Trains and Danes: The Jim Neversink Interviewby Brandon Edmonds / 09.09.2011
Jim Neversink is hands down the best alt country / lo fi loserbilly this place has ever coughed up. Jim Neversink (2005), Shakey is Good (2008) and Skinny Girls Are Trouble (2010) ought to be playing every time it rains. Or shines. He’s our answer to Smog. And funny too. “Idols judges would send Lou Reed packing for another cheap George Michael imitation in a heartbeat.” We tracked Jim down to see how he’s doing and he delivered the harshest, clear-eyed critique of the local music industry ever.
Mahala: Hey Jim you were really sort of gaining momentum a couple of years ago locally. Why’d you leave?
Jim: We completed recording Skinny Girls Are Trouble and I hated the idea of seeing another one go to waste. This is delicate and I should explain. By going to waste that is not to say it means any less to me that several South Africans have paid for a copy. That means a great deal to me. For the longevity of my career and to ensure that I keep motivated, it was important for me to see an international product become international, and not just die another sad death in the bargain bins in South Africa – as the others have. So I wanted to give this one a real boost and test different markets.
How does the music system work here? Regional talent pulled into the major cities then spat back out? If you were just starting out in this country, knowing what you know now, what would you do to survive?
I always disliked people who emigrated and dissed home from afar. That attitude of I’m in a better place now so fuck y’all. I vowed that I would never do that when I left. So without being unpatriotic or ungrateful, I want to state respectfully and honestly that South Africa as a country is possibly the coolest, hippest, friendliest place but sadly 95% of the South African Music Industry is fucked. It always has been. Because it’s filled with corrupt, ignorant, tone deaf, unintelligent people that have archaic references and zero motivation. They practice nepotism and reward derivative banal shite. They have no sense of pride or standards and take 3 hour lunches everyday. Most devastatingly they overlook truly talented musicians and artists who are pushed aside in favour of “What will sell now?” or rather “What can we manipulate to sell now?” This should be an industry that encourages and grows talent but it’s doing everything except that. Everytime a good band appears, mark my words: it’s not because some overpaid industry fuckhead took a chance on them, it’s because they did it all themselves.
Right, I think that pretty much prevents me from answering the next part of your question, I simply wouldn’t start out again in SA.
Don’t pull your punches there Jim! Holy shit. You write beautifully by the way. I love “Moving In” which seems to be about securing a grave alongside someone you loved?
Thank you. “Moving In” is about just that. I was trying to write a love song about a couple who just couldn’t live in this world so they make a suicide pact. The girl heads off to see her loved ones for the last time but dies in an accident. The shocked boyfriend wonders whether he should still go through with it? Since they’d made a pact, he calmly fulfills his side of the deal. Sounds like a Barry Ronge movie review. Ha Ha.
Does this country lend itself to the kind of music you make? It has wide open spaces. Long lonely highways. As a South African artist, do you feel like you have to hold this country in your head and always be addressing issues?
South Africa is the greatest place to write Country music. I think singing Country in South Africa is far more honest than eating a McDonalds burger. You don’t need to be from Texas to use a chainsaw. Country music really is a mix of European folk and beautiful Black rhythms. We have Europeans in SA. We have Blacks in SA. So why can’t we make our own brand of Country? Are we the wrong kind of Europeans, the wrong kind of Blacks? Haven’t we had our own disappointments, failed crops, divorces and suicides? Should we just ignore that and go on singing dumb meaningless shite set to dance music?
Amen Jim. Why is the local scene so moribund? I’m talking about white pop-rock music? Are kids inundated with genre-choice? Does it cripple originality?
The industry rewards bad behaviour. It has a very narrow reference point. In SA if you’re different, you’re just a loser. It’s so primitive. Take a ghetto blaster deep into the Amazon basin and leave some mythical tribe Beatles albums. Return 6 weeks later with AC/DC. They’ll tell you The Beatles sound like AC/DC. 6 weeks later return with The Kinks. Now they’ll say The Beatles sound like The Kinks more than AC/DC. Repeat this process until they can make judgments outside of their own immediate knowledge of music. In South Africa, if someone plays anything outside the industry’s limited grasp, the industry is lost. They can’t place it. They don’t know what to do with it so they make up excuses and turn the band down. They don’t have the skills to market it properly. So any “new band” just sounds derivative and annoying. The usual loops and power chords that remind you of a million other bands out there is safe enough to sign.
You’ve done the local touring treadmill – what are the pitfalls?
Touring without airplay is pointless. How many South African tours did Elvis do? None. Yet how many albums has he sold? Plenty. It’s all hype and airplay. Airplay first then tour. Touring blind without media, marketing or airplay is only effective about the 3rd time your car has been in for new shocks and tires. I always joked with friends I’m taking the scenic route to stardom. That said, South Africa is beautiful to tour. Nothing beats those big open roads. Future club owners would do well to start venues in between the major cities. You should be able to drive a few hours, rest, set up, play a gig, sleep and repeat the next day. SA needs more of a circuit.
What needs to happen that isn’t happening?
I’d like to see an industry steered by people with major integrity like Harvey Roberts, Kevin Bloom, Rob Allingham, Michelle Constant, Richard Haslop or Stevan Buxt. They understand business and the creative process.
Get rid of the SAMAS or rework its objectives.
Get rid of racially divided festivals.
Get rid of Idols.
Get rid of nepotism.
Get rid of shite music.
Get rid of venues that don’t have a PA system.
Get rid of “you won’t make much money but you’ll get plenty of publicity”
Get rid of lame DJs who talk too much. Play some fucking music man.
Does country music still matter? Is that what you make? What do you think of a media term like ‘alt.country’?
It matters to me. All music matters to me. As for Alt.Country, I’ve been called that and have had to ask friends what it means. I still don’t really get it. Perhaps it’s Country music with a willingness to participate in other genres? I really just see music as one thing. Lyrically, sure there’s a bit of the old “high lonesome” as my friend Jo tells me; musically though I’m ready to pounce on anything. I love exploring new sounds and beating them out of shape to create my own nasty little textures. Matthew Fink is particularly good at facilitating such sounds. I call my music “Loserbilly” and that frees me up to work in any genre.
As I get older, I find I generally need a narrative dimension to music to interest me. The thrill of sheer sound has faded a bit. I tend to treat music like books. How has your use of music changed over the years?
I get what you’re saying but for me it’s all about entry points. I can enter a dull song and be caught up in it even if the music sucks. As long as it has that one great line it’s enough for me for a while. Though I tend to prefer great menacing sonic textures to lure me in. Once I step on someone’s brilliant lyric it’s like standing on a bear trap – I ain’t going nowhere till the song is over. And just like with great books, I usually allow myself to be trapped again and again. I’m still as passionate about music as I was when I was a teenager. Music drives me. I would mainline it if I could.
Melancholy is your ah métier, Jim. Gram Parsons had a shitty life. Hank Williams’ was even shittier. Are you having a shitty life? That nexus of pain, confession and country music links so many forms from blues to rap. Could a case be made for the necessity of suffering to be good?
It all comes down to how or what you take to deal with it. I suffer deep depression. I have social phobias, anxiety and deep rooted fears. Like everyone else, I’ve had dark days, sometimes stretching into months and years, but everyone has that, right? Denmark, where I live, was recently voted the happiest country in the world! So I try to fit in and be happy. I want people to point in the street and say “se der går lykkelige Jim”. There goes happy Jim.
In South Africa, with it’s farcical music industry, crime, fear and desperation it was so easy to be reactionary as an artist. But what is there to diss in Denmark? Nothing. Maybe I need to diss the fact that there’s nothing to diss. It is a wonderful country and it’s forcing me to really create. To drop all my reactionary cynicism that blighted my perception of life. Shit I might just write an album about trains. Trains and Danes! But knowing me there’ll be a murder in the 4th carriage by the time I hit the 2nd song. Miserable bastard that I am.
Your voice is unlike anyone else’s around. Roy Orbison redux. Have you covered his songs? What did he mean to you?
Thanks. I love all great voices. Orbison’s fragility and haunting tone is one. I’ve never covered Orbison but I’ve tried singing along – until he unleashes that terrific falsetto. Same with Slim Whitman. I think that’s why I play the lapsteel guitar. It’s a compensatory move. When falsetto fails me I try to capture that ’gaunt-haunt’ on lapsteel. Anything past the 14th fret on my lapsteel is heading into Roy Orbison, Slim Whitman and Harry Nilsson territory. And that’s when Mariah Carey leaves in tears.
What’s on your iPod?
I don’t have an iPod. I would like to get one soon. When I first arrived in Denmark and started using public transport, I enjoyed hearing all the new sounds, the brakes, the diesel, the electric metro, the crazy chatter of the Danes, the public announcements coupled with new sights and colours. It was all so exhilarating. Now that I’ve been studying Dansk, I realize that half these conversations are just teenage girls talking about who they met and what they’re going to wear or old men cursing when the carriage rocks too much – so I’m quite keen to block this stuff out to some degree!
You’ve got newish music out. Tell us about it? And your last tour here.
Skinny Girls Are Trouble was recorded mainly at the SABC with bits added in New York and Copenhagen. Produced by the legendary Richard Lloyd (from seminal post-punk band Television) and shaped by Peter Pearlson. It was terrific working with them and recording with old bandmates Loandi Boersma and Kevin O’ Grady. I toured SA last year. It was more to showcase the new album. It went really well and I hope to tour SA once a year. Great seeing old friends and familiar faces.
What kind of collaborative stuff are you’re doing overseas?
Yeah I love meeting new people and collaborating. I’ve worked with some of the finest songwriters and performers in Denmark. Gutten Og Gutten, Me After You, Love Your Way and Off Piste. Sophia Maj is worth checking out.
I just built a home studio and hooked up with Pops Mohamed while he was in Copenhagen. I am recording my new album. I write two new songs every day then do rough recordings at home. I’ll choose maybe 15 out of 100 songs and ditch the rest. Apart from sounding so negative in my music industry rant earlier, I am truly happy in Copenhagen and look forward to sharing my new songs when the time comes.