Life, Love, And International Charity Work With Jerry Joseph And 'The Beautiful Madness'

Jerry Joseph's new album, The Beautiful Madness, is out now, bringing us a series of songs that take in the complexities of relationships and even a little bit of the complexities of politics that are the realities of being American right now.

Joseph worked with his friend Patterson Hood on the development of the album. It was also Produced by Hood and recorded with his band, The Drive-By Truckers. In kinder times, both acts would have been hitting the road and the air for a large-scale tour together, but Joseph considers the time he's spent at home this Spring and summer with his family a blessing, however uncertain the future may be in his home of Portland, Oregon right now.

Jerry Joseph joined us on our Tower Instagram Live show, which you can still watch here, and he also hosts Thursday night livestreaming shows which you should definitely check out, also archived on Youtube. He spoke with Tower's PULSE! below about the millieu surrounding The Beautiful Madness, the madness of the world and music industry right now, and the charitable organization he founded, The Nomad Foundation, that takes him into warzones to teach young people the basics of the guitar and playing Rock music. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I don’t know if I should comment on the fact that you’ve created this album, which is described as "the dark side of the human condition" and since you’ve created the album, things have gotten so much darker.

Jerry Joseph: It’s funny because we were going to release the video for “Sugar Smacks” last Fall, and that was really the original plan to get attention for the record. People ask me about my distribution, and I really go to the tallest building in a city and I frisbee albums off, hoping that someone catches one. We felt like, “This needs to come out now.”, last Fall. But by pushing this back, it just happened to land now.

If you had asked me back then what the record was about, I would have told you that, primarily, it was about marriage. The thing that I was really interested in was people that stay married past that 11 or 12 year mark. Like sometimes I’m washing the dishes, and I look over at my wife and ask, “Do you even like me?” And it’s a long fucking pause!

HMS: [Laughs] Yeah.

JJ: That’s a long pause before you get an answer like, “Well, I love you.” That’s what I thought I was writing about. But I’ve always been something of a lightning-rod politically because of my views and my unwillingness to couch them in any softer terms. But I don’t write a lot of political songs. I always felt like you can only be in Rage Against the Machine when you’re in your 20s.

I do a Thursday night streaming show and we pick a couple covers every week. It could be an R.E.M. song, or it could be a Townes Van Zant song. And then a couple of Bob Marley songs came up, and I used to sing a lot of Reggae songs. But it’s now hard to sing those songs, for one thing because of how disappointed Bob Marley would be. It’s hard to figure out the shelf life of political songs.

I always wonder if I’m going to look back on my career and wish that I had written more about my beliefs, but I think things get so gray. I’m heavily Pro Choice, but I’m also a Catholic and I’m personally against abortion. But it’s not my call. How would you even put that into a song?

But I ended up with this record, and I wrote “Sugar Smacks” in about ten minutes, and I was just spewing. It’s hard to know what’s going to register with people.

HMS: Tell me about writing the songs on the album. From what I understand it was a little different this time because of working with Patterson Hood.

JJ: I have little kids at home, so I couldn’t write at home if I had to. All my life I’ve gone somewhere else to write. In this case, I had a batch of songs I wrote in South Africa, then Patterson and I started talking about this. I had some songs that I wrote down in a friend’s place in Marin. Then, by the time I got to Mexico, which was the third cluster of songs, I was writing things and then sending them to Patterson. Which I’ve never done before. I’ve never had anyone to do that with.

I think Patterson is one of the finest songwriters out there right now, so it was super-nerve wracking to do that. But I’ve also never gone into an album with 30 or 35 songs. There was a lot of material, so I just let him do the sifting. He had his own vision and I was really trying hard to adhere. I keep using words like “succumb” but it’s more than I ever have in my life!

HMS: [Laughs] You’re letting someone actually influence you!

JJ: Yes, even on the title of the record and with the clothes I’m wearing in some of the photos. Patterson had this magnanimous thing, saying, “I want to make you the record that gets you the attention you should have gotten 25 years ago.”

HMS: He wants to show your music off properly.

JJ: Yes, I think so. But I’ve never been there before. I was going to be the “next big thing” every year since I was 24. At this point, I’ll never believe any of that. But I wanted to make a record that he was proud of, as my friend, and also as a Producer. He really put his neck out for me. There was this aesthetic to the whole thing. We cut it with his band.

It was hard, sometimes, to do that, but that’s because most of my life, I’ve had these Producers giving me accolades, saying, “We think you’re brilliant. We’re not touching a fucking thing!” But in the back of my head, I’ve always been thinking, “I wish you would touch it. I wish you would dig in and tear it apart.” So here we are.

The plans that were around this record were pretty massive. We were supposed to be doing this pretty big European tour where I would open and the Drive-By Truckers would be my backup band on their show. Patterson got it all cleared. But now we’re having to sitting back.

But I woke up this morning to four stars in MOJO.

It’s funny because all of my career, I’ve wanted traction in Europe or something. God must have a sense of humor.

HMS: I’m so sorry about the tour.

JJ: No, it’s been remarkable. I keep saying to my family that these past five months have been the best of my life. Hands down. And I’ve had an interesting life but waking up every day, cooking breakfast for my kids has been amazing. Since I was 15 I haven’t been in one place more than three months unless it was some kind of jail! But what’s crazy is that nobody knows what next. It’s impossible to make any kind of plans. You don’t know even know if you can do in-stores.

But one thing that’s happening around my house is my kids saying, “Another record??” My wife keeps saying, “Here’s your daily Covid delivery.” Because I ordered so much vinyl. But there’s finally time to sit down and listen to it. Going through that with my kids has been super-cool.

My ten-year-old now says, “Oh, it’s Elton John. Oh, it’s The Rolling Stones!”

HMS: That’s great.

JJ: I’m figuring out what they like. They like Bon Iver. It’s kind of changed the narrative on listening to music. But I feel like such a luddite when people ask me what I’m listening to. Because if it’s new, I’m listening to it on Spotify. Mostly I’ve been buying my past on vinyl, like all the Nick Cave records. So when someone asks me, “What did you listen to last weekend?”, it sounds like I haven’t listened to a new record since 1995.

HMS: That’s what’s selling right now a lot, too, hearing a fresh take on things that haven’t been available on vinyl for a long time, or were never available on vinyl before. It’s exactly what you’re saying, though. What I’m hearing from people is that they are sitting down and listening to whole albums in a way they haven’t done in many years.

JJ: In many years, absolutely. It’s been a long time since I sat in my room with a big ass bong and listened to Animals. But with my kids, they get up in the morning for virtual school and every morning I put on a record. I’ve taught my son how to flip the record.

But at this time of year, I would have been on tour for this record. I think I was supposed to be in Egypt in April with the Nomad Foundation that I have, where I take guitars to war zones, then I would have come home and gone on the Truckers tour. I wouldn’t have been home at all.

Now, what’s fucking scary is asking, “Shit, man, do I ever want to leave my family again?”

Especially when I see what I’ve been missing. I’m usually just constantly walking out the door in three weeks. That doesn’t mean we’re always getting along together. But it’s still remarkable.

HMS: It’s been weird for me, too, because I usually travel at least once a month for work and this is the longest I’ve been in one place, possibly since I was in high school. But now I’m wondering, “Do I really need to do that in future?”

JJ: We’ve actually been playing some live outdoor shows, too, here in Portland. But we’re wondering about ticket prices because tickets have been $50.00 or $75.00 and we wonder if we’re price gouging. But the light guys, the sound guys need to make money. We sell those things out in two hours, and I’m a nobody. It’s a weird thing.

HMS: I would have no problem paying those ticket prices. I’m used to going to a lot of live shows and it is really hard not to be able to do that right now. It’s a therapeutic thing.

JJ: It’s like church, or AA meetings, something where the point is to be among your peers or your brothers and sisters. Like-minded people. It’s zero fun to sing into a Zoom meeting.

I have a friend who’s in a band called The Mother Hips in California, who have a very loyal following, and we keep talking about bands that are bigger than us have really been shut down. But on our level, I could go out and play 50-seaters. I could sell my merch and still make a living. Not being the success that I’d always wanted to be is actually kind of serving me. I feel like the value of music has always been in question, but now we’re in this place. I feel like I’m selling generators in a hurricane.

HMS: Exactly! Don’t be ashamed of that. This is a good time for people to get a wake-up call about the value of music. This is time to say, “Hey, why don’t we support the arts? Why don’t we fund venues?”

I wanted to ask you more about the Nomad Music Foundation. But it must be pretty disappointing to everyone that you couldn’t go over and teach in the Middle East this summer.

JJ: Really, I’m just giving the kids a diversion. May before last was the last time that I was in Iraq. The kids had literally just gotten out of slave camps. How do you work with a kid who has seen his whole family get killed? I go in, and I’m working with interpreters, but mostly I’m just getting the kids to sing Bob Marley chants. But they love it.

We were supposed to be in Iraq last May and this summer I was going to Bangladesh for the first time. Now there’s all this different stuff on the table, including Southern Africa and Brazil. It’s a remarkable time because we could get all the kids in the Syrian camp onto Zoom, so we’re trying to figure out ways not to just abandon them. With Covid, how can we plan on returning?

And there’s the concern, are we doing any good? I don’t necessarily think that guitars can save the world. I think that showing people that there are people who actually give a fuck about you can. That’s what we do. We deliver. We bring the guitars and sit with them for a week or two.

But last time, there was a kid from a previous visit, who came up to talk to me, so I got an interpreter. And he said, “You don’t have to get an interpreter. I speak English now. I wanted to tell you that when you came last time, I signed up because I knew you were giving out guitars. And I knew that I could sell it. But I wanted to show you this.” And he showed me the acceptance papers to the University of Music. He said, “I’m going to college and I’m playing music. And it’s because of you.” You can see these tangible successes.

My wife would tell you that on a good day, I’m the most self-centered fucker on the planet. But for me to have found something good that I can do, that I can see a result on, is outstanding. I’m friends with some of these kids on Facebook and I can see them progress and see that they’ve started a band. It’s all Megadeth and Metallica riffs.

HMS: That’s your doing!

JJ: That music really works for them. They can relate to the Metal stuff. Pimply, lonely boys all over the world relate to Metal, but it’s also not hard for them to get the time signatures. They also live somewhere with helicopters and mortar fire, so they can relate to the darkness. So there’s different things we can try to do with Nomad, sending stuff over there, but we are trying to sort stuff out.

But I think the next couple of months are going to be some of the heaviest in human history. Here in Portland, we’re actually talking about Federal occupation. We don’t know what to do about Covid. We have a leader who doesn’t want to lead no matter what. Things could get really weird really fast. As a family, we’re wondering if we should be buying supplies or buying tickets to Ireland, doing the quarantine, and hanging out there for a year.

HMS: I don’t blame you at all for those ruminations! They are very understandable at this point.

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