Friday, 13 June 2014

Feature - Jeff Lang

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine. Excerpt below.

Jeff’s Head
Jeff Lang ponders whether it's all a cosmic joke at his expense.

“If you’ve got nothing to, essentially, prove, does that mean that you think you’ve got it all sussed?” muses Jeff Lang, rhetorically. “Far from it. I’m always on the cusp of thinking that it’s all been a cosmic joke at my expense, and I’ve been kidding myself this whole time, and it’s actually a bunch of fucking guff, you know?”

Lang laughs. I laugh too. We’re talking about the fact he’s been ‘on the scene’, so to speak, for almost thirty years. I’d asked him a question I ask a lot of musicians who have been plying their trade for a reasonable amount of time – where does this album see you as an artist? I’d mentioned he now had nothing to prove, and had wondered if this made any sort of difference when it came to creating.

“It’s one of those things, everyone grapples with it – am I wasting my time, will people even give a shit about this? I mean, should they?” he says. I tell him he could drive himself mad asking himself those kinds of questions. “Exactly, so you just have to let it go. It’s better to not really think about the big picture of it too much. That’s where you get into thinking, ‘It’s gotta be my magnum opus’… Christ, where do you start with that? There are too many phantoms peeking over your shoulder when you start thinking those types of thoughts.”

Lang’s new album, the latest in a long line of releases spanning the past three decades from studio cuts to live albums to collaborations with artists as diverse as Bob Brozman, Chris Whitley, Mamadou Diabate and Maru Tarang, in entitled I Live In My Head A Lot These Days. It’s a title which makes me think Lang has indeed been asking himself the aforementioned hard questions, but it’s not the case.

“I always have [lived in my head], everyone does,” Lang reasons. “I spent a lot of time touring on my own… I just looked for a title which hangs over the batch of songs, and that’s where I ended up.”

I Live In My Head… is, to put it simply, another Jeff Lang album. He’s not been looking at the ‘big picture’, he’s looking at the smaller pictures, one at a time, as he’s always done, and as a result the album is a snapshot, a moment in time, 11 songs which encapsulate what’s going on in Lang’s head now; add it to his canon, it’s another chapter in the saga that is this incredible musician’s life and times.

I tell Lang that whenever I hear there’s soon to be a new album, I get excited. I ask him how he feels when he finds out there’ll soon be a new Jeff Lang album. “Ha, well I kind of hear it first,” he laughs. “After a while, I just start to feel expectant… songs accumulate over time and I just get antsy for it.”

“I enjoy recording, so I can itch that part of myself a bit more by helping other people make their records, but it’s not the same thing as making your own recording,” he says. “But then, if you did it all the time, you might get sick of it. I’ve always worked on a fresh-is-best policy with recording.”

“It’s a funny process,” he goes on, warming to the subject of making studio albums, something he’s done under his own name around seventeen times, 18 if you include his new record (and to be honest, he’s done so much, there may well be more). “You feel like you’ve been doing something, it doesn’t feel like a polaroid project too much, but it’s funny, you can spend three days recording and then listen back to something you did on the first of the three days, and it feels like it’s weeks and weeks ago.

“You’re just so focused on things, you tend to focus on each song as it comes up, you’re not thinking about the next one, it’s really quite different to a gig.”

It’s this method, this ethos, that Lang has indeed brought to other artist’s records. He’s recently produced Hat Fitz and Cara’s new album (to be released soon), he’s currently working on Jed Rowe’s new release, and recently worked the desk for The Stillson’s frontman Justin Bernasconi’s solo record, Winter Pick.

“I needed a producer who could push me out of my comfort zone, both as a player and as a songwriter,” Bernasconi tells me via email. “A producer needs to wear many hats, and Jeff has a hat shop! Knowing how coax out a performance, when to push someone, when to back off, etc. There are obliviously the technical aspects: how to use mics, how to mix, when to tell a dirty joke to relieve the tension.

“Jeff is pretty cruisey, and works quickly and efficiently. This is great, because you quickly forget what a great muso he is, and concentrate on your own stuff. [He’s] done a lot of albums, and from my experience, still loves the whole aspect of putting together an album. Listening to rough demos, reading through and talking about lyrics, questioning this and that. Jeff’s acutely sensitive, and rarely puts even a toe wrong when it comes to advice. Now, he says he’s not too precious about his own stuff – I’m sure he knows what he’s doing!”

That he does. I Live In My Head A Lot These Days is a standing testament.

Samuel J. Fell

For the full feature, check out the June issue of Rhythms.

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