when i was dead
an interview with jason webley
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Jason Webley is a musician from the Seattle area, who has nearly two decades of experience with live music. Beginning as a busker, Jason developed a steady following in Washington and his fanbase has only grown since then, bolstered by collaborations with numerous songwriters. Jason owns and operates his own music studio, Eleven Records, and has used it to release the work of himself and others, including his 2010 Amanda Palmer collaboration, Evelyn Evelyn. Jason's most recent album is 2011's Margaret, a multi-songwriter collaboration about the life of Margaret Rucker. You can find Jason on Twitter at @jasonwebley and visit his website (where you can also buy his music) at www.jasonwebley.com.
TMR: Might you give us a crash course on yourself for our readers?
JW: I play accordion, I sing songs. I used to do it a lot and I don't do it as much anymore.
TMR: Why do you not do it as much anymore?
JW: I made a real conscious decision to take a break at the end of 2011. And I've been doing a little bit of stuff since then, but certainly not as much as I used to. I think I'm just in a different gear right now, and I don't have quite the same hunger to be out screaming at people every night. I put out the Margaret album in 2011. But I haven't been writing a lot of new songs of my own; I have some, but I'm not quite sure what to do with them. I've actually been spending a lot of my time buying and fixing up cabins along the rivers of Snohomish County.
TMR: On your Wikipedia page it gives this sneak peek and it says you died every Halloween. In an interview with David Harris on Spectrum Culture, you have this quote: "It was necessary, and I am slowly learning how to exist in a world where I don't need to/get to die all the time." Why did you say that?
JW: I feel like in life, we don't exactly choose. We make decisions, but we sort of respond to what's going on. And that idea of killing the performer version of myself, as contrived as it might sound, I felt like it came around really organically. And it is something that I've never been good at talking about. Back when I was in it and doing it, I pretty much wouldn't talk about it. I just kind of did it. At the time of that interview, which was 13 years ago, I guess I was starting to find some words about it.
I guess I'll start at the beginning. I was street performing and traveling around. I started in 1998, just playing on street corners with the accordion, and built a tiny little following in Seattle. I remember traveling across Canada with some friends, street performing, and people really responding to it. I remember they played a little clip of me on the Canadian MTV, and I was like, "Wow! This thing is kind of working." And I remember looking at myself in the mirror, and I had really become this character, this guy with the long hair and a goatee and a black hat and a trench coat. I saw him looking there, staring back at me, and I really liked him. But I had this idea that was really pervasive: "You need to kill him now." And it didn't make any sense, but it just wasn't an idea I could kick. On one hand, it was really hysterical. Just at the moment when this seems to feel like it's starting to work, to kill it. It also seemed really terrifying. And I think because it was that combination of terrifying and hysterical, I couldn't get rid of it.
I had this idea that was really pervasive: "You need to kill him now."
I think Halloween was about five months away and I was going to have this concert. I made a plan that at the end of the concert, we were gonna lead the audience into the woods and I was gonna have a decoy. We were gonna have this big papier-mâché puppet and burn that, because I'd ended a lot of concerts at that time like that, where we'd lead people out and we'd burn a big thing. But then instead, when we got out into the woods, these women in white were going to appear and strip off my hat, my trenchcoat, all of my clothes, and burn them. They were going to shave my head and put me in a coffin and away I would go. At the time I thought, "That's it. There goes the accordion guy."
And I kept going back and forth on it. The night of the show, I remember telling my friends, "You know what, let's not do this. It's raining out, it's not a good night to go out into the woods." Because I was still scared of that idea. But they didn't let me off easily.
At the time I thought that was gonna be it. I'd booked a plane ticket to fly across the world and do other things, and that was sort of the pattern. I always would do something different from my musical performing life, in that time.
Somewhere about three months in, somebody sent me a poem about Beltane, which is this other Pagan holiday, the opposite of Samhain or Halloween, and it's this Pagan festival of rebirth. And I remember looking at my return ticket, which was for May 1st, and being like, "Huh." That's when the idea started, that maybe this character could keep shifting and could get born again, and that's where the cycle began.
TMR: What was the inspiration behind the decision to stop the cycle completely? You obviously don't do that anymore.
JW: My original plan was to do that forever. I thought I could just do this my whole life, and even when I was dead, I could keep doing it. I could have all my bones turned into musical instruments, and have my friends bring them back together twice a year for these events. They'd get scattered for half the year, then be brought back together for the other half.
I guess it's like asking why I stopped performing in 2011. And I still don't have a good answer. But I do know that there was a moment when I thought, "I don't wanna do this anymore." I think you can only ritually kill yourself and be resurrected in front of people so many times before it starts getting to other people's heads, and probably to your own head. I never wanted to be a Jesus figure or something like that. As fun as the idea of constantly living out that cycle was, the energy that people were bringing to it would sometimes get intense, and I feel like it wasn't the best way for me to look at myself. So yeah, I stopped. And it was kind of hard because up until then, that felt like the important work that I was doing. The traveling around and being a singer-songwriter, that was all just supportive of that bigger work. And I remember at first feeling really naked and strange, to go out and just play shows without that bigger structure supporting it.
TMR: Tell us about your first album and how it came to be.
JW: That first album came out of a process. I'd been working at this crappy little recording studio where we did a bunch of business music stuff. My girlfriend was doing work down in Central America and I'd just stay at the studio late for months, and I had these recording projects I was working on. I had this weird idea, while I had the tools there, to try to catalogue every song I'd ever written. Punk songs I'd written in high school, a bunch of songs that I wrote for plays while I was at the University of Washington—ultimately hundreds of songs.
I remixed all the old recordings that I'd done and I made new recordings of any songs that didn't get recorded before, and filled up a bunch of CDs with these old songs. I remember at the end of it all, I had all these scraps of unfinished songs from the last three or four years, mostly towards the end of when I was in college and right after. And that's ultimately what became Viaje.
I recorded it in a totally different way than I'd recorded the other stuff. For those, I had this old sequencer and I'd program drums and bass lines and I'd play electric guitar over it, and then I put tons of reverb on the vocals. The production style was kind of bad, but for those leftover songs, these weird scraps, it just seemed like that wasn't the right way to record them. So I borrowed a multitrack recorder from a friend and I set it up in the kitchen of this house that I was living in at the time, unplugged the refrigerator so it wouldn't make any noise, and started recording. And as I did that, the songs seemed not just stronger, but they held together in a way that I didn't expect. That's why I decided to actually release them as that first album. It really felt like an end of something, rather than a beginning. I didn't really think I was starting a career as a singer-songwriter; I kinda felt like I was saying goodbye to a certain era of my life, and it was a little document of that moment.
TMR: So what was it that made it turn into a career?
JW: Well, I decided to print up some copies of it. In the backs of magazines at the time there were ads that said "1000 CDs, $800" and that's how many you ordered. So I ordered a thousand CDs and then I had a little party at my house. I invited all my friends over and sang a couple of the songs and gave out CDs to everybody. Then I looked, and I had like 950-960 CDs left, and I thought, "Jesus Christ, what am I gonna do with this?" And that was July 3rd.
July 4th there was this fireworks exhibition that happened down the road, and the traffic through my neighborhood would become completely constipated—cars would just be stuck, slowly climbing through the streets. I saw them, and then I went out on the sidewalk in front of the house with the accordion and played a couple songs, terribly, with a sign saying "CDs - $3." And a couple of people bought CDs.
I think it was the next day I tried going down to Pike Place Market to do the same thing. This girl with crazy dreads walked by in the first two or three minutes of me out there playing, and she came back and said, "You should open up for my band." Her band would put on these big ritual shows where people in the audience would burn money—it was very theatrical, very anarchist, and very fun. They were a great band for me to go on tour with and open for, but that happened immediately. I was just this 22-23 year-old kid who didn't know how to play the accordion, bellowing the same song over and over on the street corner.
TMR: You mentioned Margaret. Can you tell us a bit about that and why you decided to take part in that project?
Before throwing the garbage in, he noticed this scrapbook down at the bottom of it. It was the story of a woman's life, this beautiful book with a hand-carved leather cover.
JW: It sort of landed in my lap. Like I said, I haven't been feeling a strong urge to make albums, and this particular thing had so many people involved, and I think that's why I did it as a Kickstarter. I also think the world is kind of changing, and it's easier to sell people something that doesn't exist yet than it is to sell them something that will exist for all of eternity. Therefore, the Kickstarter model kind of works well for the moment.
It was this uncanny chain of circumstances. Amanda [Palmer] was visiting me in Everett. She noticed this name on all the streets, like Rucker Avenue, Rucker Hill, all these different Rucker things, and asked "Who are the Ruckers?" And I didn't know, so I took her to the cemetery. The really famous thing in Everett is this place, Rucker's Tomb, which is this giant old granite pyramid. And it just says Rucker across the top. I showed her that, and we climbed on top.
The next day we flew down to San Francisco and I stayed with my friend Chicken John. He and I were talking, and I mentioned something about how I had been working on a house in Everett, and he froze. He goes "Everett? You live in Everett?" I had always told him I live in Seattle, which is what I tell everybody. But then he said "There's something I need to show you."
So we go back to his house, and he tells me this story about how twenty years before, he found this scrapbook in a dumpster. Before throwing the garbage in, he noticed this scrapbook down at the bottom of it. It was the story of a woman's life, this beautiful book with a hand-carved leather cover. Inside, it began with the woman's birth certificate and ended with her obituary. It contained all these old documents: photos, newspaper clippings, and poetry. She was a published poet, and he just kind of fell in love with her. Her life had this kind of tragic arc; pretty horrible things happened and were documented in this book. John ended up keeping it for years and showing it to friends, and he actually made a little slideshow out of it. He showed me that slideshow, and sure enough, it was a woman who had been born in Everett, Washingtonexcept her name was Margaret Rucker.
And so it was about 36 hours after Amanda and I had climbed on top of the pyramid that he shows me this thing. Margaret was the daughter of Russell Rucker, one of the two guys who had pretty much founded the town of Everett. That was the beginning of me taking an interest in Everett history.
I invited a bunch of songwriters to write songs inspired by her life and poetry. We put on this big show at the old theater in Everett that was built around the time when she was born. At the end of the night, we lead a procession of people to the pyramid and lit it up with candles. I thought the songs were really good, and we did the Kickstarter to make it into a book and album. That's why I did it, because it sort of had its own momentum and it was kind of hard not to do it.
TMR: I wanted to rewind and ask if you could tell us a bit about your childhood, and the early events that kind of created the Jason Webley that you are. Who were your musical influences as a child?
JW: I liked really terrible music, as a child. My first favorite thing was the theme song to The Greatest American Hero. I really liked Billy Joel and The Monkees, and I had pretty bad taste. I didn't like The Beatles, but I liked The Monkees.
TMR: When do you think that changed? When did you get "good taste"?
JW: I don't know that it ever happened. I remember being in high school and my friends dragging me to some concert in Seattle. They told me it was a punk concert, but it wasn't punk enough for me. And I was just miserable. There were four bands playing. It was The Dwarves, The Melvins, and I just couldn't stand any of it. When the last act took the stage, I was done. I waited outside miserably until my friends left so we could leave.
The last band was Nirvana. It was right after Bleach came out, so they had a following in Seattle, but they weren't huge.
And then a couple of years after that, I went to Europe with my girlfriend at the time. We ended up at this music festival—I feel like this happened three different times, being at places where this woman was playing—and I just couldn't understand what the big deal was. It was her first solo album, and it was getting played here and there, and I just couldn't understand it. It sounded like bad dance music with someone singing atonally over the top. Somehow we kept ending up at festivals where this person was playing, and I thought it was horrible. Anyway, this was Björk.
TMR: What books were you reading when you were a kid?
JW: I got my bad taste in that a bit later. I started off reading good books, then switched to bad books. As a kid, I really liked Mark Twain. I liked monsters, so I accidentally read a lot of good literature because they happened to be monster books. I loved Frankenstein and Dracula and stuff like that. But then I started reading Stephen King and terrible books based on movies when I was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. Later in life I feel like—especially back when I started—literature was much more of an importance to me than music was.
TMR: You're a very talented poet, and I wanted to know why music was your way of saying those words, rather than just writing it? If it added something different to it.
JW: I don't necessarily feel like I'm an amazing lyricist or an amazing musician, but I feel like the text is maybe my stronger suit. That said, it comes to me kind of hard and slow. Perhaps in music, while not maybe being the most amazing stuff in the world, it kind of comes a little easier. I don't really end up with lots of extra text lying around, probably because I'm lazy. But you get a lot more mileage out of a few words in a song, and I grew up on songs. I love poetry, but poetry is really hard for me to digest. It can take me longer to make it through a three page poem than to make it through a novel, somehow. Even some of my favorite poems in the world, like Rilke's Duino Elegy, I've never sat down and read the whole thing. There are corners of it that are undiscovered to me, yet I think it's some of the most beautiful language I've ever encountered.
I did grow up on songs. I had pop songs around me all my life. I switched over to listening to punk music when I was in junior high/high school and wrote a lot of punk songs in that time. It's a language that is a little bit familiar. That's been my starting place.
TMR: Regarding literature, what are you reading now? Do you have any favorite modern books or poetry that you could think of?
JW: I don't read a lot of modern things. I read lots of things by dead white men. At the moment I'm reading a book written by a dead white man about another dead white man. I'm supposed to be writing music for a play based on The Call of the Wild possibly this summer, so I'm reading a biography of Jack London by Irving Stone, the same man who edited Vincent Van Gogh's letters to Theo.
TMR: What attracts you to those sorts of books, versus others?
JW: Well, I'm reading that book because I'm supposed to. It's homework.
But what do I like to read? I've become terrible. I don't read nearly as much as I used to. If I can just get rid of the computer, I'll read more. It's a pretty simple thing. The computer and the phone really take up that space. I've known for a long time that I need to be more disciplined in putting the computer away, to take time to read.
TMR: What is the importance in fostering a connection with the people who follow you and your art? Why is that something that needs to be done by artists?
I don't understand the point of performing in front of a group of people unless you're going to—in some way—be listening to and responding to and engaging with these people.
JW: It doesn't need to be donethere are people that create in a bubble. For me, performing is like a conversation. It's gonna be a kind of self-centered conversation, it's gonna mostly be me running the show a little bit. But I need to kind of be aware in listening and responding and having what I do be alive and engaged. I don't understand the point of performing in front of a group of people unless you're going to—in some way—be listening to and responding to and engaging with these people. Why is it important? I think it's best. We're social creatures. Everything we do is social. The act of doing work and getting paid for it, that's a social exchange.
TMR: Has there been any story that has deeply affected you recently, whether it was a film, a novel, or a show. Why did it resonate with you?
JW: I like the sort of immersive theater movement. I really enjoyed going to see Sleep No More in New York. I feel like it could be a container for really, really amazing work. Sleep No More is a play where you go in and you're basically let loose in a five story building. And it's all immaculately designed, an amazing theatrical set piece. And there are characters moving through it, loosely acting out Macbeth in a kind of silent dance. And you can follow the characters around, and all of the audience members have these masks, so everyone in the audience is anonymous. And you can just stand in one place and watch what comes to you. You can follow actors around, and you can just sort of explore the geography. And it's pretty amazing. It's really, really well done.
For me: ultimately, for something to be great, it has to kind of grab me by the ventricles and shake them a bit. And that's rare.
TMR: How often would you say that you write creatively, whether it's songs or poetry or prose or even journals?
there's no shortage of songs and albums in the world, and there's no shortage of my songs and my albums in the world.
JW: Not much. I need a project. I've got a half-dozen new songs, but by "new" I mean that I've written them since 2011. That's a song a year. And since Margaret, I have not written a single song that I would consider to be a song. So I'm being amazingly uncreative. I don't have a big hunger at the moment to make a bunch of new songs, or to make new albums. I'm not really trying to push my thing anymore, and I think as part of that, there's not a lot of emphasis to do new work. And there's no shortage of songs and albums in the world, and there's no shortage of my songs and my albums in the world. But still, it's possible there will be a shift and I'll do more.
TMR: What is the hardest thing you've had to deal with as a songwriter? Is it self-doubt, or stage-fright, or even what you're doing now?
JW: The hard stuff in life is the hard stuff in life. It's hard for me to think of moments as a songwriter, like, "Ugh, the time I had to rhyme something with orange." Hard stuff in life is dealing with the loss of people you care about, recognizing your own mortality, recognizing the mortality of the people you love, recognizing when your ideas of what's going on don't match up with someone else's, and that makes a future that isn't what you were hoping to build. The possibly hard things would have been deciding to stop touring for a while, deciding not to kill myself, deciding to kill the Jason Webley puppet. But all of that kind of just happened on its own. I didn't really have to do much. There's nothing hard about being a songwriter. It's a pretty plush gig.
TMR: Might you have any advice for people who are dealing with the hard things? Not regarding songwriting, but just in lifeanything that you may have gleaned from your life experiences?
JW: Don't pretend it's not hard, because it is. It's supposed to be. And it'll generally get better again, at some point. Probably.
TMR: Lastly, who is your hero? Why?
JW: I've always been bad at having heroes. I have a few friends around me that just constantly astound me by how selflessly they live. I don't think any of my heroes are songwriters or novelists. One of them is a carpenter, one of them takes trucks to the junkyard. They're just really good, honest people. Luckily my life has become interwoven with theirs.