Jason Webley on ritual deaths, eleven and not being a dangerous cult leader
Jason Webley (due at the Mercury Cafe, Saturday, June 25) started out playing punk rock as a teenager in Seattle, but it wasn't until well into his twenties that he shed that musical skin. It would be difficult to pin Webley with a genre, but it could be said that he mixed performance art and street theater with a forceful Americana hybridized with other folk traditions.
And yet, not really any of that. His stage persona is a kind of crazed vagabond telling darkly colorful stories while keeping you guessing what might come next in the show. With his handy accordion and native beguiling charm and stage presence, Webley has performed all over the U.S. and abroad, including gigs at the gigantic Glastonbury Festival in England and tours with the Dresden Dolls. And like the latter, there is a bit of an Old World appeal to Webley's music. We recently had a chat with Webley as he was en route to Chicago and talked about his fake ritual deaths, the number eleven and his alleged status as a dangerous cult leader.
Westword: You did Evelyn Evelyn with Amanda Palmer? How did that come about?
Jason Webley: We actually met years ago, before the Dresden Dolls started. We were both street performers in Australia at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2000. I was playing accordion and screaming like I do, and she was a human statue. We met there, and years later, when her band started, she reached out and I opened for them a number of times. At the time, I was doing collaborative songwriting projects with a bunch of different musician friends.
Evelyn Evelyn grew out of that. We were going to do one of those collaborative projects, but the story ended up being a bit too big for that, and she convinced me to hold on to most of the good material and put it out as a full album. At this point, she's one of my closest friends that are in this business.
How did you get into punk, and what was it like being in a punk band in Seattle in the early '90s?
Oh, wow, I don't know what it was like. I was in a couple of those. I was in a punk band in high school, and we did all of three gigs in our local community area. And I was in a band with some roommates in college that did two or three gigs. Then I was in another band that wasn't exactly a punk band at the same time in college ,and we did a ton of gigs and nobody ever noticed us. Except that the members of Harvey Danger were our biggest fans.
I wasn't really part of any kind of real scene. I was just going out making music with my friends. In a way, that's still the case. I still don't have any sense of what the scene is like in Seattle or anything like that.
What sparked the transition to make the kind of music you're making now rather than the kind of music you're doing now, rather than what you made when you were younger?
I'm kind of lucky. Back then I was a bit hungry for attention, and I got it in limited ways. When I got into college, I got a lot of that desire wrung out of me. I kind of didn't feel that what I was doing was all that special or interesting. I also didn't really think people would be too interested. Which is actually a good thing for me. The music I wrote in high school and college doesn't interest me too much, and I think it's kind of lucky that life waited a few years to bring people who would care what I was doing.
As to what sparked the change, it wasn't all that conscious. I was just a bit older and responded to different things and wrote the songs that came naturally. In college I had studied a bunch of twentieth-century classical composition stuff and was open to a lot of world music and things. I don't know if those things shaped what I did all that much, but they kind of busted some of the barriers with how I was thinking about things, so when I went back to writing simple songs, the shapes they took and the instrumentation was different.
A big conscious shift happened when I recorded. I did tons of recordings all through college and a couple of years after before I started doing what I do now. The first Jason Webley album was a big departure in that normally I would sequence drums and bass on a computer or a synthesizer and add electric guitars and reverbed-out vocals -- that was always kind of my production style on my recordings when I was younger. For some reason, for that last batch of songs, I had this impulse to take all of that away and to just record with these weird acoustic instruments that I had acquired over the previous few years. So that first album, which isn't my greatest album at all, was something really different for me, and I was amazed by how it all held together, which is why I decided to put it out as an album.
Why did you start that short-lived tradition of "dying" every Halloween and why such an elaborate kind of ceremony or event like that?
It's similar to the last question. I didn't exactly plan, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to ritually die every year and be reborn every year." The impulse was that I had seen this caricature I had become. I liked this shaggy guy with a hat and trenchcoat and played an accordion and screamed at people. I had developed him for a couple of years, and I was losing track, a little bit, of where he began and where I ended. I was very fond of him. At the moment when I looked in the mirror and recognized that as being an archetype or something...there was a moment when I looked in the mirror and seeing the character when I felt very fond of it and at the same time needing to kill him.
Halloween was always a very important day to me, and it's wrapped up in so much costume and the assumption of character and the discovery of personal mythology. So it seemed natural to say, "Okay, I'll kill him on Halloween." That's where that came from. The idea at that time wasn't that I would come back. I just was going to stop and kill him and kill this character off and give myself some space and see what came up next in my life. The pattern of it becoming of cycle came next, just following the next set of impulses. I didn't realize it was a cycle until it had happened for a full year.
What first attracted you to playing the accordion, and what still draws you to playing it today?
I'm going to answer that backwards. I love the accordion because it's a physical instrument. It engages your whole body when you play it. It's also very handy that it's incredibly loud and versatile. You can play bass lines, a choral accompaniment, melodies and harmonies, and still have your mouth free to sing and your feet free to stomp.
Even though it's a really young instrument in the grand scheme of things -- the accordion is only like two or three hundred years old -- there's a very sort of Old World feel about it that's nice. I started playing because when I was in college, I did a lot of plays, and for this show I was working on, I decided I needed something different for the last act. My parents had bought this accordion at a garage scale and I [experimented with] it and learned a couple of songs. That play I was doing was Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. A number of people have written music for it over the years, Hanns Eisler being the most known, but we wanted to do something from scratch for that production.
When did you play Glastonbury and what was it like for you being there and playing there?
I was there three years, I believe those years were either 2001, 2002 or 2003 -- but it might be 2002 through 2004. You know, England, especially when I was getting started there, was hard. England's a tough market to break into. I'm grateful to Glastonbury because it was the first place I got exposure and started building my fan base there. Now I do quite well in the UK.
The first two or three times that I went to the UK, I left swearing I was never gonna go back again. My role at Glastonbury was minor. There's a lot of big stages there and a lot of little stages. I was brought on to be a performer at one of the various circus tents. Over the years I was there, they gave me longer sets on smaller stages. The first year I was doing short bits in front of fairly big audiences in these circus tents.
I wouldn't go back and do it again, actually. I don't like playing festivals. I don't like playing giant festivals. I don't like the energy of them very much. That particular festival I had a lot of mixed feelings, and most of the people that were there that I liked and connected with that were part of the organization aren't there anymore. I'm grateful I was there and that it fulfilled a role. Maybe someday, if I'm massively famous, and they want to book me as one of the big acts, it would be fun to go back. But I feel like, to be actually successful in a stadium or in festival seating situation, to have a show have the kind of energy that I enjoy out of a show, the odds are really stacked against you. There's all this noise everywhere, and you're competing against the sky because you're not in an enclosed area.