Expansive, Torrential: the Jesse Sykes Q&A

There is no corralling Jesse Sykes. Not musically: Most songs on Marble Son, her new album with the Sweet Hereafter, stretch past the six- to nine-minute mark. Not conversationally: During 90-some minutes at Fremont Coffee several weeks ago, a day before she and guitarist Phil Wandscher opened for Lucinda Williams, we spoke about her move to Iowa, the cost of vinyl, Lady Gaga, the bands Sun, Earth, and Boris, quitting alcohol, the dangers of Facebook, her mom, her ongoing creative partnership with Wandscher, Swedish folk music, jam bands, the Gulf oil spill, history, love, life force, evolution, creativity, music… This is a woman of expansive ideas and torrential passions.

Marble Son channels them all into a sound Sykes considers timeless. She’s right—the music is equally indebted to the Grateful Dead circa 1969 and drone metal circa right now. Sykes’ voice hovers somewhere between shaman and chanteuse. Her metaphysical lyrics rise like smoke through the music’s crashing eddies. This stuff is powerfully sensual and alluring.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter play the Showbox at the Market Thursday, August 4. 

City Arts: I’m glad you suggested this place. I like it here.

Jesse Sykes: Phil [Wandscher] lives in Fremont now. I don’t drive so it’s easier to do stuff here.

I moved to Iowa. You probably don’t know much about my life—why would you? I‘m not living in Seattle anymore, which is weird because I used to live just down the street. For 10 years I lived opposite the studio where Nirvana recorded Bleach and now Fleet Foxes recorded their record there. It’s weird to think. So we’re rehearsing, as a duo for the Lucinda thing and the band is going over to Sweden for 48 hours and then on tour.

The days of the duo thing are numbered. In some contexts it makes sense but this album is a full band record.

Bear with me as I ease into this. I get nervous, man. My chemicals get a little weird and right now I’m like do I need to eat? Do I need chocolate? Do I need to drink? I hope we have enough time to let myself… it’s been a stressful day running around. Conversation’s a weird thing man. It’s a bizarre to discuss the most important thing in my life.

It’s kind of amazing that you and Phil are still working together after all you’ve been through. That’s a pretty special thing.

I’m glad to hear you say that! I think about it a lot. I’ve always been that kind of person trying to understand certain windows and eras in my life, how did I get here, where am I going, this and that. Phil and I—it’s a really unique relationship. I have a new man in my life and I’m very in love but it’s taught me a lot about the different kids of love. Phil, he’s the guy when they’re putting his casket in the ground, I’m gonna be jumping on it kicking and screaming. There’s this bond—it’s not anymore a romantic kind of love, but we connect on a visceral level where we understand each other’s plight on such an intense level. I just think we have each other’s backs. And that’s rare. There’s never been any anger or resentment. I won’t get into the dynamics of our relationship, but he knows I say this at least—he wasn’t the greatest boyfriend of all time. But there was this respect and a really cool mutual understanding of how we both work, how we navigate through this world. I don’t think life is easy for us because of the kind of people we are. It’s a struggle. I’m sort of his voice of reason. For me he might be a barometer. If I’m starting to play it safe, he’ll kind of—not even with words but just an energy thing—remind me that it’s ok to get out of your comfort zone on every level, not just musically but emotionally. It comes at a cost sometimes. You can be overly outspoken. I think we need each other.

We were just talking today, walking the dog and talking about how we’ve evolved and how we understand we could never walk away from this. That said, anything can happen, but we’re kind of freaks of nature in a sense. We’ve been in each other’s lives 13 years and we’re not stopping. Everybody else in our band has left because of starting families and having kids. Me and Phil are like the freaky folks that, I don’t know, it’s not gonna happen. If I had a kid I’d probably figure out a way to bring it out on the road. Have my 80-year-old mom there and the kid in a basket.

I’m going on, but… I’m proud of our inability to [laughs] quit this thing.

Please continue reading after the jump…

Just to have a friendship in life like that is rare enough, but a creative partnership…

I agree. I don’t know if it’s luck or metaphysics, but we evolved at the same rate in terms of our creative interests. Neither of us have iPods. We get obsessed with things simultaneously, which is really good. We’re good editors with each other. No walking on eggshells, creatively. So many people, romantic or not, stop pushing each other. Musical relationships are just like love relationships. You hope to bring out the best in the other person. It’s this gentle, gracious nudge. I feel like he provides that for me, starting from Day 1. When I first met Phil I maybe had a little bit of that arrogant feeling of you deserve something just because I want it. And the Death Cab guys, they’re friends of mine, they’re the reason we got signed to Barsuk back in the day, and Me and Phil had just stared living together and [his band] Whiskeytown and had some success… long story short, I was reading The Stranger and said something like, “These guys always get articles written about them! What’s up with that?” He’s like, “Man, what have you done? You haven’t even made a fuckin’ record!” They were on their third record or something. I’d never thought of it that way, they’ve actually worked their asses off and committed to this life. And like, what the fuck have I done? I took that and internalized it. I had this respect for what he had done, like, ouch, but you couldn’t be more right. What have I been doing, fooling myself that into thinking that just because I pick up a guitar and want it I’m somehow deserving? I think that’s when I started realizing you have to pay your dues not just by going out there but by understanding there is a bar and you have to become a good songwriter. Susan Sontag said, “Music is not an equal opportunity employer.”

Him and I, we’re not trendy in that way, both needing to fill our lives with the hippest newest thing happening. We don’t let a ton of new music into our lives. We’re curious but not ravenous. I know a lot of people, musicians, that are like that. They have to guard themselves and covet certain things. They can’t just be always…

You’d rather deep than broad.

Exactly. Music is very interesting to me, and a lot of people will send me CDs, and I like to listen, but there’s a huge difference in listening and letting something into your life where it becomes part of your DNA. With technology now, it’s almost like a neurological response, this notion they need to keep discovering shit. I don’t know—do you really? What about embracing what you have? The whole new thing of music is there’s so much to discover. Well yeah, but where do you draw the line? I don’t know.

Where does discovery become fickle or shallow?

Exactly. How often do you fall in love? I know myself, when I’m in love I’m not looking to fall in love. It’s a weird era in that sense. We’re just kind of more old-school that way. We’re not in need of always being tapped into this idea of what popular culture is, which I don’t think exists anymore.

What have you been obsessing over lately?

I have my basics. I’m really obsessed with this guy Nicolai Dunger, this Swedish singer-songwriter, but that’s been a love affair for the last five or six years. Just an amazing body of work. I’m really into that band Boris that we’ve played with a bunch. They’ve been a huge inspiration. Really recently… a lot of it is revisiting stuff that’s been around forever. Kind of revisiting bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I do a lot of that, too, via reissues—finding stuff I’ve never heard before that’s 40, 50 years old. If it’s still compelling after all those years, there’s something real about it.

That’s how I feel. Let’s be honest, it’s not gonna be better. It’s context, man.  What I’m trying to say is indie rock is a strange thing because it’s not coming out of the same place as some of that older stuff, where there was an understanding that the messenger, i.e. the singer of the song, understood pain and suffering. That didn’t mean the music itself had to sound dark. I feel like with indie rock—what does that really mean, indie rock—but not to spend too much time trying to explain what I mean by indie rock, a lot of it, not all of it and I’m not talking about indie because it’s on an indie label, that genre of indie rock where it’s like, chk-chk-chk. A sound that’s more prevalent these days, for me I feel alienated from it, dismissed by it. I don’t feel like it’s embracing me. I understand someone else feels it does, it doesn’t matter what I think, but that older music, there’s just an authenticity I feel in terms of where those people are coming from that I buy into, that I believe they’re making the best out of the situation. They understand. Their heart is coming through their voice. Life is complex. I don’t hear that in a lot of voices anymore.

I don’t know why people are compelled to be in bands nowadays. Having been around Seattle for 20 years in bands, there’s a lot more bands in the world than there’s ever been. I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing to analyze. I understand the reasons on paper: It’s easier to make your own record, its easier to put it out there. That being said, those camps for kids to get ‘em into rock n roll, it’s like are you sure you want your kids to go this route? Because it is a hard life. Your mother wasn’t kidding when she said, “Honey don’t get into rock n roll.”

Rock as been absorbed into the lexicon in a deeper way.

Exactly. It’s a whole other animal.

I was just at U2 at Qwest Field, where Bono broadcast a live feed from the International Space Station. Rock music has blown up so big and at the same time become so ingrained…

I can’t fathom any of it. I mean, I try. I’m kind of the opposite of things happening for me. I don’t have a TV anymore. Living in Iowa, I go to the library. I don’t see a lot of people. I don’t have any friends there, so my world is kind of getting smaller, but I’m aware of all of that’s happening out there, and I don’t want to be one of those sort of… I’m just trying to understand it all and how to be on this planet knowing that it’s going to keep evolving and changing and as someone who’s been doing something their whole life essentially, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, it’s challenging but of course it’s a beautiful thing because it forces you to remain pure, because the rules have all changed, on every level. I’m not really making sense though…

What you just said makes sense that, maybe in light of that rule change or that sea change, removing yourself from that equation could actually be a very liberating or head-clearing kind of experience…

I think so.

Putting yourself in the middle of Iowa.

I think it was a cleansing. When you’ve been immersed, for better or for worse, living right in the epicenter, in a sense, of Seattle mythology, y’know looking out of my window, it was like looking out and seeing this studio where so many bands have recorded. So I got to know so many bands and be like “Hey!” y’know as I was taking my garbage out. And then of course back in the day when I used to drink and go to Hattie’s Hat, Ballard Avenue was so different back then. I got older, that happened. And I’m very aware that that’s a big part of the equation. Hitting 40, man… you have to confront things. It’s now or never. I was very engaged, very… My 30s were incredible. I feel like I became who I was supposed to be in my 30s. But I always knew that I wasn’t going to get off scot-free. There’s many reasons. It’s biological, it’s our bodies, hitting the big 4-0. And also juxtaposed to rock ‘n’ roll being the backdrop, yeah I knew that I was going to be in for some sort of a jolt, a real wake-up call. And I went through that narrow little hallway and I came out unscathed. I feel like I’ve won, like, OK, this is what my life looks like. I’m in my 40s and I’m playing rock ‘n’ roll, and as you were saying, referring back to that, everything is so different now. It’s not about…

Music is so fractured and frayed, it’s not so much about just a youth culture and being young, it’s just sort of about, in my opinion… I don’t know! See this is where now I’m unclear. Moving to Iowa has distilled a lot of these… see this is why it’s hard to talk because I have to say personal things to really tell my story. I stopped drinking about four years ago, like hardcore. Maybe it was three years ago. And I went through a major depression. It was bad. I kind of thought the first year was going to be like, alright now I’m over it, but it kind of just kept going because new doorways were opening and new things were happening in my life, like a new relationship and me and Phil breaking up. During this record Phil’s dad died very unexpectedly and babies were born, a lot of stuff was happening, and I think—I’m making way too big a deal of saying something so simple—but being in Iowa, not having any distractions… it’s been a very healthy thing for me, that’s all I’m saying. But I had to bring up the drinking. I didn’t want to have to bring that up, because it’s so cliché. It’s like, “Oh the artist with the alcohol problem…”

It sounds like it’s not a problem anymore.

No, it’s not. But taking that out of your life is huge. A lot of my energy was consumed by that. Not the alcohol itself, but the lifestyle. So it’s definitely been this very strange process of building my life from the ground up. And again it’s this 101, cliché story that I don’t want to bore people with. Everyone has their own process. I probably won’t live in Iowa too long, my guy’s finishing up his PhD… There’s something to be said also about being an artist and not living—kind of what I was alluding to earlier—and being in a subculture. The studio was always symbolic to me of that, and the mythology of Seattle and how immersed I was in that. Not that I bought into it, I mean a lot of my friends were in those bands. Seeing it go from dark to light, like Kurt in the studio to the Fleet Foxes now, it’s a very different energy. This town has changed a lot on that level. I kind of feel like I’m just being [laughs] “born again.” It’s so weird.

It’s awesome that you can have that in life.

It is. I was thinking about that. I was walking through Iowa. There’s these little streets and there’s a family of rabbits on every lawn. It’s beautiful. It’s like something out of Winnie the Pooh. Every yard has a family of rabbits. And I was thinking, yeah, this is pretty amazing that I get to, halfway through my life, just sort of… not that I’m starting over, but just experience a whole new culture in America, to recreate myself. I was just kind of awestruck by the beauty of the place and sultry, hot summer, which we don’t really get here. It seemed like a gift for sure to just be able to… [laughs] I don’t know.

Did you record Marble Son in Iowa?

No, we recorded here. We started way back, in ‘09. It was done in a lot of increments. They majority of it was done in three days, cut the basic tracks live, so a lot of this record really is, the killer shit, that energy stuff, a lot of that was done live and feels like we got it this time on that level.

We chipped away for like a year and a half over at Mel Detmer and Randall Dunn’s place. We wanted, whether we were gonna go back on Barsuk or not, to just pay for it ourselves. We’re one of those bands, we spend a lot of money on our recordings. I wish we weren’t. We still do the tape thing and we like to mix on good boards, and that ain’t cheap. All this shit was happening, Bill’s baby, Phil’s dad dying. I got really sick at one point and had a little bit of a mental breakdown. It was pretty bleak, all this stuff. But then all these amazing things are happening. The baby, this new relationship I’m in—it’s been almost three years now—me and Phil… I’m kinda going back to the beginning, having to figure out how it was gonna look once he moved out. I stayed in Seattle a good two years before I went to Iowa. I think the record just needed to be like, alright man, it’s gonna be what it is. At times it was a saving grace and at times it was like POW! Which they always are. The happiest days of my life and then a lot of despair. I’m a perfectionist and I get really obsessed with it, it’s all I think about. It’s hard for me. I can’t do the gray area, it’s all or nothing. I’ve had people go, [chipper voice], “Are you having fun?!” I’m like, “Fun?!” I don’t even know what that word means, man. It’s beyond fun. It’s like being in church. Yeah. But it’s also fucking heavy.

One thing I find fascinating about your work is the collaboration you’ve done with Boris, this Japenese drone-metal band, who you mentioned before, and Sun O))) and Earth. These deep, droning metal bands that have been around decades are now having an influence on your work.

Earth we toured with but not in the studio. We toured with them down the coast. That was one of the better tours I’ve ever been on.

The SunO))) guys just emailed me that Henry Rollins played that song [we collaborated on with Boris] “The Sinking Belle” on his show the other day, which is so weird.

Earth, they play beautiful orchestral music now, but the point is Southern Lord put our vinyl of the last record out and it sold like gangbusters. That song gave us a lot of fans, I don’t wanna say metal dudes, but a lot of people are into that roster, Southern Lord, just because of their aesthetic and artwork. Smart artists. A lot of metal dudes come to our shows now and they get our music. It makes total sense to me.

We’re all kind of expansive bands. There’s a lot of musical movments. They’re almost like classical music. There’s movements, songs within songs, which is what we, I feel, have always done, except it’s not abstract, it’s still in a song motif. And Earth, they’ve got their ten-minute songs, and the audiences just love it. So it made sense to me, which is why… So I feel really grateful for that, that whole partnership and collaboration. It’s music that requires the listener to commit. That’s the kind of music I like. I’m not interested in the music that keeps you at bay and it’s sort of out there to fool you into thinking you don’t have to do any work as a human being or something. I feel I want to be taken somewhere that challenges me emotionally. It doesn’t have to be intellectual. I just want to feel a feeling in my gut that makes me go “Ugh… fuck, I’m alive!”

There was a line in the one sheet from Marble Son that mentions “it’s an indication of the commitment of the listener that might be required…”

“…starting with a nine minute song”.

Yeah. That’s ballsy to demand something of your listener, when most music today seems like it’s meant to be easily digested.

I always feel bad talking this way to someone like you so forgive me, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You’re so educated and you know all this, but it is heartbreaking that the album… and again, this is 101 stuff that we know about—the album as a piece of art… there are still some people out there, but they’re kind of rare, that still want to hear an album from start to finish. And the way things are set up now with iTunes and buying a song and this and that… and what I thought was really beautiful this morning, my mom, she’s like 78 or something, she seems really young though. She just gets things that you would never expect someone who doesn’t really… I mean, she’s 80! She doesn’t read Rolling Stone. The point is, she was complimenting the record. And my mom is very honest. If she doesn’t get something, she’s like, “I just don’t understand.” But she’s blown away. She’s like, “I just hope people still have it in them to really listen”—that’s what she was saying—”to really listen to this record because it really is a piece.” She’s just feeling it. For me, if my 80-year-old mom can be moved by this, I think it’s pretty mind-blowing. I’m probably giving too much mouth-time to that but it really moved me, because she hasn’t been like that with every…

She had that challenge…

That long song at the beginning, [“Hushed Devotion”], I thought she would never get that. And it wasn’t like we were doing it to fuck with people, but it just made sense. That song was born during Gulf oil spill. Everyday I was looking at footage of the Gulf of Mexico going, “Why the fuck aren’t people talking about this?” I wanted that song to sound like the violation of the earth and not being able to do squat about it. I thought that song kind of felt sinister and primeval and it felt like Phil, I have to talk about Phil, was really giving it up. It was all live, that whole solo, there were overdubs interacting with it but the main meat of the song, it felt like some Dionysian energy. I’m blown away by his playing. Like, who plays like that anymore?

I first saw that coming out during your set at the No Depression festival a few years ago. Very Dead-like, dark, deep jams. And of course the first conversation we had was about the Grateful Dead….

That’s when it was starting to emerge.

When [Like, Love Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul] came out, we were riding on that fence. Live we were starting to bring out a lot more things where the record was a segue between the older and the newer. It’s been really hard. Barsuk never knew what to do with us. I recently took look at a Rolling Stone, all these guys in long hair and they’re throwing the term psychedelic around. And I go hmm, am I just one of the little creatures floating upstream? I feel like I’m too old for that, but I feel like obviously there’s something at work here. The short concise, economic indie rock song, which is very male, very unsensual, that was always my gripe. I’d try to convey that in interviews and come off sounding like a misanthrope of music. To me music, there’s a sexuality, I don’t mean overt. I’m talking about just the music itself. Even the Dead, there’s masculinity, but it’s whisky breath, kind of. I can’t explain, just a sexuality, like they were men singing, they weren’t boys. Somewhere in indie rock it became about boys singing and girls singing. There weren’t women’s voices and men’s voices.

This collective shift that’s happening—it’s a response to that sort of tight, middle class whiteboy… that archetypal clean cut indie rock motif that’s been prevalent, we’re seeing that young kids are like, fuck that shit, they’re going back to the ‘60s. That’s the archetype they’re relating to, long hair, and I think that tighty-whitey thing is just, I don’t know. You would know better than I would. It just feels really interesting to me.

We didn’t contrive, we weren’t like we gotta make a psychedelic—I hate that term—it wasn’t like we gotta make this grand record with lots of guitar—I don’t like calling them solos, I call  them movements because some of them are hooks in those solos, they’re parts he’ll play live, you know—but why is it everyone’s kind of going the heavier darker route? It’s probably a reflection of what we’re picking up on this earth. There’s a direness. People feel desperate, and a two-minute pop song cannot convey that energy. It doesn’t have to be thought of as dark. It’s the life force. But I don’t know if it can have a color or a name. It’s just an energy.

There’s more of the two-minute pop songs and more of the long, dark hard stuff, too. There’s more of everything. There’s room for you and for Lady Gaga. 

I wish we had time to just talk about Lady Gaga! 

There’s talent there but I’m not sure what it is.

I’m so glad you say that. I wanna understand it too. I am interested in culture and the decline of our culture. I think it’s a weird era. I sound like I crawled out from under a rock, but it’s very confusing to me. It always has been. It’s telling people to feel good about themselves, but that’s kind of the message inherently in rock n roll. It’s like, hey man let your freak flag fly! It’s more just like, you read an article with Lady Gaga, she doesn’t have much to add to the lexicon in terms of philosophical, challenging insights. It’s just all about her. Granted, here I am in an interview situation. I worry about the same thing. It’s strange to have to put the microscope on yourself and your art. Why is my art relevant? You wouldn’t make art if you didn’t on some level want to connect and have a voice. What does it mean now to have a voice? That’s back to what you and I are dismantling here. It once mattered. Culturally, the bands stood for something. But the best I can salvage from all this is that… you make music because you’re kinda testifying and I guess at the end of the day all you can do is give it up on that level and be honest and hope that you’re touching people. It’s about love. I wouldn’t have gotten into music if I didn’t ultimately love the human race. But I’m also torn at times with people. They kind of cause me a lot of grief too.

I’m not saying I’m a great pop songwriting but I believe I could write pop songs. I’m not saying they’d be great. It is a gift. The people who’ve written the best pop songs, some of my favorite songs fall into that category, but when it comes to that formula, it doesn’t speak to me anymore. The ones that exist do—they always will. That’s my memory, my nostalgia, my wallpaper. I’m loyal to the things that have become my DNA. But the genre—I don’t wanna say genre—but that style of writing doesn’t really… It just feels like you’re telling me something I already know.

Again I need to make sure I don’t sound like an arrogant artist. By no means do I feel were reinventing the wheel musically speaking, but I do feel, if I can say one positive thing, there’s just an emotional relevance. It’s not my right as the artist to say what that’s gonna be for other people, but I feel like through the music, Phil builds the structure that my voice lives in. And I pass through these different rooms… it feels to me… Again, I can’t explain it, it’s an internal barometer, but it seems to resonate with the here and now on an emotional level. I can’t explain it intellectually. I’m not writing about train tracks and bars, rewriting the old country songs. Those songs they’re not maybe lyrically on paper some of them are pretty minimalist, but collectively they are talking about, I don’t know….

I’m just trying to say that I fear when I speak about other music, I come off…. I never think about being original but I feel like, cuz there are obviously parts of this record that borrow pretty blatantly from the past—but when they’re all put together it feels timeless, I guess is the word. I don’t know about modern. It just seems to make sense. It’s about a lot of ideas, and musical ideas too. It’s hard to explain. I just wanna make it really clear. I’m so into talking about music, it can sound like I’m saying we’re perfect! It’s hard when you’re being interviewed, because I’m a fan, too and I’m chipping away, trying to understand.