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Jonathan Richman: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

[Aquarium Drunkard]

I heard Jonathan Richman’s last full-length record, SA, about a year after it came out. It was not that I was avoiding it, I just missed its release. I had bumped into Jerry Harrison at a party at our mutual friend Jon Blaufarb’s house soon after he recorded with Jonathan. Their recordings would become this new record. I was so surprised to hear they were making music again, and the way Jerry talked about the session, it seemed he was delightfully surprised as well.

SA is a completely unexpected revelation and one of the best records in a long career of great ones. With Jerry aboard, and a revisiting of “Old World” from the first Modern Lover’s record—retitled “The Fading Of An Old World,” with new lyrics offering new perspectives—it maintains a welcome connection to the past.  But it is in no way a record anchored in a time gone by, and with its heavily Indian influences continues to usher in a new era for Jonathan, started with the previous record Ishkode! Ishkode! (I say “started” but is probably just a part of a long continuum for an ever-evolving artist.)

So I listened to the record a few dozen times and decided to call Jonathan up to see if he would be interested in talking.  And lucky enough for us, he was. | david katznelson

Listen to Jonathan Richman’s album SA on Bandcamp.

Aquarium Drunkard: I would like to start with a quote from Ali Akbar Khan. What do you think of this:

“Real music is not for wealth, not for honors or even the joys of the mind…but as a path for realization and salvation.”

Jonathan Richman: Sounds like Ali Akbar Khan is in accord with those who sing devotional music: it’s not to show off. It’s to get in touch with yourself.

AD: How does that apply to you?

Jonathan Richman: I too feel that music is first an inner conversation and then an outer one.

AD: If I had asked you that question thirty years ago would you have had the same answer?

Jonathan Richman: I’d at least have said that you gotta play for yourself first and the people second—which is similar.

AD: When it comes to aging, your voice has not changed in all of these years. Do you feel yourself getting older?

Jonathan Richman: I gotta stretch out more than I used to. But I sing more relaxed than before so that’s less violent on my throat than it was as a teenager.  I also don’t talk hardly at all after the show: that makes an enormous difference.

AD: That must be hard given there are probably many people who want to talk to you after a show

Jonathan Richman: Well, I can always write notes.  And people get it. Especially since we play mostly theaters nowadays. Less drunks.

AD: Is SA a recent enough album that you feel like talking about it?

Jonathan Richman: Yes. Thank you for asking that question. The last two albums, Ishkode! Ishkode!SA, and the recent broadcast series on Bandcamp called I’m Just a Spark on Journey From The Dark represent what I am up to lately.

AD: About these last two records. You once said you create songs purely because you are a singer and you need something to sing about. 

Jonathan Richman: That was true ever since I started to do this.

AD: But with SA it seems like these songs are starting to become linked in a bigger philosophical conversation. SA more so than its predecessor carries with it a very sentimental, thoughtful question about life.

Jonathan Richman: To me it feels more like there’s a devotional music aspect to the new record which was in my other records but more so in this one. Some of that stuff is linked to medieval Indian poetry or based on it. It’s linked that way. I don’t know who made up “O Mind.”  I am looking for the author for it and I cannot find it, but it is someone from India!

“SA” is from Rama Krishna and Jab May Ta is a poem by Kabir. So there is going to be unity that way. And in India those are called bhajans, a form of songs that is devotional music. Bagang can also mean composition. To me what unifies the songs are that they are devotional in a style that borrows from Indian music. I’ve been listening to Indian music for the last several years.

AD: What are some of the artists you’ve been listening to?

Jonathan Richman: Pandit Pran Nath also Subbulakshmi….she might still be still alive. Sri Karuna Mayee who passed on about a few years ago.

AD: As a fan I get turned on to so many different kinds of music as you get turned onto the music and work aspects into your songs. What is your journey of discovery of all of these things?

Jonathan Richman: Well, to me any musician does this. For example, I used to read a magazine when I was a teenager called Hit Parader magazine. You can still find old copies of it in vintage stores. It would have old articles and interviews of a lot of groups at the time: The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Lovin’ Spoonful.  I would read these articles. Groups like The Lovin’ Spoonful would talk about all that they were listing to and they were listening to music from Bulgaria, from India, from all over the world. Brian Jones collected music from Morocco, George Harrison…John Coltrane…What I am doing is common for musicians. Most musicians do this if they are in it for a while.

AD: How have things changed over the last few months in quarantine?

Jonathan Richman: It is funny how little anything has changed. I still have many records to listen to and I read sheet music to different things. I couldn’t go out much before because all my friends’ bands were so loud.  And I would tell them this before a show.  I would say, “Have a great show but I am going to have to listen from three blocks away.” And I would do that. I would listen to my friend’s band from across the street or across two streets because only then would my ears be comfortable. I will not go anywhere near most modern music. It is loud enough to be heard in the next county and I will not subject my ears to it.

Earplugs don’t do any good because the bass is rattling through your bones. You can have all the earplugs you want and it is still rattling your ear bones and ear canals, You don’t have a chance. Your only escape is to run.

AD: Getting back to SA. Not only is Jerry Harrison on it but also in the liner notes you mention that the sequence was done by the original producer of the first Modern Lovers record. And you don’t cover a song from the first record, but you come back to it after all these years (“Old World”) and give an answer…a continuation of it. What is that all about?

Jonathan Richman: I heard some old tapes of the band and I realized how Jerry and me used to have this musical communication where we would both improvise against each other in a good way. So when I was in a recording studio in Oakland with Charles Gonzalez engineering a few years ago, I saw that they had a mellotron and I said, “Jerry would sound good on this,” so I called him up and asked him to come down and play. And it was not just he sounded good but that we had chemistry again…except better. And so ever since we have been playing together.

AD: And how about Alan Mason sequencing the record?

Jonathan Richman: Alan wasn’t a “producer.”  He produced some demo tapes; it wasn’t a record. It was a collection of demo tapes that later got turned into the idea of a record years after all these demo tapes were made. I am an old friend of Alan Masons and we talk and so we talk about sequencing songs anyway and we were talking about this record and I think I asked him, “Hey Alan, will you come up with a sequence for it?” Or he brought it up, but somehow that happened.

AD: It is a big deal for a fan to see you and Jerry playing together again.

Jonathan Richman: For us too! It is a big deal for both of us. We ended up me, him and the tambora player Nicole…we ended up producing it together.  There is a certain chemistry. It is exciting for all of us.

AD: Let’s talk about the new broadcast. How did this come about?

Jonathan Richman: Someone pointed out to me: “Hey Jonathan, all your listeners—almost all of them—hear your music from streaming.” And I was thinking, THEY DO? And they said YES. So I called up Blue Arrow records and I said “I want to stay in this music game!” I guess that vinyl is more of a collector’s item than I was thinking.  And they said yes. So I said maybe there is a way I can introduce my new music to the people who want to hear it via the streaming and for it not to be foul. And they said, there is bandcamp—they are not like the other companies. They like to hear sketches of songs and they are not all about the money, so I said, “OK, let’s try that.”

AD: And how did you figure out the format?

Jonathan Richman: As I went along.

AD: Is it going to continue to be these 10-15 minute pieces where you get to hear new songs and bring other people on the show too?

Jonathan Richman: Yes. Just like that. I am happy that people are liking it.

AD: What is your general regiment of recording? Are you always recording stuff? Are you always writing?

Jonathan Richman: Neither. I don’t write. I sing and then write stuff down. I don’t write songs, so to speak. I write songs down. I have no regiment. We just play a bunch of crap. That is how it is with me in the studio.

AD: Do you go to the studio a lot?

Jonathan Richman: No, just sometimes. I have an instinct and say, “Let’s go record a bunch of stuff.” Sometimes I know what I want to record and sometimes people say, “What are we going to record?” and I say, “Let’s find out.”

AD: You are hitting 70 soon. Are you at all a sentimental person and if so does this milestone carry with it any sentimentality…any looking back or looking forward?

Jonathan Richman: No. We are using a decimal system. 20-30-40-50. They happened to have ZEROS at the end. But suppose we were on base 8 rather than base 10…then it would be like that. I am not sentimental about New Years either because for example it is only one new years—there are several new years around the world and they are all just based on numbers that apply to some situations. You say HAPPY NEW YEAR and I say sure but how about in China? What about in the Arab world? India?

AD: Are you sentimental at all?

Jonathan Richman: It is all in the music. That is the answer to that question.

AD: What gives you joy as an artist/human being?

Jonathan Richman: Playing guitar! Playing guitar is fun. Singing is fun. Playing with a drummer…tonight I am going to play with Tommy. That s gonna be great. I play with tambora … with Nichole on tambora. That’s great. Making up this stuff and getting people to hear it. I just built another bread oven and that’s great to.  More stuff than I can mention.

AD: Do you see your relationship with music differently than you did even a year ago and has this time affected you at all as a musician?

Jonathan Richman: No. I just played before and I play now. It is just what I do., And I did not pick it, it chose me. All of a sudden when I was about 17 I realized it was choosing me and I was chosen. It was sort of over a period of months that I just realized that it was overtaking me. It chose me. I’m not the only one chosen. My drummer Tommy would say the same thing. He did not choose music, music chose him, the drums chose him.  That is the way it is lots of times with lots of musicians. or artists in general.

I paint, too. Painting chose me.  All of a sudden I found that I couldn’t do anything else but draw and paint. With music I didn’t say, “Oh I think I will be a musician.” There I was, that is all I could be.

I think there are probably lots of musicians who all around the world who have found their own path, but some of them don’t have the same thing.  What I am is I am at ease on stage, I bet there are loads of musicians you have never heard of who have also found their own path, but might not be at ease in front of people

AD: What are you listening to right now?

Jonathan Richman: Let me see: Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington’s record In A Sentimental Mood, Jose Feliciano…beautiful, relaxed guitar player…him singing in Spanish especially, Buena Vista Social Club, Reggae…Toots…lots of music from India, from France and Spain.

AD: What is on your table to read?

Jonathan Richman: “When the Light of the World was subdued (an anthology of Native Nations poetry edited by Joy Harjo (Editor’s note: the incumbent United States Poet Laureate). People give me books and I read them.  I read books by Yogananda. He dictated books and I read a lot of those.

At this point I was ending my interview when I mentioned to Jonathan that I had taken the kids to see him at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass a few years back…I had been playing them songs from the first few records, especially Wheels On The Bus and Abominable Snowman In The Market, and that the show he did which found him ranting about women’s issues that went right over the kids’ heads.  He told me that he did not remember that but he often does not remember what he does on stage.  So I asked him if there is something about being on stage that puts him in a trance…brings him to a higher level.  It was the first time in the interview where he seemed put off, rejecting the question and calling it horseshit. 

We ended the call nicely, but I was left feeling bad about that last moment.

Five minutes later, Jonathan called me back. Saying he had thought about why he had the reaction he did to the question. That he really did not know how to answer my question and that was because the real answer is that there was no difference to him on stage or off. That he feels the same in either situation, and I am paraphrasing him now, that it is all the same for him.

For him, composition was performance. Which I found to be an incredible way to really end the conversation, a conversation with an artist who did not choose music…it chose him…and it was a choice that affected his very being on or off stage…seeping into all aspects of his life.

photos / Driely S