Flower Turned Inside-Out: An Interview with Glenn Jones

He’s the master of the American primitive guitar, but Glenn Jones followed up the most personal album of his career with proof that he has no signs of slowing down.

Glenn Jones
Thrill Jockey
18 March 2016

Glenn Jones had no trouble burning up more than his allotted time on the phone. It’s not that the Massachusetts-based post-rocker-turned-Americana “primitive” guitarist spends an unbecoming amount of time going on about himself, he just enjoys talking. He’ll gladly give you the details concerning a handy banjo mute he came across recently called The Happy Wife Banjo Mute. He’ll go through the early hackneyed versions of the guitar capos he cut in half during his time in the rock band Cul De Sac. Ask him about his new song “Spokane River Falls”, he’ll wonder out loud if his parents ever visited the city’s iconic feature before leaving the city when little Glenn was just one year old. And when asked about his relationship to the great unsung American guitarist Robbie Basho, Jones takes himself out of the equation entirely when singing the praises of such a talented yet elusive musician.

Fleeting, Glenn Jones’s latest album for the Thrill Jockey label, is another smorgasbord of muted banjos, detuned guitars, and more than one capo clamping itself to the fingerboard to bring you the man’s ideas. He doesn’t do this because he wants his music to sound complicated, he does this purely to find new ideas. “[It’s] my hope that what you hear are not the tunings and partial capos and all that, but the music — the feeling within these pieces”, he says rather sensibly in Fleeting‘s press release. Fleeting also comes off the heels of My Garden State, an album that Jones wrote and recorded while he and his sisters took turned taking care of their mother in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Jones sensed the importance of his surroundings while recording as early as his second solo album, so the feelings brought on by working on new music in the house where he spent his time as a teenager were not lost on him.

Thanks to the generosity of Bill Bolger, Jones and his engineer Laura Baird set up shop in a house where the noises of nature are inescapable. Rushing water, barking dogs, honking geese, bird calls — if these sounds didn’t actually make it on to tape, they helped shape Fleeting‘s character. “Spokane River Falls” may not have been recorded while sitting next to the falls themselves, but splicing-in of their rushing towards the end grant the song with an unmistakable association. The idea behind “Cléo Asleep”, performed with the banjo mute, is to have a song dedicated to a friend’s newborn played quietly as possible (for “Cléo Awake”, the mute comes off). “In Durance Vile” came about from a commission that few musicians are asked to do: come up with a musical backdrop for the reading of the absurdist poems by artist Wassily Kandinsky.

Glenn Jones has had quite the career. Back in the days of his post-rock band Cul De Sac, he got to collaborate and subsequently become mildly disillusioned with one of his heroes, John Fahey. He’s performed numerous times with the late Jack Rose. His custom-made partial capos for guitar and banjo have enjoyed a modest increase in popularity. But you won’t find him bragging about any of this. He addresses it all rather matter-of-factly to PopMatters, using his knowledge and anecdotes to prove a larger, more modest point about life and/or music. “It’s hard to shut me up, I know,” he admitted to me over the phone as my daughters were silently asking for refrigerator access. But I had no intention of trying. If given the power, would anyone want to cease the waterfalls in downtown Spokane? The same way you let the water fall, you let Glenn Jones talk.

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Last time out, you worked on an entire album’s worth of material while looking after your mother.

That’s right. It ended up bringing me back to the house where me and my four sisters lived in through all our high school years. I’d go and visit for Christmas or Thanksgiving and stuff like that for three or four days and then [I’d go] back to Boston. But then [while caring for his mother] I’d spend a month or more at a time, switching off with my sisters. It was strange spending time back in the town that I’d gone to high school in and seeing more of it than I had in many, many years. Most of the songs [on My Garden State] where written either in part or whole while I was down there. I was working on them when I was back in Boston, but it seemed like a lot of them, I was writing while I was taking care of my mom.

The fact that you were caring for your mother while working on the album is quite impressive.

The album didn’t come together quickly so it was probably over the course of a year, year-and-a-half or so to write enough material for a new album. So it wasn’t like it was written in a month or something like that. But I spent a lot of time down there because I don’t work a regular 9-to-5 job, I could be there for months at a time before I needed to come back and deal with things at home. It was grueling at times, [Alzheimer’s] is a very merciless disease, you know? It’s very unforgiving. But I got to spend time with my mom, and sometimes it was a amazing what she couldn’t remember and sometimes it was amazing what she could remember. I felt like I was getting to know her in ways that I had never known her before. She was remembering things from her high school and college days and childhood, stuff like that. It ended up being fantastic; I found out a lot of things about her that I don’t know at all. That was all very interesting.

Alzheimer’s is terrible, but one thing I learned from all this is that, even though her memory was faltering, she never lost what was essentially herself: her sense of humor, her sarcasm, her gentle, playful nature, all that was exactly the same. She was very much our mother. I didn’t feel like she had lost her identity. I know that Alzheimer’s can be worse for some people. A friend of mine, his wife’s mother had Alzheimer’s and in the last two years of her life she was in a fetal position being spoon fed by a caretaker. My mom never got that bad. She was still mobile, she could still have conversations, she knew who we all where. We didn’t have it quite as brutal, as some people do.

People say “I don’t know how you did that,” but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I was definitely my mother’s son. All of my interest in literature and reading, my humor, a lot of interest in music came from her. My dad always wanted a football player. Boy, was he bummed out! But my mom was fine with my interests. We shared a lot of the same interests.

For Fleeting, you obviously moved on to a different recording space, in another person’s home.

That’s right. For Laura Baird, who recorded My Garden State and, I just leave the details of where I’m going to record and the recording process up to her because she knows me well enough at this point and what I’m comfortable with. I’m not sure when things changed for me, but I think it was when I made my second solo guitar record which was recorded on the island of Martha’s Vineyard — maybe about an hour-and-a-half for me and then you have to take a ferry ride over to the island. It was just such a great experience. It wasn’t recorded in a studio, but it was so relaxed and a perfect time of year and all that. It kind of made me value the process of making the album as much or more as trying to get perfect takes or the ultimate pristine studio sound and stuff like that. I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. I make my albums as much for me as well as who I imagine my audience is. [laughs] Maybe even more so.

When I listen to my second album, I really hear Martha’s Vineyard and the time of year of when I was there and the way those sunsets felt and the mornings and walking up the road to get coffee. It was a really pleasant experience and I tried to replicate that somewhat in the albums I made after that. The album I made right after that was a studio album [Barbecue Bob in Fishtown], and that was fine. I didn’t really want to make more in a studio. It’s just not the same. Laura’s been great at finding places that are isolated but have character. We don’t have to worry about soundproofing every crack in the wall and all that stuff or using a bunch of expensive microphones. It’s just one guitar or one banjo anyway. I don’t really mind if the sound of birds twittering or stuff like that comes off the recordings. I rather like it.

While you were recording in this house, where there any noises that happened when the tape wasn’t rolling when you really wished it was?

No, not really. In the mornings, it wa s… you think ‘Oh, nature [is] quiet.’ But nature is just incredibly loud [laughs] first thing in the morning! Turkeys squawking, dogs barking all over the neighborhood. It wasn’t even a neighborhood. It was a river, but on the other side of it was a farm or something over there with dogs barking. It was mayhem in the morning. There were a few unusual bird calls and Laura is something of a bird fancier. There were a few she was trying to identify based on the birds that we heard. But there was no real moment where I said “Aw, I wish we got that on tape.”

There is the sound of rushing water in “Spokane River Falls”.

Actually, that was not recorded there. That is a recording, I think, of the actual waterfall in Spokane. Matt [Azevedo] was able to locate that sound and we basically superimposed it on the end of the song. The way I recorded the song with those spaces at the end was with the intention of bringing in the sound of the waterfall at the end of the song. That was the first song I wrote after My Garden State was recorded. For whatever reason, I felt like this was a water song, but I didn’t really have a title for it for the year or year-and-a-half I was playing it. It was only when a friend of mine booked some shows for me in Washington state while I was out there. I haven’t been in Spoke since I was one year old! I was born there but I’d never been back since. It was interesting being that city.

My earliest memory is of being in Spokane. I have just this one memory. Everything else after that is two or three years later when my family moved to New Jersey. My dad was in the air force, so we went to Fort Dix in New Jersey after Spokane, and those were most of my first memories. But I have this one frightening memory from Spokane. It was interesting being back there, but I didn’t realize that the waterfall was right there in the middle of the city. Being there, I figured that whatever else my mom and dad did while they were in Spokane, they would have seen the waterfall and maybe would have had baby me with them. It was very interesting being back there and kind of putting two and two together in a way that I had never done. Of course, it was too late then to ask my mom or dad anything about it. [laughs] So the water song became “Spokane River Falls”.

You use a lot of different tunings and partial capo configurations when you play guitar. Do you do that as a way to hunt for a melody in your head or are the songs and melodies by-products of the capos and tunings?

Definitely the latter. I never have anything in my head before I start. I haven’t played the standard tuning (low to high, E-A-D-G-B-E) in 35 years or so. Most or all of the open tunings I’ve used are ones that I come up with myself either through fooling around with [other] tunings and then throwing the partial capos on it in different places or putting on the capos and tuning some more. Some often sound not-right without the partial capos, and some of them are really interesting without the partial capos. In this past year, I had permission to make a dozen partial capos for people from around the world. I don’t think I’ve made more than a dozen for the past ten years. Some people really take to them, other people just can’t figure out how they’re supposed to work. To me, they just open up doors. I prefer to stumble around in the dark. Some people don’t and want to learn how the fretboard works in one or two tunings and they don’t want to really go beyond that because the notes and the chords are not in the right place or the fingerings are different. But I prefer that.

Whenever I get kind of hamstrung and can’t write, it’s time to tune the guitar to some other tuning and start fooling around with the partial capos to get me out of whatever rut I’m in. Many of the pieces that I write are just a way of navigating a new and unfamiliar terrain. It’s never a preconceived thing, the songs always come out of the tuning and whatever scale the strings have. It’s a total game-changer for players who are used to the standard tuning, it throws everything out of whack. There are certain parts of the fingerboard you can no longer get to because the capo is blocking them off. The trade-off is that you really come up with some interesting things. I feel like, as a writer, those things really belong to me. I’m not really following anybody else’s blueprint for how to play guitar simply because nobody else that I know of does that. There are some commercially-made partial capos that imitate an A-tuning or DADGAD tuning — I’ve fooled around with those things, but I can’t do anything with those that I think is interesting. I just had to make my own. The ones that work best for me are ones that bar the lower three (or four) strings of the fingerboard and there are no commercially-made partial capos where you can bar the lower three strings.

The band that I had, Cul de Sac — we were together for about 20 years — I was playing in all open tunings then and playing fingerstyle, mainly, in this loud rock band. In the early days, I hadn’t really seen Sonic Youth live and didn’t realize it was okay to have 30 guitars onstage, all in different tunings. So I was trying to retune two guitars between songs and the rest of the band just got really impatient because I slowed down the momentum of the set. So I just had this idea that if I cut the capo in half, I could change the bass strings and then I would still have the full length of the strings to play the melody. What I didn’t think about was, it totally changes the scale and everything else. What was just kind of a way of getting around the band’s committing issues with me became a way of composing. With Cul de Sac, almost every song we did used partial capo. The new album Fleeting is the first album where every single song on the record uses a partial capo [laughs]. Even the banjo tracks have partial capos on them.

It doesn’t really sound like any of that is going on.

And I hope that it doesn’t. I realize that sometimes I get so wound up talking about the technical things that I forget [all else]. My intention is that it sounds like music and that you don’t think ‘Oh, how is he getting that quirky melody? Why do the strings sound weird when he strums the guitar?’ Hopefully it sounds like music and sounds like a composition and that people generally don’t (except for the guitar nerds out there) know about that stuff.

I wanted to move on to the banjo because you are credited as playing with a mute called The Happy Wife Banjo Mute.

Yes. It’s metal and felt. It’s shaped like a letter U and just kind of slides over, kind of like a tuning fork, and just slides over the bridge and muffles it. It’s a very simple idea. But I’ve been using it to write this song, I had been working on it while my wife and I were watching movies on Turner Classic Movies. I had the banjo mute so as not to overwhelm the sound [of the movie]. I had planned to use it to record that piece [“Cléo Asleep”] because I really liked the way that it sounded it. Also, it was written for a newborn baby of some friends of ours, and I felt like “We don’t want to wake her up, so we’ll play with a banjo mute.” It’s just a conceit.

The metal holds these felt strips in place. The two things together muffle [the banjo] and make it sound like a distorted music box.

When I read that it was a mute made from metal, I cringed from the thought of metal trying to mute steel strings.

No. It just clamps to the wooden bridge underneath the strings. It must inhibit the vibration or the transmission of the sound from the strings to the head.

One of your new songs is called “Portrait of Basho as a Young Dragon”. Is there anything that hasn’t been said about Robbie Basho that you wanted to address? Anything that you felt wasn’t said about him sufficiently over the years?

I only knew Robbie for about six or seven years, he died so young. [John] Fahey I knew for a good 25 years or so. With Robbie, I hosted him at my house the last time he did an east coast tour. I reviewed some of his records and I still have all my letters from him. And with somebody like Fahey or Basho or Jack Rose that I was close to, these are people I think about almost every day. I think about things they said or did: some of those things didn’t make sense to me at the time, but they make a little more sense to me now that I’m the age they were then, or older.

People often talk about the American primitive thing and Fahey as being the father of that, but I think of Basho as being the mother. He was the only guitar player on [Fahey’s label] Takoma that wasn’t a one-off. He made maybe six records for Takoma whereas most of the other guitarists signed on only to make one. [Leo] Kottke only made one, Peter Lang only made one, and then Fahey made 15 or something like that. So I really feel like Basho is not only an important player but he was doing his own thing early on, like in ’66.

Robbie wasn’t as influential as John, and I sometimes wonder why that is. I think one of the reasons is that, with John, you could say that he was drawing from country blues, he was drawing from classical music, he heard Ravi Shankar records and suddenly wanted to play in a longer form. With Basho, it was harder to nail down that stuff, what his influences were. He was referencing ragas in his stuff, but it wasn’t like anything else’s ideas of what a raga were. For Robbie, raga seemed like “vibe”, not what it means in Indian classical music. If you listen to Persian music, you’ll see the influence it had on what Robbie did. He also did a cover of [Ida] Presti & [Alexandre] Lagoya classical guitar duet that he liked [Debussy’s Clair de Lune]. There’s absolutely no resemblance to the original piece that they did.

I kind of feel like Robbie had a harder row to hoe than John did in a way because John was able to grab these different influences and synthesize them into something that was his own and very personal and make it an emotional expression of himself. Fahey sounds like Fahey. He doesn’t sound like the blues players he was listening to. But with Basho, what he came up with, he came up with entirely out of whole cloth. There wasn’t really things he could draw on. His guitar style wasn’t like anybody else’s that I know of, and I think that’s pretty impressive when you think about it. He was able to create something that was so personal but that was also almost completely original and devoid of influences — at least that I could hear.

I have to give that guy a lot of credit. I think one of the reasons Fahey has remained more popular than Basho is that people can latch on to the blues elements or other aspects of his playing — the steady beat, that kind of thing. With Basho, there aren’t those obvious placeholders to grab onto and orient you. It’s not like, This is coming out of the blues, this is coming out of [other genre]. It’s coming solely out of Robbie.

Not having that anchor doesn’t make it as accessible to so many people.

Yeah. Again, with [Leo] Kottke, he was such a flash player and people were impressed by his speed and his humor. They could grab onto that. He was able to make a good career as a player. Very few of these guys can do that. Robbie struggled every single day to make a living. When he died, not a single one of his albums were in print. He had a hard time.

I want to jump ahead to another song on Fleeting where you were given the task to write music to go along with Kandinsky poems. How do you come up with instrumental music to accompany a poem?

That’s a really good question. When the proposal came to me, I only knew Kandinsky for his paintings and his wood cuts. I had seen a few shows and I probably have one or two books with reproductions of some of his artwork. I didn’t know any of his stuff as a writer. So I was intrigued because I already liked his visual art. Once I started reading the poems in translation — they were originally in German — I really found myself enjoying them. The book he published them in, in 1910, was a big influence on the Dadaists because the texts are so absurd. Comparing clouds to cauliflowers, one poem ends with him saying “So plunge your hands into the boiling water!” There’s this aspect of cruelty, playfulness, and a bizarre juxtaposition in his poems.

I was assigned three of them by this guy who was putting this compilation together in Germany and he found actors and actresses from German television, stage, and film to make the recordings of the poems. He then sent those recordings to the various players. I kind of wished that the budget had afforded us the opportunity for the musician playing this stuff and the person reading the text to actually work together because I know the readings would have been different had the person reading them been able to actually engage in the process and kind of feel their way through it. But we didn’t have that option, we just had the recordings. [Producer] Karl Bruckmaier basically said you could do with the recordings whatever you want. The recordings of the various pieces are very short. Some of them were only 30 seconds long, just to read this little text. But in the studio we could take those lines and cut them up and separate them.

So we could space those lines out over the course of the song. For me it was like reading the texts and getting a vibe and thinking about the pieces I was working on at the time, and which ones felt like they would fit that vibe. When we went into the studio to record the music with the chopped-up text, it felt like they went together. The CD with that stuff on it still hasn’t come out but I think it’s a really interesting project with a lot of really different musicians from all over the world on it. I’ve heard some of the other approaches and it’s really interesting how everybody takes their own way of dealing with this. It was just a real engagement with what the texts were and trying to find something that emotionally felt right.

Did his paintings or other visual works become an influencing factor at any point?

Yeah. I got a copy of the entire book, it’s called Sounds (originally Klänge in German). It’s been published in English and it has black and white reproductions of his various wood cuts. Many of them were color in the original book. So I got the whole book and it had everything in sequence in English with these black and white reproductions of all the wood cuts. I was able to immerse myself in what the whole book was about. I feel somewhat obliged to take the project seriously enough to do that but also I was genuinely already interested in Kandinsky anyway. It was a pleasure.

Do you see yourself crossing mediums like this again in the future?

I’m not opposed to it at all. Those kind of opportunities don’t come around so often. I recently recorded a piece with a woman in Canada named Myriam Gendron. She did an album [Not So Deep As A Well: Myriam Gendron Sings Dorothy Parker] last year that made a lot of year-end best lists, it was an album of her setting the poems of Dorothy Parker to music that she wrote. She put a whole album out of this stuff on the Feeding Tube label. I thought it was a great album and I really loved her stuff. Again, there’s a long connection there too, my mom was really fond of Dorothy Parker’s poems. Most of them are very bitter poems about love affairs that don’t work and things like that. It was a very bittersweet album that Myriam created. Anyway, I got together with her to do a cover song for a tribute album just a couple of weeks ago. We got together in Montreal and recorded it. I think I’m forbidden to say more about it than that, but I think I’m allowed to say that I worked with her on a project. I just can’t say what the project is right now.

It’s something I love doing. On The Wanting, the last song there, “The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville” was done working with drummer Chris Corsano. After I recorded that I decided that I would only do that song live if I could do duets with other people. I played it live with everybody from Cian Nugent from Ireland doing a second guitar part to Yo La Tengo and everybody in between.

I had that song playing the other day. I zoned out, not know how long it had been going.

It came about accidentally in the studio. Reuben Son, the guy who was recording that album, had a poster of the Gastr del Sol album Upgrade & Afterlife on the wall. At some point between takes, I said “I really love their cover of Fahey’s ‘Dry Bones in the Valley’ on that record.” There’s something about Fahey’s version that has this really melodic beginning but the ending just goes on and on forever. It keeps repeating and repeating, it’s such an odd structure. I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve got this piece that I’ve been working on that kind of does that and I don’t know what to do with [it].” I just had them turn the tape recorder on and I will just keep playing until I make a mistake. The song had pretty much defeated me because once I went for the second part, I couldn’t figure out a way to get back to the first part again or go to anywhere else.