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6 August 2012

Deep thoughts on Jason Noble

Jason Noble died of cancer this past weekend at the age of 40. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the influence his art had on my path in music and my path in life. Below I’ll reproduce a long interview with him and his frequent musical collaborator, Jeff Mueller — which I conducted in 1995, but published in 1998 in the Jaboni Youth zine I did throughout college.

Rodan: “The Everyday World of Bodies” (1994)

First some perspective on his importance to my present day self over fifteen (!?!) years after I met him. Way more than other musical influences — the influence of Jason Noble was one that I lived rather than one which I acquired through clicking links on the internet or picking up albums in record shops. I was in my early twenties when he was in his slightly less early twenties. I got to see his projects evolve in the flesh at a most receptive age. Discovering the music he made in groups like Rodan and Rachel’s wasn’t just research into the history of music — it felt like a kind of mentorship at a (very slight) distance. I had the privilege of watching him living a life in art, hearing how his musical interests evolved over time, and learning that as your interests shift you could still maintain an unquestionably strong dedication to making art in a way that was humble, fearless and true. In this age of Spotify, there’s dozens of places you can start exploring his music — and I’d recommend starting with the album that made me fall in love with his work, Rodan’s Rusty (1994, Quarterstick/Touch & Go) — but this download of Rodan’s early demo tape Aviary, is another excellent way to begin.

It would require a long stretch of contemplation to fully unpack what I admired so much about Jason, what drew me so strongly to his music in those years. But rather than pretend I can come up with a comprehensive list on the spot, let me just dive into some uncollected thoughts. I remember how he seemed to be at the center of a Lousiville, Kentucky music scene that was disconnected from everything else going on in the world. I admired how he and his peers in projects like Slint, Gastr Del Sol, Palace Brothers and The For Carnation created their own universe. I particularly admired the frission of unlike sensibilities in his own musical projects — classical but punk, composed yet unleashed and, always, both beautiful and idiosyncratic. I was drawn to his sense of personal style and sensibility — how the almost forgotten art film he starred in, Half-Cocked, seemed to translate the wandering American possibilities of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Robert Frank’s The Americans into the modern age. I was emboldened by the fearless way that Jason absorbed and reformed the art he loved — from Neil Young’s epic 70s rock to hardcore punk to minimalist classical music to Egon Schiele. There was no anxiety in the way he integrated his influences. He just listened and loved and regurgitated those influences in new forms. “When it comes right down to it I guess we could be confused as having too many interests,” he told me back in 1995, “but I’ve always thought if you didn’t exercise ’em you were just kind of scared of them or something.” I liked how Jason was proud to be a “lifer.” He wasn’t making art to get rich or be cool or get girls; he was making art because he had to. And I liked the way his most profound insights about that life quest were stated with humility.

In any event, when I was coming up in the music world with my own little clique, what Jason did had opened up a lot of room for us, rooms we’re still exploring, space we’re still coloring in. And his help was also literal. I can’t recall all the dates or the bills, but a few of our artists’ earliest shows were opening slots for groups from his Louisville clique. I know it’s hard to imagine a co-bill of The National and David Grubbs today, but it happened. And though no one knew it at the time, the final show by Rachel’s was a co-bill with Clogs at New York’s Merkin Hall. Most excitingly, Rachel’s didn’t exactly “break up” in the traditional sense — it’s just that all the members, who continued to collaborate in various iterations afterwards, got busy with other creative possibilities.

Frequently, it’s obituaries which seem to pull me back to blogging. Odd that, but not dissimilar to the way death will make music fans around the world re-examine an artist’s discography. If this blog post gets you to check out Jason Noble’s recorded history for a few hours or even days or weeks, my job is done. Let this be the beginning of your own exploration of Jason’s work, and of your own creativity, rather than an end.

Without further adieu here is the interview. And just so I don’t give the misimpression that Jason was some po’ faced artiste — it’s hard not to take yourself too seriously when writing about someone’s death — I’m also going to reproduce the photo that accompanied the Q&A, a shot of Jason being fearlessly groped by Jeff. It was a pisstake, but it gets across one of the important things about Jason. That, for him, art was a way of grabbing life by the balls.

In 1992, Jeff Mueller, Jason Noble, Tara Jane O’Neil, and Kevin Coultas, all members of Louisville, Kentucky’s vibrant punk rock scene, joined forces to form the band Rodan. These four youngsters, all in their early twenties, were not particularly skilled at playing their chosen instruments. Rodan, however, did not take the easy path. Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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19 February 2009

Touch & Go Goes Out of Business

Originally posted to a music industry listserv which will go nameless. I heard from a few people that they enjoyed the sentiments so I am re-posting it here, loosely written internet style typos and all:

Just wanted to send a response & some, erm, deep thoughts about commentary going on on the [redacted] about Touch & Go’s sudden shutdown.

Brassland was one of a few new labels to switch to T&G distribution as of January 1, 2009. Very bad timing = erm, yeah. End of the universe = no. Death knell for anyone running a company based only on the sale of recorded music using a business model Factory Records and Touch+Go pioneered = perhaps.

I don’t want anyone to mistake me. This change is kind of ruining my life right now; is likely to cost my company + a few of the bands I’ve worked with tens of thousands of dollars; and some of the people working for me (especially myself) will have to put in many many man hours of labor to keep the train on the track. I’m definitely bummed out & somewhat annoyed.

That said, my feeling based on talking to a number of people more intimately involved in T&G’s current operations and those of competitors who know the retail environment well is that this is maybe something that just had to happen like it did. Could T&G have laid off a chunk of its staff and operated for months or years as a skeleton of its former self? Probably. Am I sort of surprised & upset there wasn’t more in the way of private efforts made before the announcement to help shore up distribution options for the labels left homeless by this change? Yup. But is T&G still doing this in a pretty classy way? Yes. From what I understand all the employees left (other than a few laid off last week) are being offered at least 6 weeks to wind down their affairs. In this economy, in this industry, that alone is something of a radical gesture — and an example I think any of us would be proud to emulate. And so far the employees still there are being helpful in trying to make this transition as painless as possible for us labels…

After the shock wears off, I get the sense a lot of us will, yes, look back at this as the end of an era — but also as an oddly fitting conclusion to this chapter of Touch & Go’s story. It’s like a band that breaks up with out all the bullshit and fanfare of pretending that a break-up can be candy coated.

Mostly I’m taking this as a very public revelation that Touch & Go’s founder, Corey Rusk, and his staff were pretty amazing + talented individuals for being the only people to take that business model and make it function on the scale that no one else ever made it succeed. Factory Records certainly didn’t take it this far, nor have any of us who have followed in the T&G footsteps.

I haven’t gotten to the anger stage of the grieving process — and maybe my feelings will be different when that happens — but there you go…

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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