Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
It's interesting to note that Casper & the Cookies frontman and songwriter Jason NeSmith finds Phil Spector to be creepy and kind of a dick. He's always been fond of the accused murderer (stay tuned as that trial begins in mid-March) and sonic pioneer's infamous ways with sound, but that's as far as it goes. You'd think they could be more the buddy types with each other, but they aren't. NeSmith doesn't force anyone to play a bass guitar at gunpoint and he's yet to grow the world's most catastrophic afro. The two are, however, slaves to sound. As a child, NeSmith collected adaptors from Radio Shack and did geeky, audiophile things with them when other boys were making hamburgers out of Play-doh or playing on Little League baseball teams -- collecting baseball cards, not fanzine photographs of the Eurythmics and Men At Work. He is no groundling when it comes to the sweet wines of the year. He is a connoisseur of the multitudinous methods of arriving at a point that piques most interests no matter what their predisposed predilections for sound enjoyment are.
The truth is that there is no substitute for a meaty, meaty hook and some choruses about people, people in love, people looking for love, the happy things people do when they're together, kissing for the first time, and peppering it all with some succulent bridges and parsley. And there is no antidote for fighting these kinds of songs that take you by a storm before you even realize that anything's been brewing in the clouds. What NeSmith does is he practices in a science that is open-source, just like Firefox is, working with the time-honored structures of popsmithery, tinkering with them, adding a new coat of paint and what would be marketed and sold as incentives -- just like mapless directional systems. He's a credible professor, able to speak (read: write and sing) intelligently and in long-form about all of its tendencies and its specific gait.
When the right melody happens, people cock their heads sideways and recognize the locking in of all the necessary components that go into making a pop song pop. There's a reason that you would have been hard fought to find many people worldwide who couldn't unabashedly admit that they loved Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" two years ago. The songs on the Athens, Ga., band's third full-length record -- The Optimist's Club -- are nothing like Kelly Clarkson, but they carry with them, in their thread, those inarguable intricacies that breathe big breathes, big air, or at least allow a listener to. They are the refreshing songs of exuberant delight in sound and they come from the fingers of a guy who describes his songs the way a kid bred on comic books, sci-fi fantasies and all-night binges of grape soda would. It's really just all coming from someone devoted to his studio tan, as he likes to call it, and delivering on the absolutely certainty that the pop song -- the one made of glee (usually masked and a vague reference to something tragic) and crowned with a dollop of whipping cream -- can always be construed again and reinvented all over. The results can be quite surprising. They could turn out the way NeSmith's do, all friendly demeanors, but with the occasionally dark underbellies that make life interesting.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*Daniel Johnston has an obsession with Casper the Friendly Ghost. What's your relationship to Casper? Much different, I assume...*
Jason NeSmith: I honestly have no relationship with Casper. We met briefly at a party once in 1994. He brought one of those bottles of cheap white wine in the shape of a fish. Ripplefish, I think it's called. Anyway, he drank most of it and pledged his name to me. I haven't seen him since, probably due to the thousands in child support he owes.
*Do fans bake you things -- getting all literal with your band name and stuff?*
JN: It's happened a couple of times. There were some delicious chocolate chip cookies in Ithaca, N.Y., that I won't soon forget. But seriously, guys, we don't need the sugar. If you want to bring us food how about some fruit (Grapefruit!! -- Kay Stanton) or veggies?
*When did you become in the Wall of Sound? Have your feelings about Phil Spector changed since he grew his hair large and was charged with murder or do his records cut him some slack?*
JN: I've loved the Wall of Sound since before I can remember, even Sonny Bono's sloppy maracas. However, Phil Spector has always been a creep, (Ronnie's pretty awesome, though -- Kay) and no amount of talent should exonerate anyone guilty of such a crime. I'm not saying I think Phil's guilty. But there have been many fantastic records made in jail.
*Have you ever played a child's birthday party or been contacted to do so?*
JN: I think titles like "Things to Do Before We Die" might be limiting our ability to market to that demographic. We would be a fantastic band for a funeral party.
*How are you guys regarded in Athens? Is there an Elephant 6 sub division where you reside?*
JN: People have told me they like the new record. We've made some friends because of it. We're not headlining the 40 Watt yet, but we feel the love. E6 subdivision? You mean Orange Twin? Kay and I live four miles northwest of downtown (our friends think it's too far) in a 1950's ranch house with deer running through the yard. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in Ward Cleaver's neighborhood. It's great.
*Do you tend to typically think pretty positively?*
JN: No. I'm a naturally grumpy person. I'm jealous of optimists.
*Wasn't it a day before or a day after you were here that Kay intimidated some ruffians who wanted to mess you all up at a club?*
JN: Actually, it was in Huntsville. Two huge guys were fighting over one of their sisters. There were a lot of flying limbs and a little blood. Two female bouncers and our guitarist Jim (Hicks) got in there and pulled the guys apart. The taller guy came back with a massive stick. I thought someone was about to get killed, and I couldn't let that happen. I must've thought I was invisible (or much larger than he actually is -- Kay), because I took the stick away and threw it across the room before he could hit the other guy with it. I got hit in the head by the stick's owner, and Kay jumped on his back, put him in a headlock and brought him to the ground (I had a massive bruise on my ass throughout the tour. I created a brief photo journal of it -- Kay). She doesn't like me telling this story. Please, please, please, everyone. DO NOT take this story as an invitation to fight the Cookies. I think I told ya. I'm a lover, not a fighter. That was the Flirtin' With Disaster tour (I thought it was the 'Are You Fuckin' Kidding Me? tour' -- Kay). The night after Huntsville we slept in a bar that was routinely set afire by the local pyromaniac. A few nights later our friend Keith John Adams was telling us a story about being shot at, and we heard gunfire in the next yard over. The next morning we found out someone shot and killed an intruder on their property.
*There was an unfortunate episode in Des Moines too, wasn't there?*
JN: Yes. We were booked on a rainy Sunday night with Poison Control Center, whom we were excited to play with. We brought all our gear in and got soaking wet in the process, set it all up, the soundman was ready to check levels, then the lady working the bar decided she wanted to cancel the show and go home. It was the most disheartening moment of the tour by far. It really sucks, because a good friend of mine works there. But in my opinion, the club owes us an apology and a good show.
*Can you believe that Of Montreal is all massive and shit now?*
JN: I know. I picked a fine time to leave. Am I Pete Best, or what?
*Is the kind of melodic power-pop that you guys play the truly timeless sound, in your opinions? I mean, these melodies will be heard 20 years from now and still be appreciated. That probably can't be said about a lot of things -- the Pussycat Dolls and crunk for instance.*
JN: For about a century there has been a movement to incorporate more unmelodic elements into music, which is fine by me. We're long past due to broaden the popular definition of music. There are still people that don't think rap is music. On the other hand, I don't think Lil' Jon's sitting around thinking about the influence of Steve Reich's tape loops on his compositions, though I think it's easy to see. I am very interested in new sounds and techniques, but I believe the human mind is hardwired to appreciate melody and analyze structure. I definitely aspire to create music that people will like for years to come. But the concepts of timelessness and fashion are tricky. It's best to not worry about that stuff and just make music that you want to hear. Kill 'em all, and let Pitchfork sort 'em out.
*Outside of music, what intrigues you, gets you thinking?*
JN: I'm not the most voracious reader, but when I click with a book I really get into it. Kay's mom gave me a book for Christmas by Daniel J. Levitin called This Is Your Brain On Music. He breaks down the science of perception in ways that I can almost understand. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke are two more that I go back to often. (Jason also gets very interested on what is going on in the compost pile--think A Zed and Two Naughts -- Kay).
*Where does making records rank in your life in importance?*
JN: Being a studio owner in a marriage throws that question into a tailspin. Before it was my job, I would've said No. 1. It's usually fourth or fifth somewhere after marriage, food, sex and wine, but about four months a year it jumps up to No. 3. Actually, I keep a parallel list for music, which I need to stop doing because it causes problems.
*What was your method for recording your cat purring? What's its name, by the way? What is its personality like?*
JN: That's Putter. She's the sweetest cat ever, and she's in love with Jim. (She will also roll around if you sing to her -- Kay). On the record you can hear Kay pop open a can of Pounce cat treats and shake it. Then I just mic'd it with an AT 4033 into a Mackie pre-amp and Gadget Labs A/D. That was a while ago, though. I've got better pre's now.
*What did you collect as a child?*
JN: I bought adaptors from Radio Shack. The day I got a y-adaptor and started making sound-on-sound tapes was a big-fucking-deal. I clipped pictures of Eurhythmics and Men At Work out of magazines. Even back then I had a one-track mind. I guess I also collected notes from teachers to parents about the homework I didn't do. (Jason wanted me to answer this one, too for some reason. I collected/collect dead insects with the idea of creating artwork--drawings, little sculptures--stuff like that. I have a couple of pretty impressive carcasses).
*What/who have you been recording and working with in your studio lately?*
JN: Titans of Filth, a new band from Athens with incredible songs. Mary O. Harrison, a songwriter from Atlanta with incredible songs. The Shut-Ups, a band from Atlanta with incredible charisma and songs. Keith John Adams, a guy from London with incredible charisma and songs. Cars Can Be Blue, a band form Athens with incredibly tense studio fights and dirty, filthy songs. The Lolligags, a band from Athens and Nashville with incredible songs that will be famous one day.