100 Musicians Answer the Same 10 Questions
Part Eighty-Three: Jed Smith of My Teenage Stride
instigated by dave heaton
Jedediah Smith is the main figure behind the excellent Brooklyn-based group My Teenage Stride. Their third (and possibly best) album Ears Like Golden Bats (review here) is a stylish, romantic, wry collection of sensitive-pop classics. Check out the band's website and the Becalmed Records label site.
What aspect of making music excites you the most right now?
I've been going back to experimenting with alternate tunings on the guitar, which I haven't done much of since I was maybe 16. That's fun, as I hate playing the guitar and it makes it more interesting. I used to have this tuning I made up which was an Emajor 6 open tuning that was neat and I'll probably try a bunch of droney tunings out. I guess I'm sort of learning to like the guitar again. I've always preferred bass and drums. And recording in general as opposed to playing live.
What aspect of making music gets you the most discouraged?
Fatigue. Being poor. As I write this, I'm trying to figure out how to pay rent next month. Also, the fact that a lot of people seem to want background music instead of songs or the idea of the "record" these days. We're kind of in the mid-70s again right now, which is also kind of like the mid-90s. But I think 1962 is due for a comeback. Not literally, though. That would be really confusing.
What are you up to right now, music-wise? (Current or upcoming recordings, tours, extravaganzas, experiments, top-secret projects, etc).
We're touring for three weeks in June and July, across the whole country, which is scary, because I already live in the place with the best Italian food. Also, I've never toured before as a performer, so I'm really out of the heated pool and into the fryer here. Otherwise, I'm making up songs and recording them, and thinking about the next MTS album, which I'd like turn up the psych-rock aspects of my oeuvre for. Or not. Also I'll be recording a couple of bands in my project studio that I like a lot- The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Public Record, specifically, but hopefully some others, too, I'm talking to Ben about Scott and I doing the next A Sunny Day In Glasgow record at Ghost Town up in Massachusetts.
What's the most unusual place you've ever played a show or made a recording? How did the qualities of that place affect the show/recording?
Hmm, I played drums in a band called overlord (who are awesome) awhile back and we played a gig for the National Atheist's Rally (I think that's what it was called) in front of the Capital steps. CNN was taping it. That was weird. And great. I love atheists. The good ones have the purest sense of morality there is. Maybe. My Teenage Stride hasn't played in any super unusual places so far, but we'll see. I have a dream sometimes that we're playing in a very warm pool of water and giant tadpoles are biting our ankles, but I don't think that counts.
In what ways does the place where you live (or places where you have lived), affect the music you create, or your taste in music?
I think the place I grew up (on a farm in a very rural hill town in Western Massachusetts) has a lot more to do with my output even now than my currently living in Brooklyn does. When you grow up surrounded by forest and very few human beings, the stuff you learn to be afraid of doesn't have a lot to do with people. But it also helped to make me a socially nervous person, which is another story. Anyway, every square inch of New England is haunted, some places more than others, so I think every song I write winds up being about ghosts either in a direct or convoluted- and sometimes inscrutable- way. I grew up feeling surrounded by ghosts, and feeling like one myself around other people, and those feelings have never gone away or even diminished with time. So there's your answer. Whatever the hell that means.
When was the last time you wrote a song? What can you tell us about it?
I never really stop, it's something that I'm continually doing in the back of my mind, or in the front if I'm not trying to pay attention to anything else. They go from the brain to the recording, so I'll just go with what the most recent finished-ish recording is, which is a song called "Preacher Maleness". My usual sociopath character. Usually it takes me about 8 months after the fact to figure out what I meant with a song, because I'm just getting together words that seem right together at first.
As you create more music, do you find yourself getting more or less interested in seeking out and listening to new music made by other people...and why do you think that is?
I have to be honest and say that I'm generally much more interested in going through the back catalog of pop music history and discovering things for myself that I hadn't listened to properly- or at all- and hopefully finding my new favorite thing while I'm at it. I have a hard time getting into new music because I don't like to absorb things within the temporal context of their own marketing campaign, if you get my meaning- which is hypocritical of me since obviously I'd like for people to be interested in my stuff. I got into Belle & Sebastian about 7 years after everyone else my age because I had to wait until they got a little dusty, at least in my mind, at least to the point where they had a bunch of albums out that were at least a few years old. Then I could appreciate it on its own merits. The cult of personality thing and all the niche marketing extant in indie rock these days really makes it hard for me to feel much mystery about anyone new, and mystery is kind of a key component to me in pop. But probably even more than that, I simply dislike the way records have sounded for probably the last 20 years or so, since like 1987 maybe, and moreover, most of my favorite production things were really going on between 1959 and 1968 anyway. The 90s were (was? is?) the absolute nadir decade in terms of the sound of records. I don't understand the aesthetic of wanting to hear every single nuance of every single instrument. That's not "realistic", if that's what people are going for with that.
I like records that sound, in whatever way possible, like dispatches from someone's personal universe- I've probably said that almost verbatim before. There are a lot of ways to achieve that, but Eno's edict of "generally, the point of spending more money on a recording is to make it sound more normal" is totally spot on, as far as I'm concerned. The increasing cheapness of fairly good recording equipment is actually very exciting for this reason, because people are making some wonderfully fucked-up sounding recordings themselves that a professional studio could not, as far as my taste is concerned, compete with. That's always the way it's been with me, though, both the thing of finding music out for myself and my taste in production. It took me YEARS to get into The Smiths based on the slickness of their records. Then, when I managed to look past it, they were a staggering revelation. Whereas by contrast, the instant I heard The Velvet Underground, or Psychocandy or Parallel Lines or Alien Lanes or Speaking In Tongues, I was a changed man. Or boy, really. Bands should think long and hard as to how they want their stuff to be heard. Better is rarely better.
Lately what musical periods or styles do you find yourself most drawn to as a listener? (Old or new music? Music like yours or different from yours?)
Well, obviously, older. Most of my favorite music comes from the period between 1957 and 1982 or so. It thins out considerably after that. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, and I've already mentioned some of them. Production is a huge part of it. But things I love: high, thin guitars with just a little overdrive, bass parts high on the neck- like McCartney or Naomi Yang or Peter Hook would do, highly compressed pianos, thwacky or muted snare drums (not the more modern "knock" sound), slapback delay and echo, feedback, tambourines, sleigh bells, drones over chord movement, certain scales and modes as opposed to others (big no-nos are mixolydian, and, to a lesser extent, dorian. You can google those), James Jamerson, strong vocal melodies, a general muddiness, Sam Cooke's voice, Kim Deal's everything, Dave Davies' guitar playing, David Gedge's guitar playing, David Byrne's lyrics, Robert Pollard's everything, Ray Davies' voice, the Jackson Five's arrangements, tension and resolution as opposed to drawn-out harmonic vagueness, The Pixies. I don't know.
Name a musician or band, past or present, who you flat-out LOVE and think more people should be listening to. What's one of your all-time favorite recordings by this musician/band?
Jesus, I could name a bible's worth of them. John Cale comes immediately to mind. He made tons of albums in the 70s and into the early 80s almost none of them are any less than excellent- He's a terrific songwriter and a brilliant overall musician and I love his weird Welsh singing voice. His solo output has outshined anyone else from the V.U. by far as far as I'm concerned. He's a very very big influence on me- more people would probably pick up on it if they paid attention and went back through his catalog. I don't cotton to too much hero worship, but I kinda worship him. I think maybe the reason his solo career was never too huge is that he was too weird for some and not weird enough for others. Or something. I don't know. One of my all-time favorites by him is "Big White Cloud" from Vintage Violence. Beautiful. The recording is crispy and has probably 8 different kinds of reverb/echo on it, and the whole vibe is one of "I've just been shot and I'm lying in the grass staring up at the sky and I'm just slowly drifting away with a smile on my face." Another song that makes me think of that image is "Johnny Too Bad" by The Slickers.
What's the saddest song you've ever heard?
That's tough as well, but I'd have to say the song that consistently gets to me every time I listen to it is "My Back Pages" from Another Side Of Bob Dylan. I think it's the performance as much as the song, because lyrically it's a little hokey in places and hasn't aged well, but his voice just slays me in it. I mean it turns me into mush. Probably especially the line "Flung down by corpse evangelists, unthought of though somehow", the little folky melisma he does on the last syllable. His voice sounds strained and a little ragged like it has some sort of natural biological distortion on it or something. It's a weird key, D# I think, just D position capo'd. It's perfect. I've listened to that song probably thousands of times over the last ten years or so and I'm never sick of it. I once listened to it on repeat for a fairly long drive. Other than that, I'm very fond of "Heart & Soul" by the Cleftones, prolly 1958 or so, and I think, hackneyed as it is at this point, that "Heroin" is actually probably the saddest song ever written by anyone, anywhere. So, no real obscurities for that answer, sorry.
Photo of Jed Smith by Dakkan Abbe
To check out the rest of the Q&As, click here.