Monster Mash with The Jesus Cleaver

Welcome back from our mini-hiatus, Addicts! For Episode 88 we are featuring the song “Europa” by Australian dark alternative band The Jesus Cleaver. Singer/songwriter John P. Shea is the core member though he collaborates often with other artists. As he puts it, “I handle all of the writing and production duties, and most of the instrumentation. We were briefly a 2-piece around 2002, with [3] on bass, when we did our first live show. Now, we’re focusing primarily on recording. [3] did some bass parts on the debut album, A Private Encyclopaedia, and I also recorded backing vocals for the track ‘Rend’, which featured Brisbane singers Angie Draper and Tanya Quinlan. For the current album, Life In Clouds, we also got a guitar part for ‘Empty’ recorded by Brisbane alt-rock outfit, Blu Blak Truk. So overall, I’m trying to balance my need for total control with actually getting things done in a reasonable time frame. But I’m also cognizant of creating artistic dependencies. I guess a loose collective of special guests is a better description, depending on the requirements of individual songs. That being said, I think that the possibility of collaborating with other artists is getting more and more intriguing. But I also like the built-in sense of isolation that seems to permeate our work.”

The Jesus Cleaver

“Europa” is his latest single from the current album, Life In Clouds. “It’s hard to describe how important this particular track is. It represents a culmination of a lot of things musically, but more importantly, I think that the lyrics present a pretty vivid picture. It’s quite up-tempo too, which is a bit of a first for us. The song is about how far apart things can get, and also how close things can come together. It’s about raw desire, about being completely infatuated, irrespective of how long things have been going on for. It draws a bit from David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, in that a long journey is implied. The song title is reflective of that as well, and the artwork hints at two bodies in mutual orbit. Whenever I buy a new album, the first thing I do is read all of the lyrics. For this sort of audience, hopefully there’s something really strong on offer. Our lyrics underpin all of our songs, and everything begins with the lyrics in the first instance. That being said, the track could equally get skipped as soon as my vocals come on!”

The Jesus Cleaver is based in Brisbane, Australia, which is where John grew up. “Brisbane has a very diverse music scene, and has been home to acts ranging from the Bee Gees, The Saints, The Go-Betweens, and Savage Garden to name a few. In the late 80’s, Brisbane indie artists faced the height of a pretty oppressive cultural environment. A lot of indie acts were around at the time, and the city’s community radio station, 4ZzZ FM, was (and still is) a big part of the pulse of things.  This was when I first started writing, and getting more deeply exposed to the local sub-culture. In terms of influences, it’s difficult not to have textures from acts like those of the line up of the first Livid Festival somewhat engrained. There are quite a few videos from Brisbane acts around at that time on the ‘That Striped Sunlight Sound’ blog as well. Andrew Stafford’s book, Pig City is a great read for anyone interested in this aspect of Brisbane’s cultural development, and more broadly, Clinton Walker’s Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music is also an important reference. But more broadly in terms of influences, 4ZzZ shared a lot of the indie ethos that BBC presenter John Peel espoused, and UK labels such as 4AD, Beggars Banquet, Rough Trade and Mute were very well represented in playlists of the the day. In fact, Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Factory Records), was still doing well in the station’s 1988 Hot 100. US labels such as Alternative Tentacles were also in the mix, so hopefully that paints a bit of a picture. Our main influences are dark alternative acts such as Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as people like David Bowie, Kate Bush and bands such as Depeche Mode.”

How do your fans react to your music? “There are two aspects to this. In the first, I have a close group of friends and artists that I play new releases to. One of the biggest buzzes I get is in seeing them quite perplexed (for example, “Girl With No Name”), or pointing out what the song means to them, or other tracks or styles that it relates to, some of which I might not have heard of previously. All of these different tangents that the song is provoking. Secondly, for our broader fan base (an attribute which we can barely lay claim to), occasionally, we’ll get some positive tweets on particular tracks. That’s something I really thrive on. But overall, I think that music listening has become a very passive experience these days, despite the abundance of social media. Hopefully, some of our work will be good enough to prompt a conversation here and there, otherwise, we’re just another unnoticed tree falling in the forest, so to speak. We’re so far removed from the mainstream, but that in many respects is a very good thing. As an underground act, we’re not beholden to anyone or any corporation. We’re completely in control of our means of production and our artistic destiny, and we run our own small-scale promotion within a small but loyal sub-genre. If people view that as interesting, and take the time to discover and explore our art, then, fan by fan, I think that we might eventually achieve something resembling a following. In the mean time, we’re concentrating on getting better and better at our craft, and entertaining ourselves and close friends along the way.”

Europa

Of your music, do you have any favorite songs? “I guess each time I finish a new song, it’s the new favorite du jour. So at the moment, it’s ‘Europa’, and before that it was ‘Empty’. ‘Empty’ was a pretty important achievement, and a lot of production went into its rather murky, menacing mid-bass sound, and overall sense of power and intimidation. That track is a combination of some interesting musical loops and crescendo, and the guitar part from Blu Blak Truk is pretty decimating at an appropriate playback volume. ‘Luscious, which was our first single from the debut album, A Private Encyclopaedia, also has a special place, especially considering how long that song existed in a very abstract, avant-garde form. During production, the bass and guitar parts were added on top of the droning strings and free-form percussion. Before this, the song was very sparse.”

How would you describe your music? “That’s the hardest thing I find about being involved in music production and promotion – writing about your own work. I really appreciate the gift that some music journalists have of naturally being able to go on at length and in such descriptive language. For me, a song is a song. You either play it once and forget it, or you turn it up because it fills you up with something, it makes your existence that much better for that moment, or even the whole day. At least that’s my experience with my favorite songs.

I find it especially hard because we don’t clearly fit into a particular genre, and even song to song, there’s a great deal of variety in our work. There are hints here and there, and at times some of our influences make themselves more clearly known, but maybe its a process of joining the dots, from what has come before us, and the various directions we’re heading toward.”

What was the inspiration for Life In Clouds? “Life In Clouds is about existing in a particular state of bliss, and perhaps in denial, too. It’s otherworldly in a sense, in that it can’t necessarily be attained, or transitioned to. The tracks on the album loosely explore various facets of this, particularly in an inter-personal sense. Hopefully they fit together, and the title track is certainly deeply aligned, or central to this theme. The video for ‘Mercy’, which was the first single from the album, tries to portrait some of this as well in its imagery.”

Who are your favorite bands, and who has influenced your music? “I’m a huge fan of SWANS and Michael Jira. I recently saw them perform in Sydney, doing ‘The Seer’ live. Michael is a remarkable writer, and, for example, songs from the period “‘White Light from the Mouth of Infinity’ (1991) / ‘Love of Life’ (1992) / ‘The Great Annihilator’ (1995) are immensely inspiring. His recent work is very powerful, in that musically, he’s stripped things down to very simple phrases or passages of energy, yet these are being orchestrated continuously in a purposeful way. I’m still trying to rationalize the live show. I get the sense that he has a very personal vision of destruction that he’s trying to convey. For a writer of his experience and accomplishments, to realize that this is a truth that he has arrived at, and that this is what is literally being pounded into you, it’s pretty close to a spiritually cleansing. I came away from the show more as a survivor, questioning everything I’ve ever done artistically. It was much more a sense of emptiness than of being elated. It’s pretty hard to describe, but the fact that his work is so strong and powerful, and yet so out of phase with the rest of the universe, that’s pretty compelling in terms of a measure of his dissatisfaction with the status quo. Peter Hook did his ‘Unknown Pleasures’ show in Brisbane a little while ago, and that was very close to a transcendental atmosphere being formed in the venue – the energy of the songs, and their raw emotional charge, not to mention the Northern accent. I’d love to see him again with ‘Closer’. In fact, we’ve had a pretty good run lately. Blixa just came back and did a great Einstürzende Neubauten show, and Peter Murphy was pretty sublime as well – he added a good helping of Bauhaus tracks, including ‘She’s In Parties’, which is one of my favorites. Ninth, his current album, is definitely one of his best yet.”

Are there any other styles of music that you like? “I’m reasonably omnivorous, and my music collection has albums from artists such as the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Shostakovich. It’s pretty eclectic. Not expansive, because in my youth I was constantly saving money for synths and drum machines, and I tend to be interested in complete bodies of work, which at the time precluded some of the more peripheral interests.”

What type of music turns you off? “I still have scars from The B52’s being played at our high school formal.”

Is there a style that you haven’t worked in that you would like to? “In terms of new styles, it wouldn’t be impossible for something more orchestral to turn up, or perhaps something harsher, maybe some more guitars and percussion samples, but not necessarily agro-tech. I think we’re way too humanist to get into that sort of territory.”

How long have you been writing, composing, or playing? “I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, but most of that early stuff hasn’t seen the light of day. The debut album, A Private Encyclopaedia, was in many respects a ‘best of’ for a lot of that earlier work. In terms of composing and playing, I’ve been into the music technology side of things for a long time, and started out with hardware sequencers running MIDI synths, and then a drum machine. When I was in high school, I read Paul White’s Home & Studio Recording magazine religiously every month. I’ve slowly accumulated all of the studio gear one tends to accumulate, but there are still a few things on the eBay saved search list!”

Life In Clouds

What has it been like creating your albums? “In many respects, creating an album is an act of pure vanity – at the end of the process, you’ve got something unique that you can play instead of everyone else’s work. It’s a very demanding process, and yet it’s something that I’m completely comfortable with. It’s taken a long time to get there, and you have to learn a lot about your own limitations, but ultimately, you’re imposing your own sense of style throughout the decision making. With today’s tools, the possibilities are practically infinite, so having a clear sense of purpose for each track is critical. Sustaining this through the entire recording process is important, because I’m trying to convey, in musical terms, the emotional state of the lyrics. The music is really there just as a support mechanism, and at times, it can be quite strange indeed, compared to most conventional songs which probably emerge the other way around. The work so far on the second album has been a lot smoother than the first, apart from the small matter of being hospitalized for abdominal surgery after recording vocals for the track ‘Empty’. On the production side of things, I’ve got a clearer perspective now on what works and what doesn’t work. Because each song is different from the next, the actual path to completing a song might go down different roads, but aesthetically, things seem to be ending up in the right place. There are still a few songs to go though, so I still have a little apprehension around how they’ll turn out.”

Do you listen to podcasts? “In the very early days, I used to be a regular listener to quite a few podcasts. It’s so refreshing to be able to listen to shows that are actually entertaining. Some shows have come and gone (including my own, ‘Afterglow‘), but podcasting is still a critical outlet for independent media. I try and keep up with some of the dark alternative DJ’s, such as DJ Bronxelf, and now I’ll have to check out the HorrorAddicts archive too! Lately, I’m listening a lot to Radio National on the ABC. When cars have built-in mobile internet and podcast receivers, I’ll definitely be getting back into this medium. I think it needs this sort of convenience to really take off. Well, for me at least, mainly because I can’t stand ear buds or listening ‘on the go’.”

John P Shea - self portrait

When you aren’t working on music, do you have any other creative outlets? “Lately, I’ve been doing some vintage synth restorations. I don’t have a lot of free time, so that turns into a very slow process, especially if parts aren’t available. For one part, a 30mm travel slide potentiometer, I only found one supplier, and they had a minimum quantity of 1,000 units for orders. It took about 3 years for the part to turn up on eBay, and the seller would only ship to the US. By a remarkable coincidence, I was in Florida at the time, and got them sent to the hotel, so that was a bit of a win. I’ve actually re-manufactured some slide switches, where the aluminum-wrapped baton had been snapped off. I found a similar NOS (New Old Stock) part on eBay, as there wasn’t a modern equivalent, but its plastic mechanism (inside the switch housing) was slightly over-sized, so that required a lot of careful work to size it down (and not damage the baton, nor the housing). It’s amazing the level of mechanical engineering contained within the humble slide switch. There are notches on the sides of the housing, and a tiny spring with ball bearings at each end is located perpendicularly through a hole in the base of the baton, which is actually an inverted “T” shape. The ball bearings sit into the notches, which gives you that *click* feel as the baton moves back and forth. There are a set of very delicate contacts on the underside of the inverted “T”-shaped, and these mate with the switch terminals, which are molded through the plastic base, around which the housing is folded. I had to keep the original underside of the “T”, as this was molded to suit the contacts, so this meant that the top half of the original base had to be cut off, and the sized-down replacement “T” glued on top. The actual electrical switching is done as the mechanical movement of the baton drags the contacts over the terminals. You don’t really get any sense of appreciation for the design until you take one apart and try and re-build it. Everything has to fit within pretty fine tolerances. A labor of love, but you’ve got to be able to switch LFO waveforms, right? Not exactly Rock’n’Roll, but you wouldn’t have Rock without a soldering iron!”

Anything not so synth-geeky? “I also started some research for a long-form writing project, but that’s on hold for now. It was great to step back into some of the local University libraries again. I’m the kind of person that gets a buzz out of research and analysis, particularly if you’re doing it the old fashioned way. It’s important to have distractions from music though, and things like studio maintenance (and continual upgrades), as well as things like the graphic design side of things, they’re all something I enjoy.”

What’s next for you and the band? “The remaining tracks for the album Life In Clouds are what’s on the immediate agenda. All the lyrics are ready to go, but I haven’t started any pre-production yet. I mentioned the collaboration thing previously, that might also be an option. I’m pretty much always writing, but I haven’t got anything clearly formulated yet for the next body of work.”

Do you have any advice for new bands? “Just to be very, very clear about what your motives are for being involved in music. Many of the traditional aspirations are not compatible with the current reality, so you have to frame things within your own reality. If that’s something that other people can get into, then all the better. Many music projects don’t necessarily consider an end date either, so if you’re not achieving certain things within a certain time frame, then don’t be afraid to pull the pin. Making music is a deep, deep pit that you can pour yourself into. At times, it seems like you can never do enough. I’m fortunate in that The Jesus Cleaver is a project that seems to function best when deprived of nearly all of its oxygen. You also need pretty thick skin if you’re doing underground promotion, as you’ll be ignored almost all of the time. People’s attention is such a rare commodity these days, but music has that ability, like nothing else, to make a deep connection with the listener, and that’s my main interest.”

All of The Jesus Cleaver’s songs can be streamed in full, for free at any time at music.thejesuscleaver.com, and downloads of the albums and singles are also available in various formats. To find out more about John and his music, visit his official site at thejesuscleaver.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. To keep up-to-date, you can also subscribe to the band’s mailing list.