Tag Archives: Calvin Johnson

Jean Smith solo 2000

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I made my solo album in 2000, fairly soon after I quit drinking and ended a relationship. I’m not sure if either of those things are audible, but that’s what was going in my personal life. I’d worked and recorded with two very powerful musicians at that point. David Lester (guitar in Mecca Normal) and Peter Jefferies, who plays drums and piano, with whom I was involved in a certain amount of studio recording beyond what was typical for with Mecca Normal. I’d also been playing acoustic guitar in an instrumental duo where I do lead accents to fairly conventional melodies that I didn’t write.

I wanted to make an album alone, utilizing various theories I had about composition and sound. I took the bus from Vancouver to Olympia to record with Pat Maley who engineered some of Mecca Normal’s K Records releases. I brought the sax (which I got in the early 80s, before I met David), the acoustic guitar and few things I’d recorded here including the relentless cymbal that runs evenly through the length of Siamese Hips, and then, at end, other elements drop away and it’s just the cymbal. It was things like that, how layers of sound worked together, that I was interested in. I wanted to replace the urgency of my other projects with space within which I added elements without having to battle for that space with anyone else.

Peter and I had been using drones in 2 Foot Flame, in which I played electric guitar and sang and he played electric piano and drums. The piano was sometimes a drone element so I’d become well-versed in how a drone could function in a composition, giving a sort of fill in wash so other sounds are more unified. Actually, the cymbal sound, the blur that surrounds the strike, is like a drone. I also used a vocal drone in that song, where the undulating note is buried in the mix. These were the sorts of things I was interested in doing. Creating fairly even constructions with a certain amount of personality to play other instruments to. So of course I had to figure out which to record first and, to be efficient, we wanted to record all of each instrument after setting up. I’m sure it was all a bit mystifying for Pat, considering he knew me as a singer and suddenly I’m there in the Capitol Theatre wanting to use one of the giant speakers for the films as a microphone because I’d heard this could be done and so we recorded the drum sound that way.

I’ve always worked well at what could be called improvising. Six of the songs on the first Mecca Normal album were written as they were recorded on our Fostex cassette 4 track — including I Walk Alone which I added the vocal over-dubs to immediately after recording it. I have always been the engineer at rehearsals, which, for a band of voice and electric guitar means mic placement and not over-recording, and all the tasks associated with archiving the best versions of songs, mixing them to cassettes so that we could learn the songs in subsequent rehearsals. I still have all our rehearsal tapes.

I wanted my solo album to feel confident. The playing isn’t about virtuosity — it openly and unapologetically defies that. In a way, there’s nowhere to hide in these pieces. There’s no repeating learned phrases, melodies or patterns. It’s basically about playing a track and, in the moment, knowing that there needs to be space to add other tracks and those tracks will affect the overall, finished composition. I wasn’t precious about the playing — most tracks were first time through, except one of the long piano ones which had some technical problems that required I play it a couple of times at least and they were basically different constructions, different pieces. It helped immeasurable that Pat Maley was on my side as a friend and a fan. He wasn’t an engineer who, I can imagine, would be giving me flack for a way too long piano piece (Root Smooth Sapling Whips) that just goes along pretty much the same for 10 minutes. I knew I’d be adding to it with other elements — in this case sax and acoustic guitar. I didn’t want the individual instruments to take over at any given point, so you’ll hear them being brought back, away from solo territory, every time they are inclined to jump out too much. This, philosophically, represents my internal struggle within a complex self, and the history of the way men tend to play together, which can be kind of competitive. The main instruments I’m using are known as solo-ing instruments — piano, sax, guitar — but I keep pushing them into a different kind of servitude that I maintain in a less masculine way, as uniquely singular components interacting with each other without one dominating. So, yes — those are themes in Mecca Normal too. Equality, leaving and making space without it being an unwelcoming, gaping, blank space. Also, using two things to make a third thing. David isn’t accompanying me.  When we set up for a live show, I’m not in the middle — we share the stage equally and maintain a conversational connection for the duration. That sensibility is in the solo compositions as well.

Another great part of working with Pat was that he let me mix a lot of it alone. I get up really early and that’s when I like to work, so I’d walk into town and open up the studio and start mixing. This allowed me to concentrate without a sense that any men were having any thoughts whatsoever about what I was doing while I was doing it. Paradise!

When the CD came out (Kill Rock Stars, 2000) I sent it to godspeed! you black emperor who contacted me wanting me to open their west coast tour. Which, when you record a studio album as a solo musician, it doesn’t automatically translate to a stage show. I used a CD for backing tracks and played the electric guitar and sax live, focusing on the songs with words for a my opening set which were all at bigger venues than I normally played. It was kind of a trial by fire playing alone and not drinking, so I count it as a success, although the audience was there for godspeed! (a 15 piece band… or whatever) and I was not that!

Jean Smith solo “A Little Black Dress” live (Seattle audio with visual from a different source) opening for Godspeed! You Black Emperor

Meeting Calvin Johnson

Mecca Normal first played in Olympia on a west coast tour in 1986 after we put out our first album. We met Calvin at that show, but years later I found out Tobi Vail was also there. I don’t think I was quite at a point where I was regularly speaking between songs on stage, telling women to form bands with their friends and write about their experience.

Mecca Normal live in Olympia, 1986 – audio

We started working with Calvin and played Olympia fairly frequently since it’s about 4 hours from where we are. The scene there was very different than Vancouver’s 4-guys-on-stage scene that we basically rebelled against. There were more women making music – Heather Lewis in Beat Happening and other bands on the label with women in them, like the Cannanes — and there was just a whole different vibe, not making playing music a monumental feat that only very special people (men) could get into. Plus, K Records itself was a partnership between Calvin with Candice Pedersen. We met Lois early on and she treats us like visiting dignitaries, showing us around, introducing us to people. We liked this!

In 1989, Mecca Normal toured across the US with Some Velvet Sidewalk and the Go Team which was Calvin, Tobi and Billy Karren (both later of Bikini Kill), so we knew them and we met Molly and Allison in Eugene when they came to a show and later invited us for dinner. They were fans, so yes. We knew the co-founders within the context of visiting their communities and us playing, recording and visiting.

Kathleen and Billy came to one of our recording sessions — Kathleen and I actually sang and recorded a song together. I knew she was a fan and I’d heard her sing and was totally blown away. She interviewed me for her zine. So the dynamic was one of us being the band they liked and us appreciating the time we spent there, meeting people, seeing a fair few local bands on the same bill, yet it seemed more than that.

When Riot Grrrl became something people were talking about, we were already on Matador Records, touring in Europe, and really, in a way, we just heard about it in terms of the impact it was making in the media. We basically knew the bands and the people in them, but we were about 10 years older and we were actively seeking out media opportunities to illuminate our ideas about feminism and women starting bands with their friends.

My name started to get passed around as someone who would talk to journalists at a point when there was supposedly a media ban within the Riot Grrrl movement. I was getting interview requests from mainstream media that we wouldn’t have been getting if it weren’t for Riot Grrrl. Rather than not talk – because I’d been talking for 10 years at that point – I was very careful not to speak for Riot Grrrl or to give details about specific people involved. I gave the same statements about feminism that I’d been giving all along, basically, and focused on general themes about why young women might be angry and want to from bands to express their concerns.

I did the Jane Whitney Show which was totally bizarre. The producers actually tried to get me to engage in some sort of cat fight with what was called an MTV girl they had on the show. She (I forget her name) phoned me at the hotel the night before and begged me not to… whatever. So I at least got advance notice of the intentions of getting a feminist (me) to take a scantily-clad dancer to task. During the breaks for commercials producers came out and encouraged me to interrupt people etc. None of this went the way they wanted. The MTV dancer more or less made herself look idiotic while I was repeatedly represented as someone who used bad language in my lyrics – another surprise angle to the show! This is on YouTube, but maybe don’t link it… I guess it’s copyrighted.

The people involved in Riot Grrrl knew our feminist inclinations and it was always very much appreciated to have some light cast back to us once they were in a position to name their influences and inspirations. Yes, it defined us in a way and who’s to know what would have happened to us if we hadn’t been assigned the sort of Riot Grrrl adjacent label, but that has more to do with the act of labelling than anything. The media had already labelled me ‘angry feminist’ which didn’t allow for me to also be known as extremely funny and very sexy – because that would be confusing! Women in general being regarded as complex (in a good way) is universally problematic in patriarchal terms. Cripes, I just googled “patriarchy and feminism” and I saw an article that included: “the concept of patriarchy has been essential and problematic to the development of feminism” …oh… OK… yes, I suppose that’s true, but who thinks that way?

When I think of Riot Grrrl I think of specific people and a social movement that inspired a lot of young women – not to play a certain style of music, but to work with other women to address their concerns about sexism. This is so powerful. That Riot Grrrl as a movement attempted to exist without a hierarchy, without rules, without relying on the media that was at the helm of all manner of distortions, was very inspiring. Also, since it appears that what I had been saying did inspire them (along with tons of other stuff) and having them understand the fuel that it gave me (without ever having to talk about it) to be able to say that I did change the world (without feeling like a bragging fool) is a tremendous example of women working together without being caught up in the challenges we face with capitalism and competition, patriarchy and power – it defies all that and it shows other women that this can happen, that art and music can change the world. So, rather than it being contentious or weird to say I changed the world, I created a classroom event in which I talk about how all this came to be and this brings the whole thing along for subsequent generations to consider in their arsenals of activism (which is my specific intention).

To have women I respect acknowledge and include me in their history is very inspiring. That Riot Grrrl is available to access as a current source of inspiration is an inspiration! With other cultural movements it seems the moment passes and further references to it seem hinged to the past (sock hops, hippies, Mohawks) whereas Riot Grrrl is based in a politicized sensibility more than style, but if there was a style, it might be called: anyone can do it, the angrier the better.

To have our new – and only — live album (1996) come out right now is great timing, but so far no one is connecting these things — Bikini Kill shows, NYT features, the Riot Grrrl film (directed by Amy Poehler). There’s a great feminist medley on the new album of Man Thinks Woman /Strong White Male / I Walk Alone (in which I go out into the audience like I do at almost every show).

Mecca Normal blog post on the NYT coverage

Mecca Normal blog post new album “LIVE in Montreal, 1996”

Jean Smith Background

I grew up in a rarefied environment, in an architecturally designed house with a lot of jazz (50s and 60s era) on the stereo — Bill Evans (piano), Lester Young (sax), Oscar Peterson (piano). We ate things like real Caesar salads and clams, but I felt like those elements of my experience were held in contempt by those who came to aggressive rock (punk, hardcore, etc.) by having grown up eating hotdogs off TV trays watching wrestling or whatever.

It took me a long time to understand why I wanted to sing very deliberately about injustice. I recall thinking that in order to successfully quit drinking I’d have to figure all that out and I knew it was going to take some work. The solo album was the beginning of that process which still playing out 20 years later. Having done this work, this figuring out, I am in a strong position to deal with problematic relationships.

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PopCon

SEATTLE Museum of Popular Culture (formerly EMP) Saturday, April 22, 2017, 5:15 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

16 minute film by Jean Smith for PopCon 2017, introduced by Evelyn McDonnell (Associate Professor of Journalism and New Media and Interim Director of Journalism at Loyola Marymount University in LA).

PopCon 2017 theme is music and politics.

The annual EMP Pop Conference, first held in 2002, mixes together ambitious music discourse of every kind in an attempt to bring academics, critics, musicians, and dedicated fans into a collective conversation.

Jean 1

Jean 2

Stills from the film. Jean Smith performing “The Dogs” outside Pages Books on Queen Street in Toronto circa 1993. Jean Smith being interviewed by Much Music inside Pages, talking about feminism and the increase of women in bands.

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Pitchfork’s story of feminist punk in 33 songs

pitchforkMecca Normal‘s “Man Thinks Woman” (1987) made the cut with a great write-up by Douglas Wolk for Pitchfork’s story of feminist punk in 33 songs

“Mecca Normal break rules like they never noticed them in the first place. The Vancouver-based duo of singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester are anarchist-feminist activists and constant experimentalists, implying a rhythm section with negative space alone. Always an intense presence onstage, they’ve become the most tenacious of D.I.Y. road warriors, touring and recording for 32 years now. In the early ’90s, they popped up on most of the biggest American indie-rock labels (Sub Pop, K, Matador); by their 25th anniversary, they were on the road with a performance-and-lecture project called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”

Smith’s lyrics often foreground her political perspective; their anthem “Man Thinks ‘Woman,’” released in 1987, started out as a barbed dissection of gender normativity: “Man thinks ‘woman’ when he talks to me/Something not quite right.” The song kept expanding its radius from there, encompassing both bitter poetics and a disarmingly funny account of a drunken makeout gone weird. Kathleen Hanna has cited Smith as an early inspiration: “When I saw her,” she told The Fader, “I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.” –Douglas Wolk

“Man Thinks Woman” video by David Lester

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“Oh Yes You Can” 7″ on K Records (1987)

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Jarred Up” compilation of singles on K Records (1993)

A mess of Mecca Normal songs pulled together from singles and compilations dating to 1992, rounding out the first eight years of their existence. Dunt fear, Mecca Normal are still going strong! Jarred Up reveals the awesome might of their thing; it is the essential Mecca Normal Document.

A K Records Essential.

Track Listing
Strong White Male
Man Thinks Woman
Forlorn
He Didn’t Say
Follow Down
It’s Important
How Many Now?
Horse Heaven Hills
This Is Different
Armchairs Fit
Accidently
You Heard It All
Days
Fan of Sparks
Narrow
Upside Down Flames
From The Surface
More More More
Echo
One More Safe
Rose

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2014 Whitney Biennial Installation

Whitney installation

Whitney installation 2

It’s installation day at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens next week. David and I are excited to have our work included in this major exhibition.

Thanks to Public Collectors’ Marc Fischer for sending photos and stories from inside the Whitney!

Public Collectors’ participation in the Whitney Biennial focuses on the life and work of Malachi Ritscher, who recorded several thousand concerts from the 1980s until 2006.

It’s a total thrill to see the Mecca Normal 7″ and the photo Malachi took of us at the Empty Bottle after he recorded our set in Chicago in 2002. Our set — and a small portion of the music he recorded over the years that he was meticulously documenting the live music scene in Chicago — is available via an iPod mounted on the museum wall. A short piece I wrote about Malachi is included in the official biennial catalog and in the booklet that Public Collectors has published.

David Lester’s poster “Malachi” will be framed and hanging on the wall. The poster features a drawing Malachi Ritscher at an anti-war rally, holding a sign that says “Unjustified War is Mass Murder.”

Malachi’s final act of protest was self-immolation. He intended for a video document of his death, his protest, to be widely distributed by the mainstream media to impact the American people. This did not happen. In part, I wrote the song “Malachi” to further Malachi’s intention, to use art and music to carry his message forward. The song was also a reaction to Malachi’s death, a death devised to be much more powerful to many more people. At some point, I suggested that David include Malachi in his ongoing Inspired Agitators poster series to exhibit and discuss in our touring classroom event called “How Art and Music Can Change the World” within which Mecca Normal performs “Malachi” after talking about his death, the video and how artists may choose to represent profound social, political and personal content in their work.

“If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade — my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade.” – Malachi Ritscher, 2006

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2014 Whitney Biennial

Press Release

poster

Click through to high resolution image.

FREE poster

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

David Lester poster in 2014 Whitney Biennial, March 7 to May 25, New York City

Malachi (18 x 28″ poster) by Mecca Normal guitarist David Lester is included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The exhibition also includes a recording from a live set performed by underground rock duo Mecca Normal,

Mecca Normal, and both sides of the cover of the Mecca Normal 7″ record that includes the song Malachi about war protester Malachi Ritscher.

 

cover

The painting on the record cover is called Discovering Utopia by Mecca Normal vocalist Jean Smith. Click through to high resolution image.

Mecca-Normal-Malachi-BACK-COVER

Back cover with “Malachi” lyrics by Jean Smith. Click through to high resolution image.

These four artifacts are part of Public Collectors: Malachi Ritscher – an exhibit curated by Chicago’s Marc Fischer about American activist and music documentarian Malachi Ritscher (1954 – 2006) who self-immolated on a freeway median outside of Chicago to protest the war in Iraq. Ritscher made a video of this action that was not widely seen.

“It was Malachi’s intention for the video of his protest, his death, to reach people through mainstream media, to jar them from complacency, to have them raise their voices to end the war. But that wasn’t what happened. The video was not released in that way. When we added our song – and the poster – to our performances and classroom events, we regarded them as extensions of Malachi’s intention. We had created documents about the documentarian whose final statement on war was not heard. We created art and music because Malachi’s voice was not heard.” – Jean Smith, from the 2014 Whitney Biennial catalog

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David Lester is a visual artist and the guitar player in the rock duo Mecca Normal from Vancouver, Canada.

Jean Smith of Mecca normal

Jean Smith is a writer, a painter, and the lyricist/vocalist in Mecca Normal.

Malachi – the title of David Lester’s poster – includes text about Ritscher’s beliefs and a drawing of Ritscher attending an anti-war rally in Chicago. The poster is part of his ongoing “Inspired Agitators” series of posters which tours in the USA and Canada as an element in a classroom and art gallery event called How Art and Music Can Change the World, co-presented with Jean Smith. Of his poster series, Lester says, “Presenting the ideas and lives of activists and artists this way is a form of social protest.” David Lester is giving away the poster as a pdf document.

Public Collectors: Malachi Ritscher will include artifacts from Ritscher’s work as a documentarian focused on recording the Chicago music scene, including a Mecca Normal performance at the Empty Bottle. The live set was recorded by Malachi Ritscher on November 11, 2002 while Mecca Normal was on tour with their album “The Family Swan” (Kill Rock Stars, 2002). On this occasion, a touring version of How Art and Music Can Change the World was being exhibited upstairs at the Bottle Cap. Malachi visited the art exhibition, which included many of David Lester’s “Inspired Agitators” posters and Jean Smith’s paintings depicting politically-charged events.

Malachi – the Mecca Normal song about Malachi Ritsher’s intentions and his death – was released as a 7″ record in 2010 by Olympia, Washington’s K Records. The cover art for the record is a painting by Jean Smith called Discovering Utopia. An acoustic version of the song and a video by Jean Smith were released on November 3, 2013, the seventh anniversary of Malachi Ritscher’s death.

Malachi poster, 7″ cover art, Malachi videos and lyrics

David Lester’s Inspired Agitators posters

Jean Smith’s Discovering Utopia series of paintings.

During July and August of 2014, Public Collectors: Malachi Ritscher will be exhibited at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago.

Mecca Normal – NEW ALBUM out in September of 2014 on M’lady’s Records– produced and mixed by KRAMER.

Free download – acoustic version of Malachi released on November 3, 2013, the seventh anniversary of Malachi Ritscher’s war protestation in Chicago. Jean Smith vocals, David Lester acoustic guitar, KRAMER on bass and keys. Produced and mixed by KRAMER.

Mecca Normal Newsletter

ARTIST BIOS: Jean Smith and David Lester formed the electric guitar and voice duo Mecca Normal in the early 1980s with the express intention of changing the world. The band has released thirteen albums (K Records, Matador, Kill Rock Stars). Together, Lester and Smith run a small press, a record label and a political art museum.

David Lester is the author of The Listener graphic novel (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) – the story of Hitler’s rise to power correlates to questions about the power of political art. David Lester lives in Vancouver, Canada.
The Listener graphic novel
Graphic Design

Jean Smith is the author of two published novels and a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards as a writer of creative fiction. Her paintings have been included in two Black Dot Museum of Political Art exhibitions in OlympiaWashington, in 2010 and 2012. Jean Smith lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Paintings
Writing

Mecca Normal (Jean Smith & David Lester), 2011, photo by Judith Baumann

Click through to high resolution photo of Mecca Normal – Jean Smith and David Lester. Photo by Judith Baumann

CONTACT: meccanormal@hotmail.com

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Oh Yes You Can! EP

Mecca Normal recorded the three song  “Oh Yes You Can!” EP on April 15, 19 and 26, 1987 in Vancouver. Jean designed the cover art and delivered it to K Records​ in Olympia, WA. It was released on August 17, 1987.

Strong White Male
More More More
Man Thinks Woman

Vol. IV in the International Pop Underground Series

“I like it. Your feminist/intellectual stance as filtered through backporch Appalachian phrasing is quite unique.” – Bruce Pavitt​, The Rocket (Seattle)

In stock at K Records, ships without a cover.

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