Jesse Malin has done it all, or most of it at least.
In his barely-teens he was fronting Jersey-based hardcore ensemble Heart Attack, then spent the '90s in glam-punk wreckers D-Generation. In the early 2000s he struck out on his own, crafting a string of heartbroken singer/songwriter records with friends like Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, and Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers.
His dual 2010 releases, Love it to Life (recorded with scrappy combo St. Marks Social) and covers record On Your Sleeve (featuring tunes by The Hold Steady, Jim Croce, Paul Simon, and many more), represent something of a fork in the road, both embracing a more rock 'n' roll approach (the former) and digging in deep to Malin's classicist interpretive skills (the latter).
Yesterday would have been Joe Strummer's 60th birthday, and when we caught up with Malin, he had just finished mixing and recording a Strummer memorial program for EastVillageRadio.com, where he was joined by unlikely (seeming, at least) Clash fan Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. Malin is out on the road with his friend Alejandro Escovedo ("A survivor," Malin says, "and so stylized."), though his Sunday, August 26, stop at Pub Rock finds him veering away from the Escovedo tour for a headlining gig.
As you get older, punk rock or rock 'n' roll, or alternative, or whatever bullshit label you want to give it, it's really just an attitude and it's about people and a lifestyle, and living different outside the mainstream. [It's about] having a place to create, and [the] creative process is something that needs to be fucked with often... -- Jesse Malin
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Up on the Sun: I imagine that in terms of the whole "three chords and the truth" thing, Joe Strummer influenced you a lot.
Jesse Malin: Yeah. As a kid it might have been KISS first and then you grow out of that and need something a little more edge and more intelligence. Somehow The Ramones mixed Fonzi and aggression, and they came from my town, Queens, New York. So I went down to the Village to see Rock 'n' Roll High School, and these kids in line waiting for the film are talking about The Clash, and I didn't know them, so I went to the local record store and I figured out what I needed to do. I found the first record, "the green record," and it changed everything. The Clash turned me on to other kinds of music, politics, a certain kind of rebellion. It wasn't just "smash up the room because you've got a lot of testosterone." It was like, "we're gonna do this because we're pissed off about this, and if you do this you could actually affect people in some way."
They were a band that made me want to run out on the streets with my friends like a gang. Form a band and you know, do something. Make something happen. Wake up in the morning and do something: fall in love, go somewhere, do something that's meaningful. That's kind of stayed with me through all my bands. The [latest band] St. Marks Social, that's a bunch of friends of mine, and we get in a van on a mission from God or something bigger. [Laughs.] Really to have fun, but also to connect with people, you get out there and make a few bucks, be able to sleep in different places, get free beer, and also do your life not working for the fucking awful job that you hate, telemarketing or selling pet food or whatever.
I read something where Ted Leo talked about The Clash's rebellion being something you "never grow out of." It wasn't the tear-up-the-room thing, it was an ethos. Yeah, that punk rock mentality might be "stripped down, three chords," but they showed with Sandinista! and Combat Rock how you can progress and still keep your integrity. I just did a show with Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead, and he was telling him how Joe Strummer went into The Grateful Dead's dressing room to talk to them, because The Clash was getting bigger around Combat Rock, and he wanted to know how the Dead were able to grow and still keep a grassroots connection to their fan-base and find some kind of realness and still be a big thing.
We ended up playing a Clash song together ["Death or Glory"] and it was just like, "Wow, worlds collide," but it makes so much sense. As you get older, punk rock or rock 'n' roll, or alternative, or whatever bullshit label you want to give it, it's really just an attitude and it's about people and a lifestyle, and living different outside the mainstream. [It's about] having a place to create, and [the] creative process is something that needs to be fucked with often, and change, and not become some formulaic thing. That's why I went from hardcore with Heart Attack, to D-Generation, like a rock 'n' roll punk band, and then I stripped it down and made an acoustic record for my first solo album, and then the journey has been from mellow records to Love it For Life, which we did for Side One Dummy. It's sort of a rock record, but to me it all makes sense. A lot of my favorite bands did that. I grew up listening to The Replacements, and they'd do a country song and then a Motorhead song, you know?
Or a KISS cover.
Yeah. Throw that in there. It's like, I'm on tour with Alejandro Escovedo, and he's so inspiring. He was in The Nuns, and now he does his solo stuff. Guys like Lemmy from Motorhead, Neil Young, Willie Nelson...those guys inspire me. Guys that just keep doing it. I'm trying out new stuff, new songs -- you can say something in the practice room, but it's different when it's into a dirty mic and bouncing off bodies.
To me, it's all about the attitude and spirit and heart. If you look past the tie-dye and spikes, you figure out who's real and who isn't, I guess.
Are you bringing St. Marks Social with you or playing by yourself?
I have from Derek [Cruz] from St. Marks Social. He plays keys and percussion, but it gets pretty rocking. Just two people -- I've been learning about that these days. I've always looked up to Suicide, which is two people, Alan Vega and Martin Rev, and we bring kinda intense sound. We try to to it up in a way that hits all levels. It's challenging, but it's fun.
Are the new songs following a similar sort of trajectory as the Love it to Life stuff? More rock 'n' roll/power-pop?
It's different, a little less rocking, a little more rhythm and space. But you say you're going to do one thing and then you start working with the producer and it changes. The studio is its own animal; it kind of changes where you are. When I did Fine Art of Self-Destruction, I thought it was going to be like a really quiet Tom Waits album, and [producer] Ryan Adams put on a Stratocaster and it became more of a rock 'n' roll album. The drummer dug in, and it changed.
With Love it to Life, that's a record where working with someone like Ted Hutt, who's done punkier stuff like Flogging Molly, Gaslight Anthem, the Bosstones, [led to a] real high energy record. That's something I felt like I needed to do at the time, I had the band to do it with and I enjoy breaking a sweat.
You mentioned Bob Weir, doing "Death or Glory," and it kind of surprised me when I saw it on your Facebook. Like you, I didn't know the story about Strummer talking with the Dead, but to a lot of people those bands, The Clash and the Dead were opposites, two completely foreign things.
Yeah, it was the enemy. Especially when you're a kid and it's very different. But as you grow older you see that people are trying to keep a fan-base unified, people that live outside of society and the system, people who have certain values and artistic integrity, and there you go, there's the connection right there. That was the thing about Joe and The Clash, he always wanted to know, to ask questions, not be closed off and put in a box.
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But as a kid, growing up I needed to be like, "I'm into punk, I wear black, I wear a leather jacket. This is all I do, fuck everybody." But that kind of early high school rivalry you do to kind of put your ground down, but beyond that I also listened to early Elton John and got into Neil Young, acoustic records by Johnny Thunders, and Discharge and the Bad Brains. To me, it's all about the attitude and spirit and heart. If you look past the tie-dye and spikes, you figure out who's real and who isn't, I guess.
Jesse Malin is scheduled to perform Sunday, August 26, at Pub Rock [formerly Chasers] in Scottsdale.