"We’re not living in a golden age of music": Joe Jackson on why the '90s were better than the '80s and the "musical doldrums" we're in right now

Salon talks to the new wave pop legend about his long career and his new album "Fast Forward," out Friday

Published September 29, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

  (Jacob Blickenstaff)
(Jacob Blickenstaff)

Joe Jackson’s catalog is admirably ambitious. While the crisp new wave pop he crafted in the late ’70s and early ’80s rightfully endures—whether it’s the manicured urbanity of “Steppin’ Out” to the crestfallen “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”—the breadth and depth of his work in the 30-plus years since is perhaps even more impressive. The 61-year-old songwriter/pianist has explored jazz, big band, blues and classical music, while delving into esoteric topics—everything from 1997’s “Heaven & Hell,” a song cycle about the seven deadly sins, to a long-gestating theater project focused on the life of Bram Stoker.

Musically, however, Jackson’s new album, "Fast Forward," might be his most straightforward album since 2003’s “Volume 4,” which was itself lauded as a nod to his earlier, more pop-leaning days. Songs such as the effervescent “If It Wasn’t for You” and the vivid, darker “Junkie Diva” are supreme earworms, while “Neon Rain” has a sneering edge that recalls his punkest moments. The record’s plenty diverse, though: Jackson channels Antony Hegarty on the ruminative, wry title track, while the smoldering jazz of “Poor Thing” features sharp horns and percussion, and a cover of Television’s “See No Evil” is both reverential and celebratory.

The album goes on sale Friday, but you can listen here:

For Jackson, the process of assembling the album was quite different than previous releases: He recorded "Fast Forward" in four separate cities—New York City, New Orleans, Berlin and Amsterdam—with a different set of musicians in each. And so the four New York songs boast contributions from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Brian Blade and Jackson’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby, while the slinky New Orleans section is marked by three members of funk troupe Galactic (drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines) and a horn section.

Incredibly, the idea to spread out the recording was “pretty recent,” Jackson tells Salon. “I just spent a long time accumulating songs. I was sitting on a big pile of songs, and I was looking for some way to organize them. [When] it started off, the idea was rather than doing a whole album was to work on three or four songs at a time, maybe do a series of EPs instead. It grew from there.”

How did you choose which songs were recorded in each different city?

A few of them were obvious. Mostly it was the musicians that drew me to those places rather than the places themselves, and a few of the songs were kind of obvious. I mean, like “Kings of the City” is definitely a New York song, “If I Could See Your Face” is definitely a Berlin song, and “Neon Rain,” I was thinking about New Orleans when I wrote it. So some of them were obvious. And then a bit later on, I thought having decided that I was gonna aim for those four places. I started thinking about maybe doing one song in each city that was very much associated with it. That didn’t exactly work out because I just couldn’t think of one for Amsterdam; there were too many for New Orleans. [Laughs.] So I abandoned that idea, but I did end up with a song from a classic New York album, which we did in New York, which was [Television’s] “See No Evil.” And a translation of a German song for Berlin, which was “Good Bye Jonny.” So there are some connections between the songs and the places, but it wasn’t a case of starting with a concept and then writing the songs to fit the concept. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, really; it’s usually been the other way around.

Since there were such a diverse array of musicians you’ve collaborated with on this record, what did they all kind of bring to the process? Besides, obviously, very different textures and instrumentation.

Yeah, I think one of the surprising things about it is how little difference there is between the four. [Laughs.] Because I think it’s all kind of unified by my writing and my singing and my playing, and my way of looking at the world. So I think that there’s a lot more similarities than differences between them.

But there were certain things — I mean, I had been to a gig that Brian Blade and Bill Frisell did together and I met them afterwards, and there were a couple songs I thought they would be fantastic for, especially “Fast Forward.” And, you know, something like “Keep On Dreaming,” that’s just the kind of groove that Stanton Moore eats for breakfast. [Laughs.] So there were just certain people I thought, “Oh God, these guys would be great for this.”

A few of the songs could’ve been done anywhere, to be honest, but you know, I ended up dividing them up, and in the process some things happened that I didn’t expect to happen. I mean, like the Berlin EP turned out to be the darkest of the four, and that sorta happened without really being planned. It’s the sort of thing that people think is deliberate, and it isn’t. But I really like them all equally. [Laughs.] If someone just asked me which was my favorite, no way I’m gonna answer that.

When did you first fall in love with New Orleans musically? What about the city resonates with you?

It was love at first sight. I first went there in 1983 on tour… [Laughs.] I can’t believe it’s that long ago. And I’ve been going back regularly ever since. Yeah, it’s a special place; I think everyone knows that, really. I don’t have anything to say about it that hasn’t already been said, but I like it. There’s a couple of places in the United States that are absolutely bursting with music. I mean, New York is one, but in a different way. In New York, it’s all more sort of “important” and expensive. [Laughs.] You go to New Orleans, and you hear amazing musicians playing for free on the street. It’s so much a part of the culture. You know, I like the generally bohemian vibe, I like the food… what could I say? It’s just a great place.

You’ve lived and recorded in New York in very different times of the city’s existence. Was there anything sort of different making music there today as compared to any times in the past you’ve created there?
Well… there’s a lot less studios than there were, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t know… I don’t know, making music is making music. You know, it’s me and the musicians doing what we do despite what’s happening outside. It’s definitely a very different place to what it was when I first came here, that’s for sure, but I’m not letting that stop me, let’s put it that way.

Did you ever get to see Television in their original incarnation when they were around? What really drew you to covering that song?

That was a hugely influential album at the time—I believe it was 1977 it came out. And it was one of the things that made me think something really interesting’s happening in New York, and that I would really like to go there. I don’t think it had occurred to be before I heard Talking Heads and Television. And, you know, a couple of years later, there I was: I made it to New York in 1979 on my first tour. So I think there was a bit of nostalgia there, and I was trying to think of a song that would have a connection to New York, without necessarily being some really obvious song about New York. So this is a song from a classic New York album.

It’s a little surprising that you and Bill Frisell haven’t crossed paths creatively before now. What was the most gratifying thing collaborating with him?

You know, there’s something about the way he’s able to just play one note and have it sound like Bill Frisell, it’s quite extraordinary. [Laughs.] I don’t quite know how he it does it. I mean, for one thing I’m not a guitarist myself, but he does seem to be able to create some kind of magic that I don’t really understand from the instrument. And, you know, he’s a nice guy and he wanted to do it. [Laughs.] He was very flattering about it—he loved the songs, especially “Kings Of The City,” which he played beautifully on, I think. He seemed like he couldn’t get enough of that song.

Yeah, I mean, like I said, I met him and Brian Blade at a gig that they played together, and it turns out they were fans of mine. Brian especially was a huge fan of mine, which completely astonished me. I mean, you never know who your fans are. It’s so hard to be objective about anything like that. And I just thought, “I just have to work with these guys.”

One project I know you’ve been working on in the recent past is a piece on Bram Stoker’s life. Has there been any movement toward getting that a wider release?

Oh my God, yes, Stoker. Yes, there is movement. There’s always movement, but it just seems to be, like, one step forward and five steps back every time. It’s just incredible. I don’t know how anything ever gets produced in the theater world, really, if this is anything to go by. This has been going on for years and years and years. And it’s not uncommon. This is the first time I’ve worked in this area, and one time I said to the director, “If I knew it was gonna take this long, I don’t know if I’d’ve gotten involved.” And she laughed and said, “Well, I knew it would, and that’s why I never said anything.” [Laughs.]

So it’s not unusual, apparently. But no, there’s definitely some things going on and it may happen next year, but I don’t wanna say. I just don’t know. I mean, there’s nothing I can do at this point. I mean, it’s not my world. I’ve become quite fatalistic about it. It’s a great piece— I mean, if it ever gets produced, I think it’s fantastic, but who knows?

But actually one of the songs from it ended up in a rewritten version on this album: “Far Away” started its life as a song for Stoker. In the piece, it’s sung by Stoker as a young boy. And the music is substantially the same, yeah, but since I thought that song may never see the light of day, I rewrote it and then changed the lyrics and took it in a different direction, and it becomes a song about… Well, I like the idea of how—you know in a movie sometimes you’ll see the character as a child, and then time passes and you see the same character as an adult? And I thought it’d be cool to do that in a song.

As a musician, it easier for you now to work on projects like that that might be overly ambitious? Obviously, there’s also the “Heaven & Hell” project that you did some years ago, as well, that was extremely ambitious.

Yeah, that was the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, I think. It was just something I wanted to do and see if I could do it. I think it sold somewhere in the double figures. [Laughs.] But anyway…

When you really started going against the grain in regards of what people and labels might’ve expected of you artistically, what sort of resistance did you run into?

I don’t know if I run into as much resistance as people might imagine. I mean, people don’t come into the studio and put a gun to your head and say, “Make this kind of record or else.” It’s not like that. It’s quite often after the fact, you know, you do a project that’s not all that successful, you’ll get people saying, “Oh, well, if only you did this instead…” or “If you haven’t done that…” Everyone’s an expert and no one’s an expert, really. I don’t know that there was a point where I deliberately went against the grain—that makes it all sound more kinda calculating than I actually am. I mean, I just always pretty much done what I wanted to do.

For the upcoming tour you’re doing, what can people expect from it, besides songs from the record?

Old songs and new songs as usual, really. I’m gonna be doing some songs solo as well, and apart from that, I think it’s good if people don’t entirely know what to expect. There are plenty of older songs that I like to play, but I don’t wanna be any more specific because I think it’s nice to have a few surprises.

It is very difficult in this day and age to actually be surprised by something. Like when a record comes out, and you don’t know what it sounds like or what’s on it…. It’s refreshing when something like that happens.

Yeah. Well, we’re not living in a golden age of music right now. I think that’s pretty clear. You know, I don’t think it’s all crap either, but it’s not a particularly interesting or exciting or important time. I don’t think so, anyway, and I think I’ve been around long enough to see that it’s not a straight line. [Laughs.] It’s very much a cycle. There are times when a lot of interesting things are happening, and there’s a real buzz about it, and there are times that are the doldrums. And I think we’re in the doldrums now. There’s really nothing much I can do as one individual to change that. All I can do is make the best record I can and really try to make it great.

When you were first starting out, was there a sense that it was a really important time in music?

Yeah, I did feel that that was an exciting time, yeah. And I think that, you know, as the ’80s wore on it got less interesting and I think things got more interesting again in the ’90s. So I think it’s just the way it goes.

I read some of your album analyses on your website. You said you realized there was all this contemporary ‘90s music you enjoyed, that it was one of the few times your tastes were lining up with what was going on at the time then.

Yeah, yeah. I actually think the ’90s was a more interesting decade than the ’80s, and I’ve had people disagree very strongly with that, so sometimes it has to do with very subjective things about the age you were at the time, where you were and what you were doing. It’s hard not to be completely subjective, but I just always had such an interest in such a wide range of music that I don’t think it’s just about what was important when I was in my twenties to me, you know? I’m very interested in early jazz from the ’20s and ’30s, for instance, not to mention people like Beethoven. [Laughs.] To me, music isn’t just something that accompanied my teenage years or something like that.

Anything else you want to add?

You know, if anyone asked me to describe my new album, or how I feel about it or anything like that, I just say it’s fucking great. I mean, I have no guarantees that anyone else in the world is gonna think so, so I think it may as well start out with me thinking that. If there’s one person that feels really good about this album, it really should be me. [Laughs.]

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fast Forward Joe Jackson Music