Encountering the energetic imprint of one’s ancestors, both in blood and in spirit, can cause some artists to become unproductively derivative or haunted by the beyonds of what came before. Any lengthy look at the long frieze of life can certainly produce a touch of verse-vertigo in the less vernal of temperament. By contrast, Joel Jerome has drunk the alchemical vision-mead of his history to satellite heights with Super Flower Blood Moon, his first solo full-length offering and one resonating with sky-worthy sounds of transformation and experimentation.
Hailing from the heterogeneous hideaway that is Hawthorne, California, birthplace of seminal counterculture creatures like The Beach Boys and Redd Kross, Joel Jerome comes from a place globally famous for having the simultaneous skills of mapping exile whilst redefining pop motility for the masses. A congenial contrarian in the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson or Neil Young, he imbues a gentle carnality of incident to songs like “When You Land” with none of the cloying perfume of expectant, unchecked ego and all of the sung-sanctuaries of ochre and sepia one could wish for outside of vintage Beck.
From 2014’s Psychedelic Thriftstore Folk right the way through to 2017’s Cosmic Bear Jamboree, Joel Jerome made it artistically clear that he had no intention of ever allowing himself to fall into that peculiar amnesia most adults succumb to about what used to make them happy, the things that forced unbidden bubbles of laughter up from their bellies, and that which generally fulfilled them back when their t-shirts told much more truth about their inner character than their day jobs ever will. Everything in Jerome’s catalog, even the heartbreaking songs, are printed with a smile enlivened like the blade of a cutlass, leaving a wake of merriment.
A hallmark of Jerome’s work, whether recorded for himself or for the multitudinous fellow fringe creators who seek his assistance in capturing their own sound, is a nod to the caduceus and chimera of childhood–the innocence and the vulnerability, not the petulance. A skilled chamberlain of cool, there is nothing of the embourgeoisement of the immiserated indie-for-indie’s sake attitude (which always effectively corporatizes the life out of whatever was independent about the thing in question in the first place) but instead the calm geometries of songs, friends, gear, and headspaces that all rose organically out of the inner zapateado metronome he has always kept his own inventive time to.
While there is nothing quite like a pack of punks squalling murderous rage on the ramparts, Jerome is lord of all things lo-fi agitation at his Glassell Park recording studio, Psychedelic Thriftstore, and most of what has fallen under his self-founded record label of the same name has emerged with a Strummer-satisfying level of saturated dissidence. This is a recording space with a Mellotron rather than a wall of Marshalls, and any musician can make out his or her reflection in its motley mantras, all revolving around a devotion to discovery and keeping true to one’s creative compass.
Some of this fearless expressiveness may stem from the fortunate fact that Joel Jerome is one of those delightfully unquenchable smokers who unfailingly finds mille fleurs of pastel poetry gold in the outer-arrondissements of intelligent highness. Think more Snoop and Willy, less Cheech and Chong–though we stoner-admirer writers raise our fountain pens high and ardently pretend they are roach clips when we daily salute the latter!
The gansey-load of human insight and humor Jerome habitually brings back from those ethereal excursions come wrapped in all the allure of a dilapidated farmhouse in Provence, but one done with the glue-gun aesthetic of the truly urban underground. The antique Spanish libertine is a fecund archetype that has rightfully compelled writers and artists across the globe for centuries, and Joel Jerome has made even this uniquely his own by virtue of turning the storied seduction of that character entirely toward innovating himself and on his instinct to be good to others who are attempting to do the same.
The great Mestiza Latina Jungian psychoanalyst-poet of them all, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, said that “modern storytellers are the descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards, griots, cantadoras, cantors, traveling poets, bums, hags and crazy people.” On Super Flower Blood Moon, Joel Jerome gamely shoulders every one of these fructuous traditions and their mythic connection to the night-orb in the sky, becoming a master of ceremonies for the moon and all the rest of us mad people.
Having invented a dictionary of newfangled, auto-related profanity after being torturously delayed by the unexpected headache of a flat tire on our original chat date, QRO’s most unapologetic crazy person donut-wheeled her way to Joel Jerome eventually and was rewarded with the joy of sweeping through subjects as cross-disciplinary as Nirvana, clean motivations, herbal jazz cigarettes, artists’ unions, and Jane Austen–punctured bits of round rubber be damned. The conversation was like a digi-dance with a DIY Mr. Darcy, only better.
QRO: Thanks a million for being here today, Joel! I’m so sorry that the Goodyear gods conspired against us earlier, but let’s not even talk about it. Let’s talk about how you have got a body of work that I consider to be everything that a punk rock master could ever dream of. You have such an innate soul-grit.
Joel Jerome: Thanks so much for having me and for these extra kind words. I’m glad we could get together and chat this week and relieved that you are okay after your tire experience.
QRO: As this will be the first chance many of our readers will have to engage with your full career story, I wondered if we could start by having you relay how and when you first knew that music was to be your jagged-edged artistic life source?
JJ: Yep, I’ve been DIY-til-I-die from the beginning! I’m from Hawthorne, California so I grew up on The Beach Boys and punk rock. Once I found out about the musical history of where I was from, right around high school, I got really deep into it all–but I had two sides. I had The Beatles and Beach Boys side, but I also had this punk rock thing. Nirvana was huge for me.
QRO: Oh, me too! Still is the biggest thing for me.
JJ: Yeah, we’re in the same age bracket! (laughs) I really grew up on hip-hop, first and foremost; that was the music that really moved me early on. You know, the ‘80s stuff like Run DMC and LL Cool J. Listening to KDay Radio in L.A. – it was the best rap station of all time, probably. That was really hardcore in my system until Nirvana came along, like everyone else, and just kind of flipped the script.
Because of my love of Nirvana and their ethos, I started digging into their influences and I kept hearing “punk rock, punk rock.” Of course, that fed into what I liked about it – just nonconformity, doing what you want to do, being true to yourself. All of that really spoke to me. From the beginning, that’s how I’ve done everything: making it happen yourself. Since the late ‘90s I’ve just been recording as much as I can. Writing music is almost secondary; I just like recording it and playing it!
QRO: My observation of you is that you are, like your inky spirit sister here, just one of these people that does not stop working. You are constantly with your hands in a minimum of six different pots at once. To your mind, is that simply because it is in your artistic nature, is it therapeutic, or is it maybe both of those things and something else?
JJ: It’s hard to say because, while inspiration plays a part in it, I make myself do things sometimes just to see what happens. It’s just a drive that I have to do it. I get inspired a lot when I hear other people’s music. I’ve been artistic since I was little. My first love was drawing and I thought I was going to be an illustrator for a long time. Then, in high school, I became a tagger!
QRO: Oh, nice! The world absolutely needs a South Bay Banksy, if anyone asks me! (laughs)
JJ: (laughs) Yeah, it was all just rap and tagging in high school. Then, once I discovered recording, that other side of me, the engineer and producer, emerged. Even from the early days when I first got my hands on a 4-track, I was enthralled. There’s no way of stopping it for me. When I hear other artists say they’re going to ‘retire,’ I’m always thinking, ‘What does that mean?’ because I think making the music should be forever, shouldn’t it?
QRO: I certainly think so and share that sentiment with you in every regard! If I am fortunate enough to live to old age, you will find me with pen in hand on an Australian beach somewhere, working on my oceanography degree and a poem about it too! I think failure to create, for an artist, is willful death.
JJ: It is, and it makes me wonder what those people were doing it for to begin with. I get a lot of young people that I work with, and even just friends, who lament about where they are in their careers and where they want to go. I always say, “You’ve just got to remember what you’re actually doing this for,” because that is going to drive everything, no matter what you do. You can plan and imagine, but without putting in the work and the time to get better at what you do, what’s the point? You’ve just got to love it. Don’t do it if you don’t love it.
QRO: That is something that I say to people in my own life between two and three times a week, on average. Things that come from a clean, interior motivation go everywhere. Other things? They may well have a temporary meaning or velocity to some with similarly temporary focus, but temporary and permanent have never been equals, have they? And I do think it is the business of any art to be a shooting star that never burns out. You have to be that good and that committed, or don’t bother.
JJ: For sure, and I think back to when we were kids and radio was king, you wouldn’t actually hear the punk bands that shaped me or the indie bands that I didn’t encounter until way later when someone could show me their record. There has always been gatekeeping, but it shouldn’t start inside the artist. I think nearly all super-successful people in any field share that quality of doing what they do just because they love the work. People like Bruce Lee and Kobe Bryant put so much work into their crafts and it turned out beyond their wildest imagination.
QRO: Like Steve Albini telling Nirvana to ‘pay him like a plumber,’ exactly. He just wanted to do the damn job, never thinking beyond that. Do you feel like the hardscrabble musical attitudes of Hawthorne and South Bay seep into the actual sounds in your work?
JJ: I do, but I wonder if a stranger would immediately think it upon hearing my stuff? I have always prided myself on growing up in this little town near LAX that was pretty diverse for where it was. It’s between South Central and the beach, right by the airport. When someone puts a label on me like “sun-kissed, psychedelic California pop,” I just think that there’s so much more that has fed my sound, from the varied perspectives of my friends.
I was friends with the skaters, surfers, gangsters, and potheads – it’s all a product of where I’m from and they were all at my school. We’d all known each other since we were little. It’s funny because the jocks would still hang out with the drama kids and I didn’t realize until much later that this might have been the exception to the rule. That kind of commingling influenced how I listen to music and what I put into music, having multiple different moods even in one song sometimes. I’m sure that’s due to all the influences around me.
When I hear other artists say they’re going to ‘retire,’ I’m always thinking, ‘What does that mean?’ because I think making the music should be forever, shouldn’t it?
QRO: Was that also the impetus behind the founding of Psychedelic Thriftstore, the studio and the label?
JJ: I’ve always had an independent spirit but also known you had to do what you had to do. The reality is most musicians aren’t touring around in a jet paid for by a major label. The punk rock in me always want to do the DIY thing, but it’s also out of necessity.
It’s not like I’ve had to make the brilliant decisions like Jack White made in the early 2000s when they were being hounded by major labels. They played smart and said, “No, we’re going to do this ourselves,” and it’s obviously turned out really well for them – that’s hard to do!
I’ve never had to face offers like that and who knows what I would have done if I had, but… you know, I taught myself to record. I’m the one who buys all this gear and went to night school to teach myself. DIY is just the whole ethos behind all of it.
QRO: There can be no question it is the most honorable and impressive path, Joel. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, but I’m pretty confident that, if asked, Jack White and every other respectable musician in the industry would quickly and firmly agree! Do you get the same fulfilment out of producing for these amazing collaborators of yours like Cherry Glazerr and La Sera as you do from the creation of your own latest record, or is that a different part of your brain?
JJ: I think of it in eras. The 2010s brought in me recording other people. I’ve been doing it for ten years on my own, and now there is a newer generation that has heard some of my stuff, they may like my sound or they may think I’m a nice guy playing shows around town in a band they admire, and so they ask me to record them. I kind of backed into that world and it’s been fulfilling in a different way, unexpectedly.
I didn’t expect to be a producer but I was all for it the first time I got the chance to put my own little twist on things other people were creating. It was freeing! The best and most important thing has been developing relationships with younger bands, getting excited about stuff, seeing things again for the first time through their eyes, and helping them get the best out of their situation. I believe very strongly in mentorship so I want to help anybody, not just young people, avoid mistakes and get where they want to go. When they do, it’s pretty sweet to see people enjoy it, have a good time, and get even better.
QRO: That’s extremely commendable and segues brilliantly into what I wanted to ask you next, which is about your signatures as a producer. What are the Joel Jerome fingerprints, as you see them, in your work?
JJ: I’ve had a lot of people saying they thought I worked on analog even though I’ve been digital for a long time. Only recently have I gotten more into the analog world and it’s not something you can do without upkeep. The fact that people think what I do sounds analog and older, I take that as a major compliment because it’s not easy to get there. It’s easier when you have that $20,000 Fairchild that The Beatles used along with the $10,000 vocal mic and the brainiacs to make sure it was all spaced right to get that sound! (laughs)
Being able to approximate a vintage sound without having the mega-expensive equipment has become one of my calling cards that I’m proud of. Also, maybe creativity with panning and dynamics. Back to the influence of Nirvana, I learned that dynamics could be not just heavy/soft to soft/heavy like they were doing, but instrumentation as well–like a big, juicy low-end cello against something very high-ended.
When I’m working with a band, I just listen to them, to where they tell me they want to go and then I try to get them there. It’s cool because it takes me out of my comfort zone! I feel like I get to cut my teeth anew all the time.
QRO: I would imagine it’s a great deal of fun and never boring! As you mentioned the value of the new, let’s talk about the dark glamour of your latest, Super Flower Blood Moon, because there is just so much here, Joel. The production on Super Flower Blood Moon was somewhat of a speed and gear departure for you, I believe. Can you describe how you laid out roughly 14 songs in 16 days?
JJ: Definitely! I’ve been doing things a certain way forever, and this was a time to take a highly different approach. I wrote most of these songs in the span of two weeks after being, not challenged but I took it as a challenge, by Jim (Fairchild) from Dangerbird. He’s a great guitar player too and he inspired a lot of the thinking behind this record. He said, “I want to hear new songs and don’t record it with your gear–just straight into a phone.”
The best and most important thing has been developing relationships with younger bands, getting excited about stuff, seeing things again for the first time through their eyes, and helping them get the best out of their situation.
QRO: Wow, he threw the gauntlet at you!
JJ: Exactly! (laughs) because if he hadn’t said that, I would have drudged up some songs from the past that no one has heard yet. I like having direction with a challenge! I had a small, nylon-string guitar and I would try to be quiet as my partner was trying to get her Ph.D. and needed her sleep, but every night at midnight I wrote these songs.
The fact that it’s all written on an old, nylon-string guitar, bare-handed with no pick, was a massive departure for me as well. A lot of the sound was colored by that. I went through my voice-notes, lit up an herbal jazz cigarette, picked a riff and said to myself, “finish it.” So, I’d let the chords dictate whatever I thought the mood of the song was. One a night!
Lyrics have always taken me ages to do–I hate writing! I love reading articles, I like reading books, though my attention-span is not made for it, but I don’t like writing lyrics. Another connection I felt to Kurt: music was first and lyrics were secondary. Mine are not necessarily autobiographical but I try to think of them like a movie. After about 20 days, I had about 14 songs and knew I was onto something.
QRO: I’m glad you mentioned the nylon-string because I do hear it and, sound-wise, I feel that all of your music has audible threads of your Mexican-American heritage within it. Super Flower Blood Moon in particular features a lot of bolero-style fingerpicking that has a Richie Valens vibe to it to me. Would you agree that this record has a Latin American soul overall?
JJ: Yes, I’m sure that was the vibe I was in because I was listening to a lot of 70s Latin popstar music. A lot of them were Brazilian, like Roberto Carlos. There are a lot of crossover stars that are really huge in Mexico that were doing what sounded to me like American 70s rock but sung in Spanish.
I was listening to tons of that stuff, and a lot of it is very romantic, very ballad-y, and that is reflected in my album, I think. Like the last song, “Everybody Come On,” a lot of those chords are recognizing that Mexican pop element and, like you said, boleros like Trios Los Panchos and Los Dandys – those three-person guitar groups, three harmonies. I wanted to keep that sparse, low-key feeling of the demos. The demos are basically two guitars and two vocals and they had a thing to them – Elliott Smith, you could say, or a Third/Sister Lovers space from Big Star. It has this dark, interesting mood, so that along with the sad, Mexican pop ballad all seeped in somehow.
QRO: It’s there, in neon, for sure! “We Made It Home,” in particular, is very meditative and asking a lot of cosmic, existential questions. For this reason, it could be construed as a “folk” song. Do you see your writing as being inclusive of an older, wider breed of spiritual, folkloric storytelling?
JJ: That’s interesting because I have been told that there’s a hypnotic or trance-y aspect to that one, especially the middle section, there’s that chanting, repeating part and, to me, it was more like a prayer to the universe. I didn’t think as many people would catch that and it’s very cool because the music is like a faded memory, playing over and over again on a warped vinyl. The whole album has sprinkles of things like that because, as we all get older, we start thinking about where we are in life and where we’re going.
Being able to approximate a vintage sound without having the mega-expensive equipment has become one of my calling cards that I’m proud of.
QRO: For sure, and you’re tapping into stolid, ancient questions in a contemporary, mutable way. Is this in any way relevant to the significance of the title for you?
JJ: The working title forever was Phone Songs and if I ever release a warts-and-all demo collection, I think I may call it that! (laughs) During the mixing phase, right when I went to Rob Schnapf for the mixing, which, talk about full circle because there’s a Mount Rushmore in my influences and Beck’s One Foot In the Grave was huge for me, as well as the acoustic stuff on Mellow Gold. You want to talk about hitting a switch? I went from grunge and punk rock when I heard the chorus hit on “Pay No Mind” straight into anti-folk. That was my obsession for the next five years or more and is in literally everything I do.
QRO: You talking about Rob Schnapf actually makes every hair stand up on my arms and neck because he is otherworldly in my estimation for so many reasons! The Vines and Elliott Smith are, essentially, the double light-to-dark helixes of my own hidden harmonic heart. Rob Schnapf himself is a Mount Rushmore in my spirito-musical understanding of the world, so that collaboration between the two of you is genius-on-genius as far as I can tell!
JJ: It certainly felt incredibly special to me because all signs pointed to him for me too. We’ve been neighbors for a long time and it’s been an honor to call him a friend. For as much as I pick his brain about recording every chance I get, we never talked about working together, but when I had this low-key, acoustic record, I just thought, “why don’t I do this with the person responsible for some of the best low-key, acoustic records there ever were?”
The week that we were up every night past midnight working on mixing this album together happened to be the week of the Super Flower Blood Moon, and we could obviously see that every night as we worked so it felt like it was our supervising guardian in a way. You can get a lot out of the title itself and I hope the same is true of the record.
QRO: No question it is! Also, I think just the idea of heightened consciousness, setting intentions, thinking about what you want to be cleansed of and what you want to induce–all those things followers of the phasing of the moon would ponder. I think you called every bit of that down and the record is full of Full Moon magic that I hope you two will continue to create together in the future. What benefits do you think you’ll carry forward from the Jim Fairchild (Grandaddy) method of writing quickly, sparsely, and without a lot of equipment?
JJ: I will definitely do that again! I’ve been taking more voice-notes than ever now; it was surprisingly easy to finish those songs at night, with a fresh mind, when I felt like I had already done the hard part of hearing that first chord or riff and then finding the melody. It was really fruitful. My biggest thing is I record all the time, but I don’t write songs in bunches. So, throughout the years, putting out records was sort of a chore because I wouldn’t feel that the song collections had a theme or came from the same era.
I like records that feel like are a snapshot of a time period, and mine were all a bit more like mixtapes. I do love mixtapes, another Hip-Hop influence, but everything had been a mixtape up to Super Flower Blood Moon so it’s amazing for me now to be able to hear all the spillover between songs.
QRO: You’ve gotten a beautiful result so I hope you do continue. Let’s be sure we acknowledge all of the contributors to this beauty as well; I know you played 99% of this on your own, but did you have Trevor Beld-Jimenez and Jimi Cabeza de Vaca, who was your Dios (Malos) bandmate helping you out here as well?
JJ: Yeah, Jimi and I have been friends since fourth grade and he came in and played piano and guitar a bit, and then Jerry Bourget, another local piano player I met through friends. The biggest contributor has been Laena Geronimo, who plays in a band called Feels. She’s a multi-instrumentalist who has been playing violin since she was little, and she did beautiful string parts on two songs. I feel lucky that I get to meet and work with musicians of her caliber and hope to maybe even do it like a whole-band affair next time around!
QRO: That sounds like the next phase of this Super Flower Awesome Moon to me! Will you do any shows around this record at all?
JJ: Well, as you know, everybody is trying to get back on the booking grid after COVID and things are still crazy so it may be a bit late to try for too many live performances this year, though I would love to do some. The vinyl comes out in July and I am doing a record release party at Dangerbird. It’s a great environment and they have shows there all the time.
Other than that, my main laser-beam focus is doing a Mexico City residency in August or September, which would be my celebration of the record. I have never been down there, I want to go down there, and there’s no reason why I can’t play for my people.
QRO: I absolutely love that and think it would be transformative for you–talk about a soul walkabout! I’d like to have GoPro footage of your inner monologue when you get to do that. Count on me to make my way out to that Dangerbird show when it happens as I’m in L.A. a lot anyway and that sounds like a super-special event. The Dangerbird crew are a very sweet bunch. How long have you been with them?
JJ: Oh, they’re wonderful. They’ve been really supportive and great with me from the start–the perfect label. As far as a working relationship, we did a couple of singles in 2018 but I’ve known them for a long time before that. We’re all about the same age and we’ve played shows together and whatnot along the years.
One thing that changed for me in 2020 was that the pandemic made it clear how musicians and music workers are walking a fine line just to be able to exist, so I did join a union. It’s called Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, and also includes members of indie bands like DIIV and Speedy Ortiz, all of whom along with about 30,000 others signed their Justice At Spotify campaign. There’s a balance between being an artist and having to commodify your art, and my feeling was: why is it that you have to be a Drake or a Taylor Swift in today’s world to make money at it?
I went through my voice-notes, lit up an herbal jazz cigarette, picked a riff and said to myself, “finish it.”
QRO: Firstly, I’m going to sign that petition today because Spotify is already well aware I’m out to burn its whole structure to the ground from the inside out and I’m completely unapologetic about that. Secondly, and to address your question, you are speaking my never-ending feeling both in music and in my field of writing. I am flooded with pitches daily that I could trade for exorbitant sums of money if I didn’t have a soul to keep clean and a brain to feed–and that’s not to say that money always muddies the water, but you trade autonomy for it at some level and I’m generally unwilling to do that with my words.
My whole goal in what I do is to provide artists with something supportive toward their own goals and also give them something redemptive of any negative prior experiences they’ve had in the press. The music press has such a nasty history with senselessly abusing artists and has not been labeled “the enemy” for nothing. I straddle both worlds evenly because I was pretty much born with a pen in one hand and a piano in the other; I’m not a critic but rather a creative comrade.
As I live right there at that juncture of Cyndi Lauper, Nirvana, and Jane Austen, it’s my personal mission to rectify that rift by reconnecting these two camps of art that are, in point of fact, deeply married to one another, not just in their professional exchanges but, more importantly, in their shared space within the arts. The world has forgotten that writing, especially writing well and with truthful force, is and has always been an art, and it should never be one smeared with snark-minded sarcasm each time it takes a journalistic form in support of another art.
JJ: I have to say that I really respect what you’re doing and it gives me a lot to think about with regard to my own ruminations on where art meets money. You have a unique way you’ve devised of compartmentalizing your art away from commodification in order to protect it and I very much admire that. Now, as you are such a fan of Jane Austen, I do have to ask: which is your favorite screen version of Pride and Prejudice?
QRO: Oh, without a doubt, it’s the 1995 BBC1 serialized version, which your analog homegirl here has and still watches on VHS! Yes, that means I have a working VCR in my cottage. (laughs) Colin Firth is my Mr. Darcy forever, although I must say that Matthew Macfadyen absolutely stopped my heart and breath in the role as well.
JJ: Good answer! (laughs) When I said I don’t really read books, I should have mentioned that the only books I’ve always been able to read were any about Sherlock Holmes and any by Jane Austen. I don’t know why, but that’s how it happened!
QRO: I call that the very best kind of elitist taste, sir, and I like it! As would Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no doubt. (laughs)
JJ: With Jane Austen, it’s all about the social dynamics. I love how she captured aspects of the way people are around each other, the way they act versus what they’re really thinking, things that we still see today, verbatim. It’s so nice to meet another Austenite!
QRO: I feel like we might have fallen out of the same storybook tree, Joel! I don’t meet nearly enough of what I call “my tribe,” but you are certainly it. This has been a dream interview. Thanks so much for taking me through the phases of your spellbinding Super Flower Blood Moon and I hope to see you at Dangerbird this summer!
JJ: This has been a really great interview and I’m really flattered that you have taken this time with me. Thanks so much for your kindness and I’ll definitely see you soon!
-photos by Julia Brockaw and Rafael Cardenas