Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Things Fall Apart: Simon Joyner Embraces The Beauty Of Breaking Down

"I like things most when they’re on the verge of falling apart,” reveals Simon Joyner, the austere Midwestern indie folk fixture whose stark and fatefully autonomous sound has crystallized with pastoral and avantgarde purity. For more than a decade the Omaha, Nebraska singer/songwriter has honed his craft employing lyrical symbolism, crumbling imagery and an unassuming, post-Dylan mannerism to develop characters and conditions in his songs. Swaggering between ramshackle home recordings and humbly sophisticated studio output, Joyner’s warbling voice wafts over a procession of pianos, strings and percussive clatter giving rise to a drunken and deteriorating waltz. Myriad proficient players, including jazz icons Ken Vandermark and indie rock luminary John Darniell (Mountain Goats) have contributed to his songs, but breakdown is inevitable.

“It’s so exciting for me, watching to see if a group is going to get through a song,” he continues. “It forces people to stretch their ideas of what a song really can be, especially since the kind of music I make is not jazz, and it’s not drone music. There are chords that have to be played and to keep it exciting I like to throw as many wrenches into it as possible. Mess it up as much as I can without demolishing it. Take a pretty song and make it resist how melodic it really is so that people don’t know why it’s catchy, but it is. Even though it sounds totally distorted and dirty, it’s still a pop song.”

Since the early ‘90s Joyner’s legacy of futility has been strewn across eight proper full-length recordings and dozens of singles and compilations. His songs have appeared on a smattering of under the radar outlets including Bloomington, IN’s Jagjaguwar Records, Chicago’s Truckstop Records and his own homespun label Sing, Eunuchs! As his more obscure offerings slip out of print, demand for his fleeting body of work only increases.

Cutting his teeth in the burgeoning pre-grunge and lo-fi scene of Omaha in the early ‘90s as a folk singer, Joyner was a bit of a mismatch to his fuzzed-out and flannel-clad peers. Drawing comparisons to frazzled folk shouters such as Loudon Wainwright III and Bob Dylan to more pensive songwriters Will Oldham and Leonard Cohen, Joyner’s voice embodies a wry and literate tone. And though his songs have been publicly praised by everyone from Beck to fellow Nebraskan Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), it was an early boost of confidence from over seas that kept him going.
After finishing his first vinyl release The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll in 1994 drummer and label partner Chris Deden mailed a copy to late British DJ and formidable tastemaker John Peel. He had done the same with Umbilical Chords, Joyner’s first cassette demo in 1992, but Peel didn’t think much of it. His second release, Room Temperature garnered a few spins but it was The Cowardly Traveler that reeled him in. Although Joyner didn’t think much about it at the time, it led to a career changing act of fate that came to be known as the “Peel incident.”

During one radio broadcast Peel played both sides of the record in it their entirety; an act only rumored to have happened one other time with an album by the Fall.

This sparked a flurry of chatter amongst European music journalists, but at home in the states Joyner remained blissfully unaware of what Peel had stirred up. It wasn’t until touring in the Netherlands sometime later that it was brought to his attention. “All of these journalists had set up interviews with me and that was always their first question, ‘So how has your career changed since the John Peel incident?’” Joyner explains in a mock German accent. “I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ They filled me in and said it was absolutely unheard of for him to do something like that and that everyone there had been talking about it. I couldn’t even speak anymore.

Over the years a friend of Joyner’s who lived in Germany had been sending him tapes of occasional broadcasts of Peel’s shows. Apparently he missed that one.

To answer the journalists’ questions the Peel incident affected Joyner in more profound ways than increased record sales. “Once his support kicked in it made me feel less nervous about what I was doing,” he explains. “It gave it validity for me when I was still very much an underground name, even in the United States,” he continues. “To be in the place where he was and to listen to a crudely recorded record by someone that nobody had heard of and to say that it’s just as good or important as the Fall or Nirvana’s record, was great for me. Maybe he had some laundry to do or something,” he laughs. “It was a vinyl record so he at least had to sit there and flip it over.”

Pressed in an edition of only 1,000 copies, The Cowardly Traveler has been canonized amongst fans as the holy grail of Joyner’s records. It’s “crudely recorded” aesthetic has morphed into a conceptual element of his music that transcends production qualities, often manifesting itself in pristine and professionally engineered recordings.

Joyner’s two most recent efforts Lost with the Lights On (Jagjaguwar) and Stranger Blues (Catsup Plate), a collaboration with Dennis Callaci (Refrigerator/ lo-fi citadel Shrimper Records), polarize at opposing ends of his approach to making music.

Recorded at King Sized Studio in Los Angeles with Michael Krassner (Edith Frost/Boxhead Ensemble), Lost With the Lights On is a dense and crystal-clear collection of songs that resonate with natural tones and impeccable sound quality. Stranger Blues resonates with a different character, evoking the grit and lo-fi din of his earlier homemade recordings. To Joyner, though the processes of recording and the outcome are different, it’s all part of the same body of work. “With Lost… I knew we were going to make a really nice sounding recording and I didn’t want it to sound too cold or sterile. The band ran through the songs once. I didn’t want them to learn their parts too well,” he adds, running through a list of performers on the record. Krassner along with Fred Longberg-Holm, Eric Heywood, Wil Hendricks, and Jim White played everything from bass and piano to an arsenal of electric and acoustic stringed instruments under the name “the Wind-Up Birds.” “These are all really phenomenal players, but I like putting them in a situation where they don’t have a chance to be perfect, because that’s where I am,” he continues. Krassner had been hired to mix something of some major label band and they asked him to book time in a studio. He booked time at Capital and hurried through it and used the rest of his hours to do my record.

For Stranger Blues, Joyner and Callaci convened under much humbler surroundings. “We recorded with one microphone plugged into a 1970s tube receiver he had in his living room,” he continues. “I don’t do a record in a studio because that’s the important one and these other projects get less attention. It’s just a different side to what I do and I really love doing them both. It’s all Simon Joyner music to me.”

In October Jagjaguwar and Unread Records will release Beautiful Losers, a double LP/CD anthology of Joyner’s most obscure recordings. A reissue of his debut full-length, Room Temperature will follow in December. Bringing these songs
back from the abyss gives a new platform for these fragmented works to reassemble and crumble apart all over again, ushering Joyner continually forward through the beauty of breaking down.

Words and photos by Chad Radford (Originally published by ART PAPERS Sept./Oct. 2005).