Jesse Malin is a lifer in a business that rarely features lifers anymore. He started playing music as a teenager in Queens, in the beloved and infamous D Generation, migrated to lower Manhattan, and, but for relentless touring, he has never really left. His influences are obvious; he isn’t shy about them—the Dolls, the Stones, the Replacements, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen—and his milieu is unmistakable, too: an expanse of blocks that includes St. Mark’s Place and Tompkins Square Park, which spawned a great many other punks and garage-rock specialists in the three decades since Malin took the E train in from Jackson Heights. If he has never entirely been a household name, he’s been around long enough, making reliable and tuneful solo albums, to know everyone indie or alt or whatever the current term is, as well as a few titans besides (he recorded a duet with Springsteen once).
Malin’s new solo album, New York Before the War (One Little Indian), reflects an artist entirely distinct from the loudmouth with the dyed mop of the 1990s. It completes a transition: Malin, confident veteran, elegiac singer-songwriter. The lyrics are considerably more reflective, more tender; no matter what he says, the melodies are more melodic, and the ballads play a starring role, rather than being a mere respite among rock and roll numbers. New York Before the War, that is, is an album of songs by an adult, by a guy who was once a noteworthy brat. (And that’s what kindled my interest: adulthood.)
This interview, which took place in Café Mogodor, in Malin’s East Village, just a couple days after the gas main explosion on Second Avenue, came in a rush of language—one liners, historical outrage, scandalous storytelling (some of it with the recording device off). I was not required to say much. Malin is incredibly entertaining, and worldly, auto-didactic, and he looks ten years younger than he is, despite the implications of hard living. That said, there’s more sorrow here, and introspection, and middle age, between the lines, than you would expect from going back, for example, to listen to a D Generation album. Reflection doesn’t, and shouldn’t, get in the way of a good show. Malin is a lifer, like Iggy Pop, or David Johansen, and he knows what he wants, and with New York Before the War, he has mined the traditions of the lifers for a great album, which is how the lifers get to keep doing it for life.
The Rumpus: Is it possible you have a solo album and a D Generation record coming out in the same year?
Jesse Malin: The D Generation record is the first release in I can’t tell you how long: many, many moons. But it’s gonna come out for record store day—a single ten-inch thing: two songs—which will be songs that will appear on this album we’ve been flirting with putting out for the last bunch of years. Since those reunion shows. But my record, yeah, came out this week and sometime later in the year, the D Gen album.
Rumpus: Is that stuff done?
Malin: There’s about seventeen songs we recorded a couple different places with the original five guys, the guys I grew up with, so that makes it nice and crazy at the same time.
Rumpus: And were you writing those songs while you were writing these songs?
Malin: That’s why there’s like five years between solo records. In the first half I toured a lot. The second half—when I was about to start the Jesse Malin record—we got asked to do reunion shows for D Generation in Spain and other festivals in America. We usually say no but everyone emailed back “yes” and I thought: “So I guess we’re doing this.” They ask us every year and the money’s pretty good and it ain’t going to be forever. It’s something you want to do when you’re a little younger. Not that we are.
So, I said yes to that and that led to writing that, then writing my own stuff, demoing both, doing both, sometimes even at these festivals in Spain. I would play solo and then play full band. I don’t think I’ll do that again. Then we went to LA and did some recording and we came back and finished stuff here on Avenue A at Hi-Fi Basement Studios. At the same time, I was doing my record, which was recorded in the country at a farmhouse in Virginia in this little studio called White Star. We did twenty songs or so, came back, went on the road, listened to it, and said “I think it’s missing something.” It was missing high energy, up-tempo numbers. So I wrote a whole bunch more songs and went back to New York to Magic Shop.
The record that came out this week is a combination of both sessions mixed by the same guy, Brian Thorn. Somehow, he brought some continuity to it. It was like the city mouse and country mouse and we mixed it all together which kind of makes sense because a lot of what I like are really soft things and raw, loud things. I’ve felt that way since growing up with Elton John or even Johnny Thunders singing “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” and then “Born to Lose.” I like the contrast. The Replacements, The Clash, The Stones… Bananarama.
Rumpus: With the D Gen songs, how collaborative is the songwriting?
Malin: More than it ever had been. I did a lot of stuff with the drummer, Michael, at first, just free-forming in the basement, playing guitar and drumming. Then we’d arrange the stuff and record on a little tape recorder or Pro Tools or whatever. Different bits. A lot of it was me and Danny Sage. He had a lot of ideas lyrically, I think, for not having made a record. Out of the five of us, he was the only one who didn’t record anything.
No, I take that back: he did record. Everyone else got involved in all these other projects and he kind of kept his heart in the D Gen flag even if it wasn’t being flown in public. He was just waiting for this to happen so I think he built up a lot of things he wanted to say in a smart, articulate, yet anger-driven way. Me and him would sit down and finish the songs and a lot of it, funny enough, he wrote more of the music and I wrote more of the lyrics. Probably also, I was writing lyrics for my own songs. So I had some stuff to say but it was nice to have someone else with a perspective. It’s kind of a funny relationship. He always loved Generation X. Billy Idol and Tony James wrote those songs. Tony James wrote the lyrics, I heard, but Billy Idol wrote the music. That’s why when Billy Idol went solo the lyrics weren’t as good. No slight to Billy because he’s great. I like “Sweet Sixteen.”
Rumpus: If the solo album was made in these two different layers, how is it that it has such lyrical consistency? It seems like the album’s really about something.
Malin: Yeah, well, it’s called New York Before the War; it’s not about a particular war. I felt it was a romantic title in a funny way. It’s about surviving and holding onto things or finding things that you really care about in a time where stuff is so disposable, in the whole digital age. I really love artifacts. I love records and books and things; I love going to shows and, as much as I do the Internet and social media and the Google box, I like having sex with a real person, going to a concert with strangers around me, being in a record store where I might buy something spontaneously as opposed to being told “if you like this, you’ll like that” on Amazon. I think that there’s something really cool about the human connection and, for me as a kid, I didn’t fit in where I was growing up in Queens and, you know, got into a lot of fights trying to express myself. I wanted to listen to different things and dress differently. It’s hard to imagine now; everything is so commercialized.
Anyway, it also said “The War” on the building I was writing the record in, spray-painted on this crooked tenement building. That ended up being part of the catalyst for the title. With the D Gen stuff, I always had fun doing it really fast and spontaneous; even that new album took a couple years. Between the two, maybe there was some contemplating to get it all right. I wanted this album to be something that mattered. Lyrically, I guess the way the two sessions connect together is it’s the same person. Even if it was recorded in two studios, it’s still me singing.
Derek Cruz, my guitar player, is the only one who’s on both sessions. Otherwise, it was two different bands. Both are really great, but this city brings out different things, I guess. The studio we did it in is really good and warm, on a little cobblestone street. We did analogue to tape; the engineer had just done the David Bowie sneaky record with Tony Visconti so he knew how to keep his mouth shut.
Rumpus: Both sessions were analogue?
Malin: The New York sessions were analogue.
Rumpus: So the “nostalgic” New York vibe of the whole thing was conscious?
Malin: I guess you understood me. Yeah, I try to exist in this time: 20 billion 15 or whatever, but I think a lot of what I write, you know, is a battle between things that are dark and depressing and the romance of it all. I’m a historian in a sense that I love things in the past and I love looking at photos of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg walking around this neighborhood and I love going to Paris and looking at old things there. When I travel I always want to look at the places where people have walked down those streets. A lot of these songs are about streets where people die, bands break up, relationships end, but the spirit and soul of music and art gets handed down from generation to generation.
There’s always kids reading Please Kill Me or learning about Syd Barrett, getting turned on by The Wipers or Johnny Thunders. The kids who seek stuff out, the kids in their early 2os forming bands influenced by a lot of the stuff we might’ve liked in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s (Black Flag, Bad Brains) and they got their own take on it! It might be mixed in with The Strokes, Interpol or The Beastie Boys… Hanna-Barbera… Hannah Montana! [Laughs] I don’t know. When we did D Generation, we grew up listening to a lot of old stuff but we were pissed off that grunge was such a lame fashion statement, that bands were wearing socks on their penises and shorts and baseball hats: we felt that there wasn’t a lot of style in music and so we had something to react against.
I think when bands like The Strokes were coming from of classic New York, dirty, fucked-up rock, they put their own take on it, too, and I think that’s what’s always great about going forward. I’m always looking for new bands, as much as I love the old stuff and need to listen to Motörhead and Chuck Berry and The Clash, I need to go out and see some new kids, buy a new record and go out.
Rumpus: What’s an example of a new record that you like?
Malin: Oh! That band’s probably not new anymore… it’s like Parquet Courts or, you know, The National of the last ten years; I like their stuff. Some local bands around here: there’s a band called The Drowners, there’s a band called Threats that have a lot of energy. I’m trying to think of some solo artists. Kim and Anthony D’Amato are writing some really nice songs. I love songs and I like things that are presented in a certain way. Moon Duo: I like their stuff a lot, that kind of Suicide thing. I better keep thinking. Bands are tricky. Finding that new thing you really connect to, it gets harder and harder, at least for me. Like, I still think Wilco’s a new band sometimes!
You know, people say “Rock is dead” or “Punk is dead.” I think everything’s been done. You can change it around and put your own take on it on some level but I feel like this is what I do; this is the language I speak and this is how I operate, this is what I love so I can’t really change that. It’s where I come from. It’s not going to be honest if I try to be an electronic dance music whatever. I think, for a long time, rock and roll has become a commodity and a safe place. The danger is the part that I miss, I guess. Everybody’s in a band, everybody’s mother will take them to rock school. Everyone has a mohawk or likes Hot Topic, so it has been that School of Rock kind of thing where it’s not a dangerous thing to pick up a guitar or make somebody upset because you’re going to write some rebellious songs. It’s like playing cards or Monopoly!
It’s become a traditional family thing, you know, “We’ll get him a guitar, pink hair, and some Doc Martens at the Wal-Mart.” There’s a form to it. But I think there’s an exception. I always liked good songs, good energy, and rhythm: It’s all I know to do. I’m not making zillions of dollars; I do it because I love to do it. I need to do it and it’s all I’ve been doing since I was a kid! But I do think there’s a certain reflection in this record. I think that’s probably in all my stuff; there’s always that battle between a happiness and a sadness. The sadness might come from looking back at things or loss, finding a way to regain things, and finding a way to fit in. Now it’s: “how does rock and roll fit in? How do you find your voice?”
Rumpus: I did the math and I think you have a meaningful middle-age birthday coming in three years so. Is the adulthood piece of it part of that too? You’re forty-seven years old now, so the songs are reflective.
Rumpus: A middle-aged person might be reflective. You don’t mind my calling you that, do you?
Malin: No, that’s the truth. You know, you can’t change that. My life is the same in so many ways since I was fourteen: I’m going to go buy a battery for my distortion pedal, I’m putting my boots on, getting ready to write the set list, waiting for the van to come and, you know, I get in the van and this and that and sound check. The ritual is the same and I feel physically a better performer than I ever have, just from doing it and thinking about wanting to push it as much as I can while I still can. I don’t want to be doing this when I’m seventy, though people are, I guess.
I think that, what I get, maybe, when I reflect on stuff, is that people I grew up with were so badass and subversive and had these dreams. Now, some of them have different dreams and they have great families and kids and these amazing things. Others have died or are on methadone or are alcoholics; they’re in miserable marriages or are broken up and not with the kids, they’re hating their job and all these things. I’ve been on a steady course, in a funny way. But people who have gotten really fucked up and dropped off the planet or people who have gone into more of a mainstream world, those are extremes to me.
I don’t know many of my peers at all from my “old school,” so to speak, that are still really out there. I guess Jimmy from Murphy’s Law and Roger and Vinny Stigma are maybe a couple of hardcore guys I grew up with who are still doing it from the corner down on 7th and A where we grew up. I’m probably forgetting a list of bands. That’s why I had Jimmy and Pauly and Craig sing on “Bar Life” at the Hardcore Choir; they’re still people I see who are still out there drinking beers and screaming in the microphones and sweating up the stage. They have something to say; they have some fun still.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about “Bar Life” because, in fact, that’s my favorite song on the album. I think it’s really spectacular, I’ve gotta say, and I think the arrangement is particularly awesome. Did you do the horn chart yourself?
Malin: I got them drunk! No, it was a combination of Don DeLigo who was in the first half of the record (the mellower stuff); he’s a songwriter and a player in his own right but he just had ideas to have this weird, crazy guitar going on. We have horns on this record and we’re using them live; I always avoided horns because I hated Chicago and I don’t like Southside Johnny as much as I like Bruce Springsteen. But then seeing bands like The National and Bright Eyes, certain people using horns in a different way; it felt like we have to spread out more. I wanted something that was a bit off and arty, like guys who were so drunk they sounded like they couldn’t play.
We did it very raw. I think that Cruz, my guitar player also helped. Just by doing it where we rehearsed on Rivington Street in this old punk rock rehearsal spot gave it a thing where it wasn’t so pristine. Not everyone had charts. We decided to go with this and pretend that it was three in the morning. That’s one we started to play live first; a lot of these songs don’t get tested: you write and record them. But the ones you get to see over a microphone in public, you get a feeling when you sing something in front of the people, whether you’re full of shit or not. You could write in your room and have your girlfriend smiling and the mirrors and the lights and the incense but when it’s time to get up in some weird city and sing the songs, you see the truth. It’s like when people have to get up in these meetings and say, “Hey, I’m Jesse. I’m an alcoholic.” It’s a jury of your peers, as Paul Simon said.
I’m not a fan of religion and churches and I don’t really appreciate the sadness that goes with people advocating substance abuse and the glamour of being a total drunk or a drug addict but I do believe that there’s some kind of quiet meditation and connection in going to these dark places after work and having a beer or two and hearing some good music or sitting alone and reflecting or, as I’ve been saying lately, when you travel the world, if you want to know about a town and you want to get lost and talk to somebody, go into a bar, have a couple of drinks, and, suddenly, people are really going to loosen up and tell you everything. There’s a barrier broken and I think that song walks the line between romance and Frank Sinatra fantasy and then the really depressed, sad person in entertainment who hides behind the smile and the line about the comedians.
Rumpus: That’s a great line.
Malin: I thought, when Robin Williams passed, that lyric makes sense now—even if Mork and Mindy wasn’t my favorite show.
Rumpus: Can you sort of walk me through how you write a song—how you wrote that piece? Do you do a melody first or do you always do words first?
Malin: I usually write melody and free form, just like playing guitar and singing stuff and whatever comes to mind (sometimes it’s ridiculous and, as you get older, it’s some kind of Rorschach test to figure out “Ohh! What were you feeling and saying?”). But with that one, Derek Cruz had never written with me and he was the piano player. We were in the waiting room to go on the radio in Louisville, Kentucky, to sing a few songs from the Love it to Life record and he just started riffing on this beautiful grand piano and I just started singing and, suddenly, we were leading each other in different directions. He started a key and he followed me and I had the title and some of the lyrics.
We went into the studio about two weeks later, after the tour, and, at maybe four in the morning at Stratosphere Records on the West Side, I just sang whatever came to mind. It wasn’t done but we knew that the song was good and then, from that, I went in and listened to certain words and then I’d sit with a notebook. I carry notebooks often or I write into my phone or whatever. With “Bar Life,” I wrote a lot of verses. I wrote too many. I just kept writing. I said, “I want to fill up a notebook and not look at it till it’s done and then see what the best bits are.” Sometimes I’ll sing it for the producer or the band; I’ll be like “what do you think? What about this verse or that verse?” You know, I have too many sometimes. In that one, I knew exactly what I wanted to say; I just wanted to make sure that I had it right. I start thinking of all these songs from “Here Comes A Regular” to “Nightclub Jitters” by The Replacements to “Piano Man” by Billy Joel where you set up the scene. Billy Joel’s not Italian; don’t tell anybody!
Rumpus: [Laughs] The other song I wanted to talk about is “Addicted” which, I guess, is the single, right?
Malin: It’s the first single, yeah.
Rumpus: Was that from the second session?
Malin: It was from the first session where I was thinking I wanted to make a record that was Paul Simon meets The Clash. You know: rhythmic. With the title, I wanted something very Ramones-y. It was refined in New York but the general track was done on the farm in Virginia and a little bit in Portland when we were mixing. We overdubbed and gave it more of that telegraphing, sedated kind of guitar. The “I Wanna Be Sedated” guitar, I called it. It’s uptempo.
Rumpus: Isn’t there a Shane MacGowan quotation?
Malin: Oh, yeah! “I will not be reconstructed,” which is a great song. I think you can get away with stealing one line.
Rumpus: Did you have a Pogues period?
Malin: Yeah, I still have a Pogues period all the time. I have a lot of respect for the other people doing Irish music like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly; they’re all great but, to me, the Pogues are like this other thing like the Specials when they came out. They were doing ska but they put their own thing on it, brought it back to another generation mixed with a little punk rock energy. I think Shane is just a genius; I name-checked him in a song called “Mona Lisa” on my second album and he showed up at a gig and wanted to sing with me in London. He was drinking out of a Pringles can and we ended up doing “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello and it was just great. I’ve seen him a few times and we’ve had conversations that are hard to understand—but that’s par for the course.
I love his writing. We cover “If I Shall Fall From Grace With God” still. I think that’s the perfect balance of dirty, gritty, not-too-sappy, romantic. But I got into the Pogues late; I saw them when I was fifteen at Danceteria. Sixteen, maybe I was. I didn’t really like it. I didn’t get it at first but, years later, it was perfect. It fits in with evolution of the Clash or the dirtier side of Springsteen or the Stones.
Rumpus: I was thinking about that MacGowan line in the context of the song which is, sort of, not about addiction because it’s really, again, about feelings relating to New York. It’s not a song about shooting dope.
Malin: It’s about addiction to life. It’s about addiction to things that can be good and bad for you: sadness. And not even so much New York. They can be tearing down a bookstore and putting up a condo. They’re doing that everywhere.
Rumpus: So you’re going to tour this album and then you have to do the D Gen stuff on the fall? Is that the plan?
Malin: With D Gen, we have Spain in June. We’re going to do the Schooner Rock Festival with ZZ Top, Television, and Eagles of Death Metal. Fun stuff. And then, in the fall, I’ll probably put out another album of mine because we did so many songs.
Rumpus: Forty songs.
Malin: Yeah, and the D Gen single will come out again in June, not just for Record Store Day, but with an extra track. We’re going to put it on iTunes and those other wild networks. That’s the funny thing: when we were signed to record companies in the 90s you had to be stuck with the “album cycle” and “You gotta wait until we’re ready in two years.” Now you can be in RatDog and Phil Lesh and Friends! You know, whatever. Eagles of Death Metal and Queens of the Stone Age. There’s freedom to do more stuff and mix it up that way. I think that’s the cool part. I guess vinyl’s on the up, which is good. My label wants to do my first albums (my whole catalogue) on colored vinyl with special tidbits because vinyl is selling. It’s at Urban Outfitters and they’re starting to sell vinyl at Subway. And they’re going to have the Nirvana collection at Applebee’s!
Everyone’s got their other lives. Howie’s a DJ in LA, Rick has his stuff in North Carolina, and Michael has his solo records too, so it’s something we’ll do when we can do it and people like it. We did Irving Plaza here a couple years ago and it sold out. There were a lot of younger kids and that was cool to see. It wasn’t just the people who were at Coney Island High in 1995. Kids, I guess, had heard of us even though the records are on the Claude Rains invisible network.
Rumpus: Have you recreated the earlier sound faithfully?
Malin: I think there’s some of it that sounds like D Generation (what you’d expect) and I think there’s a bit of “I want to be able to sing these songs, get crazy and still be a guy who’s in his forties.” I don’t want to try to be pretending I’m singing about watermelon Bubblicious tequila and chasing girls through Tompkins Square Park. You know?
Rumpus: Can you still sing those early songs?
Malin: Some of them I wasn’t singing the proper way. I was singing in a very tight, weird part of my voice. Since then I found my voice, so to speak. I sang differently on my solo records. It’s hard for me to listen to The Fine Art of Self Destruction, as much as I love it, because you hear a voice being formed. You can kind of hear it like there’s an Alfalfa thing in there. I think if we were to do ten nights it’d be hard. Some of those songs get to a really crazy high place. I think if I take better care of myself, it’s okay. Some nights it was really easy and some nights I was drinking a lot and not sleeping and stuff and I’d be like, “Wow, this is up there!” Well, you’ve got to find some way. It’s a David Lee Roth thing. What’d he say—“If you wanna be in a rock and roll band, you gotta take a lot of cat naps.” It’s fine: if you can take a little crash then your voice will come back. I think there are ways. If you’re hung over, get in the van and get an hour crash or run back to the hotel at the sound check and just try to do something to make it begin again. I think that’s what you need to do. That’s a middle-age approach.
I think that the band is probably better than it was back in the day. I don’t think like, “This is the best album since Destroyer and everyone better return to form!” I think the shows are better than they ever were as far as I remember. I feel like the band stepped up on the reunion shows and I was like, “I’m going to do this and be this guy twenty years later. I’m going to get my fucking body into crazy shape and get my voice stronger” so, we really had something to prove. I guess we’ll have to figure out what we got to prove next time. What’s the next trick? Blow ourselves up.
Rumpus: Is it really fun or are there still parts of the band’s demise that are lingering?
Malin: It’s good and bad. It’s like a five-headed marriage; there’s a lot of chips and attitude and personal stuff and there’s a lot of love. Two of the guys are brothers; I’ve brought brotherhood to all these people. That was the real incentive to me because I love what I do with my solo stuff and I love the band I have but the idea of getting back with these people was like, “These are the five guys!”
We had our first record deal; we were thrown off the KISS tour and toured with The Ramones. We did all these things together; I got dropped from Chrysalis and got picked up by another label. We did those band tours listening to Jerky Boys tapes and coming up with our own crazy summer camp language from traveling all these months. We can have a fight without words; we know each other so well. People breathe the wrong way and it’s like “Ugh!” There’s a lot of that and you have to have patience. We couldn’t afford the Aerosmith/Metallica therapist, you know.
Rumpus: I’ve never heard you got thrown off the KISS tour. Are you willing to tell the story again?
Malin: We just got threatened a lot and they almost threw us off a few times; they threw us off one day after throwing food on the wall (cold cuts off that slimy plastic, sweaty meat tray). I kept throwing cold cuts at the wall and they said we trashed the dressing room. I used to rip up newspaper and make a big mess. They thought we were going to mess up with their pyrotechnics and cause a fire so they were like, “You’re done.” My manager had to make a lot of calls.
I think some other bands’ names got thrown in the middle and it wasn’t working out, so they called us back on tour to finish the dates and, on the last day of the tour, they threw us out of the dressing room. I was playing Madison Square Garden, and I had nowhere to celebrate. I went outside to go downtown on St. Marks. I had a beer and, I wasn’t even on the street, I was under that awning by Penn Station and, because of Guiliani, I got arrested. I spent two days in The Tombs! But I got to play the Garden.
My father would say, “Change your hair and work for the post office,” but I’d say, “Dad, I’m still at CBGB’s three nights” and he’d say “I’ll come see you when you play the Garden.” So we played the Garden and my dad came and everything. It was a big deal for a New Yorker—for all of us—to play there. I guess the first shit I got into was KISS. The first concert I went to at the Garden was KISS! In 1996, even though it was their reunion tour with Ace and the makeup and all that, I was like, “All right, I kind of see why I got beat up for liking these guys by the Black Sabbath and Zeppelin kids back in the seventies.”
Two days! I’ve been to jail twice. I went for putting up a poster with scotch tape on a building. That was at Coney Island High. And then the other time was an open container arrest after playing at the Garden. I showed the cop my laminate: it was me and Gene on the inside and I was like “I’m a New Yorker! I’ve waited my whole life to play the Garden!” Nope. Down to The Tombs. And the rest is a funny story. Tragedy plus time, right? Comedy.
Feature photo © Joseph Quever. All other photos © Ilaria Conte-Potier.