Photo by the Great, the Only Adam Gochnauer
20 December 2015 – interview with Denney Joints, Gaumenkitzel, Oakland CA
We met Denney Joints already a month ago to talk about his new album, The Cairn, which we found on Bandcamp. It’s the latest already since 2014’s Despechado y deslechado, which is hard to beat. Denney Joints is an old hand about Santa Cruz and Oakland, has self-released innumerable albums, and played in a half-dozen bands including Happy Meal and Dead Daughter, and groups playing his own material by names like Midnite Snack and Sweat Dreams, the latter with Micah Warren of Glitter Wizard etc etc.
These days, according to his Facebook, he’s calling his stripped-down sound “post-industrial.” Not the industrial of 90s indie rock nor the Situationist industrial of Throbbing Gristle, but post-industrial as in no one in North America thought about how the fuck they were going to house themselves after surrendering the means of production in order to keep their consumption unnaturally cheap, and now it’s a good idea to be able to entertain with the body when it’s impossible to hold a rock band of wage slaves together.
We came into the conversation with a lot of baggage or data about his music, but this was useful, because it allowed us to notice how different Joints sounds on this new album compared to previous ones. To wit, he seems relaxed, satisfied with his tones and timbres, and inhabits the songs much more comfortably. The songs for the most part consist of Joints with his acoustic guitar (leather pants doubtlessly on each take), his voice and a pulsating synthesizer that he’s probably wapping on live between upstrokes.
Besides the self-contained efficiency of the songs there is also a distinct tone. The disaffect, weirdly romantic longing and desperation to get stoned are still present, but songs like The Dead Sea also concretely take on the bay area’s fucked-up evil economy, as well as pose the themes in a long, almost mythological time-space. Early on he assumes the voice of Jesus of Nazareth and counsels us that “the world may never be better.” Toward the end My Freaky She pops up, a song by the Santa Cruz favorite Sin in Space, who were supposed to get huge alongside Rilo Kiley. Those who were around will recognize that this encodes a place in time, with corresponding nostalgia, to be found in all of Denney Joints’ solo material.
In any case we had to let Joints describe the album himself rather than postulate about it like some Pitchfork dipshit. We trusted Joints, who speaks in manifestoes as much as this writer does, to deliver an essay on the album. We found that he still had a lot of weirdly romantic longing, nevertheless, with which to leaven his dispensations of life advice.
N So, what’s the deal with the cairn?
DJ The cairn? (Laughs) That’s an inside joke, but …
N Well, it seems like midway through your album it has some kind of big meaning.
DJ Well, yeah so like, for me it’s kind of like … that particular song is about this place that you build to keep all your denial … it’s like digging a tomb for yourself before you’re dead, yknow, and living there the rest of your life. It’s about denial … yknow, that song I actually wrote because my dad called me to tell me that his mom had died, and they weren’t gonna have a funeral or anything, and I just imagined him and his family just not talking about it and, that whole opportunity to be a family, they just ditched out on it.
So that song is more like … that song came out of a musical cairn structure, so the rhythm is really open at first, and it’s like longer notes, and it’s like the big stones at the bottom and it gets narrower as it goes to the top, and there’s that pipe sound that I do at the end … the cairn is just like a joke, we had this whole thing about living in a cär, and living in a cärn (his spelling), and anyway I decided to call my record that because it’d been just a thing for so long. And also, constructing your own musical practice and your own musical space, so my whole life is like living in a cairn for a year and trying to figure this music out.
N Is there a theme to the record?
DJ Well, only … the theme is I’m playing everything, I’m not arranging or … it’s just me playing my instrument. Is that the poundcake? … So the theme is this whole process of making time to be a musician and not just writing down what comes out of my head … this record is about, like not really writing anything. I wanted the songs to be … I wanted to be able to play them forever, there’s not necessarily a right correct way to play them. They’re kind of more like meditative. Like living in a cairn, really.
N Really it seems thematically quite different from the other things you’ve done.
DJ Well yeah, I mean most … the Bedtime record I did was like stuff that I wrote while I couldn’t be playing music, and then Despechado y Deslechado is music I wrote because I was trying to reinvent what I did as a musician, on the 12-string guitar. Thematically it’s really just about finding the time every single day where I can actually be the musician I am and not just be trying to make some thing that I … cause I can make any music, right. But I wanted to figure out, if I’m gonna go out and do this by myself, how am I gonna make art out of just guitar and your voice or whatever. And I thought about what kind of art am I trying to make? And it’s not … Despechado is kinda a minor key record on the 12-string guitar. This record is about music in the abstract, like what am I gonna do on the 12-string guitar that has nothing to do with … rather than the guitar being a chunk of the whole spectrum of the orchestra, I wanted it to be the whole scope of the music is the guitar, the lowest and the highest sounds. So that’s the theme, as a performer, what am I trying to say all this time, and how do I play that on the guitar.
N The first song sounds like, both with the musical piece that’s sampled in the front, and with the lyrics, it seems like the song is taken from some other piece of music.
DJ The second song you mean? That’s Felix Mendelssohn. He does an oratorio called Elijah and it’s about God destroying the world or whatever. I was in the choir at Cabrillo and that was like the second thing I’d ever sung in the choir, so the summer of 2008, and as a self-taught punk rock guitar player I couldn’t read a fuckin note of music … there’s that one part with the major chord, the harvest now is over and then it goes down, the harvest now is over, and that sounded like every Gary Numan song, or every two-chord British rock song. So for someone who couldn’t understand polyphony at the time, that was the part that stuck with me all that time was that chorus, I’m just gonna do that chorus. The harvest now is over, the summer days are gone. Then I wrote the song, that part I just had, the tune for that chorus I just had, those two chords on the guitar. And the lyrics are just about all the people I know who’re miserable and don’t take any advice and just do the same stupid things over and over, and just, they have their story and their belief, and they reinforce their belief with their story about their life and what everyone’s doing to them.
N There’s more stuff I’ll try to get to, you can correct me if it’s all my own illusion. But one of the fun parts of that song is that you keep saying the world might never be better.
DJ The world may never be a better place for everyone. Cause there’s some people who aren’t gonna make the world better.
N So what do you do with that?
DJ They sink into their own mire of unfulfilled failure and everything else we don’t want.
N What’s an artist do with that realization?
DJ You gotta let go and let these people … yknow there’s people who you wanna touch so much, people you wanna relate to, people that you have something to say to. Even if you go out and say that night after night, on stage, people aren’t ready and wanting that, then it’s never gonna make a difference. I’m gonna live the good life and they’re gonna stay down in that shitty, self-destructive place that I know, I never had it too bad but,
N Do you spend a lot of time in places where people aren’t getting the message?
DJ Yeah, yknow, I hang out … there’s always some people around who … and maybe I see it in everybody more than most people do. For almost everyone I can see them living their own story that they keep up.
N The music suggests that … I don’t wanna be moralistic and say there’s a character flaw but there’s like a lost opportunity …
DJ The point is that they’re insisting on not changing what they do. They’re insisting on doing the same thing even though it totally destroys their life.
N So that kind of language … cause I was really paying attention to the words …
DJ The words I wrote in one shot. (Laughs) Like in ten minutes.
N It comes back in some other songs. My favorite song is the dead sea song. Where you kinda got … one thing I found really different from your other albums – which, in my writeup I talked about smokin weed and other things your songs are about. But this one is on a mythological time-scale, or a non-western time-scale. The dead sea song seems to bring together this loathing for the way people use their time in their head, with a longterm historical, ecological thing.
DJ Well yeah. Right now we’re watching people willingly, willingly ignore – and telling other people to willingly ignore – the facts of the world we’re living in, because it doesn’t mesh with the extremely narrow and terrible sale points that they sell to their extremely ignorant contingency. It’s not like the world’s gonna be extremely different if Hillary or Bernie is elected, but there’s a whole contingency of people who’re gonna vote for the most outrageously stupid. We’ve been watching that go down for the last fifteen years at least, where it’s just this insanity that’s become mainstream. And the Dead Sea is like, well I’ve already accepted that things’re gonna completely change. What’s that first song I wrote in my bedroom at like ten years old, that’s, okay, now I live in a place that’s toxic. And this shit plant by I-80 fuckin overflowed with sea water and now there’s shit water and yknow, there’s toxic crap that’s mingled with every part of the ecosystem.
N Can you see yourself doing other songs with ecological,
DJ Definitely, I mean my songs’re all about solutions to what we’re living.
N Well, you said that earlier that you don’t like how people live their life, but what is the solution?
DJ I didn’t say I didn’t like how they lived their lives, I said that there’s a way to solve,
N There’s a willful ignorance,
DJ A willful self-destruction.
N So what’s a solution to that, that’s in your art?
DJ In my art? Well, to be perfectly, selfishly honest, my art is about dealing with accepting that they’re just gonna destroy the world no matter what I want. That’s really it. What do I do about it? I don’t do anything about it. I continue to make more absurd humor, hoping people’ll get it. Yknow, I read Mad magazine as a child. Where they have a punchline that’s cutting through the horseshit. But people have shifted so far away from accepting what they have to do in life, to change their life, they go for the nearest, most convenient little hole to stick their head in, and that’s what all the songs are about. So as an artist, I mean yeah, I just show people that aren’t fucked in the head that there’s different ways of thinking. I don’t talk about one point of view or the other, but how in the middle of those two points of views, what’s really gonna happen between the people in the world. I’m not gonna paint an apocalyptic picture or an ideal picture, I’m gonna show like, given the level of willingful ignorance and the people trying to be progressive, things’re gonna pan out in the middle. As a sign of how these people live, as evidence of how they live.
N And the song Don’t Love Them is obviously taking the voice of people like that.
DJ Yeah, so I just think of all the people I know … I play in Santa Cruz frequently, and always have, and there was a time when we were all really young and stupid and wanting to be dirty and not wash our hair … and it was cool. Yknow, it was great. There was years, yknow, 21, 23, 24, you’re dirty and you don’t give a fuck. Yknow? You’re stoned and you don’t give a shit.
N I miss that too,
DJ But um … to be 30 years old and to be uh … still … I think a symptom of living here is that it’s easy for people to get stuck. Especially at that young age, yknow there’s always that old guy at the record store and that old guy at the cafe, yknow, who worked there for their whole adult lives. And I think Don’t Love Them is about the relationships I see that develop between people who have no reason to be where they are, no reason to do what they do, and meanwhile they find someone who they think is fulfilling them, who they think is the answer to all their loneliness, when in reality … and this is my, yknow, very close family members have relationships like this where they just jump from whoever will take them, from one to the next. So on the one hand … I used to play Tell Me You Love Me, cause I wrote that first, right. Which is like, tell people you love them now, cause tomorrow is too late. Even if you think, like, I have to die for you if I tell you I love you, or like, if I tell you I love you, that’s it, cause you have to be my wife, or my girlfriend or you can’t be around me cause I’m always gonna stalk you or … so that song is I don’t wanna control you or marry you, I just love you no matter what, even if I never see you again. I can either feel that way, or I can feel deprived of them. And it’s like, I’m not gonna feel deprived, I’m gonna love them anyway.
N I think the Don’t Love Them does that really well, it demonstrates the consequence of not just getting your balls out and being yourself.
DJ So now it’s like here’s someone, and we both like spaghetti … and there’s always these couples, and they’re both fucked in the head, right, they’re both dumb as fuck, but they stay together because they both like spaghetti, and that’s all they’ve got. So that’s what Don’t Love Them is about.
N Did you intend for there to be a mythological vibe to this album?
DJ All of them! Whatta you mean mythological?
N A long-term thing.
DJ Well yeah, always. My work is aggregating into something that I hope will be self-explanatory, I mean not all my stuff has been self-explanatory, but it’s still a pile of what I love,
N Well, that’s the difference between this one and other ones I’ve heard, is that it’s not nearly as personal … or self-consciously personal.
DJ Right, right. No, it’s not. This is me saying and playing whatever I want. And knowing it’s not the last thing I ever do. It’s just me getting a grip on what I fuckin do. The quickest, easiest, simplest, most direct … and I have all these ideas and I’m still going for this ideal, instead of like, the looseness.
N What’s the ideal?
DJ Well, if there was a perfect mesh of this music and rhythm and melody, and the very limited way and instruments I’m using, I’m always trying to aim for that. But you can’t make art that way, I have to throw everything out and then try to make it ideal from there. But you can’t start with the finished image and cut it out with a pair of scissors.
N One thing that perhaps is personal, however, is the Freaky She song. So, I know you from Santa Cruz, so we get it, but for everybody else.
DJ So I had played that song one night and recorded it, and did a little video of me singing it and all of a sudden for no reason … so also like uh, I’m always wanting to reclaim old things that I love, that for some reason I thought I was looking for something else that I didn’t realize was right in front of me, yknow. And the guy who wrote that song is dead now, um, and I grew up with that song. That was like the soundtrack of me and my first love, and it was the first band I ever knew (laughs).
N What’s your favorite Sin in Space song?
DJ Either Take Me Aboard or um … Trigger Finger.
N The only one that comes to me in the middle of the night is Astronaut Waltz.
DJ Yknow I haven’t head that song in so long … so I had put that video of me singing on the internt, and yknow the ex-girlfriend of the singer, who that song (My Freaky She) was written about, was very happy.
N That feels good!
DJ Cause that song hasn’t been played in ten years. In public. More than likely. What year is it? So maybe it has, I don’t know. But anyway, so she said that uh … I had said that Astronaut Waltz was one that I always liked, and I always knew the chords to the songs, yknow. (DJ and EN hum and sing parts of the song together).
I used to play that on the guitar all the time. Anyway, I played that song and I just thought, well, okay, here’s one more song that’ll make the record exactly the length of an LP, and I just had fun, did it in a couple takes, and had the Roland Jazz Chorus going, for the guitar, and it was good time.
N So you’re in another band right now, aren’t you? Is that what happens next, is just getting bands together? (The band is called Whisper)
DJ Well yeah, I’m in a band now that is um … everything that I do by myself, everything I’ve ever done, goes into this band. And uh, always having felt like no one got what I was trying to do, this is the band where we all three totally understand halfway what we’re all going for, and we don’t sit around talking about it, because we don’t have to. When we get together, what we do is what we’ve always loved. We’ve all dorked out on it … not that we needed to, but we did, and we do. Our whole meaning with this band is to share all those secrets that we’ve always wanted to share about ourselves. So in this band we go out and play that, and people get it right away, and they love us.
N That’s a perfect segue. So what should people know about you that I didn’t ask?
DJ Well, that this is something I’m gonna do forever. Everything I do, you just get to go along with me in your own way with this whole process, and um, and knowing that all your secrets are not only safe with me, but we’re all gonna enjoy them together, and all the things we always wanted, we’re gonna enjoy them together.
If the reader should perceive contradiction, or at least non-western balance-swing in Joints’ responses, please know that these are faithful transcriptions.
As an aside, some scummy vampire website called Oh My Tracks claims to have all the Sin in Space songs lifted from Last.fm. But when one tries to play Astronaut Waltz, the fucking thing plays Strauss. Try it, and send this site flame mail.