Joe Jackson decided to strip his music down to the bone on his latest studio album, “Rain,” recorded in his newly adopted hometown of Berlin.
There’s Jackson on piano and vocals plus longtime band mates Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums. That’s it. This same rhythm section goes all the way back to Jackson’s 1979 debut, “Look Sharp,” and always provides clean, uncluttered backup to songs written by the smart and acerbic British rocker.
Refusing to be pigeonholed as part of the post-punk, new wave movement, Jackson has worked in a variety of genres, including swing and jump blues (“Jumpin’ Jive”), movie soundtracks (“Tucker,” “Mike’s Murder”), adult-oriented pop (“Night and Day,” “Body and Soul”) and even classical (“Symphony No. 1”).
Was your relocation to Berlin a search for some fresh musical inspiration?
I moved to Berlin about a year and a half ago, and I just like it there. It feels a lot freer than the cities I lived in before—London and New York. Unfortunately this sounds like an invitation on my part to moan and whine. It creates the impression I’m this miserable bastard, and I’m not! Most cities in Western Europe and North America are becoming less free and less fun. The songs on this new album were written over a period of four years and in all sorts of different places. So, no, it doesn’t make much a difference to me where I write, as long I have a piano.
Why did you make the decision to use no guitar on “Rain”?
I never make decisions—there’s no why. It just evolved in the last few years. In other words, it’s not an ideological decision—there’s no agenda. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten interested in writing songs that are indestructible. You can play them with just a piano and it still works. What I’m interested in doing is writing songs so solid through and through, where every note in every song is necessary and you never feel like anything’s missing. It’s using the minimum resources to maximum effect.
“Uptown Train” is one of the most outstanding tracks on “Rain,” quite reminiscent of some classic, piano-driven jazz albums. Were those a big influence on you?
I really like those records by people like Horace Silver, and “Uptown Train” is intended to invoke that kind of style. As a kid, the only music I was aware of was mid-‘60s pop and rock—the Beatles and Kinks and all that. At the age of 11, I started classical training on the violin, then around the age of 14, I switched to piano and started listening to jazz.
I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music. I think if you truly love music, you’re going to be interested in all different kinds. People stuck in one genre are fetishists, not true music lovers. Classically speaking, Beethoven is my man—my biggest hero. I also love early 20th-century composers—Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Sibelius, to name a few.
Graham Maby and Dave Houghton are people you’ve known and played with off and on for many decades. What’s the key to how well you work together?
We go way back, and we’re all still friends. We grew up around Portsmouth (England) and have so many connections, so many bands we played in together. They’re great players and both such natural players that they don’t even know how good they are sometimes. Both are humble, easy to get along with and so versatile. I’m very lucky to be working with these guys. It’s a lineup associated with jazz but we don’t play jazz. Yet there is a kind of jazz-like spirit and freedom to it. We’ve got a big repertoire and can easily change songs and arrangements from night to night.
I must say that I haven’t heard from anyone who’s said `Where’s the guitar?’ For the live shows, we’re very careful to do songs and arrangements that sound complete and good with just the three of us so that you don’t miss the guitar. I have to remind people that some of my best-selling albums, including “Night and Day,” have no guitar on it.
What are your thoughts on the wrenching changes going on in the music industry?
I try not to think about it! I mean there are some things that are confusing and disturbing, but it’s far beyond my control. So I tend to put my energy towards doing the best album I can possibly make. I’ve had people say to me: “Isn’t the album dead?” That’s like saying the novel is dead. I might be that less people read novels, I don’t know. But if you’re a writer and you’ve got a novel in you, that’s what you should doing. Same thing about making an album. I’m not tying myself in knots trying to be hipper. I’m going to do what I’m going to do and maintain quality control.