Jesse Malin talks about the East Village like a wayward old friend, something he’s definitely earned having seen the neighborhood shift and transform since the early ’80s when, as a 12-year-old kid, he fronted a hardcore band called Heart Attack. And you better believe what was maybe, probably the youngest band playing shows in the city at the time recorded a song titled “Toxic Lullaby.” Malin grew up in Queens, but would steal away from the burbs whenever he could to hang out at CBGB and other Lower East Side haunts. Though he tours regularly, and like most city veterans, laments the sterilization of his former haunts and the neighborhood as a whole, he still very much identifies downtown as home.
You might think that having such a storied early career would incline Malin – who is also the co-owner of two East Village bars Niagara and Bowery Electric– to sort of be stuck in the past. But Malin continued to play music and has been releasing solo work since the early aughts. His latest effort, New York Before the War, which is out on One Little Indian Records at the end of March, finds Malin miles away from his hardcore past. Jesse was cool enough to speak with us over the phone and give us a glimpse of the recording process for the album’s closing track, “Bar Life.”
Yeah it’s been five years. In 2010 I had a record that came out, but this is the longest I’ve ever gone between records and I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. Like it’s a lot of songs, I could have made three records. I already have another one in mind. [New York Before the War] is an important one for me and, you know, a build up of getting it right. I tried a few different locations, recorded in different parts of the country.
Half of the album was recorded outside of Charlottesville, Virginia in a farm house called White Star Studios. And it’s a really cool place, but for a real urban, city guy it was real crazy to be down there living on this farm and recording and the record is made by a producer Don DiLego. But I’m out there all isolated and I’m a vegetarian who likes to walk around the city, you know, and go to bars. Out there, the closest thing to a vegetarian health food spot was five miles away and it was called Wal-Mart. But we then came back and I felt the record was very mellow and I was missing some of the darker stuff, some of the energy and high-tempo songs I like for the stage and being out with an audience.
So I decided not to put it out. Then I locked myself in my crappy tenement apartment on Avenue C. I found myself alone around the holidays, when the city gets so quiet, and I was just frustrated with myself because the record wasn’t complete, so I sat at home throughout Christmas and New Year’s Eve. One day I looked up at this crappy building up by this Mobil station and there were these crooked letters that said “the war.” Some guy must have hung upside down and painted these huge letters. So I wrote that down, and that would lead to the title of the record.
I wrote another 15, 20 songs and we went to Magic Shop studios in SoHo and we recorded with a different lineup – Randy Schrager, who had played with Scissor Sisters and with me on St. Mark’s Social, Catherine Popper who had played with the Cardinals with Ryan Adams and Jack White and Norah Jones. And my sideman Derek Cruz who had been with me on the whole journey. We recorded to tape, and a lot of analog stuff I think is really the best for rock music, it just has that warmth.
Yeah he played on “Freeway” and does the guitar solo and all that stuff. We’ve done a few things over the years, he called me for some benefits including Jail Guitar Doors, where they bring guitars to people in prison. We just kind of became pals, we had a lot in common in a funny way. We had both been in the moving business when we were younger. And we’d both been in these groups — him in the MC5, me in D Generation — they’re not the same, but the idea of being in a 5-piece band and then going solo. I’d see him in LA, we did a tribute to Hendrix at SXSW out front of the post office when they unveiled the Hendrix stamp.
I do own them, with a bunch of people though. I started those places between record deals many years ago, I had some publishing money and me and some friends particularly Johnny T, who’s a musician and a producer. We wanted a little place just like a corner bar that would be a Frank Sinatra fantasy — when you’re not playing music, you wanna listen to music and drink and talk about music, hang out late. After I came home from tour I’d always be looking for that bar. Where can I have a beer? Where can I find that great DJ, that great jukebox?
Well at Niagara we made a policy that all the touring musicians could drink for free. It was less a business thing and more of a fun little social club. It’s been there a long time now and has become a spot that we’ve had a lot of our friends who are artists and musicians work at. The neighborhood’s changed, but those kids have always had a place to hang out– some kind of guitar mafia thing.
It’s funny because that building, I used to play there when I was 13, 14 years old in hardcore bands. It was A7, I grew up in the back of that place. There’s a picture on the wall with all of us in it, hanging there. It was at some SS Decontrol gig, the Bad Brains, everybody, the Beastie Boys, all friends of mine– it’s all in this back room. It’s history in that way.
Well I’m not a person who goes to church or temple or anything. But I go to bars, and I have a romantic relationship with it. I’m not an advocate of substance abuse, I’ve seen so many people destroy their lives with booze and drugs and I really believe in life and waking up each day and making shit happen and having that PMA– that positive mental attitude. But I think there is a need for people to sit in a place. Anywhere you go in the world and are looking to learn something or connect with people — people have a couple of drinks and they loosen up — or sit there alone and listen to music play in the dark. There’s some kind of poetic meditation in bars. And like Hunter S. Thompson would say, there’s also a dark side.
So the song itself is in that Humphrey Bogart, Tom Waits kind of vein, but on the other hand we’re in this business with a lot of lights and it looks like people up there are having a lot of fun, but there’s other things going on up there. There’s a verse about comedians and depression, but that’s the song that ends the record so it’s definitely personal. And it was fun to have what we call the Hardcore Choir join in on the vocals at the end. My old pal since I was a kid, Jimmy G from Murphy’s Law, and Paulie from Sheer Terror, and Craig Finn from the Hold Steady — he’s just a great lyricist and writer, too — it’s an honor to have him on the record and those other guys together.
A buddy of mine was like this song’s great, but you know what you need? You need a bunch of pals at the end. So I got everyone together and busted out some beers, whatever and just got everybody doing their vocals and gave it that pub feel, that late night feel even though it was just out of the studio.
You’re very much steeped in the rock history of New York and East Village in particular, which is cool — do you still see East Village as a cool place, though? Do you still think it’s pretty rock n’ roll? Or do you think it has changed yet and for the worse?
Yeah, it’s changed in a major way, I mean the whole world has. Now we have the same chain stores — Subways and Starbucks and all the shit I see at the rest stops on the highway. I went away on tour and I came back and my burrito shop was closed, and my video store, Kim’s, was closed, and my record store, and the cannoli place that was there for a hundred years. There’s still stuff in New York, but it’s very expensive and people aren’t out as much, out as late.
I mean when I was young I came here because the boroughs of New York were closed-minded places. People all dressed the same and all looked the same, and I got beat up for being into punk rock. But we all found ourselves down here, without the internet and we go on the trains and came down here because we could be ourselves, we could live and create cheaply. It was dangerous, but you could find a rehearsal room, and after-hours club to play. They didn’t ask you to show ID. If you were underage, the city was free. Now that’s all changed. But it’s still New York, New York.
I’ve tried living in Brooklyn, and the idea of living in Queens would be like trying to fix my childhood problems or something. But really, I still like living in the same old apple. It still happens here. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of different people. People are still doing stuff, they’re still playing in bands in small rooms and basements.
Maybe people have all these gadgets that tell em what’s going on and the internet it so happy and friendly. But I don’t like the whole Williamsburg thing where it’s become so friendly. It’s like everyone should move to Austin! And now it’s Nashville and before that it was Williamsburg and before long everybody starts to look like an American Apparel ad, you know? Like everybody should grow a beard, everybody should do this.
I think it’s important that people find individuality, and for me I think punk rock and rock n’ roll is do-it-your-own-way. And the city or wherever you go, you can find a place where you can create and break the rules and make the rules and carve out your own future. We’re all influenced by the history and New York has these ghosts — CBGBs, the New York Dolls, and Lou Reed. And it’s definitely a different city now. But there’s still trouble and decadence and darkness and kids looking to do something. There’s a lot of new bands coming out, you know even just downtown like Skaters, the Drowners, Dead Heavens. I’m always up for listening to old Clash records, but I’m also down to go see new, young bands. They inspire you. Kids have their own take on it.