Name-dropped by everyone from Beck to Darren Hayman to Connor Oberst, heralded by many as the first to achieve that hissing ‘Omaha sound’, Nebraskan lo-fi pioneer Simon Joyner is finally returning to the UK for a handful of shows.
To those who know him as the first link in a chain that includes Bright Eyes, David Dondero, Cursive and Azure Ray, Joyner probably doesn’t need the introduction, but a wilfully non-careerist attitude has left him virtually unknown outside a small circle of aficionados. He plays the Brixton Windmill, London, on November 16, supported by label-mate Julie Doiron and super-fan Hayman, and goes on a short nationwide tour after. Fans of Saddle Creek, Jonathan Richman, the Mountains Goats and Hefner should catch this opportunity to watch one of the pioneers of Midwestern alt-folk in person, ‘cause he don’t do it often. DiS caught up with him via the Interweb to discuss fame, songwriting, and being a cool dad.
You've released almost a record a year for the last 15 years, but the Brixton show is your first in the UK for a long time. What do we have to thank for this rare occasion?
I was in the UK with Bright Eyes three years ago and played a show in Manchester on my own. It was the first show for the people who set it up [Pineapple Folk] and they've been promoting shows ever since. They contacted me about coming back for their three year anniversary and I decided to set up a short tour to coincide with their festival show.
You've been on almost as many labels as you’ve made albums. What made you decide to settle on Jagjaguwar, and how's it working out?
Jagjaguwar came along when my previous label, Truckstop, was beginning to wind down. I had just recorded Lost with the Lights On and Jagjaguwar was eager to release it. I knew Darius and Chris Swanson from way back so it was nice to be able to work with them. My main criteria for a label is that they are willing to release my records on both CD and vinyl, and Jagjaguwar had no problem with that at all, so it was a really good fit.
Why is it so important to you that it’s released on both formats?
The reason I look for labels who manufacture both formats is that I'm a vinyl collector. I really hate CDs. To me it's not a record unless it's really a record. It's not just the superior aesthetics of vinyl and the artistic possibilities of a jacket, it's the sound too. I prefer the sound of records. When I make a record, I sequence the songs with the album side in mind, knowing that at the end of side one the record will have to be flipped. This means that each side has it's own trajectory so you'll notice that how I begin and end sides of a record is intentional. With CDs there is only one beginning and one end and that leads to thinking of the whole CD as a collection of songs. I think the necessary side break, inherent to the vinyl format, created artistic possibilities that the CD removed. So, what we've sacrificed is a participatory relationship to the art in exchange for the convenience of a compact format. The CD format allows us to passively digest the music. The mp3 format has taken us even further in that direction, unfortunately. I'm not a Luddite or anti-technology by any means but I do oppose it when it seems to separate us from a richer experience rather than bringing us closer together.
I first heard about you as a major influence of Conor Oberst, whose early releases you put out. You've just toured with Bright Eyes in the US. Is there some kind of Omaha solidarity thing going on that we should know about?
Conor and I have been friends forever and champions of each other's music all along so we tour together whenever it works out. We were joking on this last tour that his schedule is so full that touring with his friends is the only way he'd ever see them. It's pretty much true. I'd say that the Omaha musicians I know are extremely loyal and anxious to promote each other's music so I guess there is a certain amount of solidarity going on.
Tell us a little about Kilgore's and the night you used to play there.
Kilgore's was this little bar in a sketchy area in midtown Omaha in the early ‘90s. It was mostly a jazz bar but they turned over Thursday night to Alex McManus (the Bruces, Lamchop, Bright Eyes) to set up singer-songwriter shows. Alex was in a local band at the time called the Acorns. They had a song called ‘Yes Virginia’ which was the impetus for Tim Kasher naming his band Slowdown Virginia. Anyway, Alex and John Kuhlman and Bill Hoover started putting on these Thursday shows and it was around the time that I started writing songs more seriously, so I started playing there too. It turned into a pretty big weekly gig with all of these songwriters duelling it out, influencing one another while trying to get the best reaction from material. It was basically songwriting school. Everyone was really talented and had unique styles. Our audience was a slightly younger generation of songwriters, Ted Stevens, Tim Kasher, Conor Oberst, Brendan Hagberg, and Jake Bellows. If it weren't for Kilgore's I don't think any of us would have turned into decent songwriters. There was something about the pressure of the event that forced all of us to work hard and hone our skills. We all averaged two or three new songs a week. You had to keep up and the worst thing that could happen would be to play a set of all the same songs if Bill Hoover had two new songs. It was a really healthy competitive arena for cutting our teeth. If a song wasn't any good, it was obvious from the crowd's reaction. If a song was decent, there were all these songwriters to tell you what they thought. There really isn't anything quite like it anymore. I definitely think I'm as prolific as I am because of habits I developed from the Kilgore's days.
John Peel famously played your entire album, The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, from start to finish on his show, the only album to receive the honour other than Blood on the Tracks. How did this unexpected attention change things for you?
It definitely escalated my career. I had toured a bit in the US but his endorsement really generated a lot more interest in Europe and that ended up having a ripple effect back to the US too. I probably wouldn't have left the US if there hadn't been a certain amount of overseas interest because John Peel had played my record and made a big deal of it. It was really nice but at the time I had just become a father and didn't have plans to be on tour all the time with a baby at home. So, I didn't really take advantage of all the interest. I did some festivals and short tours but I realized from the beginning that I was going to have to pursue my art from home and perform whenever it was possible with my family schedule. I wasn't going to be on the road seven months out of the year. The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll was vinyl only and sold out quickly, but it is being reissued on LP and CD this year by Team Love.
Considering your cult status, you could easily be more commercially successful, but you've been quoted as being happy to stay under radar. Is this something you do on principle, or are you just content to not 'go for it', as it were?
Kind of a mix of both reasons, I think. I really love writing and performing but I prefer to sleep in my own bed so the idea of living out of a van or bus all the time is not very enticing. I'm fortunate to sell enough records to be able to continue making them without having to go on the road to promote them extensively. I do intend to make more short trips though. I have always shunned touring but what I really need to do is play for two weeks at a time and go out every few months so I can have the best of both worlds. It doesn't have to be an either/or decision. Still, I'm happy remaining under the radar. It's a perfect place to be if you want to keep control of your life and your art.
Do you make enough money off your music to survive?
I do okay but I don't make enough to survive. If I toured more I might squeak by but as it is, the music is supplemental. I sell antiques and furniture to pay most of the bills.
You originally wanted to be a writer of fiction – is this still a dream you're pursuing?
I write songs and stories. I might one day switch and focus on the fiction but we'll see. The fact that I already have an avenue for the music certainly contributes to my reticence, I think, but fiction is something I would like to devote more time to.
The sheer volume of your output is right up there with Daniel Johnston,
John Darnielle and Stephin Merritt. What's the secret of your prolificacy?
Yes, that is a word!
I don't know. I enjoy writing and working on songs and there always seems to be new directions to explore so it's remained captivating. I wouldn't do it if it weren't and I'm grateful people are so complicated and messy because there is always something to write about if you have your eyes and ears open.
Do you think that not having the pressures of pursuing commercial success has allowed you more freedom in your writing and in what you release?
Definitely. There are no commercial considerations so I really just do what feels right at the time. My records sell about the same amount each time out so I'm never having to follow a hit record or chasing some impossible demographic. It's an enviable position artistically, but a pauper's paradise, I guess.
The latest album was recorded live over a weekend. How did this come about?
I had recorded in Chicago or Los Angeles for the last four records and I wanted to record in Omaha again. My collaborator/producer, Michael Krassner, is living in Phoenix these days and I asked if he could bring his gear to Omaha and record here. I wanted to record in an environment outside of a studio so we rented this building which had been part of an old train station and recorded there. We borrowed microphones from Conor and Alex McManus and Mike Mogis and rented gear that Krassner couldn't ship or transport but he brought all his microphones, preamps and the essentials. The idea was to get a professional recording but capture the raw live performance and ambient sounds of a natural space. It was a fantastic experience, sort of a bridge between my early lo-fi records and my studio records. It's definitely not a lo-fi record but it also doesn't sound like it's happening in a studio. That was important to me. The band spread out in this large room and we played live for all the basic tracks and vocals. Then we overdubbed the acoustic piano and some electric guitar parts and gave ‘The Only Living Boy in Omaha’ to Fred Lonberg-Holm to write a string arrangement for, and that was it. Everything but the strings was done in that one weekend. I always work fast anyway, even in the studio. I don't like to take too many takes or over-rehearse the band. I've always felt that capturing the energy of the song is more important than getting everything right. Usually my favourite moments in other people's music are the accidents and how they are handled. I think the audience appreciates it, too. Most records sound so sterile, so surgically constructed that there is no soul left in them regardless of the quality of the songs. I think wherever your vision takes you it's a good thing to remember that the essence of it should be rock and roll and a lot of studio tricks and clinical exorcisms are only going to take you further and further from the heart of what you're supposed to be doing which is delivering the honest goods.
And finally, your kids must think they have a pretty cool dad, no?
I suppose the kids think they have a cool dad most of the time. Sometimes I'm probably just a typical, irritating parent who makes them do their homework and clean their room, but we also go to concerts and make art and I'm pretty laid back, all things considered.
Simon Joyner (MySpace) plays the Brixton Windmill on November 16; UK dates as follows:
16 London Brixton Windmill
17 Salford Hear here Festival
18 Leeds Rios
20 Manchester TBC
21 Newcastle Star & Shadow Cinema
22 Edinburgh Bristo Hall
23 Glasgow Captain’s Rest
24 Northampton TBC
Photo: Dana Damewood