Tuesday, 13 October 2009
The Boggs standard: A word with Jason Friedman
This interview took place in April 2008, right about the time The Boggs' excellent Forts had recently been subject to a glowing review courtesy of myself...
Jason Friedman is, to all intents and purposes, The Boggs. He writes the songs, he designs the artwork and he oversees the recruitment of whomever the hell he wants to work with on any given day. With the stonking post-punk of Friedman's latest release Forts still ringing joyously in his ears, Finbarr Bermingham expected an impious Stalinist control freak on the other end of the ether when he caught up with the multi-talented Brooklyn based musician recently. Friedman's gracious, informed response suggested such misgivings were slightly off the mark, but we were by no means disappointed...
Your new album, Forts, is extremely difficult to classify. Where do you place it and how did you progress to a point so far away from your debut (2002's We Are The Boggs We Are, which was a reworking of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music 1927-1932)?
Jason Friedman: "I think the thing that excites me the most about making art is looking for the connections in seemingly disparate things. When I started The Boggs, I wanted to discover for myself the ways in which all the music I listened to overlapped and I wanted to do so in a way that skipped past the automatic associations one might have for the specifics of genre.
"I have always thought the idea of there actually being something fundamentally 'rock and roll' or 'punk' or 'blues' or whatever was really kind of false. Fundamentally, it really just didn't ring true that the differences were real. To me, the only differences seemed to be surface ones; ones more about fashion, technology or the way records are marketed.
"It's all fundamentally the same thing to me; whether it was the disenfranchised in America thrashing away on brittle guitars in some late-night shebeen, skinny working class teenagers in postwar England finding their own fierce way through those same songs in a sweaty Cavern or a bunch of kids cutting up the records themselves in a local rec-center in the Bronx - wasn't it all just DIY party music?
"It's like a telephone-game of culture in which these party anthems have been passed around from generation to generation, mutating for over a hundred years."
Is there any reason why you are the only constant member of The Boggs? Do you find it easier to collaborate rather than operate in a fixed unit?
"Well, I'd say it comes from necessity more than anything. I've always had a very specific sense of how I wanted things to develop and a lot of that development has occurred late at night when my OCD tendencies can sort of switch on and take over the process. In that way, it's been a kind of insular route so it has at times been really rewarding to open it up and have the fresh ideas of someone new to play off of.
"In essence, The Boggs is really a recording project and most of the work is done over extended periods of time and the songs built up in an almost painterly manner.
"Where not having a fixed unit has been an issue, it's in performing live. It's hard to grow as a performer when, in reality, things are starting over again every several months.
"Sometimes I get very jealous when I look at friends of mine like The Rapture and I see the ways in which they continue to improve on stage. That comes from their ability to build on each performance and that is something I have never been able to really do in The Boggs."
Is it important for you to be the controlling force when writing/recording, or are there any democratic aspects to the process?
"Yes, I'd say it's important for me to think of myself as in control of the band. I don't want that to sound arrogant. It's not the only way I could ever work and in no way are my ideas in anyway superior to all the incredibly talented people who have at different times called themselves a part of the group. It's just that the thoughts behind what has motivated me with The Boggs have been so specific that it's been easier to assume the role of captain. It's also a role that has intensified over the years. I think there is something very specific about what the Boggs are and even I would be a different sort of writer and performer if I were in another band.
"In the Boggs, I mostly work as musical director. I set up the parameters and the direction and then whomever I'm working with act in response to my initiative and we move the track along together.
"I think one of the ways in which I have improved over the years is knowing when to trust the people I'm working with. Trying to recognize when it's appropriate to step back is important. Most of the time, the engineer or musician is more likely to go where you want them to if you leave them alone."
The list of musicians who have contributed to The Boggs over the years makes for impressive reading (Friedman has counted Enon, Au Revoir Simone and Liars alumni as part of the band at one point or another). How do you get involved with these people and what artists would you like to collaborate with, in an ideal world?
"Oh I don't know. I'm not sure I could really answer that. Maybe a filmmaker? I'd like to try scoring a film; that would be fun. And I could certainly learn a lot by watching a great director in action. I've definitely been extremely privileged to work with so many amazing people. In some cases they've sought me out, in some cases I've asked people to fill very specific rolls and sometimes it just kind of happened."
Like some other notable New Yorkers (Lou Reed, Liars), you've spent a lot of time in Berlin. What is so attractive about the city; how does it differ from New York and influence your work?
"I went to Berlin at a time when I really needed to step a way from things. I went there and basically disappeared into the creative process for a year and a half. If you know what you want to work on, Berlin is great for that. There is a feeling of being very far away from the world there. It's slow and it's quiet: I think that was what I needed at the time.
"It also seems to be a somewhat lawless or apocalyptic place. Just about every major event in the 20th century happened in one way or another in Berlin. Those stains are still all over the city and in a lot of ways it still feels like a post-war environment. Creatively, all that darkness and space really had an impact on me. It helped guide a number of the themes. Not in a literally historical manner, but in its mood and temperament it had a tremendous effect."
Thematically, what is Forts about?
"It's about the kinds of figurative and literal things people make for themselves to both deal with and avoid ordinary life. It's about routines and habits and the rooms, cities and imaginary spaces where these habits and routines take place. It's about compulsion, restlessness, isolation and people who should know themselves and each other much better than they do."
What are the main influences on your music, both musical and others?
"While I was making Forts I was listening to a lot of early hip-hop, Afro-Beat, funk, ska and soul.
"I watch a lot of movies. I end up spending all day watching things if I'm not careful. And I'll watch all kinds of films really, from snooty seven-hours-plus Hungarian films to teen comedies. You can't miss with a good rom-com. Nor can you with the Marx Brothers or something like It Happened One Night.
"I look at art. Paintings and drawings mostly but I also I borrow from a good many of the 70's conceptual artists and people like Joseph Beuys.
I hope this doesn't look ridiculous but, a lot of my notions about this kind of non-linear history of rock and the kind of de-compartmentalised anti-genreism I go on about were shaped by reading Gilles Deleuze."
The cover of We Are The Boggs We Are features a music magazine with The Strokes on the cover. What was the thinking behind that? Do you think The Boggs fitted in with the early 2000's New York band scene?
"I think we fit in more than The Strokes did to be honest. By that I mean that those guys were never really a part of the scene. You'd see them bobbing up here and there, but really they weren't really a part of things. To me the New York scene was something that really grew in the late 90's. There were a few really great rock and soul dance parties around town and there was a gang of kids who all hung out together and ended up in all these bands in the 00's.
"The Strokes sounded the part, but they didn't have much to do with anything else. They might as well have been from L.A.
"I always like to fill album covers with details and inside-jokes. So much of the first album to me was about re-thinking assumptions and I new most people would automatically associate our sound with cliché images of sharecroppers and miners. None of that had any relevance to me since I discovered that music in record stores. That was my context for it and I wanted to display it that way as if to say, 'This music is not what you think, it is not something from long ago, it is now.'
"The cover was based on the Faces' First Step LP as kind of an answer to any criticism that we might just be a novelty 1920's revivalist act. The Faces reworked folk and blues in their way, The Velvet Underground did it their way, Wire did it their way etc. I wanted to say we are no different and that this is what the process is: everyone stealing from each other and in the process, rediscovering it. The England scarf was another clue. This music doesn't just come from America and Africa it comes from everywhere and its mutations are infinite. And all of this was done in the summer before the Strokes debut when every magazine had them on the cover when everyone was wondering if they were the next great leap forward. I was pointing the finger and saying they are nothing new."
How do you like to spend your time away from music? Do you have any interesting pastimes?
"I draw a lot. That's my stuff all over the new album. I also make films and videos; although I don't do that so much anymore. And I write. I watch a lot of football which, because of the time difference between England and America, means getting up at the crack of dawn and getting my weary bones to a pub in the city. Ridiculous."
What is your favourite music of the past year?
"The new Hot Chip LP."
Interview written for The Skinny
Video: The Boggs - Remember The Orphans