Jason Evans Groth Talks Songs Molina to Jim Phelps

Jim Phelps reviewed the Songs: Molina gig in September, a tribute to Jason Molina, musician, singer-songwriter who died at the age of 39.  

Jim Phelps: How was the gig for you?

Jason Evans Groth: We’re looking at a list of 90-100 songs that we played over the course of our time. I joined Songs:Ohia right after the Magnolia Electric Co. record was made in 2002. That record was made with a group of people that never played those songs on stage together until Jason’s funeral in 2013. So basically I heard this record, I was told to learn the songs and then I was in the band in November of 2002. From then on there’s 90 songs that we somehow kept track of and then in those 90 songs there’s probably 20 that we’d practise and never play. Every time we’ve done this…the first time it was with everybody at Jason’s funeral, just everybody you can imagine – whoever was involved with Jason… 2014 it was with Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger. Last year we did it with Joe O’Connell from Elephant Micah; this year it’s with Tim [Showalter]. Every time it’s helping someone feel like they’re part of the band. Every night there’s usually a special guest from somewhere else. While we’re practising it feels like really good work, and the second we get on stage it hits me so hard that Jason’s not standing to my right anymore. And then at some point during the show it becomes this really celebratory…it feels like stages of grief. It’s a celebratory moment where I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to know these people and know these songs and play them for people. So it’s great! And it’s different; every show is totally different. The setlist always changes, who’s singing changes. Every show with Jason was different. For better or worse, he was an improviser – every day. How was it for you?

JP: I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it. I was looking forward to it because I never got to see him when he was alive. I love the songs so much, and his records…there’s just a timeless and transcendental nature to a lot of it. And that comes from the music and the lyrics and the performance. And today I was thinking, am I just going to break down? And there were maybe two moments in the show where I felt like that, and the rest of the time I was completely elated.

JEV: Aw that’s great. And I only cried twice tonight! Only twice! [laughs]

JP: Is that a record?

JEV: Aw, it really depends. When Tim started crying during Whip-Poor-Will and Ring The Bell, both of those, there’s just this overwhelming moment where there’s a sense of elation – “Man, it’s so awesome! I love these songs!” – I can just conjure up those memories. Most of the time on stage my eyes are closed or I’m looking to the right and usually Jason was standing right there. Now it’s like living in the songs instead and I’m glad to hear you felt that way.

All photographs by Jazz Jennings.

JP: Speaking as a person who’s enjoyed his music for a long, long time…you never really run into people…he’s a relatively unknown artist in the UK, and it’s amazing to be in a room with a bunch of people and be like “all these people know him”; it’s great.

How does feel to be doing this when he’s not there? Is there a commitment to keep the songs as he wrote them?

JEV: So me and Pete, the bass player, we’re both university librarians and I used to work for a history organisation, and Jason and Pete and I used to talk a lot about…we would have these general conversations about the importance of keeping things alive. Jason was really interested in the idea of people understanding and remembering things that were old and good. He was very worried…

JP: Like an archivist sorta thing?

JEV: Yeah, he worked…he like volunteered or worked at the Art Institute of Chicago for a while when he was living there. He was interested in librarianship, his dad was a history teacher. But I mean he would just collect old shit and talk about it with us all the time. He was one of those people who’d say “I’m really into history” but like actually was and wanted to talk about it. I think one of the reasons we became his longest running band was because – we were in his band for 7 or 8 years, and he would just cycle through [band members] all the time – one of the reasons was because we were into that too. So yes, it feels that way. This is maybe the twelfth time we’ve done this…I can’t remember how many, maybe number twelve. We feel very strongly about not doing it too much, and only doing it when there’s some reason to do it. The reason to do it this time was because Erin (Osmon) wrote the book and people from Europe had asked for the book – it’s coming out here eventually. There was this moment where we could all get together and she could come and Tim could come too. Jason was good friends with our booking agent in Europe…things kind of just aligned. So yes, we do think it’s important. I want people to hear the music whether I was involved with it or not. Buying the records means…He was a very sad person, he liked making music and wanted people to hear it. And he wasn’t that great about promoting himself or even playing a long enough show for people to understand that it was good. Not that we’re cleaning up after him but…we miss him! We think it’s important!

JP: So the tour has come to pass as the stars have aligned.

JEV: Yeah! Man, this is Jan, our tour manager.

Jan: And sound guy!

JEV: Yeah and sound guy….everything! We all went through a bunch of shit with Jason, we all had fun with Jason…all of it worked out. I don’t know if we would have done it if…if our booking agent hadn’t called and said Tim can do it and we were interested in doing it, I don’t know if we would have said “yes” if Jan couldn’t do it too. I’m not kidding. There was a moment where Tim offered and I was like “I’m not sure; let’s see what happens” and then his schedule was open. Jason, for better or worse, was really into tradition also, so that’s part of it.

JP: It’s a family thing.

JEV: Pretty much. The 7 inch we just made with Tim was…Tim reminds me so much of Jason…Tim was like “If we’re gonna do this, we should commemorate him”. And there was this story that…I’ll tell the story now! At Jason’s wedding, where I was an usher, at some point during the wedding reception he comes over to me and my wife – girlfriend at the time – I think was with her family. So I’m there alone, sitting with all these dudes who were in Songs:Ohia before me and we’re all talking about how they all got fired! And Jason comes over to me and he’s like “Hey! I gotta talk to you for a minute!” and I’m like “Oh shit he’s firing me at his wedding!” He takes me outside and he says “I got this idea: I want to make a series of 7 inches, and we’ve got Magnolia Electric Company and Pyramid Electric Company and I want to make a bunch of 7 inches called Something Electric Company, and all of ‘em will sound different”. So, the Goshen Electric Company thing came out of that story from 15 years ago.

JP: And that’s the new record?

JEV: Yeah. The record’s called that in tribute to Jason wanting to do this series of short 7 inches that just featured a band the way it sounded right then. Tim didn’t know he was jumping into that.

JP: How did you meet Jason?

JEV: We all lived in Bloomington, Indiana…Indiana University. He had moved there because that’s where Secretly Canadian was. They were working out of a house at the time and he was living in the basement there. I worked at the student radio station and I had a horrible shift: 5am-8am or something like that.

JP: I had a 12am-2am slot when I was at university.

JEV: That would have been better, I swear, better than the 5am-8am slot…on Saturday!! But anyway, that first 7 inch of Jason’s was there and it was one of our ‘please play this’ sorta things and I had no idea – no idea – what year it came out. I couldn’t place when this thing was, who this was singing. It kinda scared me. And I saw a flyer on the wall that said Jason was gonna be playing, so I went and saw him play solo in that house. I heard it in ’96 and in ’97 I saw him play and met him that night. But then I really met him when he sold me a guitar that same year. He sold me an ’81 Gibson Explorer…

JP: Good country guitar!

JEV: Yeeaah! And I walked in and he was there and I was like “I know you!” and he said “Yeah, I’m Songs:Ohia” and I was just star struck! I’d heard his stuff, I’d seen him play and I’d just assumed he was a huge star. We talked for an hour…he just wouldn’t shut up. And we just chummed around. He was really excited that I bought that guitar and he would see me around. He got to like my bands – I was in this band…no-one knows these bands…I was in a band called Cadmium Orange and he would come to our shows. He moved away for a couple of years and came back and he was really into this band called The Impossible Shapes which put out a couple of records on Secretly Canadian. One night he came to a Shapes show and started talking to me about Ben Keith from Neil Young’s band and then months later he asked me in his band after he saw me and Pete in a Neil Young cover band. We just admired each other’s music. He was a big fan of my band The Coke Dares, which Pete and Mark were also in.

JP: The Coke Dares.

JEV: Yeah, not the Pepsi challenge, the Coke Dares. You can take it any way you want! There’s a live recording of Jason jumping on stage and singing one of our songs. We were a 30-second-song punk band, very much like The Minutemen. He looooved it. He asked us to be in Songs:Ohia and I was like “Why do you want us?! We don’t play that kind of music!”

JP: Was it a big learning experience to play a completely different style of music?

JEV: Well, we all were in bands that played different styles of music. I rarely saw Jason playing with a band, I always enjoyed seeing him solo. I was really worried when he asked, thinking we’re gonna ruin his songs. Then I heard the Magnolia Electric Co record and thought “OK, so you’re asking me cos you think I can do this.” It was really flattering. When he changed the name [of the band], I thought that everyone else would think we forced him to change the name. It’s like I always tell people, we were in Songs:Ohia and then one day we find out we’re in Magnolia Electric Company.

JP: And how did that happen? Did Jason just turn around and tell you one day?

JEV: He didn’t even tell us. I read it on Pitchfork at work. We had gone on an American and European tour and were about to go on another tour and Pitchfork listed all the tour dates. It said that after the Spanish dates, the band will be called “Magnolia Electric Company” and I was like…”What the ….?” That’s how it usually worked with Jason.

JP: Can you tell me a bit about working with Jason in the studio?

JEV: It was really…nervous. He really liked first takes because there is a magic in a first take but I also think he didn’t like failing. If you get it right the first time, you’re not going to fail if you leave it that way. It’s just the way it was. I recorded several things with him: all the Magnolia records and a lot of one-off things too. On tour we’d go record wherever we could. It really was improvisational: here’s the basic structure, hit ‘record’ and see what happens. There’s a documentary of us recording Josephine and that record was very improvisational – he had these huge charts and we just kinda felt around for him.

JP: So he’d say “I’ve got these words, here’s the melody, here are the chords”-

JEV: More kinda like he’d say “Here’s a riff” and the riff was usually just two notes. He wouldn’t know what that was, and my job was usually to figure out what chords might go under that. I think there was always someone like that in the band [doing that job] – Dan Sullivan before me…We would help him make his ideas translatable to the rest of the band. He would just do whatever he wanted. We wanted to give him as much room as we could to be a solo performer with people backing him up. Sometimes it was great, and sometimes it was  insane because he was so bad at…he had no musical vocabulary. He couldn’t say “I’m gonna hit G for three beats, we’re gonna hold off for one beat then come back on A minor on the one”. He would say “I want it to be UH! UH!…..UUUH!” and we’d have to interpret what that was and if we didn’t do it right he’d get really pissed off. There’s a bunch of b-sides from What Comes After The Blues that probably will never come out, partially because he was so mad that we weren’t doing the thing he was thinking of. But when things were great – when we were mixing Nashville Moon – that was one of the greatest mixing sessions of my life. We were all so excited and we’d been playing those songs to death.

JP:: I don’t want to go into anything that’s difficult to talk about – I know Jason has passed and can’t speak for himself now. You were saying sometimes it was difficult?

JEV: Yeah, he could be an asshole. Jason could be kind of a dick [laughs]. The hard part is that whatever mental illness Jason was dealing with, and everyone…if you’d met the guy you’d know that it was true…he had trouble keeping it in check and the alcoholism fed it and also helped him deal with it. But obviously it didn’t in the end. I think he would often sabotage situations so that he couldn’t fail. He would end up becoming the bad guy because then the conclusion was inevitable. He was a very sensitive person and one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. I loved him dearly and the last three years of him being alive was a lot of me being on the phone with rehab centres and telling friends and trying to figure out a way to help.

We developed this network, this insane network of people to try and help him get the help he needed. It was really positive and even in his severe illness he was really great at bringing people together. I have bonds with the people who used to be in his band that I wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t been going through such shit. In a weird, shitty way I think he meant to do that. I hope that he saw how much we loved him. How we all banded together…just f…, man…just decide not to hurt yourself anymore. At some point we’d…we did everything we could. There are moments when I wake up and I hop in the shower and I think…I could have done something else. I’ve gotten to the point where I know that’s not true. I’ve gotten to the point where I know that people experiencing the same challenges that Jason experienced, and they mix that with addiction, that it’s really up to them. But in a way, as positive as I can be about it, his shitty, maybe small-man complex that came out on stage – he would yell at people from the stage, he wouldn’t do encores – some of that was a real dedication to what he saw his art being.

Tonight we played for so long. He would never have done that. People wanted him to do it because the songs were so good. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave them wanting more, it was: that was his art for the night. I respect that a lot. We differed in that. I would have never been as honest and open and shitty to people as Jason was, but it was a good thing to see. It was good to know that that existed. In general he was generous and he wanted everyone to…he wanted people to be family. He wanted to be around people, and he wanted to be alone. There’s a line in that Neil Young song “I need a crowd of people but I can’t face ‘em day to day”, and whenever I hear that I tear up a little bit, because that’s what Jason was.

JP: Have you any special memories of Jason you’d like to share? A time that really makes you smile.

JEV: Yeah there’s a lot. I just thought about this one today. In 2003 on my first full Songs:Ohia tour, we’re out promoting Magnolia Electric Co and playing Iowa City, this horrible place called Gabe’s Oasis. Everybody knows it’s horrible – you talk to any band in America, ask ‘em about Gabe’s Oasis! So we’re walking through the streets of Iowa City and there’s a copy of The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers

JP: Great record.

JEV: Great record, and it’s $18. And for some reason, I dunno, my debit card was somewhere, I didn’t have the cash, and I was like “Awwww…I’ll get it another time”. That was 2003. I swear every town we went to from then on I looked for that record and could never find it. And Jason started asking me “Hey, d’ya find that Flying Burrito Bros record?” Kinda teasing me about it cos I don’t think he liked Gram Parsons at all. I think it was 2008 in Philadelphia…I’m not sure where…all I’ll say is that it was in a town, in America…and the band were in the hotel and I hung out with a friend. I showed up late, walked in at three in the morning and go in the bathroom and The Gilded Palace of Sin is sitting on the toilet with a little note from Jason that says “You shoulda got this in Iowa City”. It was so moving. There were moments on stage when he would fire me cos he was drunk or pissed off, he would be obstinate, he would jam instead of sing, and then these beautiful moments where he would remember something that brought us together and go out of his way…

JP: That’s crazy, because I first heard of Jason after running into an old college buddy of mine in a pub. I hadn’t seen him in five years and I’d asked him “What are you listening to these days?” and he says “Right, you gotta listen to this record Magnolia Electric Co by Songs:Ohia and The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers”. Those two records.

JEV: Oh man! That’s amazing!

JP: No joke!

JEV: When I heard the demo of Magnolia Electric Co he gave me so I could learn the thing, that was around the time when I got into that music. It’s like: somehow this guy has just tapped into all of this in a way which doesn’t sound like he’s just stealing it. He’s making it his own.

JP: That’s the first record I heard by him. You can’t put your finger on when it was recorded – it sounds like it could have been done in the Sixties or like it could have been done yesterday.

JEV: I would say that Didn’t It Rain is the record that made me love Songs:Ohia and of the records I got to make with Jason, Nashville Moon and Trials and Errors are my favourites. But Magnolia Electric Co…that record…that record is a one of a kind. It’s something that can’t be replicated.

JP: I understand that the recording is a first take.

JEV: I think so!

JP: It’s mad…

JEV: It is. What I learnt from Jason is: make good notes. There were ways he would move, ways he would play guitar and I’d understand “Right, we’re changing now”. A lot of those guys on the record, he’d known them since college. He just picked the right people – right people, right place, right time.

JP: Which of his songs have a particular resonance with you?

JEV: Blue Chicago Moon is one of the most powerful songs ever written. Just Be Simple moves me every time. The Dark Don’t Hide It is literally the first thing I ever played with Jason and we all wrote that song together at a recording session. I was messing with that riff and he was like “Let’s write that!” He had some lyrics and we just made it happen. I love Shenandoah from Josephine – so moving to me. A song called It’s Made Me Cry that came out on a 7 inch. I love The Gray Tower and I was so happy to play a different version of it on the new 7 inch…Defenders that [Alasdair Roberts] sang tonight. There’s so many, but when I think about it, it’s Blue Chicago Moon. When people ask me what Songs:Ohia was, I usually tell them to listen to that song. It’s gonna take you 8 minutes and by the end of it you’ll either love it or hate it and you’ll know if you can move on.

JP: I always ask: any Spinal Tap moments?

JEV: God, yeah…there’s so many. OK so, this happened backstage. We were playing in Spain – I can’t remember what town. We did a long tour in Spain right before our name changed. I can’t remember the name of the town but we were playing some stupid dance club that had open seating and a castle above it. Mark, our drummer, and Jason were hanging out backstage and they brought us a bunch of snacks and stuff and they also brought us this plate that had something on fire like a fondue dish. There was this hot liquid and a bunch of snacks around it. I’m standing there and I watch Jason grab a piece of pitta bread and dip it in this hot liquid and put it in his mouth. It was burning incense…burning incense oil.

JP: Aaww!

JEV: And I’m like “What’s wrong? Isn’t that hot olive oil?” and he shouts “No, man! It’s incense!”-

JP: Aaawww!!

JEV: -and all night long he’s licking his arm and grabbing bits of paper towel to try and get the incense out of his mouth. It was right before we went on stage.

JP: Aawwwww!!

JEV: And so he sang the whole night with hot, burning hot, fragrant oil! It was so weird they served it to us that way! I felt bad laughing at him.

JP: It was served with the pitta bread?!

JEV: It was just there! Imagine a tray: round the bottom there’s this pitta and in the centre a raised bowl with something in it, and below it a flame keeping the stuff hot. You’d think it was some Middle Eastern delight! It wasn’t….

JP: And how was his breath afterwards?

JEV: Best breath of the tour! He smelled like grandma’s bathroom…

JP: One last question: how would you like him to be remembered?

JEV: Well, I think he…he would want…I don’t know what he would want…I’d like him to be remembered as a very unpretentious, music-loving, generous guy who was so rare in that he was both willing and able to share a vision of art and himself that so many people aren’t able to do in such a profound and elegant way. I want him to be remembered through his records and through stories like the one I just told. He talked so much and he knew so many people that there’s a million stories out there. The longer we all talk about him and collect these stories…he’s gonna be this mythical dude who actually did all these things.

JP: He’s already mythical in many respects.

JEV: Yeah. It’s crazy. He was just a dude who I shared hotel rooms with, but who also got kicked out of a Cheap Trick concert for throwing ice at them, then snuck back in and threw more ice at them. And got on Willie Nelson’s tour bus because he was persistent about it. And just wrote some really great songs. We all have problems, and he did too and…he burned really brightly when he was around.

Jim’s review of the September gig at the Brudenell is here.

Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.

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