Interview: Jesse Malin

The New York songwriter discusses his first release in five years

Interview: Jesse Malin Freshly delivered copies of Jesse Malin’s new album New York Before The War lie open on a table in One Little Indian’s south London office and a hound roams loose around the open-plan space, seemingly unfazed by new visitors.

It’s decided that we should pop out and conduct the interview over some food; Jesse has a busy week in London to promote the record so multi-tasking is inevitable. Fortunately, the label is located amongst some of London’s finest South Asian eateries and we are soon sitting down to plates of spicy spinach, chickpeas and pilau rice. He talks eloquently, peppering his speech patterns with a deep elongation every time he uses a positive adjective.

'It’s been just shy of five years and in that time a lot went down, but I’ll never go this long again' the singer explains. Since the release of 2002’s lauded The Fine Art of Self Destruction Jesse Malin has etched a niche for producing rock and roll records that have an inimitable New York quality about them; swaggering, bold, conflicted, and genuine.

The period from then up to 2010 saw three more original studio albums, a covers set and two live LPs, then relative quiet. It’s not that Malin wasn’t working: he toured for two years 'non-stop' after the 2010 release of Love It To Life, supporting The Hold Steady, Gogol Bordello, Alejandro Escovedo, reunited with his former punk group D Generation and recorded a new (as yet unreleased) record (produced by old friend Ryan Adams), and recorded this album twice.

He explains; “First time I went to Virginia, to a farmhouse… did it out in the woods, very different for a city boy like me that likes to walk and talk and drink in pubs and bars. Then I felt like it needed some more up-tempo energy. We did another fifteen songs in Soho, New York at Magic Shop Studios, where Bowie just did that secret record. In fact, we used his engineer, Brian Thorn’.

What came out of those sessions is, in Malin’s terms, a ‘record for now; there’s reminiscing but definitely [the album is] about creating something and trying to find a place to fit in, in these times’. ‘The title isn’t about a particular war, it’s a metaphor for surviving, for holding onto your ground and the things you believe in…’ Belief is a concept that we return to regularly throughout the interview, ‘… a lot of my friends, we’re believers, fighters, artists’. ‘You got to be dedicated, you’ve got to believe in it, believe in yourself’ he says later.

Listening to Malin talk about his new album his belief is clear by the enthusiasm with which he describes the content. ‘My stories paint a picture with characters and put you in a place in time, ‘Dreamers’ opens the record: disjointed in hotel room in another time zone, another country where you don’t understand the language. But on the flipside it’s [seeing] how we’re all connected. As much as I travel I realized how there are still wars, greed, chain stores, people fighting over sports teams…’

‘One of my favourites is ‘I Would Do It for You’’ the singer continues ‘which is the story of someone calling you up out of the blue and asking you to come back and do this thing you used to do, (whether it’s sex, drugs, robbery… I never say) and this is the one person in the world that you can’t say no to. There’s a great song that’s on the digital download in the vinyl called 'Here’s The Situation', it’s another one of my favourites; J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr plays guitar on it and kills it’.

It’s not ego that allows Malin to talk about his songs as great, it’s a clear passion and enjoyment of playing music. It’s almost as if he sees the songs as separate to him. Still, I feel the need to ask him about the day-to-day lifestyle of someone has been relentlessly touring and performing for over thirty years, especially when he is so aware that many of his friends are beginning to settle down or give up on ‘the dream’. ‘There’s a lot of hard work; long hours, bad food, soundchecks, so much waiting around but the benefits are getting to play your songs for people and having your outlet. You do it all for that hour or so on stage… you get to do things that other people dream of’.

‘Some nights you’re staying in a five star hotel playing to a sold-out house or sometimes you’re playing a Monday night in the middle of nowhere for 40 people and you’ve got to give it to them. You’re staying at the worst hotel, it’s freezing and the van breaks down’ He pauses for a second, ‘But every job has its Mondays’.

I’m struck that Jesse comes across as a dying breed of old school ‘believer’, someone who talks about art and meaning as absolute truths rather than press-release fluff. Who acknowledges the cynical side of the music industry and accepts it as part of the journey. I’m struck that this seems ‘old school’.

Perhaps the glamour faded a while ago but the heart remains to keep on keeping on. It’s an infectious enthusiasm, easy to absorb from across the table, but similarly experienced by the couple of a hundred or so industry types and competition winners who were at The Social the previous night for an acoustic showcase of the new album.

With a woolen newsboy cap pulled low, a tight leather jacket and projectors casting peculiar shadows across his features Malin could be menacing if he weren’t so engaging and energetic. He’s a raconteur, reeling off wry anecdotes full of outlandish New York characters, raw impressions and frank insights into the writing and recording of New York Before The War in such a way that the set of mostly unheard material draws a rowdy response. The new songs as honest and humble as ever, Malin continues to ‘give it to them’ every night.

New York Before the War is released via One Little Indian on 30th March and features contributions from Peter Buck, Craig Finn, Wayne Kramer and J. Mascis

May Tour Dates

14th MANCHESTER Night & Day
15th NOTTINGHAM Bodgea Social Club
17th GLASGOW King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut
18th NEWCASTLE The Cluny
19th BIRMINGHAM 02 Academy 2
20th PORTSMOUTH Wedgewood Rooms
21st LONDON Tufnell Park Dome