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Q&A: Jesse Malin on Finding His Stride as a Solo Artist and His New LP ‘Sunset Kids’

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D Generation were 90’s punk icons. But the band’s charismatic frontman, Jesse Malin, always seemed more than the run of the mill anarchist typically at the helm of the latter-day punk bands that littered the landscape of the late-20th century music scene.

It’s been 20 years since the band essentially called it a day, and, not surprisingly, Malin has carved out a formidable career as a solo artist, embracing the singer-songwriter storytelling he loved as a youth, and joining forces on projects with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lucinda Williams.

His new album, Sunset Kids, produced by Williams and featuring several songs he co-wrote with Williams, plus a guest appearance from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, on a tune the pair wrote together after an walk where they visited some of the legendary places that made up the New York punk scene, plus a who’s who from the thriving New York City musical community, marks a huge artistic leap for Malin.

The production, arrangements and playing are note-perfect, while maintaining just enough edge to keep listeners waiting for the next left turn. And Malin’s songs — always mini-movies — are some of the best of his long career.

Rock Cellar caught up with Malin on the eve of the release of Sunset Kids, to talk about his career, what he’s learned along the way, and how it’s humbling to have the help of your heroes in achieving your artistic vision.

Rock Cellar: You’ve made a lot of records over the course of your career, but this one feels different. Special. Does it feel that way to you, too?

Jesse Malin: I don’t know what it is, but yeah. It has a real, new feeling for me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t made a record in a while, but the experience was a little different than most of the others. I’m happy it’s out.

Rock Cellar: It’s hard to get people’s attention these days, and yet you seem to have done that. I guess there’s a little bit of magic in the music, but it’s nice to see people pay attention when a new guitar record comes out.

Jesse Malin: Yeah, it’s true in this world that music comes by so fast and is so disposable. Record stores and all that stuff, the way I grew up with music, has changed so much. But I think there’s always going to be great new music. I go out a lot to see young bands and there’s some amazing stuff out there. So I think there will always be people needing to create.

I think we need that outlet, and we need to get this stuff out there, whatever way that is. If it’s digital; if it’s in the blink of an eye, or whatever, there’s still something great about making music and then getting out and playing in front of people. That’s, to me, the gift of making a record. The luxury and the gift that comes from being able to go out, tour it, and get to play the songs in different parts of the world and see what happens. That’s always the fun.

Rock Cellar: A lot of people have given up making records. And it is, unless you own your masters or you’re really on a tight budget, very hard to make money at it. But I do understand the itch of always writing, and always wanting to create. Did you feel like you needed to do it, as opposed to wanting to do it. Did it feel different this time?

Jesse Malin: Yeah. I mean, you look at everything, and you can say “is the glass half empty or half full?” I’ve been doing this along time, and I have a certain fan base, which I’m so grateful for. But you do start to think, “What the hell else would I do?” I’ve been doing this since I’m a little kid; 12 years old. So when I think about it long enough, there’s nothing else that would make me happy.

“It’s like, I need to do this. So whatever the format is, or the business and how it changes, it’s just a thing that has to come out of me. These songs have to come out of me. And I like getting together with the community of musicians that I work with and sharing the energy that we do. I’m addicted to it. It’s like breathing.

Rock Cellar: This record is a long way from D Generation. Tell me a little bit about that trajectory, from your role in that band, to your evolution as a solo artist.

Jesse Malin: Well, as a kid, I grew up listening to songwriters that my parents and friends’ parents listened to, like Jim Croce, Elton John, and even John Denver and Billy Joel, and all that stuff, like Neil Young, because they told these stories in their songs. And they were the coolest things you heard. And then there were things like Carole King and James Taylor.

The idea that somebody was baring their soul, and telling you this little story, almost a movie in three minutes, it stuck with me.

And then as I got to my early teens, I needed something. My parents had split up. There was a feeling of aggression, and I didn’t know where to put this anger. I was mad at the world and I connected to punk rock; like the Ramones.

I was too young to really embrace it, but later we created hardcore together, a bunch of us down in the Lower East Side. I’d come to the city and put out my first record when I was 14, with Heart Attack. We did that for a while, but by the time I was 16, I thought, “Oh, this has become too metal and too macho. I’m going to get out of that.”

And then I had a kind of a dark period, where I had lost my mom and I was just figuring out a way to get by in the city and take care of my sister. I became a moving man, and I worked for everybody, as a roadie, a driver, and moving gear for everyone from Barbara Streisand to the Ramones and L7.

And then one day — I was living with my roommate and a couple of friends I grew up with in Queens — and we were like, “Let’s just make a band for fun.” It was as a reaction to what was going on with all the funky bands that weren’t really dressed that stylish, and the grunge stuff, where people were dressed like gas station attendants. We wanted something like the band we wish we could’ve seen as kids, that would be like a gang.

And so we formed D Generation. And I became one of the main writers, and it was very important to me. Because lyrics have always been a thing, that storytelling. So we had a good run for about seven years, and we had a cult following, and really connected in major cities. But I had this big frustration every night. I’d be out there singing these songs together, but the crowd was more concerned with the mosh pit and how we moved and how fast they could dance, but not what we were singing about.

We could have been singing the back of the cereal box. And it got tiresome after about seven years, even though we had a beautiful run. We made some money, we played with our heroes — we played Madison Square Garden with KISS — and we toured the world. But eventually it felt like it was time to bring it down to a whisper.

I would sit on the tour bus and I would listen to Steve Earle and Wilco and Whiskeytown and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. And I would think, “I want to just take this down.” So then I had a couple of years where I played locally in New York City, with no record deal, every Wednesday night at a club called Brownies, with a piano player named Joe McGinty. And I played a lot of the songs that would become The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, my first solo record.

But I played them really softly. I was learning how to sing and communicate in a different way, and I needed to bring it down to that quiet place to be heard and for the songs to matter. And it felt right. Ryan Adams came down — because we had known each other since D Generation — and he offered to produce my first album. We did it five days. It came out and it opened up another life for me. It felt like a third chance after Heart Attack and D Generation, to now being myself and writing just for myself.

When I was in D Generation, I had that cautiousness of having to write for four other people in the gang.  But in this, I could say whatever. I could be my own shrink. [Laughter.] I could put it up there, and be really exposed, and be whoever I wanted to be. I could peek into my personality. And paint my darkness. And celebrate that. So, because it was more autobiographical, it was more liberating than music had ever been for me.

And that’s been the journey, eight albums later and a bunch of years. So I’m really grateful to have the chance to still make records in this crazy world.

Rock Cellar: New York is a tough place to shift gears, but that’s hard for any musician anywhere to embrace a new aesthetic. Did you find resistance in the audience? Did you find a new audience?

Jesse Malin: I had a lot of D Gen fans that didn’t understand what I was doing, but it wasn’t like we were that big. Especially in Europe, they thought I was a brand new artist. None of the press in Europe even mentioned D Generation. That was great. [Laughter.] But I had to go back to the beginning, putting up flyers with scotch tape, after being in D Generation and selling out clubs and having a record deal behind us. I mean, I went to jail in the tombs for hanging posters to one of my solo shows!

You did whatever you had to do, calling people to come out to gigs. But it felt more true, and honest to who I was at that point. I think evolution is important, but to me, it’s connected, too. Because after all this time I’ve finally found a way to connect that crazy energy that I brought to D Generation and Heart Attack, with songs from my early solo records, and have that still exist in the show that we do now. It took a long time, though.

It used to seem like separate worlds, because you make lines in the sand when you’re younger. Like, “I’m shaving my head, this is what I’m doing!” Or, “I’m only listening to reggae and talking like a Rasta now.” You go through things because you have to hold your ground. But you get older, and I think as an artist you have to find yourself. Because all those things are part of you, and that’s okay.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about the new record. I can hear the evolution of you as a solo artist, and you as a writer and a performer in these songs. There are also a lot of collaborations on it that feel authentic, and not just stunt casting. Talk a little bit about the collaborations, how they evolved and how the record evolved.

Jesse Malin: Well, the first collaboration was singing and writing with Billie Joe Armstrong on a song. And that came about because we’d been friends since the D Gen days, and I was on their label with Glitter in the Gutter. And one night, a bunch of years ago, we had rented the studio in New York, Stratosphere Studios, real drunk and we recorded the song — me and Green Day — called “Depression Times.”

It came out as the band called Rodeo Queens, as fun side-project — Billie Joe being from Rodeo, California, and me being from Queens. It became a song that got played a lot on satellite radio and some other places, and we wanted a B-side for a single. So I had this song and I kept telling Billie about it, and I sent it to him, and he said, “Yeah, this is cool. I’ll write the lyrics, because last time you wrote the lyrics.” And then he came to New York, and we just walked around on a Sunday, and I showed him a lot of the old spots that weren’t there anymore where we’d hung out. It was like a real nostalgia / memory lane Sunday, reminiscing.

I showed them all the hardcore and punk spots, and then he went home and I got the lyrics three days later, all texted to me in one shot. And so then we recorded “Strangers and Thieves,” and he sang on it and we had some fun. And we were in the studio, and Lucinda and everybody said, “You can’t give this up as a B-side. This has to be on the record. It’s important to this record and it fits with the story and the musical energy will lift up the record, too.” So I went to Billie and he said, “I like the song, I’m cool with it. That’s fine.” And so it whet from being a side project to being a track on this album.

Rock Cellar: Was that the jumping off point for the rest of the record? Did it give you a road map for it?

Jesse Malin: No, the record started with Lucinda, and Joseph Arthur, who’s on the record a bunch, singing and clapping and playing weird instruments and who just added some extra “art factor.” Joe is a great artist. He has a new record that I sing on, actually. It’s always fun to have friends that are on a similar path, but yet you have your own approach and your own ways. We’re going out on tour together.

Rock Cellar: So how did you and Lucinda connect and how did she end up producing the record?

Jesse Malin: Lucinda and I met in the early 2000s at the Blue Note, a jazz club, going to see Charlie Watts. We met and we realized we had the same birthday. I had always been a huge fan of her singing and writing, and I had bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and seen her shows, but here was this sweet, humble, very giving, real person. She had a swagger, and definitely was badass, but there was a soft spot, too, and I could see that she could really see the beauty in people and was right there.

Photo: Vivian Wang

So we stayed in touch over the, years and if we were in the same town, we’d go out, drink, dance, listen to records, and talk about music or life. One day she came to a gig in L.A., and a journalist was there and saw her writing on the bar — writing lyrics or something during my set – and immediately thought, “Oh, Lucinda Williams must like Jesse Malin. Let’s do a piece for Rolling Stone and this weird, unexpected, mutual appreciation society.”

And we did the interview and the journalist asked, “What about a collaboration? You ever think of that?” And we hadn’t, I guess. But when my manager was pushing me for a list of producers for the new record, it just popped into my mind, this interview. And so we went to L.A., and she invited me to see her play the last Tom Petty shows. We didn’t know they’d be the last of his career, but she opened up the last shows of the tour, at the Hollywood Bowl. And it was a magical night.

We went out the next night and talked about making the record and she seemed really interested, as did her husband, who’s produced a lot of her records, and who I’ve known since the D Generation days. And Lu seemed excited, and we had plans to do it, and then a week later Tom Petty passed away. It was terrible. And then there was the Vegas shooting. But we regrouped around Christmas, because we both get the holiday blues and decided it’d be good to work through Christmas.

We went to L.A. with a guy named David Bianco who, funny enough, did all of Lucinda’s records, but also did Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, and had done the first D Generation record for EMI. So it was a full circle thing, which was nice, and the week of Christmas we got five songs down. We said to each other, “You know what? Let’s do this!” So we continued, and even did a little bit of writing on “Dead On” and “Room 13.” Then she started to sing on the songs, because we were just having fun together. But to have her like my lyrics, and have her critique them and dissect them — because sometimes I over-write — was amazing.

Her sensibility in the studio, when the band would play a take, was cool, too. If she was dancing and moving her hips and grooving, she’d be like, “That’s the take!” And we’d be like, “Well, we have three on this tape reel. Let’s listen to them.” But she’d say, “That’s the take.” And she’d be right. So having a producer is like having an editor. And if you want to make a record your way, make it yourself. But if you bring in a producer, you’ve got to trust their judgment.

So then we continued to work between both of our touring cycles. And we did a lot here in New York, when she was staying here, because she likes the city and gets a good energy off it. But every time we’d break, I’d come back with a bunch of songs, and she’d say, “You’ve got too many! This is nuts. We have a record!” But my attitude has always been that you keep writing until the door is closed.

My band, who have been with me for about seven years — Catherine Popper on bass, Randy Schrager on drums, Derek Cruz guitar, and Rob Clores rocked for us on keys — . really make me look good. I came with these songs on acoustic guitar and they lifted me up. And I think they connected a lot with Lucinda, too. In L.A., we used a couple of her players, to just on the first couple of days, so that was nice, just to have a different feel, and to make it truly a bi-coastal record. Unfortunately, we lost Tom Petty at the beginning of the making of the record. I wasn’t a friend, but Lu was. Then David Bianco, the engineer, passed away, and my dad passed away, and then one of my guitar players, from my previous tours, died. It was just an abundance of loss. But I think that inspired the title Sunset Kids as a tribute to these people that that really affect us and be in the music.

Rock Cellar: It sounds like there was a dark cloud, but also there was energy and inspiration, with you and Lucinda – and all the collaborators you brought in — feeding off each other. Did the sessions feel different? Did they feel a little bit more magical than other records you’ve made?

Jesse Malin: It definitely had that “thing” where it was effortless.

A great producer creates a great vibe in the studio, where you feel like you’re having a party, or where you just enjoy jamming. Like it’s the greatest rehearsal of your life, and where you’re not so under the microscope and sterile.

Lucinda did that. And, you know, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, talking about the lyrics. We were into drinking wine and sitting there with the acoustic guitars and the notebooks. And, you know, those kitchen tables are a great place to cook up songs.

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