would have liked to have played more. The other was almost like this historic town square. I bought a Chinese guitar for like 800 francs, or I forget ...
HD: ... Marks?
JR: Marks, yeah, I was going to say 'francs'?! boy it has been a while. It was a pretty good guitar. I'd go out there and if I played my own stuff, people would kind of like it, but it turned out that this area was a hair more touristy. So I would get bored once in a while and I would play a Paul Simon song or something and then everybody would go nuts and throw money in there. You do Slip Sliding Away by Paul Simon and all the money would come rolling out. Or I'd do like Mother and Child Reunion or something and for some reason they loved Paul Simon. I'm not a cover guy. In fact, any time I do a cover of a major star, typically it's a fake, because I don't even usually know all the words. I'm just going on memory, Hey, Slip Sliding Away ...
HD: Did you learn any German songs?
JR: I did not. My German was really bad. I used to order an ice cream and I'd say: Schokolade-Eis. And they would sense my accent and they wouldn't even let me finish ordering in German. I did take some classes, but I don't speak good German, so I didn't really get into the traditional music over there. Frankfurt is such an industrial town. I mean, sure, it has lots of historic areas and I was kind of in the academic zone, because my girlfriend was in school. Most of those people just wanted to talk in English. There wasn't a lot of super traditional stuff going on.
HD: So you have a show coming up at the Old Town ...
JR: ... on the 28th ...
HD: ... right, on the 28th of May 2006, which is not this coming Sunday, but the Sunday after that. Is that set going to be anything like the most recent show I saw of yours at the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore?
JR: Yes! It will be ...
HD: ... same lineup except for Neil Cleary?
JR: Exactly. Neil went back to Vermont and he'll probably be back in July to work on his record. But it'll be the same bass player and drummer ...
HD: ... the drummer was Matt Jones, and the bass player, I didn't catch his name?
JR: It's Michael Godwin. Mike grew up here, went to Pioneer [High School] and went to San Francisco and Texas. He was gone for 20 years and he's just moved back. He's a great bass player and he's done a lot of touring and playing out in San Francisco. He had just moved back and knew me from people out there, who said, You know, look up Jim Roll when you get here. I got really lucky, because he's awesome and he came looking for me, and I needed a bass player. We just started playing together, but I already consider him like just an awesome person, who I want to play with a long time. It'll be him and Matt Jones, and Jim Carey, my other regular drummer in town, if he's around, he'll certainly be welcome. And Tim Delaney, who I also play with a lot, might be there. But it'll definitely be a band gig and it'll probably be that lineup. Plus, my friend Sam Vail, he lives over in Ypsi. He's a great lead guitar player and hopefully he'll be there for that show. He's got a band called Vailcode, so if you go on MySpace and look up Vailcode as in Morse Code ...
HD: So it's going to be loud, all electric, it's going to blow the place apart?
JR: Yeah, hopefully! When I play the Old Town I always play with a band and play loud. I think I'm one of the few people, that they don't completely complain when we rock out in there, because usually we do a good job.
HD: So did anybody complain about the Crazy Wisdom Show?
JR: No ...
HD: ... Randall Beek, didn't say, Jim, don't ever, ever do that again?
JR: No, quite the opposite, he basically said to me, Hey last week we brought our band up. And the manager for the night came up and said, Great set!
HD: Well, it was amazing. I had never experienced anything like that at Crazy Wisdom. Usually, what I think of there is somebody on an acoustic guitar strumming quietly and singing softly, or maybe at most somebody bowing a cello.
JR: Well, from my standpoint that kind of show is extremely rare. Because usually, if you play with a band, it's in a loud environment to a certain degree: you know, you play a club or you play a drinking establishment. It was a rare opportunity to do a full band, but still have complete attention. That's a little more rare than some of the other options, which is either: play a small place and have full attention and be kind of be by yourself or with one accompanist; or play a big place and not quite have everybody's full attention, but be able to rock out. So it's rare and particularly enjoyable to try to do the subtleties being in a band, because the subtlety of playing in a band often gets lost in the adrenaline if you're in a bar, and players don't get to be as subtle as they want. You just don't get to do it in quiet environments very often. So it was a very kind of fun thing. It was also our first gig with that line-up.
HD: So is there some venue around here, or nationwide that is sort of like your fantasy venue, a place that would really love to play that you've never played before?
JR: Huh. Well, I've played every place here basically. Like The Ark and the Old Town, and the Blind Pig, and Rick's, and I don't know, everything. Despite everything I just said, I have a little bit of a hard time playing The Ark with a band, because I think the room is so well sound-treated or something, that it's kind of like a vacuum. So to me, when a song ends, the acoustics of the room itself seem to ...
HD: ... swallow everything up?
JR: Yeah, swallow everything up. I also don't draw 450 people there, so it's probably not the best fit for me with a band. Nationally, you know, it's a trick question, because most the places I know about, I've played. A really neat one was the Bottom Line in New York, which holds about 500 people. It's kind of like The Ark, but a little more of a 'rock' room. It's like where Springsteen and people played real early on. I played there a few times opening sets for people, so it was a packed house. It's also a place that's a listening room and that's got the vibe and the echo of a rock club, but the listening audience. It's kind of big, yet intimate, so it's a unique combination of everything. Beyond that, I don't know enough about clubs where I haven't played nationally to say that there'd be a dream club to play.
HD: You mentioned MySpace. You now have a MySpace page, or site, I'm not sure what the right ...
JR: ... nomenclature ...
HD: ... yeah, nomenclature, is. But I know there's some weirdness going on with the Telegraph Company, the label that put out Inhabiting the Ball, and I was wondering if that unpleasant experience and the MySpace launch, and the fact that you've now started your own recording studio ... would it be wrong to interpret all that as an attempt by you, not to put too much of a socialist spin on it, but to take ownership of the means of production? To take control, at least, of your own musical future?
JR: Well, that's certainly a part of my thinking. It's not the complete thinking. To a certain degree, not having music up on MySpace now is a situation where I can't ... Everybody does it and you gotta do it now. Everybody from the biggest bands in the world to the smallest bands. It's a little bit of a playing-field leveler for distribution, so it fits into what you're saying. But as far as MySpace, frankly, there's no better way than that to organize your gigs and let people hear a few songs. So you just kinda gotta do it. So that's that. The other side of the question, though, I do go back and forth about my next record, really wanting to have complete control over it. It's not even a huge reaction to Telegraph, or even New West Records before that, which was a bigger label and ended kind of similarly. Except that they didn't go up in flames and disappear like Telegraph more or less has.
HD: So what are the details of that? If I wanted to buy a second copy of Inhabiting the Ball, how would I go about doing that?
JR: I don't even know. Because there's only two ways. If you're computer-savy you could go to iTunes and download it, and I think it's pretty cheap. You can download the record. But I was particularly proud of the artwork and stuff on that record, so that's one where I like to have the real deal. I've had no copies for a year or two at least now, so when I want copies, I have to go to Amazon and buy them.
HD: So Amazon now has them?
JR: They don't have them, but there are used dealers around the country who have new and-or used copies. Finally, a month or so ago I just went on and bought up like 20 or 25 copies of my own record, just so I could have a few. I had zero for while, not even a personal copy!
HD: Well, if you get down to zero again, I might let you borrow mine, but I'm not going to let you have it or even buy it.
JR: Aww, thanks. It's funny because on that other question, the main reason I was thinking of controlling my musical future, was that a few things have happened in the music business as far as CD sales. It's gotten kind of weird, because of downloading and sharing, which is all totally cool by me, by the way. But it seemed to me that no matter how big a label I was on, that I always sold about the same number of records. Although I never audited any of the labels, so I don't know for sure how many I really sold, but it was always a few thousand. The first record I put out, the record on New West, which was distributed by Sony, and then the Telegraph Company, which was kind of an indie, they all seemed to sell the same amount. There's a few things going on, one of which is: with time, the same amount actually means more. Artists who used to guarantee to sell 5000 will only sell 2000 now, but their audience hasn't shrunk. It's just because distribution is different. So mostly I'm just thinking, well, I don't want to do a label again, because I get a $1.50 a record instead of $8.00 a record. And do the math. You know, I'm 40 years old and I just want to make good records. I've had enough exposure nationally and internationally, where you know, okay, to me it was a trade off. The people who put out my record, they'd spend $25,000 on the promotion, and I would take that and not make money off my records. Now, I'm really happy with the promotion job that both of those labels did. I've had enough exposure and now I will just make good records and let the music speak for itself.
HD: So how close are you to putting out the next record?
JR: Horribly not close.
HD: On the creative end? Is the material there and it's just a matter of ...?
JR: It's there's only about half the material ready that I would need to finish a record. That said, I'm really good at coming up with good material when I'm in the process. So that's part of it. And the other part of it is just having time, because I was recording so many other people. So the good news is, it's my absolute priority to make a record this year for myself. And I'm increasingly having more time to do so. And I've made that such a goal that I hope to have it done. The bad news is that I'm getting booked up like crazy right now in my studio and it's going to take a pretty supreme effort to make time for myself. It's not really bad news, but it's bad news for that goal.
HD: It's a good problem to have. And excellent problem to have.
JR: Yes. Right now I get so much satisfaction out of playing bass with other people's bands.
HD: Upright bass?
JR: No, just electric. I'm an okay bass player, just to make songs work. I'm not like an expert or anything, but I can play in bands and stuff. For me, any kind of making music right now feels like a million bucks, so it's a good deal. But writing-wise, for new material, I'm just coming out of a pretty long thaw, so it's humbling. It's not humbling like I'm really trying and I'm not coming up with stuff. It's just humbling to realize, Oh my god, I haven't written a batch of songs in five years! Because I put a record out every other year for six years. So three records. And then this last four years since my last record, it's been a little humbling.
HD: You mentioned in one of the emails that we exchanged that it was your girlfriend's birthday a couple of weeks ago. For somebody like you, who's a songwriter, it's what you're about and what you do, so do you put pressure on yourself, or do you feel pressure, when you're romantically involved with someone, to write them a love song? I mean it seems like that's just there, and I was wondering, do you just go ahead and write them a song and that becomes their song, that you would never ever record, because it's too personal and intimate, or are you even allow to talk about it?
JR: Yeah, I have written a couple of songs, never for a birthday, or anything like that, but I have written a couple of songs directly about people I was in a very good functional relationship with. It's very few and far between for me. For some reason, I ended up writing a lot more of the other kind of song, where things weren't working out and it's about them [laugh]. So I don't really have any 'secret' songs that are just for a specific person so it's pretty up on the level for me. I don't feel an enormous amount of pressure, although I do think there is a little something to what you're saying. When you're with somebody and they know, and you know, that you are particularly good at expressing yourself, and so I would think that on some level that would mean a lot to them, and it might be an undercurrent of: will he go there?
HD: So no one's ever said to you: Jim, when are you going to write me a song?
JR: I don't think anybody's ever said that to me dead seriously. But I'm a very binge writer, and I don't write everyday. I'm not someone who's always writing, so it might not be the same for me as for somebody who's just writing every day and the person knows that they're writing every day, and it's like: Hey! What about me?
HD: Well, here's a non-sequitur: why do you want to sell your car?
JR: Oh. I got divorced and it's in my wife's name, for one. Two, it is a more expensive car than I need. It's a 2003 Subaru, and now that I work out of the home, except when I go to teach at WCC, I thought that getting a beater would maybe make a little more sense than having a big payment. So I don't want to refinance and buy it off my ex-wife, and secondarily I was thinking of downsizing.
HD: But you need something big enough to haul all your crap around, right? You've got a fair amount of stuff that you've got to cart to any particular show.
JR: That's true. But, if I can get a '94 Accord wagon, and cut off maybe $400 worth of payments a month, I'd be all for that! [laugh].
HD: So anything else on your mind?
JR: On my mind. Hmmm. Well, I'm obsessed with recording right now.
HD: Actually, one question I had meant to ask you, with all the recording you're doing. Now, Neil Cleary, he actually blew into town, out of Vermont is where he lives, right, and he crashed with you the whole time you were working?
HD: What kind of a house guest is he?
JR: Well, I've toured the United States with Neil, I've toured England with Neil, he's played drums with me ... he's a great drummer, he tours with a lot of people. We also toured again in the United States as a part of a band behind this other guy, Neil Pollack. So we've spent a lot of time together. He's pretty unassuming. He sleeps through anything, which is good, because he was kind of on the couch for this trip. In the past I've had guest rooms. He knows a lot of people here, because he's been here a lot. He had some nights where he could just go out and see friends that he's made. And what kind of house guest ... you know, he's a road dog, truthfully. He tours for a living now, that's where it's gotten to. So he's one of those special kind of people who sometimes seem as comfortable in a situation as anybody, and at other times seems kind of absent. He can check out a little bit. But I think that is part of the mentality of people who can live on the road, or maybe it's a byproduct of it. Two weeks is a long time to be working every day with somebody. Occasionally, I know Neil, he could just kind of check out and come back a day or two later, even if he was walking around and talking to you. So he's a good house guest.
HD: This recording studio you have set up now, is it all 'live' recording or do you do it track-by-track with a click track, or? And if someone screws up can you just go right in there and fix it? Do you have philosophical issues about that?
JR: No, well, actually everything is a philosophy. It's a small studio. We were talking about the in-the-box [Ed. note: reference to conversation before mounting the totter about the virtues of submitting to a box inside which you have to think], we're very in-a-box down there. I've got a lot of nice wall treatments and good gear and stuff. It's a little better set up for piece-by-piece recording. Neil did everything to a click track, and built everything track by track. He's a monster musician on any instrument. People who learn on piano and drums and then gravitate to the guitar and then get good on the guitar: it's all over, because they can play anything. He played every single instrument, and his stuff sounds like it's being played live. My philosophy on it is, if I had an unlimited budget personally, and if the people who came to me had unlimited budgets, I would certainly record analog and as live as possible. That said, my goal is to bring that kind of spirit to the situation, no matter what people's budget is, or what my budget is. So if we build songs, I try and do the best of both sides of the coin, which is to still make it feel homey, and have its own rawness, whatever raw means to a given person. I don't want to make perfect records, because perfect means boring to me, it really does.
HD: Yeah, on some of your tracks that you've actually put out on real CD's, there's one where you hear you cough at the end. There's an, I don't know, charming quality to that, that it was a real person recording it ...
JR: ... same as this [Ed. note: pointing to teeter totter]. Yeah, I like that a lot. There was this movie, Grizzly Man, did you ever see that?
JR: It's about a guy who ... do you know anything about it?
HD: No, I have no idea what you're talking about.
JR: Okay, there's a movie called Grizzly Man, and there's this German filmmaker called Werner Herzog ...
HD: ... now, that name I know ...
JR: ... well, Herzog edited it, but basically a guy, by all accounts a fairly crazy kind of naturalist, went up and spent time in, I can't even remember where it is, he'd go up to this isolated place, where all the grizzly bears are ...
HD: ... oh, is this the one where he and his girlfriend got eaten by the grizzly bears?!
HD: Then I have heard of it.
JR: Well, Richard Thompson, it turns out, did the soundtrack for that. I watched the movie and that was fine. But to me as a musician in a recording studio, the real charm of that movie is to watch the bonus feature, which is a full hour in the studio with Herzog, Thompson, and a few of these people, doing the soundtrack. Actually, I've become soured on a lot of special features on DVD's, because I don't want to know how things are made, because I want to buy the illusion. You know, if they tell me that Frodo falling off the mountain is really a blue screen, then the next time I watch it, all I think is about the blue screen. But Richard Thompson in that, he just said: Look, you know, if you do four takes and keep taking out all the mistakes, eventually you're just going to have a bunch of notes and nothing left. And it's the same exact thing, where I just feel like, leaving in the humane-ness, like leaving in the teeter totter, is like putting it into some kind of context, making them be real people, just makes a lot of sense, and certainly in stark contrast to what they're doing in major productions nowadays. I love leaving coughs in and stuff like that. For some people I work with, it's not right for their music. But we'll still leave something about their essence in there, or else why make the record?