An Outsider’s Musical Journey Through Three Decades Of Minimalism

(originally appeared in Thrust Magazine : December 2010)

In 2004, after 25 years as a recording artist Jandek played his first show. Since 1978 he has released over 60 albums. The clearest way that I can describe his music is to picture yourself surrounded by a perfect shell of depression, inside your worst nightmare. His guitar sound is as haunting as anything you can imagine, with a slow bluesy vocal delivery that will creep underneath your skin. Jandek’s musical output weaves a story that spans far greater than some of the most prolific artists in modern music today, all the while remaining a virtual unknown. In 1978 an album titled Ready For The House appeared out of nowhere by a band called The Units.

The album was put out on a label named Corwood Industries. The cover photograph looks to be taken in your average living room, since the colors and furniture are typical of the era; a few books rest on the table, an ashtray sits on the arm of a couch. A copy of The Complete Poems Of Christopher Marlowe sits neatly in the middle of the window sill. The back cover is black type on white— besides the titles of the nine songs contained on the album, no other information is given but the date of release, the record label, and a P.O. Box in Houston, TX. The songs on the album feature one voice, and one “out-of-tune” acoustic guitar, seemingly recorded in one sitting, edited into separate tracks. The latter is what some believe to be the result of his entire discography.

Jandek - Six And Six (1981)

Upon learning that another band existed called The Units, the artist changed his name to Jandek. As he puts it, from his only known interview in 1985 with John Trubee for Spin Magazine, “I just tried to find out some name that nobody would use. It was January, and I was speaking to someone on the phone named Dekker, so I just combined the two.”  Other than the origin of the name, some other interesting points surrounding Jandek are revealed during the interview, like the aforementioned style of guitar tuning. On his records, it sounds as if he simply picks up his guitar and sort of bangs away, with no rhythm or style. From Trubee‘s 1985 interview Jandek states, “The guitar is absolutely tuned. There’s not a time that I pick it up fresh from having left it for a while that I don’t tune it.” As far as Trubee choosing to write about Jandek, in the 2003 documentary film Jandek On Corwood, he describes his motivation behind it. “He’s underground, nobody knew about him. He was doing things on a shoe string. He wasn’t some plastic rock star put out by the major labels, which were things that I would avoid writing about because who needs to hear about them, and usually they don’t have very interesting stories.”

Things such as having a hit, making it, and chart positions were never a concern to Jandek. It is clearly the music that matters. It can be seen by looking at the covers or the information on the back cover. There are no liner notes, just music. In Jandek On Corwood, Ben Edmonds, station manager at WHPK, Univerisity Of Chicago says, “For me, the appeal of the stuff is in the way of the fact that it’s so unappealing. I don’t think people are coming to Jandek for a predictable music experience.”

Seth Tisue runs and operates the most comprehensive Internet sites on Jandek called Guide To Jandek (tisue.net/jandek/). In a 1999 Texas Monthly article by Katy Vine, Tisue had this to say about Jandek’s music. “You have to have a tolerance for really strange-sounding music. I mean, not just strange sounding but almost amateur sounding. His guitar is out of tune, and he can’t sing. People who like Jandek also appreciate the whole loner mystique.” One has to separate themselves from their own beliefs about music and art when listening to Jandek. People who listen to Jandek either love him or hate him, there really is no in-between. It takes a special person to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish. Art and music are always subjects of debate. What one person considers a masterpiece, another may believe it to be dispensable. In the same Texas Monthly article, author Katy Vine claims to have tracked down and interviewed the man known as Jandek. “He seemed content that Jandek’s recordings were merely out there. Reviews don’t faze him, though he liked one critic’s description of the music as ‘pentatonic refractive dissonance.”

“That’s something you can use,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied. “So do you want people to get it’?”

“There’s nothing to get,” he said.

 

The Units (Jandek) - Ready For The House (1978)

I asked Angela Sawyer, owner of Weirdo Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was interviewed as part of the Jandek On Corwood documentary that if there wasn’t as much of a myth behind Jandek, did she think his music would be overlooked.

“Jandek records obviously hold up beyond the novelty of personal mystery, for a couple of reasons,” she says. “For one thing, the twists and turns of the lyrics, variety of playing styles, and range of intensities in the performances over the Corwood catalog are as hair-raising as any roller coaster ride. Additionally, I would posit that when you listen to any music, you’ve begun a project to unravel an endless enigma. You certainly don’t need to read interviews, know where Jandek grew up, or how to spell his last name to figure out how to get yourself lost.”

In the 1985 John Trubree Spin Magazine telephone interview, Jandek had this to say, “I’m inordinately a private person. I have declined interviews and things like that because I just put out a product and that’s it, I don’t want to get too involved.”

To put Jandek’s career into terms that may be a bit easier to understand, look at the January 2003 Junkmedia.org interview by Ronald Andryshak with producer and director Chad Freidrichs of Jandek On Corwood. “The interest in Jandek lies somewhere in this improbable and indefinite gestalt…a situation created just as much by the fans as by Jandek himself. When you get down to it, Jandek On Corwood deals with nothing more or less than the divination of the forces that created that mystery”.

In conclusion, one thing I’d like to make perfectly clear is that this article is in no way an attempt to sum up the works by the artist known as Jandek. I feel that trying to put a career spanning 32 years into a few paragraphs is impossible to say the least. Each of his albums have something different to offer the listener. It’s up to them to gain his or her own perspective of the artist’s works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I think this is one of the most significant facts for me. And i’m glad reading your write-up. But wanna remark on some general things, The internet site style is ideal, the articles is categorically great

    Reply

  2. I saw two reviews for this guy in LA Record consecutively. I am glad to get the story it clarifies a lot of things. Actually, quite inspiring in a way.

    Reply

    • thank you. I originally wrote it for a generic bullshit “magazine” that I had the great misfortune of “working” for. I use the term work lightly because I did all the work and never received a dime, yet received so much flack for my writing that I probably would have been better off putting away the pen and picking up a spatula at McDonald’s where I would have received more credit for my hard work.the editor had no understanding of what underground music was and sadly I believe that this article was overlooked. thanks again for reading it and sharing your thoughts.

      Reply

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