Photo by Bryan Bruchman
In all honesty, when I requested an interview with Jesse R Berlin, I did think it was a bit odd when his publicist responded with “Mr. Berlin will only do this in person. There’s a gas station Arby’s in Amarillo, TX. Can you get there by midnight?”. Was this a joke?
Berlin is an artist shrouded in mystery. His biography often tells a story conflicting of what can be found about him on the internet. A staple of Houston’s Tex-Mex blues scene in the 1980s, his hometown still regards him as a legend, even as the rest of the country has mostly forgotten him. His career has seen a recent resurgence, as a growing legion of cult fans have hailed Berlin as the founder of chillwave for his 1996 release MachineME (credited to JRB-1).
As I entered the Arby’s, the enigmatic Jesse R Berlin emerged from the rest room wearing a bitter scowl (as well as a dynamic pair of powder blue cowboy boots). He didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to.
Seated across from the only man who could ever be bitter enough to hate Bruce Cockburn, I imagined my stench of fear was even more potent than the aroma of the first roast beef sandwich that Berlin annihilated during our brief but colorful interview.
Mecca Lecca: Mr. Berlin, I’ll be honest. As someone who was too young and unfamiliar with the Tex-Mex Blues scene of the 80s, Glitter Lung is the first Jesse R. Berlin album I’ve experienced. I attempted to track down copies of Steel or Wheels Go Round but found myself running into dead ends. If it weren’t for a memorex cassette copy of Steel going for $300 on ebay, it could be said that the internet holds no remnants of your early career.
Considering the relative success you experienced in the 80s, do you feel slighted by the way history has more or less forgotten you?
Jesse R Berlin: Bullshit! Just because some dumb kid can’t fuck his laptop up with adware by trying to steal Wheels Go Round doesn’t mean it didn’t touch lives. Pretty much exclusively the lives of neanderthal garbage people, sure, but admittedly I knew what I was getting myself into. White blues is low hanging fruit, but it got me the fuck out of Texas.
But if you can’t get it together to spend $300 on a piece of rock and roll history, that’s your own dumb fault, Leather (if that’s even your real name).
ML: Sorry. Sorry. I apologize if that struck a nerve.
Are you implying that your earliest records were simply pandering to the tastes lowest common denominator audience of your hometown?
And do you harbor a resentment towards the same fans that supported you during the humble beginnings of your career?
JRB: Let me put it this way – anyone who would define their fandom by genre (and not by artist), I have no respect for whatsoever. Whether we’re talking about self-identified blues fans, folk fans, metal fans, house fans – it is always the same bullshit. They are actively choosing to connect with the work only on its most superficial and meaningless level. It could be anybody on that stage, so long as they have an accordion or a mohawk or a cowboy hat or whatever. There is a living flesh-and-blood person in front of you, offering their soul, and all these people can be bothered to notice is some frivolous subcultural ornamentation. So what do I care? I’m not going to pander to that mentality anymore. None of those people were going to buy my new record anyway.
Do you remember when Skrillex put some Aphex Twin song he loved up on Facebook, and all these EDM bros were like, “lol where’s the bass drop?” People can be such idiots when they think they have your permission. I respect and genuinely appreciate anybody that doesn’t act like a fucking moron.
[At this point, seemingly a bit agitated, Berlin excuses himself from the table and heads to the restroom. Something in his pocket rattles with each step. When he returns, his eyes present a distant glaze. ]
ML: Following your strong run in the 1980s, it appears that your career took some strange turns in the 90s. How do you feel your addiction to Excedrin effected the path of your musical career?
Some critics have now hailed MachineME as a precursor to Chillwave that simply came so far ahead of its time that it was misunderstood. Do you look back fondly to that record, or generally agree with those who originally panned it upon release?
JRB: I try not to get too preachy in interviews, but I do feel very strongly that Excedrin should not and can not be legal. One day you have a slight headache, and then the next you’re walking around the Naval Academy grounds with a mouth full of packing peanuts and a thick crust of Grey Poupon on your nipples. It is not, as they say, a great look.
Still, MachineME was a fucking masterpiece, and if I had to do it all over again I’d still load up on as much Excedrin as I needed to make it. “Chillwave” was a soulless and castrated regurgitation of my work that completely missed the point. But if a bunch of nerdy dudes (and as far as I could tell, it was only really dudes) want to listen to the sound of their own balls shriveling up into microscopic fucking raisins, you know, it’s their funeral.
ML: Well I guess that answers my next question regarding how you feel about Chillwave. Are there any artists that you believe have successfully followed your path of influence?
JRB: I’m more interested in artists who are actively pursuing their own imaginations than I am in what things may or may not have sparked those imaginations. Have you heard the new Beauty Pill record? That’s the best new thing I’ve heard this year by a wide margin (because I finished my own record last year, natch) and it just doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard. Those kids are going places.
ML: Following that rather dark period in the mid 90s, you seemed to make a rather miraculous recovery in 1998 with Reflections. A handful of outspoken critics have claimed the record was nothing more than a shameless attempt to capitalize on a growing Christian Rock market in order to pay for your festering Excedrin addiction. How influential was the role of Jesus Christ in your recovery from addiction and in the creative process of Reflections?
JRB: Well yeah, I mean, duh. Of course I did it all for money. Not my proudest moment, but in my defense, have you ever actually had money? It is incredible!
ML: You’ve had a rather tireless feud with Bruce Cockburn that’s lasted over three decades, including a bitter dispute over the writing credits for both “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Somebody Touch Me”. The latter actually appeared on your covers album Still Behind the Wheels (1993) uncredited to Cockburn who had released his version a year prior.
[Berlin chokes for a second on his sandwich, tenses up, and mutters the word “asshole” through the bit of his throat not clogged with roast beef.]
ML: You’ve famously gone on the record, claiming that “The only talent Bruce Cockburn possesses is the uncanny ability to profit financially from the act of sucking the soul out of Jesse R Berlin tunes while claiming them as his own.”
Would you please elaborate on the origins of this feud, and whether or not you foresee an end to this rivalry?
JRB: My lawyer has advised me not to, unfortunately. I’ll just say this: See you in your nightmares, Cock Burn.
ML: In 2008, your career had a bit of a rebirth with the release of Rotating the Tires. How did it feel to return to your roots and be playing with your old mates DeLiorno and Chance again?
JRB: It felt very literally like eight million bucks.
[A few heads turn, and a small child stares at us for the rest of the interview.]
ML: For those fans who embraced your return to blues rock seven years ago, your new record, Glitter Lung, may come as a bit of a shock. Is there a link between these two records?
JRB: I am indeed hooked on Excedrin again, if that’s what you’re getting at.
ML: So, now that it’s out in the open, is that why you disappeared to the bathroom earlier?
JRB: No, that was for a different reason entirely. Let’s just move on, please.
ML: Taking three years in the studio, it’s safe to say this is your most challenging record since MachineME. It’s been said that you grew increasingly obsessed with every detail to the point where multiple versions of the record were completed and then immediately disposed of. Is this your Chinese Democracy?
JRB: No, because Chinese Democracy sucks a butthole. Have you even listened to my fucking record? Also, calling someone out for taking three years to make a quality product is bullshit. Britney Spears took four years between In the Zone and Blackout.
ML: Well, Britney was in the midst of a bit of a mental breakdown that included stints in rehab for her own drug problems, so maybe the parallel is between Glitter Lung and Blackout, rather than Chinese Democracy?
JRB: Since you’re clearly so committed to this nerdy game, it’s really more like my Achtung Baby.
ML: Is there a story behind the album title Glitter Lung?
JRB: Glitter Lung is a fictitious disease that both burlesque performers and elementary school teachers joke about getting, wherein you accidentally inhale so much glitter that it slices up your lungs from the inside and it ultimately kills you. I was drawn to the way it presented the feeling of being overwhelmed and destroyed by the thing you love most in such a ridiculous and light way.
ML: So, it’s a metaphor for your own relationship with music?
JRB: I never said that. You said that. I never said that. Don’t put words in my mouth.
ML: This album ranges from disco to folk to pop to psych to soft jazz to blaxploitation funk and everything in between. Was it your initial intent to make such an eclectic record?
JRB: Sure, why not.
ML: If this album flops, will you quit making music once and for all?
JRB: You don’t give up on something you love just because other people don’t understand it.
[At this point, Berlin quickly stands up and begins to walk away, turning back briefly to take a bitter jab. ]
JRB: I mean, look – you’re still trying to do interviews, right?
[For the next 37 minutes I sit at the table watching for Berlin to once again emerge from the bathroom with that same glazed look.
A stubby young employee walks over to my table shaking his head. “He’s asking for you.”
From this point on, the interview is conducted from the floor of the Arby’s restroom. Berlin’s head resting firmly against a urinal.]
ML: Jesus, are you alright? Do you need me to call 911?
JRB: I SAID NO COPS. I believe my people were very clear about that on the phone. No cops.
[All business and in denial of his current physical and mental states, Berlin convinces me to conduct the rest of the interview in our current setting.]
ML: Considering the cyclical nature of events, will the next Jesse R Berlin album be a sort of sequel to Reflections?
JRB: God, you are really not…maybe I…nothing about this is…cyclical. Maybe I’m not explaining this well. What I’m trying to say is, like, if you’re playing in a guitar-bass-drums band, rock or blues or folk or whatever, in 2015, especially as a white guy, then you’re basically as culturally relevant as a Civil War re-enactor. Like, it can still be beautiful, or meaningful, or fun, but you’ve gotta know you’re communicating in a dead language. So I’m trying to undo what I did and unlearn everything I learned, and find some other way, some new way of doing things that feels a little more like it represents the actual world around me. And I think, I really do think I can do that. I think I am doing that.
[The door opens, a young boy glances in and immediately disappears.]
ML: You’re about to embark on your first solo tour in over a decade. What kind of performance can be expected?
JRB: I’m so goddamn good. All killer, no filler. And I bought a new suit.
ML: Will you be playing any of your fan favorites from earlier in your career?
JRB: Jesus Christ, you are just not fucking getting this, are you?
ML: How much of this tour will consist of a similar smell of shit and urine, as you drift in and out of Excedrin hallucinations?
JRB: I’m not gonna dignify…you’re not being very professional. Like the great man once said, I wasn’t born with enough middle fingers.
[At this point, Mr. Berlin grew increasingly belligerent, flipping the bird passionately while incoherently screaming obscenities. I was left with no other option than to turn my back on the once idolized singer and let him be someone else’s problem. ]
Witnessing Jesse R Berlin in this state was a cold reminder of the humanity of those we often blindly idolize. My own false perceptions of the man had me trembling in fear prior to our meeting, and yet the actual man I met was fragile and seemingly hopeless.
Launching with a distorted disco beat, “Wash the Boat” sets the tone for the album, with Berlin’s sexual paranoia overtaking the anthemic pop song. The hypnotic “How Did You Sleep Lady Kite” personifies his tireless pursuit towards love in a sea of loneliness. Broken down and scared, the ballad “I’ve Really Never Been Prepared For You” is a look into Berlin’s struggle to connect with others due to his fear of revealing his real self. The psychedelic daydream “Levana” comes to terms with his lifetime of regrets. Psych folk track “Tallulah” is an obvious album highlight. For the first time in his career, Berlin gives fans a sincere love song that’s clearly written in attempt to connect emotionally with a person rather than a bag of money. He quickly shifts styles with the Eno-influenced atmospheric treasure “On The Beach.” Here, Berlin sorts through the hallucinations that follow him through life. Carried by a disco-infused blaxploitation funk groove, his mood transitions from melancholy to bitterness on “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If You Don’t Call Me King).” This is very much the same version of the man I personally experienced. It’s a confrontation with the extreme ups and downs of success and expectations. Closing out the album with “Spiders,” Berlin drifts deeply into the Excedrin-induced clouds. Introspective meanderings through his fears and doubts spin a confusing maze of webs in which he winds up forever lost.
Within the walls of an eclectic collection of songs, Glitter Lung is the mysterious Jesse R Berlin’s brave attempt to finally reveal himself to the world.
Catch Jesse R Berlin on Tour
7/24 – Out of the Blue Gallery, Cambridge, MA w/ Streight Angular, Citrusphere
7/25 – Machines With Magnets, Providence, RI w/ Orion Rigel Dommisse, Ars Phoenix, Daniel Patrick Talbot
7/26 – MakeSpace, Harrisburg, PA
7/27 – The Fire, Philadelphia, PA w/ Sun Hat (early show)
7/28 – Stone Tavern, Kent, OH w/ Steven King, The Up All Nights
7/29 – Spacebar, Columbus, OH w/ Steven King, The Up All Nights
7/30 – Reanimator Records, Winston-Salem, NC w/ Mauve Angeles
7/31 – Work Release, Norfolk, VA w/ DJP & Mr. T
8/20 – Ham & Eggs Tavern, Los Angeles, CA w/ Avi Zahner, Kitchen Hips
8/22 – Funzone, Santa Barbara, CA w/ Honey Maid, Cave Babies, Internet
8/23 – The Stork Club, Oakland, CA w/ Safety Talk
8/27 – Turn Turn Turn, Portland, OR w/ Ali Muhareb, Hands In
8/29 – Substation, Seattle, WA (early show) w/ Sheridan Riley
9/11 – Standard Toykraft, Brooklyn, NY (belated LP release party & career retrospective) w/ Kid in the Attic, DJ Italo Cal Vino