TRACK BY TRACK: Strange Tales and Mystery with Jane Jane Pollock
It is a sound that haunts woodland trails and serpentine roads like an old ghost or a lingering memory – Jane Jane Pollock is as daring and thoughtful as musicians as they are human beings. Their roots run through southern Georgia and northern Florida – but the highway guides them and, like nomads armed with paint brushes and reverb pedals, they are making their name and mythos known throughout Florida and beyond, with sights and ambitions that flee the conventional with spectral ease.
They had been one of many to play the 2011 Antiwarpt festival of St. Petersburg and the scene that ensued during their presence was familiar, yet another notion to confirm that Jane Jane Pollock is on to something – the bar was packed from backdoor to stage and there thrived a triumphant intimacy between the cacophonous drum hits, intertwined vocals, and the audience that had come in waves to adore and praise both melody and oddity. A few spirited souls couldn’t help but to dance and gesture; the girls behind me were sharing joints as they mouthed lyrics in a wavering stupor with everyone else whilst the cross-state five-piece treated the set list like the rites to a tribal ritual, rather than a rock show.
It is that spirit, alive with independence and ipseity, which sets the fire for Jane Jane Pollock and reveals the light to even the darkest eyes.
Only hours after the revival they brought through Antiwarpt, I spent time with two of the five: Courtney Asztalos, artist and player of a Wandering Genie organ that is rumored to be as haunted as it is enchanting in tone, and Michael Arcos, multi-instrumentalist and the seed that, some years ago, spawned what they have become.
The weather of the evening would be unforgiving – we would find ourselves sitting, cross-legged under the awning of a nearby bank not too far from the band’s trailer, talking and sharing stories as thunder boomed, rain poured, and tires screeched from far off streets.
With 2011 comes Jane Jane Pollock, the self-titled album released via their autonomous label, Flea Ridden Kitten – it is thirteen tracks of experimentation and enigma that is known to bewitch, haunt, thrill, and unnerve. The music is yours to discover – Courtney and Michael went track by track, ruminating on the dynamics and ideas behind each.
Michael Arcos of Jane Jane Pollock: A song I wrote in the comfort of our trailer in Thomasville, Georgia. We are fans of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Courtney Asztalos of Jane Jane Pollock: And we watched an episode, it was an episode with Pee Wee’s little friends – his little kid friends that come over, and he was showing them the dinosaur hole.
MA: Yeah, Pee Wee Herman, in his house, he has a mouse hole, which basically turns into stop motion animation Claymation and it’s this dinosaur family who do really strange things.
CA: I feel like it was a metaphor for looking into a small place and seeing something really beautiful.
MA: Courtney’s mom heard the song and was like, “is that an ear hole into Michael’s brain?” But I wasn’t really that conceptual about it.
MA: Maybe we’ll get in trouble because we got a UPC code and said otherwise, but it’s a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover.
CA: But it’s not exactly a cover.
MA: I’d have to admit that the lyrics are extracted from…but not all of them. It was a really inspiring song for me at one time.
SubAp!: Why inspiring?
MA: Lyrically. It was really daring and almost, in a sense, mysterious. If someone were to ask me, “What is that song exactly about?” I wouldn’t know how to verbalize it. To me, some of the lyrics really make sense.
SubAp! There’s a foreboding feel in them – but people really like it.
MA: Strange enough. I’ve been doing that song for maybe four years.
“Stuck On A Highway Island”
CA: It’s the result of a road trip Michael and I took to Miami with our very dear friends who have a Eurovan. We had a strange, like, we drove from Tallahassee to Miami and to me, it was basically Florida. It’s a metaphor in some sense. I’m very conscious of it now because we’ve been driving all around Florida but Florida basically is being stuck on a highway island to some extent. It was just, also, the song is about control within relationships, to some degree.
MA: We were traveling with a dog, which was in a cage, and there was a time when I felt kinda bad for the dog in the cage, traveling – we were all un-caged and enjoying the trip and I was looking at it and the dog looked extremely sad and the dog began to whimper and…
CA: The owner of the dog basically, was like, “Do not look at the dog, do not stare at her, do not engage the dog.” It’s also kind of a metaphor for the relationship as well.
MA: And maybe a dark area we could go is we saw this – on a highway island rest stop – a cat with broken limbs, kind of stuck there.
CA: On the same road trip and the couple we were with, they were like, “There’s nothing we can do about this cat.”
MA: It was the same road trip that the song was born out of.
SubAp!: How did you end up with this couple?
CA: They’re like our other parents – we love them.
MA: They take care of us, feed us really well.
CA: They inspire us – they’re muses. They both have inspired multiple projects, like over decades. Pretty famous photographers, pretty famous writers – this couple inspires.
MA: They know cinema, art in general, and have turned us onto a lot.
CA: We love them.
MA: But then they have problems like everybody else.
MA: Let’s skip it, let’s leave it mystic!
MA: Ah, Punching Jackie.
SubAp: It seems to be the most recognizable, Pixies-like track.
MA: Punching Jackie? That’s a compliment, actually – I’m a huge fan of The Pixies. I had a chance to meet Frank Black and talk with him for a bit.
CA: Michael just went up to his trailer.
MA: Yeah, I walked up to his trailer when he was on a Frank Black and the Catholics tour.
SubAp!: How many years ago?
MA: I’d have to say that was 2007 or 2008. It was incredible.
CA: About the song, we can’t really get into the story about it because it could get sticky. But I think the words really ring true and if you relate to them…
MA: Fuck it, it’s –
CA: Let’s leave it. It’s just a mystery. We’ve told other stories that we wouldn’t want to get mixed up with how we’ve told the story.
SubAp! Leave it a mystery?
MA: This is kind of ambiguous – I’ll leave it ambiguous.
CA: I’ll just have to say that this song, above all other songs, was one of the best forms of therapy I’ve ever had in writing a song and every time I sing it, it makes me feel a really wonderful sense of release about the situation it was written about.
MA: It’s friends growing apart from each other, friends growing indifferent, and I feel like it was spawned from that.
“Spooky Hand Saloon”
MA: Danny (guitarist) wrote that song and that’s his thing, man. He belongs in a saloon, playing the piano in a smoky bar in the 1920s
MA: I’m an asthmatic baby and I get sick often. A sore throat is something I’ve grown to despise, I guess. It’s something I made and recorded solely by myself while I was sick and I think that it hopefully sounds like that.
CA: We have a lot of cats at our trailer.
MA: We have a lot of feral cats. Currently, we have…
CA: Ishtar, Krycek, Garfield, Booth, Nick, Tuft, Ginger.
SubAp!: Did you go out and get them or did they come to you?
MA: No, it was something that was happening to the place. Cats were there. Even one of the deciding factors of moving there.
CA: They were just waiting outside our trailer for us.
MA: It’s kind of a chant for the cats that have been infested with fleas, have chewed them out of their body, digested them, and which turn into heartworms, tapeworms – I’m not even too sure how to exactly say that. But it’s a song for them, in a strange sense. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that.
MA: It stemmed from a bass line that Heather Lee Smith, the bass player-vocalist… I love her, man. She was the first member of this project before it started spawning. She wrote this bass line when she was learning bass guitar and I fell in love with it – it’s something we worked around that. I’m not even too sure why it’s called blister – I think we have sections within the song that sound like a blister.
“Rusty Test Tube”
CA: My mom gave Michael a Stylophone for some holiday. We were messing around with it and made loops. We had just gotten a really dusty, weird amplifier – we were playing with it and it was an experiment loop.
MA: Yeah, experiment loop.
(Video via YouTube user Jiblitdupree)
“Poor Pretty Jane”
MA: Lyrically, a true story and also, inspired by Skip James who is, duh, you know. The lyrics I stole from him were, “never missed my water till my well run dry – didn’t miss Crow Jane till the day she died.” We live in a trailer that’s run on well water and, for some reason or another; the well ran dry – literally. And we didn’t have water for a week and a half. And it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, it was terrible – we couldn’t take showers and we ended up having to buy gallons of water.
CA: And we used our kiddy pool to collect rainwater.
MA: To flush the toilet we had to fill the commode up with water every time we did it. The song is spawned from that experience.
CA: And also, working with what you have. We live there because we’re dedicated to our art and it’s the best place to just be creatively free and the best environment and, sometimes, when all other things fail you have what you’ve built.
MA: I’m kind of a city boy, born in New York, raised in Miami. It was a place for solitude. It’s in Thomasville, Georgia, the southernmost place in Georgia.
SubAp!: Is it in a field?
MA: Yeah, it’s on an old… I’m at a loss for words.
CA: Pine trees, cornfields, blackberry bushes, and our landlord is mystic.
MA: I found it in a really obscure listing in a local ad. I was driving through Georgia and I was like, “I could do this, I could live here.” And the ad was, “cheap rent in the woods.” There were misspellings in the ad.
SubAp!: That’s probably the only time that kind of ad hasn’t ended in a horror film.
MA: It totally could have – I think he thought I was strange at first.
CA: I don’t think Michael would mind that though – he loves horror movies.
SubAp! I guess having Leatherface as a landlord could be pretty cool.
MA: (laughter) Totally.
“Pig and Spider”
CA: When I was seven years old I was in a theatre camp and I was in a VHS, I have a VHS of the performance – I was Charlotte and I performed with this older woman who had Down syndrome; we just recently watched it.
MA: It was spawned off of that.
CA: It was a special video. I had totally forgotten about it.
MA: And for me, in the cheesiest, most campy way possible, it was also a love letter to Courtney. It’s that too.
“Of Holy Colors”
MA: One of the most collective pieces of work on this album. We rarely kind of get together. Usually, someone has a pretty structured song and builds off of it from there – or has parts. Of Holy Colors was something that was completely made with the whole group. And The Church of Holy Colors is an amazing venue in Gainesville, Florida. It’s an amazing collective of artists, incredible inspiring collective – we played a couple shows there.
CA: It was actually the first show we played with me, Heather, Michael, and Danny.
MA: It’s an homage to that – as well as other things.
CA: And Danny wrote music for it – the guitar part, the beautiful composition. Heather and I basically worked out the words and Michael added the amazing other stuff.
The artwork of this release – depicting three gargoyle-like toys looming atop a white piano – as is the music of Jane Jane Pollock, is both starkly intimate and alluding. Michael and Courtney would elaborate:
CA: The front cover, basically, this is in our house. This is really just how it is.
MA: This is a corner in our house and this piano is definitely on the album, this toy keyboard that I’ve had for awhile. And these Boglins (the toys atop the piano) are this strange, puppet, latex toy that was distributed within the early eighties. It was something I wasn’t allowed to buy as a kid but I found them at yard sales and shops throughout the years, because I’m kind of a thrift junkie – we all are.
CA: We thought this was fitting because this is in our house and this is how the album is to me, at least.
The album insert features the five artists posed together, wearing ghoulish masks.
CA: This speaks for itself.
MA: On a funny note – this might piss some people off – it was taken in Wal-Mart.
CA: But then Michael water colored it.
MA: I scanned it black and white and I painted it.
On the backside of the album, above the track list, is Jane Jane Pollock, spelled out in a strange, eclectic text. Courtney would delve into its becoming:
CA: I found these old typography magazines from the 70s, and this was some student’s design, then I scanned them and we water colored them. I feel like taking things from the past and putting new life into them.
MA: Absolutely – I think that’s the music we make, too.
Jane Jane Pollock’s debut LP is out now and available via iTunes. A four-track sampler is streaming below.