Writing’s like masturbating. It’s a private thing meant to be done alone.
story by Sean Foran
photo by Paul Storey
Jesse Malin has been a rock and roll orphan of New York City’s mean streets nearly all his life. The singer/guitarist began busking in subways and playing at venues like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City when most kids his age were still playing hide and seek. His metamorphosis from punk rock provocateur to six-string troubadour has taken him from touring with the Ramones and Dead Kennedys to forging friendships with Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen. With his infectious energy and thick Queens accent, the singer spent some time talking with Chicago Innerview before the start of his North American tour.
“I started writing songs and playing in Kiss cover bands when I was 11,” recalled the singer. “I was learning Van Halen solos until I heard the Ramones and said, ‘fuck this, I can write a song with three chords’.”
Those chords led Malin to a five-year, three-album stretch on vocals with DGeneration, a glammed-out punk band that channeled the swagger of the New York Dolls. Although they never broke the mainstream, DGeneration earned a loyal following, peaking with an opening spot for Kiss at Madison Square Garden. Mislabeled as a metal band and unable to find a home on the grunge-infested airwaves, the group split in 1999. “By the end of DGeneration, we were playing for people that were more into the Jack and Cokes and mosh-pits than what we were actually singing about,” remembered Malin. “We had a great band but in the press it was always about the shoes and the hair, not what we were singing about.”
By the turn of 2000, Malin started to perform solo around New York. His achingly personal acoustic sets shifted styles, drawing inspiration from singers like Tom Waits and Van Morrison. With an album worth of stories about the city he grew up in, Malin booked six days worth of recording time at Lo-Ho studios to make Fine Art of Self Destruction. Called in for production was alt-country multi-tasker Ryan Adams, a friend and fan of Malin from the DGeneration days. Adams was a first time producer and long time drinking partner who kindly worked for free. The duo burned through the songs and recorded most of the tracks in one take. Although Malin was skittish at first, the process gave the album a hollow rawness, echoing Springsteen’s Nebraska.
“The first record was like taking snapshots”, said Malin. “It was almost like making a live record. It had that fifties feel of ‘let’s go turn on the mics and start singing’.”
Fine Art of Self Destruction was released on Artemis Records in early 2003. Malin’s New York was the backdrop for tales of jilted lovers, Harlem mamas, street vendors, and actors who “got stuck doing porn”. He sang about his turf like an outlaw Sinatra. Unlike old Blue Eyes, Malin painted the town black and blue, embracing the cuts and scars of the city’s underbelly. “I love big cities because I like walking out the door and stuff just happens. There’s a million stories in the city that can only be drawn from the energy and mix of the people.”
An hour’s drive down Interstate 95, Bruce Springsteen heard a cover of his song “Hungry Heart” that Malin recorded for a tribute album. The Boss requested a copy of Fine Art and called Malin in for a visit. Impressed with the album, Springsteen asked Malin to play at a Christmas benefit in Asbury, New Jersey. Malin leapt at the chance to play with one of his idols. “Playing with Bruce was definitely something special,” recalled the singer. “He was a really generous guy that made you immediately comfortable. I was thinking how nervous I would be, but he wants you right up there with him.”
Next, Malin toured abroad, struggling to sketch material between shows for his follow-up record. “Writing’s really personal and on the road you live communally with a lot of people and you’re just trying to get a clean shower and a bite to eat,” confessed the singer. “Writing’s like masturbating. It’s a private thing meant to be done alone.”
The Heat, released in June, was recorded at Stratosphere Studios in New York between breaks from his relentless year of touring. Malin enlisted musical contributions from several high profile friends on the album including Adams, Pete Yorn, and Jody Porter (Fountains of Wayne). Lyrically, Heat finds Malin reflecting on society from an outsider’s view. This time, however, the outsider is Malin the expatriate rather than Manhattan beat poet. “I wrote this album being an American out of my hometown after the terrorist attacks,” said the singer. “I was weighing in on being in my mid-’30s while all my friends back home were starting to cash in on their dreams for jobs and kids. You want all that too, but then you’re out on tour living like a kid.”
Several tracks on Heat exit Manhattan for European cities like Amsterdam (“Swinging Man”), and London (“Hotel Columbia”). Writing the songs while the Iraq war unfolded added to the album’s displaced tone as “New World Order” opens with the line, “The cocaine cowboy is going back to war.”
“Being in other countries, I was able to notice a lot of distaste for what we were doing in the world,” explained Malin. “You could say some of the songs are kind of political, but I’m not looking to run for office. It’s generally about life. You walk out the door and shit gets political because someone’s charging you for something or you’re getting taxed for something else. I love America though. I might not be proud of all the politics here, but it’s the country I grew up in and New York will always be romantic and exiting to me. It’s my home.”
The Heat also saw Malin test his sanity with production duties. “It was stressful, painful, and nerve-racking. You did not want to be my friend or girlfriend during that period. I was over-obsessive. It’s nice to have a producer because they take a lot of your conscious and fit it into your music. You may know what you want on the inside, but it’s always good to have those outside ears. I was lucky to have good input from my rabbis and gurus who were around me though. It also helped making records with other people in the past. In DGeneration, I made records with Tony Visconti and Ric Ocasek and working with Ryan [Adams] on Fine Art was just wonderful.”
Malin’s passion for music spills over into all his conversations, and the curse of the sophomore slump has not escaped his thoughts. “The second one’s a hard record to make,” laughed Malin. “As a kid, I bought the first Cars record and loved it. I was too young to know about the sophomore slump, but I knew the second Cars album wasn’t as good as the first one – and I definitely knew the second Van Halen sucked.”
Reviews for The Heat have been consistently impressive, although the singer cares more that his audience connects with his songs. “When Fine Art came out, it was weird that people actually got what I was talking about. I’m glad I don’t play garage. I don’t have an ‘s’ on the end name of my name like the Strokes or the Dicks or whatever the plural band of the moment is. I just make music. I try not to get stuck in what shoebox it’s put in. That kind of keeps me out of the competition.”
As Malin prepared to enjoy a few well-deserved nights off in the East Village neighborhood where he is affectionately nicknamed “the mayor”, he sounded at peace with his lot in life. “I’ve been very blessed that I don’t have to go work a straight job,” joked the singer. “I hope I sell a lot of records, but there’s things you can’t put a price on. Like talking on the phone with Bruce Springsteen about songs or just talking to people you’ve looked up to your whole life like Joe Strummer, or Shane McGowen, or Joey Ramone, and you’re talking about music. Not just being a fan, but artist to artist. That’s kind of mind-blowing and you can’t put a price on that.”
Jesse Malin will play with the Damnwells at the Double Door August 14.