The debut album of Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Mage is a collection intimate, funky, and unpredictable songs. It’s hard to describe this mix of heart, humor and skill, so you better give it a spin yourself:
After hearing stories about him playing B-3 organ in gospel church, breaking his nose in a mosh pit, and about touring from Istanbul to Antigua with soul jazz artist Lizz Wright, afro beat queen Wunmi, and dub crew the Easy Star All Stars, we knew we had to sit down with him and get some more interesting stories out of him. So here’s the interview.
BR: Please give us a quick intro of who you are and how you got into music.
My early childhood was in a trailer in the woods. There was a tiny two story hexagonal cabin attached to the trailer; My mom hired an inexperienced carpenter to build that cabin, and that turned out to be my dad. Just out of Vietnam, pops was a rolling stone with a heart of gold, who finger picked guitar and foot stomped piano. Mom was a nature worshipping jewish intellectual radical who had run for vice-president of the U.S. with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
I grew up on Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and lots of classical. When I was eight, we went to an avant garde synthesizer ensemble at SUNY New Paltz. I was spellbound, and moms arranged to bring me to the city to the groups synth studio. I was hooked. I started learning piano, and noodling around with cassettes and synths.
My dad ended up in Texas, and I copped blues grooves off him when I went down to visit. I also devoured the soul and reggae in the family vinyl, and had my whole world changed by a friend’s Sugarhill Gang cassette. But the first show I went to on my own was Black Flag, in a warehouse in Poughkeepsie. The only thing I ever heard louder and more intense than that was being in a car that got rear-ended. The bands I was in as an early teenager were psychedelic hardcore punk, playing guitar. A trance inducing workshop with Baba Olatunji and the realization that Thelonious Monk was super punk pulled me back to piano and more harmonically and rhythmically nuanced music. But I never lost the dedication to naked emotion, simplicity, and social change that punk represents.
BR: You’ve been on the road for a while with various musicians – can you tell us your worst tour story?
Things come to mind… I was chased off the stage by motorcycle-riding protestors who I probably agreed with in Indonesia. I’ve had street dog confrontations both before and after soundcheck in Tai Pei, Rabat, and Istanbul. The sickest-unto-death I ever felt was carrying all my gear in the Chiang Mai airport. No symptoms…No fever, no gastrointestinal upset, no headache, no sweating, no specific pains or aches…just pure misery. Wasn’t feeling much better on the gig.
But I guess the most emotionally harrowing experience was being asked to represent the Israeli military. I was on a world tour with a reggae band. In Israel I met many kind people and had the best fish I’ve ever eaten. But I didn’t know the radio date the band had was for an IDF station. If for example I was back home, I wouldn’t make a live appearance on a U.S. military station. Might doesn’t make right! I’m an advocate for international law. It was difficult because the band was depending on me to play. I had no sleep, gigging and flying and gigging and flying.
I was about to walk away and get hummus, but was told that the Palestinian rap group Dam had played on the same station! I knew their song: “Who’s the terrorist? You’re the terrorist. You’ve taken everything I own… The occupation has raped the arab soul, and a child is born called Suicide bomber”
So that persuaded me that multiple viewpoints could come through. And the DJ’s allowed me to make a statement on air for peace, and against illegal occupation and militarism.
Afterwards we got to the hotel in the late afternoon and I crashed out. Normally I’m a light sleeper, but I slept through my alarm. The loudest phone ring I’ve ever heard, like an air raid siren, woke me up in pitch darkness. Totally unaware where I was, I tried to grab the phone and smashed my head into the wall, BAM! Really hard. I fell onto the phone. It was the tour manager,
“We’re all down here at the van!!!!!! What are you doing????”
“Owww, ow, ow…”
“Get down here!”
I grabbed my laptop and threw on sneakers. After a crazy, security and traffic heavy ride to the venue, I realized I’d left half my equipment behind…That was a rough day.
BR: What struck us about your album is that it’s unique in having the honesty and rawness of live music, but at the same time sounding like a well produced studio album. This balance is heard rarely these days. What was your process for recording this album?
Thanks! I’m glad it feels that way. The process was highly spontaneous. Serendipity and coincidence were the guiding principles. Accidents were encouraged and rewarded. For example; I’m the musical director for an incredible force of nature, a nigerian superhero named Wunmi. She is my “sister from another mother,” the queen of afro beat with a large dose of london house. We were on tour in Australia, sharing a stage daily with Reggie Watts. There was lots of camaraderie, spontaneous jamming and collaboration among all the artists. The after parties were all organized by a guy named Duck Pond. At one after-after party, Reggie and a few of the other artists on the tour laid down vocals for “Waste This Year” around dawn in my hotel room. There was only one pair of headphones, so i kept time with one hand slapping my leg, while holding the mic with the other. Stephen from the Deftones captured the session on his iphone
It was uncontrolled and unplanned, sloppy, a non ideal recording environment, but obviously the right choice. The accumulation of choices based on character and great performances, in “found” spaces, contributes to the rawness.
Also, while there’s layering and overdubbing on the record, there’s also a lot of playing together, awesome musicians vibing off each other in real time. It’s that “thin line beyond that you really can’t fake.”
BR: If I ask you what does it mean to be successful, which person comes to mind and why?
Harriet Tubman. Harriet Freaking Tubman!! She grew up in slavery, had her skull fractured by an angry slaveowner, and went on to escape. She went BACK into the belly of the beast around 13 times, rescuing over 75 people from slavery, at risk of death or worse. After that, she led a union army raid that freed 750 slaves. In her “retirement”, she fought for women’s suffrage, and established a home for destitute, aged black people. She ended up there herself in her mid 90’s, penniless, surrounded by her community, who she sang with until hours before her death. I can never hope to achieve what she did in her lifetime, but it’s the greatest example of courage, will, effectiveness, and success I can think of. She was also a mystic, and used coded songs to communicate escape routes. Harriet Tubman!!
BR: If you can change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My desire to be liked. I’m much happier and more effective when I’m acting on other motivations. For example, it’s so easy, in front of an audience, to be overcome by the desire that the audience like me, like my songs, like my performance. But that’s a trap. Because the only useful thing I can do is to actually fall into the music myself, fall into the emotions and the resonances and the rhythms and the textures and the images and the stories, and the singular moment. The mantra I use is, “Don’t try to prove something. FEEL something.” I’m grateful that I’m able to live this mantra much of the time, but my heros seem to have been able to do it all the time. It’s hard for me to imagine Hendrix EVER thinking, “gosh, I hope they’re digging this”. Rather, he seems to have just treaded the edge of now all the time in his solos. When I can walk that walk, it’s bliss. I want it always. In music, and in life.
BR: What would you tell your 20 year old self?
“Self, write a song a week. Find or start a once-a-week songwriting group, and write a song every week. It doesn’t have to be good. It might suck. Accept feedback from the group. Accept criticism graciously and let it make your writing stronger, where applicable, and let it roll off your back, when you know you’re on to something that others might not immediately understand. Inspiration is lovely, but pure inspiration is not the only way to write a song, even a good, true, and unique song. Songwriting is also a discipline, a practice, a muscle. Exercise it.”