Big Rude Jake's debut album came out on Tuesday, February 23, 1999 on Roadrunner Records. It is one of the most innovative "swing" albums released in this recent swing resurgence. The album received a rating of 4.5 out of 5.0 on our site (read the review) and has been received with open hands by the music community. One of the songs, "Queer for Cat" can be be found on the March 1999 CMJ Monthly magazine CD. Recently Billy was given the chance to talk with the Big Man himself. Here is what he found out:
Music-Critic: How are you doing today?
Jake: I'm doing pretty good, I had a day off finally.
Have you been busy with interviews and stuff?
Jake: Actually today was the first day of interviews, so I had half a day off. I have been doing a lot of different things. I have sort of been realigning my life to get ready for this new lifestyle that is sort of looming large over my head. They tell me I am going to be living out of a suitcase for the next two years.
Oh, touring and everything?
Jake: Yeah, so I decided to find a new place to live just so that I can afford to be on the road all the time, and I, what else, also had some Christmas stuff to take care of and some accounting stuff to take care of, record industry stuff - all the boring stuff that recording artists don't like to do basically. I have been doing for the last week, you know, so it's been a bit crazy.
I got the new album, I'm liking it... very cool.
Jake: Thank you very much.
I had a couple friends listen to it, they are planning on picking it up as soon as it comes out actually
Jake: Excellent! I'm glad to hear that, I am very glad to hear that.
When did you start making music?
Jake: Well that's an interesting question. I used to sing in choirs when I was a kid, that's making music, right? I guess you could say that. That was the first time I performed music in front of people. You know, my parents insisted I take piano lessons and that sort of thing, and did those sorts of things. And then I told them that piano sucks man, and that I want to play guitar because that's cool, and you can meet chicks with a guitar. So I went to summer camp and played in summer camp, the whole deal.
I didn't play in a band professionally until about I was about I think my first professional band, I was about 18, I was in a rockabilly band. For 18 and 19 year-olds we were very purist, we didn't have a drummer. We did the first couple shows the way Elvis used to do them, without a drummer. When he played the Grand ol' Opry they wouldn't let him bring drums, they wouldn't let him bring drums, did you know that?
No I didn't.
Jake: When he played the Grand ol' Opry they wouldn't let him bring in drums because they thought it was some kind of primitive, you know, Reid Black instrument, and they didn't want it at the Grand Ol' Opry, so he played a lot of shows their without a drum. So my job was to play the acoustic guitar and make it sound like a rhythm instrument. Me and the bass player played the rhythm section and a friend of ours played the guitar. That was my first band.
I moved to France and then I sang in a punk rock band for about a year because I was the only guy who understood English. <laughs> We toured around, it was great fun, it was my first taste of a touring band. Then I decided that music wasn't for me and I decided that music wasn't for me, so I decided to go back to school, and once I had gotten back to school I realized that was really stupid, that music actually was for me.
What did you go back to school for?
Jake: For History. I went back to school and I got a degree in History and then I was going to pursue an academic career and then I got caught up with some weird people and I started developing these radical political ideas and I wanted to align myself with the working class and I became a manual laborer. I did that for about 5 or 10 years. Finally I woke up one morning with an aching back and saying to myself : You know what, the world doesn't need me to be a manual laborer, this is stupid indulgence, I hate it, and I wanted to go back to being a musician. The whole time I still continued to play, I took lessons and stuff like that,. I sat down and started writing music and it started coming out like Big Rude Jake. So, that's kind of how I got started.
Where did you get the name Big Rude Jake?
Jake: That was a nickname I picked up in college, because I was a bit of an <pause> asshole. (laughs) But it was kind of a joke, my friends used to make fun of me because I had a tendency to talk back to my professors, a lot. I had one professor, it was a wonderful man actually. Him and I ended up becoming friends afterwards, but at the time I would skip his class out of indignation for his pissy attitude. One time after a lecture, he looked at me, it was a small class, it was about 30 of us. He slammed his biggest book closed and said "You, you cannot skip any more classes. We need an anarchist in the class. You are an anarchist and a troublemaker and we need you here." I mean he stomped out. I had this friend of mine and he thought that was just the funniest thing and he was laughing about it all day. And someone finally said, "Jake, you're so rude. " That was the end of that. That's how nicknames are born.
I added the Big later when I went into music because I was really influenced by blues music. I started off as a solo musician, I played just my acoustic guitar. I was really interested in the old blues guys, you know, like Big Bill Broomsy, and Big Joe Turner, and Arthur Big Boy Krud, and all the big guys. So I decided to add Big to my name, just in honor of those guys And that's really where it came from, it was actually a tribute, that Big part was a tribute to the great blues guys.
How would you describe the new sound on the new album?
Jake: The new sound, we definitely are going back to something I wanted to do a long time ago. I got sort of sidetracked a little bit in my last record where we were sort of experimenting. I don't think you heard the second record, it was an independent release - I basically sold the album by car. But I sort of got sidetracked by someone who wanted to produce the record. You know, he said "Please let me produce the record - I got some great ideas, blah blah blah blah." I didn't like them, but you know, I thought, this guy seems to know what he is talking about maybe he will be able to do wonderful things with my music. He started getting it back into studio trickery, loops and sampling and things like that. When we finally signed this deal and I was able to get back into the studio after two years of being out I said, "let's go back to where we began as a band."
I remember talking to the producer, David Baxter, and saying to him, "You know, I really like an album where the performances really shine. Where it has less to do with studio razzmatazz and more to do with great songs and great performances." He said yeah, and he recalled an anecdote that a producer of Eric Clapton's had once shared with someone in the media. This fellow was asked, "how do you get that great sound from Clapton's guitar?" And the guy said, I put a mic in front of the amp. And that sort of became the mantra for this whole album - put a mic in front of the amp. Find good musicians, teach them the parts. Find skilled musicians who understand the style, and just record them. And that became how we made the record - the record sounds great because of that. It has a real purity to it, a clean feel to it that I really, really like. Stylistically we borrowed from a lot of different things, if that's what you're talking about.
This record is supposed to inaugurate the second wave of the swing movement., if I could be so pretentious for a moment. With all due respect to the great bands that came before us; the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Royal Crown Revue, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra - who I played with a couple of times, and they're great. In fact I played with all of those bands, except the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and they're all great, and they're all great guys.
Basically, you buy one of those records and you pretty much get it, that's pretty much it. But what we really want to do is, we really want to see swing grow and go someplace new. Because, if we are going to come out with a record that sounds exactly like those guys, no one's going to buy it - no one's going to care. We're not even going to care to make it. What we really want to do is say hey, you know what, there's no such thing as swing really - this is basically jazz and blues. And roots music, and retro music. What we did is we put together a record that put together all my favorite retro sounds. We are trying to slip it into the same mailslot as the swing movement.
What do you think, that recent resurgence of swing music, where do you think that came from? Like, what do you attribute that to?
Jake: Um, geez, that's a good question. Um, first of all, when you say recent, I know there has been kind of a swing thing happening in San Francisco and in LA for like seven years now.
I mean, more like how all of a sudden Cherry Poppin' Daddies broke through.
Jake: How did those bands break through?
Why did they all of a sudden get popular, like in the last 2-3 years they have just gotten massively popular, selling thousands of records. 5-10 years ago you would never hear it, now you see it on MTV.
Jake: Yeah, I don't know. That's a big question. It's highly speculative. I was shocked, when I moved to New York, I was shocked to find out that there had been bands playing in New York for as long as we had been around. When we got started we felt like we were the only band around like this. Now I find out that there were other bands who were also being ignored by the music industry for seven years, except they were playing in New York and some were playing in Chicago and some were playing in LA. They were happening.
These little bands popped up and they were almost popped up without any context to each other, without any relationship, without any knowledge to each other. They sort of just sprung up, and I don't know why that is.
Now why they became popular, why some of them became popular, I guess that's speculation too. But one thing I would say is that the lounge thing may have had something to do with it. Another thing, that seems to have happened recently is the ska thing, what they call 3rd wave ska. I think 3rd wave ska introduced a lot of people to the idea of a horn section being cool. That may have had something to do with it. I know that when we were on the road my agent was excited about booking us with other ska bands, whatever that means. She thought the mix was great. I know other swing bands that have had the same experience where they have been welcomed by the ska scene. The lounge thing brought in an idea of getting dressed up, brought it back into it. But that's not really what swing is about.
I think there is also a kind of rockabilly revival of late that kind of contributed to it a little bit. I have gone through these little towns, touring these little towns, and we have had these rockabilly kids come out. I have discovered that pretty much, once again independent of each other, these little towns have developed scenes. Now why, I don't know why that is... why everybody is so interested.
In a sense ska is a kind of retro music, rockabilly is retro, swing is retro, certainly the lounge thing is kind of retro. I mean, why is that everybody is interested in retro all of a sudden. I don't know. I couldn't tell you why, but it is a big thing all of a sudden. Nowadays, maybe people are just plain sick of rock 'n' roll. Rock n roll, strictly in terms of record sales is in the basement. It is being blown away by country music, it's being blown away by house and rap music.
By rock 'n' roll you mean...
Jake: I mean the Hootie's of the world. Rock 'n' Roll has been brought up a little bit by the Jewels and the Fiona Apples, and by the whole fem-jive thing. But I don't think that's going to last very long because those chicks, a lot of them just don't know how to rock very well at all. And already I have heard some records becoming jingle-jangle folky-guitar music sort of half Celine Dione, half ...who's the chick who.. Paradise by the parking lot.. What was her name again? Joan..
Joan Osborne? Joni Mitchell?
Jake: Yeah, sort of like half Joni Mitchell half Celine Dione. It's not really rock 'n' roll. I don't know what's gonna happen with the rock. I think the swing movement could actually save it.
When Bob Dylan was just starting out, rock 'n' roll was in the basement like it is now. Early sixties and mid-sixties rock 'n' roll sucked. The Beatles hadn't come around yet, there was nothing happening. It was basically a whole lot of music being pumped out about chicks and cars and "I'll always be true to you."
Two people - Bob Dylan and John Lennon are the two people who came around and injected this other stuff into it. The Beatles brought in English dance hall music and hard-core 50s rock 'n' roll. They brought all kinds of stuff into the music and they added different dimensions to it. Of course Bob Dylan added the folk music and the country music dimension into rock 'n' roll.
Jazz and blues and folk, these are 3-dimensional genres where people were writing about everything - about life, and death, and suffering, and all kinds of bizarre things. Whereas rock 'n' roll was just about I got the car and we won the football game. These guys made rock 'n' roll 3-dimensional again. They saved it, and they made it possible to grow to what it is now.
Now rock 'n' roll is in the basement again except now it's not because all the songs are about cars and chicks. It's more about I'm a teenager and I'm depressed and I can't express myself. That's not good enough either. I think now is a chance for the people in the rock industry to get excited about retro and start learning about the past and start adding those extra dimensions and really bring the art back into rock. Maybe the best thing for rock 'n' roll is to take a big vacation and let all of us swing bands dominate for a couple of months or a couple of years so that they can learn something about music and then come back.
What do you think about techno and electronica? You think that is ever going to come through like they thought it would? They thought that was going to be the big movement, like 2 years ago, when Prodigy brought out their album. What do you think is going on with that?
Jake: That's f--king bullshit man. I gotta tell you that right now. Nobody cares about that kind of music except people in the fashion industry. Those are the only people who care about it. I don't even know why they care about it. I guess because they like the fashion. They like the tight-fitting clothes or something. That music is jack man. There is some music that works really good in a nightclub, that's good for a nightclub, but it's not meaningful enough, it's not 3-dimensional enough to be everyday life music. It's just not there. Who cares? You listen to techno and sitting there thinking "Why should I care about this?" You know? I heard all kinds of arguments for it, but I don't buy it for a second.
On your album that's coming out you have a track called "Let's Kill all the Rock Stars." What's the meaning behind that? Do you just hate rock stars?
Jake: <laughs> Just to cause trouble. It was inspired by, you know every once in a while I read something in the paper. You know, Bill Clinton can't get a blowjob without losing his job. Rock stars on the other hand, do whatever the hell they want, whenever they want. Being a musician for so many years, I read magazines and I read interviews, and I hear this trite that they just spew out.
The song was mostly directed toward Marilyn Manson, who I just think is a f--king idiot. You know, I just can't stand the guy. I just got so sick and tired of journalists and everybody hyping these people to death.
Some of the things that really bother me are this ridiculous overhyping of the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls, you go to a Spice Girls concert, every single newspaper article that I read about the Spice Girls acknowledges the fact that the people who are listening to that music are little girls, basically people who graduated from Raffi, and the Elephant Show, and the soundtrack to Sesame Street and they bought their first Spice Girls album. I don't care what anybody says, that's not important enough to get front page coverage everywhere you go. But they get front because of the hype - the hype is bullshit. All I want is for people to realize, to take a second, and realize that this music industry hype is bullshit.
Ok, I admit, I picked on the rock stars probably a little bit too much. It's really a shot at the whole industry. The first couple of times I performed it, it was real interesting to get the reactions from the crowd. That's one of the great things, and one of the reasons I really like living in the States is because Americans get that song. Some of the Canadians were really offended by it, But I like Mick Jagger!
You have another song on the album, it's called "Mercy for the Monkey Man." Who is the Monkey Man?
Jake: Should we talk about the song specifically?
Jake: The song is basically about... based on a folk tale that comes from India actually. It's a children's tale about how to catch a monkey. The idea is, you take a box, and you fill it with banana or some tasty fruit, and you cut a little hole in it, just big enough for the monkey to get his empty hand into the box. Once the monkey gets his empty hand into the box and gets ahold of the fruit, he can't get his hand out without letting go of the fruit. And so the song goes "So the monkey sits all day and all night with his hand on the candy in the hole. Monkey can't eat and the monkey can't sleep, and the monkey just can't let go." I kinda feel like that is actually analogous to the human condition a lot of times. People will be trapped into a situation where they can't do what they want to do, they are sort of hung up with a feeling of desire for something or someone and they can't have it, but they can't let go of their own yearning for it. So they end up trapped. They can't have it, but they can't let go of that. Basically it's a psychological trap that we very willingly put ourselves through all the time. And the song ends, basically saying "I am that I am, and I fear the monkey man, and I feel that I am bound to be just like he. For I do declare that this dog of desire oh Lord will surely be the death of me." Don't forget, one of the first noble truths of the Buddha is that all suffering comes from desire, and that desire must be sublimated. We cannot be a slave to desire, or else we'll never be happy.
Why did you decide to put two spoken-word pieces on the album?
Jake: Well one, East Side Jive . . . Most of the times when I write music, I usually write the music and the words at the same time. Sort of in tandem, like I'll write a couple of words, and then I'll write a little bit of music, and then I'll write the words. It sort of goes back and forth like this. That's why it takes me a couple of days to write a song, because you have to switch tracks to get a piece finished.
This particular one, I was actually in a bar, at a place in new York called Lansky's Lounge. . . I was just there, and it was one of those inspirations that sometimes a writer gets where you go, "get me a pen, someone get me a pen." I started doodling on a napkin, and I started writing a little bit about it. The thing came on really strong and in a couple of days I had it finished, but I had no music for it. I was sort of fiddling with it and trying to write music for it, and the words are really dense and complicated and I didn't feel like editing it down to a simple verse. I thought, you know, the hell with it, I'll speak it, I'll write some music to go behind this. So that's how that happened.
The other one was a spoken word piece that I've been wanting to do for a very very very long time, I had written it a long time ago and other producers I worked with didn't understand it or didn't like it and didn't want to do it. So here was my chance, I was in the driver's seat again of my own career and I thought well, this is my chance to do "Andy's Requiem." I did it and that's basically it.
What's your favorite track on the disc?
Jake: "East Side Jive". That spoken word one. It changes every day. My favorite one used to be "Gotham City." Right now my favorite is "East Side." But sometimes, you know, I love that punk-rock guitar sound in "Gotham City." I loooove that!
I like "Buster Boy."
Jake: I like that one too, that one's a lot of fun. Do you know what a second-line rhythm is?
Jake: I'll tell you. Second line is a rhythm that was developed in New Orleans in the pre-jazz era. It's one of the most ubiquitous rhythms in popular culture - it's everywhere. You know, "Shave and a haircut, two-bits." That's second-line. Bo Diddley uses it, Buddy Holly uses it, the Rolling Stones uses it, and I think the Clash used it a couple times. There's different variations on it. But basically, in the second-line you have that <sings> It is based on a French quadrill march, but of course Afro-Americans in New Orleans were the only black people allowed to play drums in the United States in Colonial Times. People were scared that if Africans played drums they would be able to communicate with each other and start a rebellion. The Catholics in New Orleans, in LA, weren't as concerned about that for some reason, and they let the blacks use drums. They were practicing these marches, and of course it didn't take long and they were adding their own specific African feel to this French rhythm. It was kinda based on a Latin or French clave' feel, they had this clave' feel, this French march happening. . . and that's the second line. That's the great thing about that song. We had so much fun in the studio because the guys in the band had never heard the song before. I was saying I want to do a second line song and this is how it's going to go. I taught it to them in the studio and they went nuts over it.
The new album comes out in February.
Jake: February 23rd I believe.
Are you going to be touring for that?
Jake: Whereabouts are you? Well, you're on the net, so you're everywhere.
Yeah, but I'm in Wisconsin - Madison.
Jake: Madison, WI. Oh, we'll be there. I've played Madison before.
I do want to thank you for doing this interview.
Jake: I'm glad you have some friends that want it, and I hope that you're right. I hope that we'll be able to fly with this thing.
I wish you all the best in the world.
Jake: Thank you very much - we'll see you again.
Editor's note : This interview has been edited to fit space constraints and to improve fluidity and readership.