The One-Man Oral History of New York Rock
Jim Sclavunos—of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Sonic Youth, and the goddamn Bad Seeds—weighs in on everything from CBGBs to Kanye West.
Photo by George Vjestica, courtesy of Jim Sclavunos
Standing at approximately eight feet tall and having been in literally every single good band ever since Peter Stuyvesant first planted his orchard in what would eventually become New York City and, shortly thereafter, CBGBs, Jim Sclavunos is a one-man Oral History of New York Rock. Staking his counterculture claim in 1976, with his fanzine "No Magazine" and playing with Red Transistor and The Gynecologists (with Rhys Chatham and Nina Canal), Jim has gone on to play with—deep breath—Teenage Jesus and The Jerks (beginning what would be a long-term association/friendship with Lydia Lunch), Sonic Youth (on their first album, Confusion is Sex), The Cramps, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Eight-Eyed Spy, Alice Texas, The Vanity Set and, since 1994, The Bad Seeds.
Along the way, he's produced countless bands, from Kid Congo Powers' woefully underappreciated Congo Norvell to The (appreciated-just-right) Horrors. As both an imposing, brutally honest aesthete and a wildly generous—in both time and talent—benefactor to younger bands, Sclavunos has managed to avoid the major pitfalls of a decades long career: stagnation and irrelevance. With The Bad Seeds, he's an essential part of an outfit that's miraculously at its peak, and he manages the equally miraculous feat of being able to talk about New York rock without being a bore.
Over the course of two conversations—one last year when he was in town to perform in a benefit for the cancer-stricken Voidoid guitarist, Ivan Julian, and more recently in anticipation of the Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds tour—Sclavunos was kind enough discuss his personal history, drumming style, production philosophy, and challenges/benefits of still giving a shit about music.
Noisey: You went to high school in Queens?
Jim Sclavunos: Brooklyn. Nazareth. Good Catholic boys. All boy school. Not a bad school actually. There was one teacher, Reggie Black, who was an amazing literature and film teacher, which made the whole experience tolerable. Our principal proclaimed us absolutely the worst class in the entire history of the school; mainly for that time one of our friends set fire to the school chapel and we got off school for a couple weeks. Hero! Nobody ratted on him.
It's like the Television song.
I'm going to leave it at that because anything further I could say about my high school days would be deeply incriminating.
Did you have a relationship with the Voidoids?
I auditioned for the Voidoids when Marc Bell left to join The Ramones, but I failed the audition. Robert Quine produced the first professional recording session I ever did Teenage Jesus and The Jerks' 7" EP "Baby Doll".
One of the most interesting things you told me was that when you were teaching yourself to play drums, you decided early on that you were never going to be the most polyrhythmic or whatever drummer so you focused on being the best at keeping time.
There was an economic factor. I couldn't afford a teacher. I wanted to play drums. So I taught myself to play drums. I knew there were going to be limitations to what I could teach myself. I also realized that, for better or worse, it was likely I was going to come up with something idiosyncratic based on my limitations, and I should just go with it. I don't think I was particularly good at keeping time. I think what happened was in a way of compensating for my inability to keep time I came up with, instinctively, a way of flowing with tempo where I could feel comfortable not being stuck with a strict tempo and I that I could maybe subtly, maybe not so subtly, I could impose that on whatever band I was playing with and it could be a stylistic element. I'm definitely not naturally good at keeping time. I have to work really hard at it, all the time.
I've seen you playing the tambourine alone in a room.
Well, I try. I try. I never had any proper training and I'm sure there are guys that can run vast circles around me technically. I have no doubt of that. But, you know, I also know that nobody sounds like me
What made you want to be a drummer?
Well, that goes back to Mimi and The Dreamboats. My bandmates made me feel really bad about getting attention from Terry Ork, who ran Ork Records and decided that I had a big ego.
You were the singer? So they negged you into becoming a drummer?
It was a choice. They decided I was getting too much attention. What attention? We were just another tiny little band on the scene. Anyway, there was mutiny, and because they were my friends I took it to heart: "Maybe I am egotistical? Maybe I should try to be a serious musician?" But I didn't really know what being a serious musician involved. Drums looked easy. Ringo looked like he was having a good time on the Ed Sullivan show. I could do that! So I took up drums. The rest is misery.
You didn't sing again till The Vanity Set?
Very true. And some people would say I didn't sing then.
I try to describe that era to people, that gothy Lower East Side—
You think we were a goth band? Granted, there were a couple people in the band who were goths, and there were some people in the band who looked like they should have been goths. But when I first heard that term it meant The Batcave, and all and I don't think we sounded like any Batcave bands.
"I didn't really know what being a serious musician involved. Drums looked easy. Ringo looked like he was having a good time on the Ed Sullivan show. I could do that!"
I think there was a very New York strain of it, even Jonathan Fire Eater. Men and women in suits and dark clothing.
I was thinking them more in the lineage of Chrome Cranks. Anguished blues—
I don't think the Vanity Set ever sang anguished blues. We would never lower ourselves to anything quite so arch. (Laughs) We were too cynical for that, to express any genuine emotions.
Do you enjoy drumming more than singing?
I don't enjoy either one. I work hard at both of them because, like I said, I don't think I'm a natural.
Then why do you do either of them?
I'm a glutton for punishment clearly. I mean, I don't know why the fuck I do anything really. I don't even know why I'm doing this interview. Because it's habit forming?
That kind of sounds like bullshit. You must love—
I love listening to music. I listen to music all day long, all sorts of music, and but I agonize about how much I still need to know and learn about making it. And that's why I can't ever really feel completely relaxed about it. When you say "enjoy" there's a couple things going on. I have that one thing that a lot of people have, that feeling that you're constantly faking it and you're going to be discovered?
Sure, Imposter's Syndrome.
Well, I know I'm faking it. (Laughs) It's not just a feeling.
One of the things I love about talking to you is that you talk like a fan.
Really? I must correct that. Well, I do try to pay attention at least.
Yeah, unlike some contemporaries, you actually go see new bands. Is that conscious choice or you just being a fanboy?
I refuse to accept that there can't be good stuff going on. And if people seek me out and say can you please check out my thing, I feel like I should. Because there must be some reason that they're reaching out. I usually find that they've completely misconstrued what I'm interested in, but that in itself is interesting.
There's a lot to choose from, there's Jim from Teenage Jesus, Jim from Sonic Youth, Jim from The Bad Seeds. Despite what they may think I find that these bands never sound like these bands that I've been in. They may imagine they do or they think I'll have that secret ingredient that will make them sound like Grinderman. But that's nonsense. They sound like themselves. And my only goal is to make them sound as consummately like themselves as possible. To make them sound more like themselves than they ever could imagine and draw out untapped potential.
Democracy in bands.
It's not that a band shouldn't be a democracy, it's that it can't be. I don't think it shouldn't be, but you can't afford to be or else you'll often end up with a set of contradictory agendas in the end. Bands need focus and leadership—unless you're some sort of improv group and the band's sound depends on everyone making their own unilateral musical choices
You've always existed outside of making hits.
Yeah. For better or for worse. I wouldn't know if I had a hit on my hands or not. But I know that I like to listen to and I have a good sense of when people are doing their utmost or not. And I strive in the studio to make a band just do more than they would if I wasn't there.
We all put the bar high in Grinderman and The Bad Seeds. Nick's restless fervent creative impulses make him very prolific as well and drive him to constantly seek change and evolve his music, and The Bad Seeds are all kindred spirits to that urge to move on from whatever our last record sounded like. That's why the records have been progressively different. If you look at the entire catalog, there's a vast difference from Her To Eternity to Push The Sky Away.
You joined for Henry's Dream?
Murder Ballads. And every record I've done with Nick, the whole process of how we went about it, whether the songwriting, the rehearsal, the recording, the demos or whatever, has been a completely different process every single time. Never the same. At all.
I think, whether by design or instinct or compulsion, Nick needs to make records with a process that is inherently self-challenging. Nobody ever just says, "Oh, that's good enough."
Did you like grunge?
Yeahhhh… I suppose. It was alright for the time. Better than some other stuff that was going on. Who's grunge?
Yeah, I liked some Nirvana tracks.
They had some bangers.
I mean, I don't think about it in term of genres. When it's pop music, which grunge was and a lot of rock music is, I think of it in terms of how interesting, appealing, and different the songwriting is.
You like pop music, right?
I don't mind it. What are we talking about? I don't like Taylor Swift. I find her pretty annoying. Normally when I find some music annoying, I think "oh there's probably something interesting or new about it that annoys me, so I'm gonna explore this" But I've tried this with Taylor Swift, and I still haven't found anything interesting.
I like that "I Am A God" track by Kanye West off Yeezus. That's a standup track by any measure.
Yeah, and he's a weirdo.
He's definitely a weirdo, and he's definitely making abrasive music. At least on superficial level it's kicking against the status quo, it's trying to do something different. It's funny what might have been abrasive or brave or outlandish 30 years ago is now so part and parcel of the pop landscape that you can't even conceive of it ever being challenging.
Like electronic sounds for instance. Nobody even blinks when they hear an electronic squelch these days. When that stuff was first introduced it was like "whoa! This is redefining music as we know it!" Yesterday's musical innovation can become tomorrow's cliché.
You've always been generally in rock bands.
I don't think that some of them could be considered rock bands.
I didn't mean that as diminishing.
I don't take it as diminishing. I just don't think that other rock bands would appreciate—OK let's take for example Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. It was a deconstructed rock band. If you want to say that's a rock band, you need to qualify it. It's sort of a parody, deconstructed. It insulted anyone else's idea of what a rock band was. You had a guy who played a drum and a cymbal, and he played it like a windup monkey. You had a bass player, yours truly, who couldn't play bass. I played it like a blunt instrument. You had a guitar player who couldn't play guitar. We used to tune up Lydia's guitar once a month. We couldn't wait for it to go out of tune because it always sounded better out of tune. She would come in for her monthly tune up. Although I couldn't play the guitar, I knew how to tune it more or less. And she shrieked like a... a... like someone being slowly murdered.
So it wasn't really rock music. We vomited all over what rock was meant to be. I listen to it now, and I think, "It sounds pretty normal." (Laughs) But at the time, people were deeply offended. Outraged even. Wouldn't give us the time of day. Wouldn't let us open for them. Well, time marches on. What seemed radical ends up so well assimilated in later decades that it's hard to imagine.
When someone who wasn't there at that time, who didn't see Teenage Jesus and The Jerks in the 70s goes back and listens to it, I can't really imagine what they're hearing. Because I'm thinking "well, they'll never understand the context." So what are they really getting out of it? Because it was all about context. It was a stance. It was like "OK, you're punk rock. We're so stripped down that your back to basics punk rock is meaningless to us. We're ripping it to shreds. We're the ghastly skeleton beneath the acned flesh of punk rock." And I don't know that anyone would get that listening to it 30 years on. I don't know that anyone would understand that. Or that it even matters.
Are you interested in that reactionary stance now?
Well, that band is long since defunct. I never—you think it was reactionary?
No I mean it just as reacting.
There were all these bands, and it was a very open time for people making music, and I think that Lydia wanted to make a certain kind of music that felt very natural to her state of mind, her state of being, and I think that people weren't ready for it. I don't think it was just a reaction to punk rock. I think we were forced into a reactionary position because punks, like everyone else, didn't like us. Punk rockers didn't like what we were doing. But Lydia was doing Teenage Jesus and The Jerks—when I first heard it—when James Chance was still in the band and the original Japanese bass player, Reck, was still in the band. It was quite a different thing than when I got involved and arguably even more musical. Reck at least could legitimately play bass. Nonetheless, most people didn't like it. But I liked it. When James quit the band, I said "Lydia, can I play sax in your band?" and she said, "No, but you can play bass because I'm going to fire the bass player tomorrow." It was Gordon Stevenson by that point. I said, "OK, I don't know how to play bass," and she said, "I don't care."
"There were an awful lot of bands playing CBGBs in those days, and some were better than others. And I thought Teenage Jesus and The Jerks was one of the better ones. But I didn't realize that I was one of the ten people that felt like that."
Did you know how to play sax?
No. But I owned one. I liked what she was doing. I liked what she was playing on the guitar. I liked the extreme character of it all. But I didn't like it because I thought "oh this'll show those punk rockers." I just thought it was better, more interesting. Better than The Shirts. Better than Tuff Darts. There were an awful lot of bands playing CBGBs in those days, and some were better than others. And I thought Teenage Jesus and The Jerks was one of the better ones. But I didn't realize that I was one of the ten people that felt like that. And when I joined the band, it was really clear that people didn't like us. We were a room clearer. Suicide would let us open up for them. And the Mumps, who were a proper little pop band. They let us open up for them all the time, probably because the keyboard player was going out with our drummer.
There were other bands I found vitally interesting: Mars, DNA, The Contortions, Theoretical Girls, and Red Transistor. Those were the ones I gravitated to. I was looking for something different. The Ramones were kind of different but not different enough. Television were definitely not different enough. Talking Heads were different until they got Jerry Harrison in the band, and then they sounded totally normal. When they were a three piece, they were absolutely bizarre.
Did they ever record as a three piece?
No, but I had a cassette of a live gig at CBGB's that somebody stole that I wish I still had. It was like stick-figure rock, super minimal and strange. When they got a keyboard player, they just weren't as unique sounding. The aforementioned Richard Hell and The Voidoids were a beautiful band. Accomplished musically without it becoming this conspicuous muso thing.
By the way I gotta say, trying to sing "I'm Your Man" the other day, Hell's phrasing is absolutely bizarre. Actually singing that song, I found it a bit harder than expected even though I've known it for a long time. To watch him perform his material so effortlessly—Hell was in fine form the other night—was quite a revelation.
So, what's your favorite band?
Can you just put an emoticon there? I very humbly acknowledge the vast universe of musicians, artists, bands reaching back to the beginning of the twentieth century. I couldn't pick just one.
I was just looking for a good final question.
That's music to my ears.
Zachary Lipez will never stop putting his life on the line for New York rock. Follow him on Twitter.