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Catching up with Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson's latest album, 'Fool,' was released Jan. 18, 2019.
Joe Jackson's latest album, 'Fool,' was released Jan. 18, 2019.John Huba
  Play Now [12:45]

by Jim McGuinn

February 16, 2019

Joe Jackson has been turning out music for more than 40 years, and has just released a new album, Fool. The Current's Jim McGuinn recently connected with Jackson to talk about his career then and now.

Listen to the conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

JIM McGUINN: It's Jim McGuinn here with Joe Jackson. Joe, welcome to the show, and you've got a new album out — Fool — first record in 3-4 years.

JOE JACKSON: Is it that long? My god. Next thing you know it's 40 years since you made your first album.

What inspired you this go-round?

That's a really hard question. I kind of feel like everything feeds into it somehow, just everything. But I've generally gotten interested in: what do you write about as you get older, and keep it honest, and also keep it interesting? That's an interesting challenge to me. I don't want to pretend to be still 22, 23, which I was when I wrote the songs on my first album. I'd say that I'm interested in comedy and tragedy and the way they kind of interweave with each other, and I'm always rooting for comedy. That's why the fool is the symbolic sort of hero of the album.

And this record, though, you do say "written in Berlin," so I wondered if that had an impact on the songwriting.

I don't know. I feel like it doesn't matter where I am. I'm going to write something, and what I'm trying to do is to be timeless and universal and not trendy or topical or really specific. So I don't think it really matters where I work. I think I just was pointing out the interesting ironies of writing something in Berlin and recording it in Boise, Idaho.

You recorded this album in Boise? How did that come to be?

Yeah, I love it because every time I mention that, people say, "What?"

It just happened because I had this idea for years that I would love to do a tour and then record the album at the end of it instead of the other way round, which is what most people do. You release an album and then you go on tour, and a month or two later everyone is saying, "My god, it's so much better now." The songs are better, the band is playing better, we're singing better, whatever.

So I thought let's do a tour. Let's go to some places that we haven't been — a tour that's long enough that we get to play all the new stuff quite a lot, but not so long that we're exhausted at the end of it. So we toured for about a month. We went to a lot of places I've never been to, like Nova Scotia in Canada, and Boise, Idaho. And it just turned out that was the last show of the tour, and there was a studio there that seemed okay, so we went in the studio the day after the last show, which was a great show. It was sold out. We had a great time in Boise.

I imagine it's a different sort of distraction than if you were recording it in Berlin or New York or London or somewhere you've worked a lot before.

Yeah, less distraction, basically. But Boise is a nice place.

You've done albums where you've recorded new songs live in front of an audience and then put them out…

Yeah, that was Big World in 1986, I think.

I don't know if you got that from Neil Young when he did that in the '70s.

I never knew he did that. I think I got it from the way everyone used to make records, which was direct to master. That was what I really wanted to do. That album was direct to master. It wasn't mixed — we just recorded it straight to the two-track stereo master tape.

You've been here to our studios; we met a couple years ago when you were playing in the Twin Cities, but I learned something about you, which is that Joe isn't your first name, but it's a nickname based on Snoopy, and Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, is from St. Paul.

That's not quite right. Joe is my first name. I was christened David, so I spent most of my childhood as David.

There's actually a song on the new album called "Dave," because it just seems like every guy roughly in my age group in Portsmouth, England, where I grew up, seems to be called Dave. It gave me an idea for a song about a sort of everyman character.

I changed my name legally when I was about 20 or so because it became a nickname, and it actually came from something else, from a British children's TV character called Joe 90, who was a puppet character, and he was a teenage genius. Well, I don't know what age he was supposed to be, but he wore these big glasses and he was kind of geeky and he knew how to make anti-gravity or whatever it was. Someone or other named me after him as a nickname, and it just kind of stuck. And then — you were referring to the Peanuts cartoon where there was a character called Joe Piano. So that got thrown at me too, and I just ended up being Joe. I thought it was better than Dave because there's enough Daves.

I was wondering if we could take a minute and go back to the early days — the Joe Jackson band records — those three records get called "classic new wave" now. What does that mean to you when you hear a phrase like that?

It doesn't mean anything at all. I guess people can call it whatever they want. It's not my job to put a label on it is how I feel about it. It comes out how it comes out. I have a very diverse interest in music, and so my work comes out kind of diverse, but it's just how it intuitively evolves. It comes out as what it is, and then other people have to put labels on it, and I guess that's their job.

In that era, did you feel a part of any particular affinity to what else was going on, particularly in the U.K. in '78, '79, '80 at that time?

Yeah, I think I did to some extent. I didn't feel part of anything like a gang. I didn't necessarily know any of these other people, but when you're 22 years old and you're in London and it's the late '70s and this stuff is happening and it's exciting, then of course you're going to be influenced by it, I think.

Problem was, I was already way overqualified to be a punk rocker. I'd already been to the Royal Academy of Music and studied music and got a degree and stuff like that. And then this punk thing came along and it was like, "Damn, I didn't have to do all that."

But anyway, I guess I wanted to do something that did reflect the time and place I was in, but it was maybe a little more sophisticated. I don't know. I think it was something like maybe a cross between Steely Dan and The Clash or something! But I think by the time I got to the Night and Day album, which was recorded in New York, that was already behind me.

There are so many people who are fans of that early sound, but then it seems like after the breakup of that original band you kind of let your freak flag fly, from Jump and Jive and Night and Day and Body and Soul, soundtrack work, symphony work — you really have gone in a lot of different directions since those early days.

It didn't seem like it to me. It just seemed like exploring different facets of what was there of me, of what I was interested in. But I never thought of it as "letting my freak flag fly." That's pretty good, actually! I might have to use that.

Is there a style that you look back on in your 40-year career that you love the most, of what you've dabbled with?

I don't see myself as dabbling in different styles. I just have a completely different outlook on it to what you guys do. So I don't even know how to answer that. All I know is the best work that I've done is always the latest. It's always what I'm most excited about.

It does seem like your pop albums of the last decade or so have had sort of a feel, in terms of whether it's the band or the style of having a little bit of the urgency of the early records, but a little bit of the sophistication that maybe was there on Night and Day or Body and Soul. I don't know if that's an accurate assessment or not, but it seems like you've created a sound —

Those are all the same guy, so it's probably accurate.

I love the song that kicks off [Fool, your new] record, "Big Black Cloud." What's your outlook these days? Are we living under a big black cloud?

I do feel like that sometimes. I feel like people are more scared than they used to be about more and more things, and sometimes they are things that actually are scary, but a lot of time they're not really. It's kind of like people are often afraid of their own shadows, it seems to me.

But I do feel like the zeitgeist is different to what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago in that it's much more paranoid and fearful and obsessed with risk. I think part of that is that it's encouraged by people in authority, and I think there's a lack of leadership that is inspiring in general, and what we hear is, "You're at risk. This can't happen because it's the end of the world. The sky is going to fall. But if you do what I say and support me and vote for me and follow my rules, then you'll be safe, and I'm the one who knows how to keep you safe and your children safe." That's always a part of it as well.

So I think the song is kind of dark. It's saying there seems to be this big black cloud, but it's also defiant.

Joe Jackson out with a new record called Fool. What's your favorite song on this record? What's the one that you think leaves the best impression, that we should play here today?

That's the question you should never ask. That's like asking a parent who's their favorite child. I love all of them! That's why they're all on the album. That's the honest answer.

We're going to play "Friend Better" next. Anything you can add about that song?

It's a celebration of friendship, and it's also saying that it's pretty much the most important thing we've got. It's more important I think than romantic love or sex — not that those aren't important things, and if you can get all of the above at the same time, then good luck to you! But the best marriages, for instance, end up as friendships, so that's why the song says: "lover good, friend better." It could be the same person. You never know.

Fans at your shows inevitably want to hear some of those songs from 40 years ago. How have those songs changed for you over the years?

Well, obviously it's me that's changed rather than the songs. But in some cases the songs embarrass me and I don't play them anymore. In other cases I still like them and do play them. A lot of times I've tried to do new arrangements of them — change them around and keep them interesting. And every now and again, some of the songs on this tour, we've gone right back to playing them exactly as they were recorded, which kind of goes against the grain a bit for me, to be honest. But sometimes it's fun to do that as well.

Transcript by Rick Carlson.

Joe Jackson - official site

Joe Jackson, 'Fool'
Joe Jackson, 'Fool'