ITW #12 – Jason McMahon (Odd West out on Jan 31 2020)
Public transportation strikes can be painful. Not for us! Almost two months ago, we were stuck home on a cold Fall day. We then received an incoming message announcing Odd West, Jason McMahon’s first solo album after his abundant opportunities as a respected touring musician. Folk/americana? That aroused curiosity.
Our modest but hyperactive sound system didn’t fail to instantly reveal the richness of the twelve tracks of Odd West. Unsurprisingly enough, and beyond his musical abilities, JasonMcMahon has a sense of generosity and openness in his words that touched us and that you can find in this interview.
Before reading, press play to enjoy “Book of Knots” and “Ambisinistrous”.
Our interview with Jason McMahon:
After so many years spent recording and touring with various bands, how do you explain your need to go solo?
The process of creating a musical statement of this scale is something I have been preparing to do for a very long time. I had no idea it would take 15 years. And for as artistically and personally rewarding as it has been to begin to find and develop my voice, it could have easily never happened, and has taken a lot of luck and patience.
Years ago I had become quite busy as a touring musician. I played with a number of bands and was actually starting to make a little money, but then very quickly over the course of a year everything changed: people moved, people got fired, people quit, and suddenly I wasn’t playing music with anyone. It brought me face to face with a lot of questions I’d never had to confront before, both artistically and personally, and as such it’s been an arduous path riddled with struggles and setbacks, but also a lot of success and growth, and I do think that with this album I have emerged at what feels like the beginning of my journey as an artist.
For the first time in your career, you're going (almost) fully acoustic with Odd West. What major challenges did you encounter on your way to such mastery?
For over 20 years, my one main electric guitar has been my Japanese Stratocaster. I’ve lived many musical lives on that guitar, emerged from the ashes over and over again; it’s a real Frankenstein and it will always be important to me. A few years ago, however, I started to have a real need for a different sound. I went back to the acoustic because I needed that intimacy, that immediacy of detail and tactile experience from live handmade music. For me it’s like good food or a funny joke: the value is instant and undeniable.
In order to develop unique material for Odd West, I challenged myself to find a completely different approach to both the way I played the guitar and the way I wrote on it. First, I tuned my guitar to an arbitrary tuning, and purposefully never transcribed what I was playing. All the songs on this album were thus written entirely “by ear”. Second, I made myself develop fingerstyle technique, which I had never done before. This, like the alternate tuning, forced me to slow down, whereby even the act of playing a simple chord required a coordinated, rehearsed effort. I gave myself these limitations to create a framework for the songs and for the album overall. I gave myself other limitations in terms of the compositions and arrangements which made the whole process more manageable and provided further cohesion to the music. As a result, the songs were actually quite easy to write once I decided what I was doing. The next challenge will be to abandon this process entirely and find another one for the next album.
What's your stance on the actual folk/americana scene, and what made Americana so attractive to you in the beginning of your process?
I actually know very little about the Folk or Americana scenes. I really love Fahey now but his playing did not immediately capture me when I first heard it; it took some years. 6- and 12-String Guitar, the album by Leo Kottke, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorites. I guess I’ve always been a fan of flashy guitar, just the more reserved, jazzy, introspective type of flashy. In terms of actual folk music, I’m uneducated there; most of my points of reference come from the jazz/experimental/rock world.
Your forthcoming album Odd West is made of various influences outside the folk scene, like nu soul and noise rock. What are the artists and albums that inspired you in the making of Odd West?
I’ll start with the two genres you mention here. By nu soul I’m going to take a leap and assume you’re talking about “The Sky for Falling” which prominently features finger snaps on 2 and 4 and “ooh-ahh” background vocals. I suppose it’s a take on a classic soul convention, but that’s just a coincidence. I chose the hand percussion on the album, snaps on “Sky” and claps on “If It Rhymes, It’s True” because I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was recording the album in an amazing studio and that kind of live, detailed percussion would sound incredible. I recorded everything at Strange Weather, run by my brilliant friend Daniel Schlett.
Moving on, by noise music I can only assume you mean the guitar solo at the very end of the album. There is no other noise on the entire album, barely a single dissonant or out of place note. That solo is in fact the only improvised moment on the entire album, and just as the solo gets going the song fades out and the album ends. The fade out was actually suggested by Daniel, who referred to it as the “Tom Waits fade out” though I don’t know which song he was referring to. Speaking of Tom Waits, the solo in question is specifically indebted to two famous guitar solos, one of which is the solo on “Clap Hands” from Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, played by Marc Ribot, one of my all time favorites. The other one is Adrian Belew’s unbelievable solo on “Born Under Punches” by The Talking Heads. The riff on the final song on Odd West is also basically an interpolation of the titular guitar riff from the album “Birds of Fire” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The list of specific musical influences and interpolations goes on and on, in fact, from Joni Mitchell to Kevin Drumm to Morricone to Jon Brion to Jim O’Rourke to Paul McCartney to Weather Report to Judee Sill.
Skydiving seems to occupy a central place in your life. Is there a relation between skydiving and your music, in terms of courage, creativity or experience?
I went skydiving once. Before we strapped up and got on the plane the instructor told us with great excitement and enthusiasm not to be scared, that we were in for the ride of our lives. He told us that he, too, was nervous before his first jump, but once he did, his eyes opened and everything changed: after that first dive he quit his job, broke up with his girlfriend, and moved to a house near the airfield where he lived with a bunch of other skydiving fanatics. Ironic that he was trying to calm us down, because what he said was terrifying. He was clearly some sort of skydiving junkie.
I didn’t get hooked that day but I do have to admit I am historically attracted to certain “high risk” behaviors: drugs, alcohol, street racing, marriage, music, art. The title of this album actually comes from my time as an alley cat racer in Manhattan; it’s a mnemonic device for remembering which way the numbered streets in Manhattan run: even East, odd West. I don’t race anymore.
This album represents a personal shift towards a more balanced approach to risk: Not to shun or deny it, just to find the right time and place for it.
– Jason McMahon.
Odd West was engineered and co-produced by Daniel Schlett, who runs Strange Weather Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Fellow Oberlin alumni Jon Leland (Skeletons, Sun Araw, Janka Nabay) and Moppa Elliot (Mostly Other People Do The Killing) play drums and bass, respectively, and Sam Sowyrda (Dan Deacon, Cloud Becomes Your Hand) plays percussion.
Original album art and its associated 3D animated video for the song Sunshine for Locksmith were created and directed by the brilliant Pixel Mozart, pseudonym of artist Andrew Strasser, who has designed iconic album covers for Girl Talk, Andrew WK, Co La, Oneohtrix Point Never, and many others.