Big Sweet Life

Jon Dee Graham
photograph by John Carrico

When last we left Jon Dee Graham, he had just made his Escape From Monster Island, a critically lauded solo debut from the former founding member of Austin's True Believers. With its songs of scraped hearts and cynical longing, Escape From Monster Island wasn't just a catharsis for Graham, it was his metamorphosis from ex-punk rocker, New Sincerity alumnus, and prized session man into fully realized songwriter.

Yet, if Escape was rife with soulful introspection, Summerland, Graham's sophomore release, is an exuberant embrace of life. That's not to say it's a warm, fuzzy hug of an album, only that Graham unabashedly celebrates the better things in this world in songs like "Big Sweet Life," while still keeping his sly wit sharp. He's sanded down some rough edges, but just enough to make the transition smooth; in "October," Graham rasps in his whiskeyed tenor, "You can toast October and the pumpkin moon/Toast me and say that I died too soon/Say that I died, died of October." No, Jon Dee Graham has hardly mellowed.

Austin Chronicle:It's not an exaggeration to say your life has changed rather dramatically in the last five years, is it?

Jon Dee Graham: [Laughter] Yes, it has yeah. I feel like the astronaut in the centrifuge with my face glued back in the chair. Things seem to have moved in a lot of unforeseen directions more than I ever could have planned! Yesterday, a reporter asked what prompted me to put out Escape. Well, I was 38 years old, never had a solo release, and really, I did it because I felt like I had to. I didn't expect anything and all this stuff came out of it. What I thought were walls turned into doors. Who would have thought it? I mean, I'm very, very happy where I am right now.

AC:Your son Roy is very much a presence on both albums, but on Escape, it felt like the songs to Roy were also to you, for the little boy inside. Who grew up more between the first album and Summerland, you or Roy?

JDG: Honestly, just like everything else, he has me beat. We both did a lot of growing. I just had him here for a week and it's so amazing to move through time with someone you're so close to. He's changing so much now he reads, plays chess. He's 6. And yet at the end of the day, when he's sitting in my lap and I'm reading to him, he's still the baby and I'm still the daddy. It made a big impact on me this week.

AC:The songs on Summerland have this almost palpable sense of relief about them, don't they? The new album seems to bookend Escape From Monster Island.

JDG: Most people see it as the opposite from Escape. It's not at all. It's like the next chapter of the story. There's a sense of relief on there, because it's the release that came from Escape. Escape was telling the story, bloody and dirty as it was, and "fixed" it, like when you pin the butterfly to the board. Every album for me, even stuff that I've played on with other people which is the majority of my work has been like a photograph, a snapshot of that time. The Summerland snapshot just captures something brighter.

AC: Is Summerland a real place? The CD disc art says California.

JDG: That's a real postmark, but the California part was supposed to be deleted. That was an accident. Which I love art accidents. It adds even more to the ambiguity. What Summerland comes from is a spiritualist movement from the Twenties and Thirties that redefined the cosmology of how things work. Their version of heaven was called "Summerland," and when you died you went to the place of your heart's content. If you were an Eskimo, you went to a snowy place with all the seals you could ever catch. If you were a headhunter, you went to an endless, lush, green jungle where you just cut people's heads off all day and partied at night. If you were a farmer, you went to a place where you had unlimited acreage, it rained exactly the right amount, and you had harvest all year round.

AC:The third song on Summerland, "Big Sweet Life," makes me feel that sense of relief I mentioned earlier. The way it embraces life is so joyous, but it's not what most people expect from you.

JDG: Well, you know me well enough to know I'm pretty sarcastic and have a darkly funny side. I've had people come up to me and say [about that song], "That's the most cynical thing I've ever heard," but I have to tell them there's not one drop of irony in that song. I completely mean every word. I spent so much of my life fretting maybe it's growing up or having a kid or something but one day, I just sort of sat up and thought, "This is all pretty wonderful." At our age, we've been through some dark, dark shit. At some point and it has to do with Roy, it has to do with getting rid of a lot of disguises and playing my own music I realized the world is really not such a dark and bad place. It's really pretty fucking wonderful, if only I'd see it.

AC:What was your favorite disguise and when did you have it down the best?

JDG: The dark tortured artist, the beautiful loser. That was during the Believers and immediately after. When I moved out to Los Angeles and got thrown into that shark pit, I had to focus more on just keeping up and doing my job. And this is probably dangerous to say, but so much of Escape and Summerland is so baldly biographical there's no room for disguises. Anyone with half an ear can tell what's been going on in my life.

AC:Given that, "At the Dance" sounds like you were revisiting your past. It evokes and I mean this as a compliment Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion."

JDG: Taken as a compliment! See, where I grew up [Quemado, Texas, on the border], the bands that played my high school dances were these Chicano soul bands. It's such a specialized, weird little cultural cul-de-sac. I wanted to describe, musically and lyrically, the whole thing about the dance at the gym even though only a handful of people would get it. The first verse is nothing but names of the bands that played. It was a very sweet, dreamy time, not just for me, but for the country and the border. Punk rock was about to come kick everything down, but I was slow-dancing to bands that were wearing ill-fitting tuxedos and singing English hits phonetically. I wanted that to be in the snapshot.

AC:If Summerland is a "happier" album than Escape, then what was the challenge in making it?

JDG:Summerland was a harder record to make. We had no money, no time that thing was recorded and mixed in six days. It was like a trainwreck over before I knew what happened. In that way, it was much easier because there was no time to fuck around. But it was the second record, and second records are important and I wanted to make sure it wasn't Son of Escape From Monster Island. There was more deliberation, more decisions, more time to stand back and ask, 'How do we want to do this?' That made it a harder album, me and [musical partner Mike] Hardwick having more time to debate and consider things.

AC:Do you have a personal favorite cut on the album?

JDG: Yes, I do. It's a hard one to explain, but it's "Look Up" with Patty [Griffin]. That's a song I won't try to explain I don't listen to my own stuff, but that song gives me chills.

AC:Why did you re-record "Lucky Moon" on Summerland? You first recorded that with the True Believers in 1986 and hearing it again is like an affirmation of those days.

JDG: Yes, and that is also an example of the bookend thing, drawing from the past with something that's vital. That song still means something to me, but it doesn't mean the same thing it used to mean. It's also an affirmation that what I was doing had value, juxtaposing it against what I do now, seeing how it all fits together. Then, it was about a specific incident, but as the years have gone by and I've played it in other contexts and now with my band, it has come to be about fortune. Fortune and luck and blessing, and how sometimes the moon looks down and winks and everything's gonna be all right.

AC:Do you consider yourself more of a lyric person than melody person?

JDG: I consider myself more of a lyric person and guitar person. I'm struggling with the vocal thing. I think I make the most out of what I've got. I think my vocal melodies all come from my guitar. Having the kind of voice I have, they're necessarily very simple melodies, but that's what I find most compelling anyway.

AC:Speaking of the kind of voice you have, you know this story runs in the same issue as an interview with Tom Waits and that you get compared to him vocally, though on Summerland, your voice has developed more "colors" than on Escape, where it was more reminiscent of Waits.

JDG: As far as the Waits thing goes, I want to come right out and say: I am not a third-rate Tom Waits impersonator. I am at least a second-rate impersonator. But because it's come up so many times, I've developed little gambits for dealing with the question. Number one is, "No, you're wrong. It's Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet, that I'm doing." Gambit number two is, "Well, if you look back at the broad American tradition such as Louie Armstrong and Fats Waller singing ..."

The truth of the matter is that I have smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day since I was 15. Between the time I was 18 and 27 I drank heavily. When I recorded with the Believers, there was a struggle to get my voice really clear. Since I only sang two songs a night three, tops it was easy to focus on pure tones then. But, let's be honest, I was 24 then. And there's a big difference between singing two songs a night and 20 songs a night. As I've become a fully grown man, I've found my fully grown voice, and it sounds the way it sounds.

AC:The only real Waitsian song on Summerland is "October." I love that line, "Say I died of October." It's the only song on the album where you and Waits sound similar.

JDG: [laughs] Yeah, well, all of this is complicated by the fact that Tom Waits is, in my opinion, one of the handful of geniuses of our generation. He's a big, fat, fucking genius and I hate him. Song-wise, stylistically, and the content, we're not fishing from the same pool, but there's always going be that comparison because we both sing like foghorns.

AC:I hear you've announced "no more sad songs." Say it's not true. There's a new Jon Dee?

JDG: True. I'm the "new" Jon Dee. Only happy stuff from here on out. Yes, the Dark Genius is dead, as we like to say.

AC: What did the Dark Genius die of?

JDG: October, of course!

Margaret Moser tagged along with JDG's punk band the Skunks when they played CBGB in New York, 1979. They've been pals ever since.

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