If You Can’t Build a Whole, Build a Mosaic: An Interview with Jim White

Jim White
Transnormal Skiperoo
Luaka Bop

Jim White was pissing in the woods right before I called him. I know that because he told me.

“I live in the country now,” he says in explanation, laughing. And if his decision to relieve himself outside isn’t sufficient evidence of that, then his new album Transnormal Skiperoo surely will be. Of his previous albums it sounds closest to his first, Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in that it is a little more rooted and less grand than, say, his last album, Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See.

“I wanted to write about where I was in the world,” White says, sounding friendly and warm on the phone, not to mention talkative. “It’s a lot less spectacular than the other albums,” he says of his new work, and he’s right. Though it isn’t smaller sonically, the elements add up to something much more “country” than his other records. White has always been (lazily) labeled alt-country, though that label may come the closest to fitting on Transnormal Skiperoo. With production help from Joe Pernice and backup from the bluegrass outfit Ollabelle, songs like “A Town Called Amen” or “Long Long Day” are warmer than his previous work, and much more inviting.

“Part of that comes from not being at war with myself,” White says, and talks about the long road he’s taken to here. He explains about his album titles, how they all have a sort of mystery to them. Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See is a request, a plea from White to us, the listener. “I’m slowly building a bridge back to normal people,” he says, then chuckles. “Maybe when I get there no one will be interested in what I have to say.”

He’s joking, of course, and he should be. His new album certainly has a hope and calm to it the other records lacked, but it is hardly less interesting for being, well, happier. If anything, White has upped the ante on the new album. “I want to be a jailbird / From the prison of my own damn mind,” he sings on “Jailbird”. But where on Wrong-Eyed Jesus this might have been a runaway song, on Transnormal Skiperoo it is a song of discovery. There’s a solitude still in these songs, but one that has been eased into, not a tortured or worn sort of isolation. The songs are still internal, for the most part, but in a way that reaches out to how we all search, how we all find the hope in the reality around us. And White seems happy to have gotten to this point, to have pushed past his demons.

“When you’re a melancholy 25-year-old, you’re troubled. When you’re a melancholy 50-year-old, you’re bitter.” White sounds full of energy on the phone, eager to laugh at things that he might not have years earlier. “I don’t want to be bitter,” he continues. “I’ve got a one-and-a-half-year-old baby. I’ve got a wife and a house. I’ve got a truck that runs for the first time in my life, and I’m going to enjoy all that.”

Transnormal Skiperoo finds him doing just that, as on the heartfelt song to his daughter “Piece of Heaven”, or on “Diamonds to Coal”, where White leaves behind his younger, more troubled days. Or on the August haze of “Fruit of the Vine” where White sings:

Doing 30 in a 45 —

Disregarding highway signs.

You learn to take your time,

In the South in the summertime.

Fruit of the vine…

But White knows this sort of lazy joy, the ability to find the good in any old day, doesn’t come easily. In fact, he thinks it’s historically, even anthropologically, difficult to find the positive. “I think in our minds we’re programmed to be more concerned with the negative than the positive,” he muses. “For 99% of our history on this earth, we’ve been hunters and gatherers. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, a positive is finding a field full of blackberries, and if you find a negative it’s a sabre-toothed tiger who chews your leg off.”

White says things like this a lot. Things that sound absurd enough that you almost miss how right they are. But as good as he is at discussing the inherent sadness of the human condition, he isn’t at all interested in getting bogged down in it on record. “If you wallow too much in the mire of the self, about two-thirds of the way through the album I get restless. So I try to put a bit of parsley in there,” he jokes.

The “musical parsley” he refers to is, on Transnormal Skiperoo, a track entitled “Turquoise House”. It is a playful, funny number in which White wishes to live in a world where all is bluish-green. It does work to cleanse the palate of the more serious stuff that comes before it, but it doesn’t step too far off of the record thematically. White is still happily letting his freak flag fly on this tune, settling into his own skin in a world that increasingly makes it difficult for individuals to do so. Of course, White’s music is rarely overt in its politics, but perhaps that is what makes its message that much stronger.

“My heroes aren’t the ones who describe sorrow well,” he says at one point. “My heroes take sorrow and turn it into beauty.” He names Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt in that group, among others. But the sorrow we are talking about begins to change as the conversation goes on, from something personal to something bigger, more national. He admits to thinking more politically now, since he has a family to think about, and he wonders openly about the world they’ll be left with. But he is still wary of taking world troubles on directly in his songs. “If you try to change things directly, people turn their minds off.”

But he cites a song off Drill a Hole in That Substrate… called “Jesus Drove a Motor Home” in which he tries to come at things from the backdoor, trying to have a bit of fun with his provocation. It is, in one way, a song concerned with sociology, with breaking the Jesus we know these days from the regionalism he has so recently inherited. But it is also a funny song, where Jesus cruises around listening to Dylan and double-parking at shopping malls. This, White thinks, is the way to approach larger concerns. “The tyrant does not fear his political enemies, he fears the drunken poet with a good joke,” White says of his — and really any artist’s — role in the political arena. He goes on to mention the Hillary Clinton Nutcracker that has been floating around for sale. He thinks, and he’s probably right, that a joke like that is much more effective than slandering Clinton’s policies. “Good art does not provide answers,” he goes on, moving away from politics and back to the music. “It raises questions.”

It’s nearly envy-inducing to hear so many smart things roll off one man’s tongue, one right after the other. But, after a while, it becomes clear Jim White is not just speaking off the cuff. He is a deeply thoughtful guy. He knows what to say about personal sorrow, or politics, or the role of music in our culture, because he spends a great deal of time thinking about these things. His work on his albums is no different. He tells me a story about a guitar player he brought in to play on No Such Place. The guy, a brilliant lead guitarist, played six takes of a lead for a song, but White said it wasn’t quite right yet. So the guitarist stormed off in a huff. “If I’m trying to find a lead, I’ll play it 600 times,” White says, without an ounce of self-congratulation.

“It takes a certain kind of person,” he says about making music. “I think of it as crawling through my hands and knees in the dark.” He goes on to talk about a song, “Static on the Radio”, that was initially meant for No Such Place. But, according to White, he could never get the last verse right. So he spent five years on that verse. As in, everyday for five years, and didn’t finally get it done until he took a loop of the track with him and drove out near the coast for ten hours the day they were set to record it. He is, suffice it to say, methodical in all he does. Which made it so perplexing when I asked him about the title of the new album, Transnormal Skiperoo.

“If you can’t build a whole, build a mosaic,” he replies cryptically before explaining. He has a notebook full of stray words and phrases, a fact that doesn’t surprise me at all. But to settle on the title, he flipped around until he found “Transnormal”, and then flipped around again until he saw “Skiperoo”. And that was it, the title was chosen.

“Of course, then I had to figure out what that meant,” he laughs. And while the title seems to have come about more haphazardly than the songs on the album, it fits perfectly. It is the sound of a nameless, almost unidentifiable hope, one that White has come upon in recent years and is eager to share. “It’s been a long, long day” is the last line sung on Transnormal Skiperoo, but it is a line of blissful fatigue and not leaden, sad exhaustion. White is showing us that life hasn’t gotten any easier, but it sure has gotten better. It’s a beautiful moment to close an album that is warm and inviting, bittersweet and sublime all the way through. It may less “spectacular” than his other records, but its got just as much heart. And, when it hits US shelves in March, White apparently has big hopes for his new record.

“It’s going to change the face of western democracy,” he laughs, and I have to laugh with him. Partially because he’s being funny, and partially because I foolishly hope he’s right.