It was nearing 9:30PM at the Ham and Eggs Tavern in Downtown Los Angeles. I was sitting alone in a small, dark, and cat-litter-scented room, sipping a beer and reading the most recent edition of The Downtowner. Small handfuls of people would poke their heads in the room, but there was no live music yet, so they would slink back to the bar for another $4 ‘shit can.’ Eventually, a small group of people entered, including one person who I think was the person I was here to see.
When I had first been pitched the idea of interviewing and writing a piece on Jesse R. Berlin, all I knew about him was his newest album, Glitter Lung, his bio on the Crash Avenue website, and this interview for Mecca Lecca. I politely declined, stating he was likely above our target age for the blog, but when his publicist emailed me back saying “To be honest, Jesse’s in his mid-late 20’s… the bio is purely fiction, part of a story we created around the “Jesse R. Berlin” character haha,” I was forced to face the truth head-on: this guy actually scared the shit out of me… but I kind of liked it.
I spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating whether or not to accept, listening to Glitter Lung, and asking the advice of my moral support team, which came back split between “RUN. AWAY.” and, “DO. IT.” In a moment of spontaneity, and under the sudden realization that I had actually listened to all of Glitter Lung maybe 4 times through, I accepted. I did all the research I could about Jesse, scouring the depths of the web for anything, anything at all, and composed some questions.
And, within a day, he had responded. Below is what transpired.
Your influences on music seem varied. You’ve listed “Wash Your Boat” influences as “The Simpsons” theme song (and spiting an 8 year old), a freeway sign, Bow Wow Wow, and Elliot Spitzer. “Lady Kite” influence is mainly insomnia. This album seems to span so many genres, or none at all, it’s unclassifiable as far as I’m concerned (is “interesting” and “worthy of a listen (or many)” a genre?).
How did you manage to tie all these (otherwise unrelated) things together to create this cohesive masterpiece?
Thank you for your flattery, first and foremost. It is a masterpiece, and I appreciate your ability to recognize it as such.
There were lots of influences, yes, but I’m not sure I can dig too deeply into how they all came together. The answer is simply that I’m a genius and this all just comes naturally to me, with very little in the way of effort or thought.
Can we listen to one song and get a feel for you as an artist or does the whole album go together?
I can’t really understand that mentality of just listening to one song, or part of song, and making a decision about an artist based on that. It seems to be a pretty popular tactic, though. It must simply be that I care more art and beauty, and appreciate them on a deeper level, than most other people.
So if you’re not as sophisticated as I am, sure, listen to one song, listen to ten seconds of a song, do whatever you want, but I honestly don’t know how you can look at yourself in the mirror. If you are like me and you recognize that, say, watching a single scene from a movie isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense without watching the rest of the movie, then I don’t even have to tell you listen to the whole album, because your inclination is to do that anyway.
What other sorts of things influenced you in the making of the album?
I was really into the idea of Disneyland, and making an album that sounded like Disneyland. Which is to say – immaculately clean, obsessively detailed, completely unrealistic, and with a light and joyful veneer being applied to some very complicated and scary experiences.
I was also heavily inspired by the John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, John Waters’ Female Trouble, and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
You are seemingly extremely musically knowledgeable, and music is clearly a huge passion of yours- did you always know you wanted to make music? When was the first time you thought to yourself “I want to be a musician.” ?
I should certainly hope I’m knowledgeable and passionate! I shudder to think of what music might sound like if it was made by someone who wasn’t knowledgeable and passionate! Even Imagine Dragons seem knowledgeable and passionate, in their own deplorable way.
But no, I didn’t always want to do this. The first goals I can remember having were to speak and to use the big boy potty. Naturally, I knocked those both out of the park. Music came a little later.
If you had the chance to perform alongside any band, from the present or history (or the future?), who would it be, where would it be, and what year would it be?
I feel like the Beatles would probably draw well. I also wouldn’t have minded playing with Prince on the Purple Rain tour, Bowie on the Station to Station tour, or U2 on the ZooTV tour.
If you could pick the brain of anyone, living or dead, about any topic, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Andy Kaufman and/or Alexander McQueen. I’d let them take the lead, subject-wise. I’d just be there to listen and learn.
As for your future as a musician, you’re touring solo right now, and your tour ends in a belated launch party (and premature(?) retrospective) in NY. What happens after that?
I have another northeast tour already planned for the fall, and then just even more touring after that. I do have 70% of a second album done, but that last 30% is always the most time-consuming part. I also have a fragrance line I’m trying to get off the ground, Jesse by JRB.
I do wish you hadn’t called my retrospective “premature.” We’d been getting along so well up until this point, and now you’ve really disappointed me.
Just, like, in general? Yeah, sure, they’re cool. Love that “Sledgehammer” clip.
Are there any artists you’d like to collaborate with? (Musically or otherwise?)
Off the top of my head: Wong Kar Wai, Kanye West, Adrian Sherwood, Bridget Everett, Les Blank, Roseanne Barr, the Coen Brothers, Teri Gender Bender, Brian Eno, Dan Harmon, Will Oldham.
What do you want the world to know about “Glitter Lung”? What do you want the world to know about you?
My album is the third best album to come out this year (tip o’ the cap to Kendrick Lamar and Beauty Pill). Opening your heart and mind to it will invariably make your life richer and more fulfilling. Get on board now so that you can tell your post-apocalyptic mutant grandkids that you were there when it all went down.
Back at the Ham and Eggs downtown, I continued to sip my beer, and pretended to be consumed in The Downtowner, playing ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to the group that had gathered in front of me. It took almost no time at all to confirm my suspicions, the guy standing directly in front of me was none other than the legend himself, Jesse R. Berlin. He wore all black, with bright white loafers. When someone pointed them out, he took one off, proudly admitted he found them for $13 in Palm Springs that morning, and displayed how comfortable and sensible they were.
He helped first artist sound check, gave him a hug, and thanked him for playing. As he played, Jesse subtly danced, stopping occasionally for quad stretches and water. He disappears for a while, and as the other artist exits the stage, an introduction starts on the speakers, and then repeats in Spanish, and French. Jesse comes from the back of the room, transformed into his hot pink jacket and matching tie and cape, escorted by a small blonde in a blue dress (he later introduces her as “his wife, Misty”). He steps onto the stage, removes his cape to the intro of “Boy Blue” by Electric Light Orchestra, mutters a quick “Hi!” and starts singing.
The next hour of my life was full of things I can’t truly describe. It could be self-preservation, but more likely, even a full week later, I’m still too awed to speak of the events that transpired. What I do recall unfolds something like this:
Lots of mic swinging. And then hugely impressive mic catching. A little bit of tripping. Some impressive posing, on and off the stage. He screams a little bit early on. During “I’ve Really Never Been Prepared For You” he comes off the stage, gets on one knee, and holds the hand of a guy in the crowd. There was lots more mic swinging. Halfway through a song near the end, he stops the music, lays down on the stage, claims, “I need a minute, OK, OK, I got this, OK, go,” and he starts again. And by ‘starts’ I mean, he gets off the stage, lays on the ground and begins rolling around the floor while singing. After a short dispute with his
escort wife, U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” starts playing, and Jesse begins taking his layers off and mumbling incoherently into the mic. The show ends with him shirtless and in a pink cape, asking the crowd for positive affirmations. “Repeat after me: You’re perfect the way you are. We love you, Jesse.” Naturally, we repeated it back to him.
As I left the tavern and walked back through the dirty streets of Downtown to the train, I tried to process what I had just seen, and form some sort of narrative about the entire experience. Here was an artist, who, in an era where straightforwardness and honesty is socially valued, decided to forego the entire corporate agenda, and in his own enigmatic and cryptic way, become a part of the scene which he so passionately speaks of. Impressively, especially in the transparent age we live in, the more you read about Jesse R. Berlin, the more questions you have, and the less you realize you actually know about him. But it’s that quality, that genuine mystique, that crazy edge, that intriguing and mysterious unknown, that makes him and his music so inspiringly exhilarating.
You can follow Jesse on Twitter here.