Interview | Jesse Sykes: “…It’s our job to be discerning, and we mostly are not being so. We have forgotten it takes silence to connect with ourselves…but we rarely have that silence anymore cause we are attached to our phones and laptops.”

Photo by Christine Taylor

Last December, Seattle Weekly published an essay by Jesse Sykes titled “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where she talked about life on the road, and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who took his life in 2010. It was sad. It was real.

It was one of the best essays I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

And a few months ago, I spoke to Sykes by phone for a couple hours. Our conversation was over two separate phone calls — it was my first interview where it became obvious that one hour was simply not enough.

Going into the interview, I had very few talking points. As you’ll soon find out, we spoke about many things, including Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Kickstarter. We talked about where music might be headed.

As always, please feel free to discuss your opinions after reading the interview below.

When you get off the road from touring these days what sort of goes through your mind?

The thing that’s interesting is the story changes. If you asked me the same question back when we started touring, it really felt different, because it was in the pre-epic sea change era, in terms of the Internet and its effect on culture — it really felt different in that sense. But, for me, personally — I’m 45 years old — I’m no spring chicken. In my youth, I was really concerned about knowing I would get “there” someday, you know, some undefinable concept of success that always seems unobtainable from the vantage point of having what you perceive as nothing….And then in my 30’s it morphed into wanting to have just enough of the machinery intact that enabled me to do what I loved. And all I ever asked for from the music Gods by then, was to please let me be a viable artist still when I’m 45 and be fully engaged in this process. So, it’s really important to say that, because when I started touring, I was already in my 30’s and realized by then that it was the process that was important vs the outcome.. and I  was just so excited that our band was starting  to be received by people for the first time beyond Seattle — there was this energy around it and that in itself is mind blowing as an artist if you are lucky enough to experience it. That made being on the road a lot easier then. It was all novel and romanticized. Creepy, disgusting hotel rooms — it wasn’t a downer- it was exciting! It was like, “man, this is just a great story!” And it’s important to mention again, that this was pre-social media — you never thought about, “I can’t wait to post this on Facebook!” It was all about taking things in so you could tell your story someday, and living in the moment. You were engaged, it was your life, and that was enough. That was the reward. So, back in the day, touring for me — it was magical…I’d come home, rest, reflect… and couldn’t wait to go out again.

So, that being said, years go by, and everything changes. You change, relationships change — and I think that youthful, protective barrier…the illusion gets thinner, and there’s less of that to protect you from the harsh realities of life. Physically it gets harder to sustain– I know that sleep deprivation affected me deeply. And Phil (Wandscher) and I, the guitar player in our band, were a couple, and for the last few years of our touring cycles, we were breaking up, and there were some really dark times.

When I look back at all those tours over the years, even the ones that had the darkest moments — I  remember them vividly and can write about them now…but the bad energy didn’t stay embedded within me -and it still doesn’t. I just think the magical aspects transcend the darker moments. Now, when I get back home from touring, I kind of re-boot and a month later, I can go out again–or more importantly, I want to go out again! I’m fortunate to be wired this way I guess.

Here’s what I want to know — and you’ve gone through this. When you started, it was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre–immediate reaction. And I’m not a musician, but I went to a lot of shows around that time, and there’s such a different vibe these days — like everyone is just waiting around for something to happen instead of just experiencing it in the moment. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s depressing. I’ve always been kind of a recluse at the end of the day–I kind of need to be in my own world, away from all the noise. I’m having a hard time with it…I’d even go as far to say that it’s devastating to me. And I say this not as a person in a band that’s been affected — because everyone is affected, whether you’re a writer, photographer, filmmaker — some are just more in denial than others. Everyone is affected, because culture is being devalued.

I was a weird kid, I went to a private school for a while, which I’m proud to say I got kicked out of by eighth grade. In seventh grade, they got their first computer (in 1979), and there was only one — and they would have these sections go off to take a class to learn how to use it. And I freaked, man! I remember having this crazy breakdown….I ran into a dark room where there were all these boxes and hid behind them! I remember thinking “I want nothing to do with that thing-it’s evil.” And I just remember them being like, “what do we do with this child? She’s hopeless.”

But, the point is, I think I just had a premonition…I’ve always been sort of anti-computer because I intuited that we were going to overly involve ourselves, give up some essential part of ourselves to this plastic box… ..which would lead to getting further away from the natural world. That never seemed right to me. But to answer your question; music is like making love, sorry for the cliche! But even though it’s a shared experience, it’s mostly an intimate experience-because it’s something that you carry within yourself. What saddens me when I see people compulsively videotaping, and tweeting at shows, is that they’re not fully engaged in the moment, and they’re “becoming” the gadget by not allowing that reflective, transcendent moment to happen within-because it IS happening…they are just missing it! It just seems heartbreaking somehow. It’s culturally demoralizing, and if people gave it more thought they would understand that it’s weakening them. I have so few good things to say about the whole phenomenon. I know a lot of bands would say, “it’s such a great promotional tool!” Well, yeah, sure if you’ve already got the ball rolling, or are completely obscure and have only one direction you can go-which is forward….But it’s mostly smoke and mirrors–fluffing up this notion that there is interest in everything you do. That’s what the internet does, that’s why it’s so appealing to most people…it’s a mirror that lets them see what they need to see on demand….a constant digital drip of self approval and self satisfaction…and, it’s not just what they are “seeing” themselves, it’s also what they “post” online that they become so obsessed with– how their post will be received later, by others….it’s all about being seen by others and getting that stamp of approval.

I worry many people now perceive music as part of the pipeline on their Facebook page, and they have to tune so much of it out-because it’s impossible to keep up with how much is out there….man, we just aren’t meant to be perceiving so many realities at once! I also think we perceive music differently now because it’s so often coming thru a two- dimensional screen-not a real life experience. It’s harder for music to grab you this way, and stay with you, as most people are also more willing to let it go quicker, because they don’t associate it with their own life, but instead they associate it with a computer screen whether it’s conscience or not. If you think about evolution — if there’s a period of overabundance — Mother Nature pushes back eventually. And people need to be more aware of this technological flurry that’s happening, and that it can’t sustain itself in terms of the illusion it’s created. And clearly, that is what we are seeing now-that damage being done. Hence, the reason why people can’t just watch a show without viewing it through their phone’s screen! They are detached from the experience…..they are not there, they are just projecting.

My question then is: if what we’re perceiving right now is intimate, then what was it before?

Well, I think the thing is that the experience is less intimate now, and less organic, in these cases we are discussing. Before all the gadgets became the norm, it was just you deciding how YOU felt about something….the commitment to the emotional response was truly intimate because there was no immediate sharing. Whether it was a moving experience or not didn’t depend on what others were saying, or going to say about it. I think it has everything to do with that inherent hole inside all human beings — the need to be received, the need to be witnessed.  We have a hard time resisting the opportunity to be witnessed. To me, it’s all a metaphor for God and however you want to define God.. You might not be religious, or believe in God, but if you don’t connect those dots somehow, every time you make a post on Facebook about some really anomalous thing that’s not all that important….well, it’s just that hole inside of you that’s wanting to be filled, revealing itself, and the more frantically you post or search for silly things out there, the more obvious it should be that you are trying to fill the void. And the music, it’s just an unfortunate thing that it gets scooped up in the mess of extraneous thoughts and whatnot that float about in the ether now. People are obviously still moved by music, but the problem is that it’s so fractured and frayed that collectively it’s not really the culturally shared experience that it used to be, which was a really cool thing. I don’t know — I feel like the Internet is alienating us from everything -more. We are just told it is doing the opposite because there are some obvious examples where it is a very positive thing. They need to sell more gadgets, so they need us all to believe it’s elevated our lives….but it’s our job to be discerning, and we mostly are not being so. We have forgotten it takes silence to connect with ourselves….but we rarely have that silence anymore cause we are attached to our phones and laptops. I do think that people should be more conscious of being hooked in all the time, what they post and why, and if they were they would learn a lot about themselves. We all need to take a step back and say, “does the whole world need to see this right now? Do I really need to post another self-portrait or meal, or insignificant thought? “Who am I really trying to reach”? Or :”what am I searching for, really?”

Listen, I get sucked in, too. And I’ve been realizing this more, especially at shows. 

Oh, sure. We all do (get sucked in) in our own way. I don’t have a smart phone, but I’m just not the type that would video a show even if I did…. I’m beginning to think it’s just the way you are born…a sort of philosophical thing…you lean one way or the other…My fiance doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t do Facebook, Twitter etc…he is a scientist and feels like the last thing he wants to do after dealing with his data all day on a computer screen, is to be in front of a computer screen! I also know a lot of young people who have little interest in tweeting, texting and Facebook…it’ll be interesting to see how the majority of children of parents that are always on their computers, phones etc will turn out…I think many will  be appalled by this era’s absurd attachment to gadgets and illusion of connectedness. I battle it in my own way…having a band is my excuse for having a Facebook page…but that doesn’t mean I need to spend more than a few minutes a day on it, you know? But I fall from grace too sometimes.

You wrote about Levon Helm once, and this is what you said: “I didn’t need to feel like I knew his soul, his spirit.” That, to me, is very important, because we’re living in this false reality where we think we do know our musical heroes via Twitter, Facebook, what have you. One of the first albums that changed the way I perceive music was Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

I loved that record too!

…and I didn’t think anything but, “wow, these songs are a gift.” Not, “I want to send a tweet to Neil Young.”

I think you misread me on what I said about Levon Helm…what I said was that I didn’t need to “know” him (in real life) to feel like I “knew” his spirit and soul. The point was not really about technology, but just about how soulful he was, his voice spoke to me in a way that made me feel like I knew him personally…which is what a great artist does-transcend those boundaries. But I hear you with what you are saying and how you interpreted it….there was a mystery and a lot of integrity back then…a sense that these songs hovered far above the constant chatter that we endure now.

Neil Young is one of my all-time favorites, too. His music is so important to me, and it’s like the wallpaper of my life. But, you’re right — I was never obsessed with his day to day life. I did enjoy the notion of his mythology though. I mean I wondered what he might be like as a person, and I was inspired by his presence–how he portrayed himself–but it ended there. I only had one or two bands as a young girl where I had teenage crushes, or whatever, and may have wished to have been privy to all “goings -on” in their lives…but not through these methods. It would have ruined it for me!

With social media now, it’s so different, because you are forced as an artist to do this dog and pony show, to jump through all these hoops, and say, “just come to my show.. I’ll be there,  and I’ll be totally accessible!”And there is now a perception that we are all best friends because we maybe are on Facebook together… And really,  it’s so hard, because it can mess with the organic process of how a relationship might actually start… you have to be available and up for grabs, always pragmatic, or at least appear that way- and it’s all or nothing now. That can be overwhelming and just weird. Don’t get me wrong, I create music cause I love connecting on a soul level-that sense of communion…but some nights I want to hide….and I just don’t want to sell myself as being all things, all the time. Does that make sense?

Yeah, and that’s the standard.

It seems so. Unless you were grandfathered in as a rock star before this all went this direction, or you’ve made it right out of the gates….. And I think things like Kickstarter for example…I have issues with it in terms of the message it sends out on a cultural level. I don’t want to feel indebted to anybody, man. To me, knowing the person I am, it would cause too much stress. I don’t want to come up with this scheme, like, “hey, I’ll bake you a cake for the next ten years if you just give me ten grand,” or something like that. I find that degrading and demoralizing, not to myself, but more to that person willing to lay out the cash, because it’s not authentic. I mean, it could be if it happened organically, but it can’t be organic if it’s that method in my opinion. It just would break my heart if a fan were to become a thorn in my side because I over extended myself to them because I wanted their money.

But how did we get to that point? And listen, I don’t want to comment on anyone who has done that, because I’ve had friends who have done it, and more power to them…

Oh, me too. There are some great artists I know who have done it. But a lot of them have managers and didn’t have to deal with the nitty gritty etc. But, you know, they all say they won’t do it again! (laughs) It was a nightmare for many of them-for various reasons.

So how did we get to the point where Kickstarter is the answer?

From my vantage point, I think it’s a combination of where people really bought into the propaganda that the young, techie generation sold them — that this is gonna change our lives. Free culture etc. Man, this is a complex conversation and I don’t know if it can be hashed out here….it’s not that Kickstarter is so bad in and of itself…and to be clear, I am talking in extremes…there are always cases where these things are positive…it’s just that it shouldn’t be sold as being this simple path either, or the only path when it comes to music….and I’m specifically talking about music here. A lot of things need to converge for a record to do well and for a career to sustain….sometimes a band makes it out of the gates without a label behind them…success  happens in many ways…but this idea that it should all be free, that labels suck, and you can just ask fans to front you the money…it all comes at a cost -which may, in the end, be less appealing than the old school method that people seem to shun these days if they don’t know any different record labels. I don’t want to say it’s all bad…it just depends where you are at on your path. It’s not a one size fits all thing…just as record labels never were either…. One of my favorite books is called, You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. He invented the term “virtual reality”, but now questions his whole role in the development and the direction social media and his former vision is bringing to the world. And he is a big advocate for musicians and artists, and what he says it that many things have converged because of the internet, piracy etc. to where it’s cut out the middle class artists — the whole cult artist is going to have a really hard time having a lifelong career like they used to be able to. I think the days where those artists didn’t need to have a day job are going to be over, unfortunately. It’s just harder to sustain a long term career now. The business side is very complicated, and the structure has changed with Spotify, and things like that. In fact, a lot of people in bands don’t understand it at all. But people need to stop giving their music away! Realize Google is evil and makes a lot of money from illegal downloading…that would be a good place to start. Read some of David Lowery’s essays… “Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss” is a great one….It explains a lot of these complexities and a lot of the propaganda and how its been misinterpreted..

Is it really a good thing, that on something like Spotify, that within seconds I can start listening to some obscure Bob Dylan track, or something along those lines? When I started listening to music, I started collecting in chunks, but I lived with those albums for weeks, and I think that’s important, but I get sucked in now thinking about this reality of there being so much out there at my fingertips. And sometimes, it’s just so overwhelming, and it turns me off. And really, music should be the last thing that is overwhelming.

Yeah. You’re so perceptive, I appreciate that. Its called option anxiety.

Part of my fear is that if it’s like this now, what’s it going to be in ten years?

I like that you say fear, because that’s how I feel. I think it IS happening. I wrote an article — you might have seen it — it was about the overabundance of music on the Internet, (go figure!) and I got a lot of backlash about it from people at the time that misunderstood where I was coming from. Now I see a lot of essays like that one being written….It wasn’t by any means saying people shouldn’t make music, but there is a big distinction between having personal joy creating music and having an album out and selling it on Bandcamp for example. It’s this sort of thing where everybody fancies themselves as someone who is making work that is worthy of being sold, I guess. Yes it’s a beautiful concept that we all create, but we’re not all great at the same time, you know? Some work needs time to percolate and mature before it’s put out there. This whole idea that everyone is created equal as far as talent is bizarre. There is a high bar in my mind, and I think that it’s a shame that what’s happening now is that the bar is being erased. We need to grow up a little bit in that sense…not everyone gets the trophy in every department. Not everyone can be everything, and the Internet is being sold to us like, “you can be it all, all the time!” It’s creating a huge sense of entitlement.

There is so much competition right now out there. And it seems to me that the only thing that will get a reaction is if you post something based around an unpopular or negative opinion. And relating that to music, it’s affected music criticism — and here’s the problem I have with music criticism — I have a hard time criticizing something that I don’t like, because just because I don’t like it, it doesn’t mean that it’s any good. Your thoughts?

I think it’s a complicated thing. And I don’t want to preach, but I think thoughtful criticism is important….there just isn’t a lot out there anymore cause everyone writes reviews now, just as everyone has a band! I think a lot of the more sophisticated writers have quit cause the better publications can’t pay, or their words just get lost in the fray, as does a lot of great stuff nowadays. A good critique is more than an opinion–it provides context, historical, cultural references, and a language to help understand why something is more or less relevant. And that “language”is something that does need to be learned. Now, I do think the love of music is pure, and people are going to love what they love, which is how it should be. But, it takes time and emotional equity to fully appreciate things sometimes–and having the critical perspective–why something is looked at negatively or as something that is really elevating culture, offering a novel perspective, helps appreciate the good things. And I know that it seems almost impossible to be original in rock ‘n’ roll now, but it should at least be authentic. When something feels authentic then it is going to reflect the unique aspects of that person’s experience. But, sometimes it can be difficult to discern what’s authentic or not, which is where good critics can help elevate the whole collective experience. And back to the Internet… and don’t take this the wrong way, but would you call what you’re doing a blog?

Yeah, but I hate that word.

I do, too. For better or for worse, okay, blog. You have created a place where you can have a voice, and who knows where that is going to end up. The point is — great thinkers are great thinkers. I’ve read things in obscure places that are more thoughtful and challenging than in big time magazines, things with high volume. But like I said there is also more fodder to sift through of course, so again, just like there are more shitty bands, there are more shitty blogs. There have been reviews of our band from smaller blogs that blew my mind, and ones in bigger publications that were supportive, but didn’t say anything substantial. Reviews can really bum me out even when they are supportive but derivative–it feels dismissive, like they didn’t invest the energy. I like reviews that have elements of a good critique, which don’t have to be all negative by the way–ones that make you think, “my God, I’ve never heard it said that way.” I used to rebel against the whole concept of critical thinking in terms of culture, but now I’ve gone back to thinking it’s hugely important for the reasons I’ve mentioned…Certain things should be elevated, and if a writer can speak in a way that helps someone realize that–that’s a magical thing. If I were to become a critic, which I am not, I would probably focus on artists getting a lot of attention that weren’t going to be destroyed by the criticism. What’s the point of slaying an obscure artist that’s not even part of the cultural lexicon yet. Then it just becomes about having a bully pulpit to aggrandize oneself .

I agree.

What I like about you is that you seem to be as interested in the collective consciousness and where we’re going as a whole. I think people are interested in that, in terms of “where are we going?”

But…going back to this idea that “everything is equal” in terms of art — it’s not. And so many people are afraid to say that out loud because you sound like you are advocating censorship. Like I said earlier, not everyone gets every trophy-or a trophy at all. I made so much fucking awful music in my twenties, and I was such an idiot at times, and I am glad that, generally, it’s not out there for the public now…I have enough regrets in more recent times that I must live with that I’m blessed my 20’s were pre-Internet!!. And that’s the tough thing about social media when you’re starting out — it’s hard to change the persona you’re trying out as a teenager, and the Internet may not allow you to evolve beyond the images you’ve polluted it with… and we DO evolve! So, people get stuck with art and writing out there, and an image that might have been premature. And I think that is a huge thing to think about when you are starting out with anything.

We were talking a lot about Spotify, and my thoughts change from day to day. You know…what exactly are the benefits of Spotify to the artist?

The thing, again, is there are different tiers where people are in their careers. I think if you are completely an obscure artist — no label, never toured, etc, it might be seen as beneficial for exposure. … but everyone is at a different level, and now, the majority of bands out there are obscure…so there might be more people running around thinking Spotify is great. But, when I started making records, I think there was something like 5,000 records per year being released, and now there are more than 60,000, if not more. That might be old data! And I think only 5,000 sell more than like a thousand records…or something like that. The numbers are just so insane. So, unless you’re totally obscure, or Lady Gaga, you’re probably not happy with Spotify.

Have you ever seen a check from Spotify?

No. My guess is that I have seen pennies perhaps…our labels would be the ones that get the funds….my guess is no, because only the most popular bands make more than couch change. Smaller labels are getting screwed from what I understand (laughs). I need to look into it. Spotify’s not exactly transparent in how they compensate artists. And that’s part of the problem — no one fucking knows! It’s all so new still. One of the things that bums me out about Spotify is that people feel like they are doing the right thing for the artist because it’s legal or legit in their eyes. But it’s all smoke and mirrors because what they pay out is ridiculously small. It’s the same with things like Pandora, Last fm etc…. they’re not set up to help artists. Artists are between a rock and hard place because this way of listening has replaced record collections.

I don’t think that people listen to Spotify, and then buy the album. I think they might think, “I wish I could listen to that album in my car,” and then they go illegally download it.

Don’t you think people’s brains are neurologically changing, too? I wonder if it affects people’s ability to really fall in love with an album or artist the same way they used to. I’m generalizing here, because I know there are still people like you and I who do, but…I mean, I know some people who listen to Spotify that makes me wonder if they are able. But, I also know many people that listen and buy what they like later…but yeah, most people don’t want to own CDs anymore, and sure, the majority aren’t going to buy them!

Well, people want everything searchable and accessible, but people don’t latch on, or fall in love. They move on.

Yes, exactly. Again, I use Facebook as a fun sociological barometer, and I use these snippets to think about my essay writing, and how we can delve in deeper to some of these issues. And I know Facebook shows what some people are listening to on Spotify, and I know people who just brag about what they’re listening to in general. Maybe “brag” is a harsh word….they “share” it. And this is clearly how they fill their time — they seem really proud of how much information they’re obtaining. It’s very strange. It’s sort of this narcissistic thing, like, “this is how much I can ingest in a day and I need you to see this about me.” And they’re totally misinterpreting what a “digger and seeker” means. These people are just extractors to me. Like, “I am the king of Spotify, and it’s my job to tell you every song I am listening to.” What the hell!? I mean I know the computer automatically posts it for them cause Spotify and Facebook are linked up…but these folks also post tons of videos all day long. It just seems sad– if it’s really touching you, then I don’t think you’d have the gumption to post it compulsively…you’d be living it passionately.

I’m not needing to find new stuff constantly. But when I do, it can be life-changing, but it’s always organic to me. It comes to me every which way. Never from a computer though! At least not yet. I mean I listen to stuff that I come across sometimes–I’ll check it out…but I’m aware that’s what I’m doing–I’m just “checking it out” and I’m aware that in that context it most likely is going to slip through my grasp, unless somehow in real time I reconnect with it in a different context. I’m just patient that way.

And it always does come. I feel the same way.

Well, it’s just being open. You know that something inside you is slowly dying when things just can’t penetrate. Sometimes, you just need to keep the channels clear. And when I’m open enough, I’ll just let it in my life. In this day and age, I am really skeptical of things that become massively popular. I don’t find the majority, or any of it, really speaks to me.

There was a band on SNL a few months ago called Fun. Please tell me you’re not a fan of that.(laughs)

I think it’s mostly ridiculous. I might get blasted for saying that, or maybe no one will care, I don’t know. It’s like a watered-down Queen.

I don’t even know about that. It’s like a bunch of nerdy kids that someone let out of the math club. I mean, the singer has charisma, but it’s like Justin Beiber going through an indie blender. That’s what a lot of these indie bands seem like to me now. I understand that the lightweight, happy music would appeal to some people, but to me the whole thing is just distracting. It insulates people rather than open them up, in my opinion. I feel we’re in deep trouble, and that sort of reflects the kind of trouble we are in (laughs).

I get sucked in so much…like…I find myself getting on Facebook and Twitter, and then getting frustrated. But, I keep going back.

Of course. I just woke up feeling great, and logged onto Facebook, saw the pipeline, and ended up feeling dark and worried for the world. But, it was my own choice. We’re curious and that can be dangerous. But, it’s also extremely important….like I said earlier…ultimately there is a deep need within us to connect, and if you get online to check email or Facebook, it takes super human strength to not get sucked in sometimes…Plus, aside from all the negative things I’m saying, again, I do love people, and I enjoy seeing there lives, which is why it can be so heartbreaking at times to see it in the Facebook context. The content posted can be at times very touching though….but most of the time it seems senseless and unfiltered… It’s hard, because we have been mostly discussing music and where it fits into all of this….bottom line, with or without the Internet, the human heart remains pure. It’s just majorly distracted right now!

I had a friend, a bigger-than-life character, lived a life that most people can’t relate to but many would be in awe of, and he once told me, “Jesse, love is just curiosity.” And I’ve never forgotten that. We all just want someone to be “curious” about us….but in that desire to connect with more people, more often, we can lose the deeper connections. I guess it’s all just a matter of degrees….most of us know if we have crossed the line….it’s a matter of “do we care” if we have crossed the line?”

Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher will be opening for Mount Moriah on June 17th at The Old Rock House in St. Louis. Visit Sykes’ website here.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment