Cracking the Jandek Case

We interviewed people who have performed with Jandek to find out if he's real.

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May 21 2012, 1:40pm

It has been nearly eight years since news broke across the internet that the elusive and (as far as we knew) reclusive avant garde musician known as Jandek made his first-ever live appearance at a festival in Scotland. Even though that performance is now one of a few dozen that Jandek has taken part in around the world, the shock of his first steps onstage hasn't really worn off

You could credit this to the fact that the show happened some 26 years after the release of Jandek's first album (Ready For The House, originally credited to The Units). Or that, until that debut performance in October 2004, no one could really say for certain whether the music he had been self-releasing at a frightening pace was to be taken seriously or not.

The few interviews he has given have been cagey about his methods and the inspirations behind his jagged, unhinged blues/folk skronks and wails. And when Irwin Chusid, the WMFU DJ and outsider art expert, wrote about Jandek in the book Songs In The Key of Z, he was treated as something of a novelty, just another crazed dude who likely thought he was recording potential top ten hits.

Nearly a decade later, there's no denying that Jandek is for real, and the music he is creating on his own and in collaboration with whatever live band gets cobbled together to perform with him on stage is equally bona fide.

Still, no one really knows what drives the work that Jandek does either onstage or off. He hasn't given a legitimate interview in many years. He doesn't participate in stage banter or even seem to acknowledge the existence of an audience when he plays live. The only way we are going to get any sense of the man is through the people who have performed with him over the years.

To that end, I connected with five artists who have spent time onstage with Jandek to get some deeper sense of what drives him as an artist and, now, as a performing musician. Below are the recollections - edited for clarity - of these musicians about their experiences with Jandek's music both as listeners and as performers.

Spencer Yeh, played with Jandek on October 10, 2008 at the Wexner Center For The Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

I was aware of Jandek before I had actually heard any. I mean, the time in between hearing the tale and actually hearing some music was kind of short, but long enough to really imagine all sorts of crap about what it might sound like. I think I felt like it was going to be a bit more fucked up in a lo-fi way. Part of me was sort of startled by how "pro" it felt.

The organizer of the show got in touch with me. I guess the organizer submits a proposed band and then Jandek filters through the list. I'm guessing some research was done on his end in making the selections for the band.

By the time I met him, I had heard about his surprise appearance in Scotland and seen pictures; had friends who had performed with him. So of course there was a lot of talk along the "what/how" lines already. Despite that, meeting him in person, he immediately just has this sort of vibe. I mean, it's sort of the ideal vibe anyone dressing in one color with a hat on is striving for. Even my girlfriend who was sort of, like, "What's the big deal in meeting this person?"...boom, in person, whole different story.

He proposed three pieces with open-ended instructions. We worked out some ideas and made decisions on choices such as a general vibe of the jam, or the particular voices he used on the keyboards. It felt like he sort of he had to say "Yay" or "Nay" about what we were coming up with, from a "feel" standpoint. It was very much "show him what we can do" and see what worked. It was so long ago, but I recall it being pretty good. I definitely did appreciate that we were doing "songs", that he did hit the mike. To me, that makes a big difference, just hearing his voice. We also did a radio session the next day, which was a blast, particularly when he pointed at a drum set and was, like, "I want to play THOSE."

He did give me some open insights into Jandek. A piece of the puzzle lies in the fact that additional players aren't listed in these recent live records. I'm wondering if a secret goal would be to absorb every person on Earth into Jandek at some point or other.

Loren Mazzacane Connors, performed with Jandek first on September 6th, 2005 in New York. Has played with him since in Glasgow and Houston.

He knew me and I knew him. We'd been hearing about each other for years, and knew each other's music. Our music was not really similar stylistically on the surface, but our independence was, and our passion.

In the New York performance, he did vocals and organ. We liked each other right away. In Scotland, he did vocals and harmonica. In Houston, he played bass. He had his own designed bass. It was really nice. By that point, we were very comfortable with each other, like old friends. Each time we played together we got more and more free.

He's very easy going, not arrogant at all. We were relaxed with each other right from the start. He's a real artist.

Sam Coomes, performed with Jandek on April 20th, 2006 in Portland, Oregon at the Hollywood Theater, and on October 27th, 2006 in Seattle, Washington at On The Boards.

I didn't really pay much attention to Jandek until I actually got the gig to play with him. I thought, "Whoa, I should go listen to some records." It's not naïve. It's very purposeful. And it's hard to pick up from just a casual listen.

Emil [Amos], the drummer, and I got together ahead of time and discussed strategies. We had this idea that everybody has been doing this almost jazz-based, free improv playing, so let's just play rock and see what happens.

I don't know if he does this every time, but he categorizes his songs into three categories: blues, ballads, and brutal. So he would say, "Okay, this is a blues." And by that he didn't mean we were supposed to start playing Muddy Waters, but as a vibe. Within that, it was wide open. It puts the onus on the musicians because his playing starts to become very similar very quickly. It seems like he's mostly concerned with his lyrics and he uses other musicians to provide the variation.

The two shows we did were pretty different. The Portland show was really remarkable. People came up to me afterwards in tears. It just blew people's minds. Seattle, we played at more of an art space. So it was this bourgeois crowd. They said before, "Please do not leave during a song." So we finished the first song, maybe a 10-minute long song, and then half the theater got up and left.

We did go to a bar after the Seattle show and they had a jukebox with a billion bands on there. People kind of asked him about this and that and he didn't know any of it. He knew Cream. He expressed a little admiration for Jack Bruce's bass playing. I think he purposefully does not listen to other's people stuff.

Jessica Dennison, also performed with Jandek in Portland and Seattle along with Coomes.

I wasn't familiar with his music. I have plenty of music nerd friends and I've been around that culture a lot but somehow missed it. I learned a little bit but I deliberately didn't watch the documentary [Jandek On Corwood]. I wanted to treat the experience as just being present with it because it was something that was not totally comfortable for me.

He gave me and Liz [Harris, who also sang with Dennison for both shows] each a lyrics book. He had different categories of songs - blues, ballads, and brutal. When he gave us the lyrics sheets, it would say "brutal" on top just for our information.

I improvised two songs on my own at that Seattle show. There was also one that Liz and I did together. It was this story of a couple being at a restaurant or something. We had to yell stuff at him, like, "You're mine!" And then he was responding like, "Yes, dear."

There wasn't enough to form a really solid opinion of him, but it wasn't uncomfortable. By the second show, he seemed to have almost a warmth toward us. He was always encouraging of the process. Weird things would happen like the show at Seattle ended up a totally strange note, me singing in this really anti-climactic way and all of us being confused, and then leaving the stage. But he was just, "That's great!"

Ben Wesley, performed with Jandek on April 1st, 2012 at Big Star Bar in Houston, Texas.

Years before I'd seen him in a café that I worked at. A buddy of mine said, "That's him!" Then I got the documentary. I liked the oddity of it. This guy isn't odd or strange. This is just how he's going to do music. I left it at that. He's just not playing the same games that I was taught to play.

He really wanted to make it a dance party. A sort of disco/rave type thing. I didn't bring any of my guitars. I used a micro-Korg and a K Oscillator. He told me I could do whatever I wanted. He gave some directions to the synth drummer and the other guy playing synth bass. Our only direction as that we would be playing two songs that he wrote and then a third that we would just create. One song was called "Love"; the other was called "Hate". They were 30 minutes long each. The third song was an hour long.

It was a really crazy awesome collaboration. It was like doing acid. He got strobe lights going in this old dirt bar.

I asked him a bunch of questions. This was my opportunity. I told him this was reminding me a lot of when I lived in Europe and didn't know anybody but it didn't matter, because I would go out to dance clubs and lose myself. He said that he'd had similar experiences with nightclubs. I think that he's not as reclusive as everyone likes to imagine.

He seemed like a real life apparition to me. He'd sort of appear in some shadowy corner and we'd have a Hamlet-esque conversation and then he'd disappear again. 

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