Excitingly Shameless - An Interview With Jason Forrest
Just within the past few years, Jason Forrest has amassed a body of work that can baffle tastemaker-rag editors, professional postmodernists, ďpunk rocks, disco sucksĒ purists, and anti-electronica Luddites for a generation or two. The Atlanta-gone-Brooklyn plunderphonist/laptop noisenik debuted as ďDonna SummerĒ and often concocted tracks that seem to be sampled from the remains of the disco records famously dynamited during a White Sox game in í79, when disco died. Forrest later eased the public confusion by performing under his Christian name. He caught the ears of Mouse on Mars who released his second album, The Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post-Disco Crash on their Sonig label in í03. Sonig recently released Forrestís Lady Fantasy EP and will soon release his latest LP, Shamelessly Exciting Ė a riot of punk, Reagan-era hair metal, trash disco, 70ís soft-rock, and R&B Ė will be released this early October. This fall will also see several releases by his breakcore and noise-trash comrades on his CockRockDisco imprint. The album also features the likes of David Grubbs, Laura Cantrell, Maja Ratkje and Timeblind. Dusted caught Forrest before he DJed for a Mouse on Mars show in Berlin.
Cameron Macdonald: You mentioned that you perform a rock show with just yourself and a laptop. How do you do a ďrock showĒ?
Jason Forrest: I know that people in America have been abused by bad laptop shows. It is possible to do a good laptop show, and the first thing I do is to donít pay attention to the computer. The music is very live, where I trigger the samples and stuff, but I focus on the audience and I really go crazy. I try to channel an Iggy Pop/David Lee Roth kind of thing.
CM: So do you cover yourself with peanut butter and have audience members lick it off of you, like what Iggy Pop did?
JF: Itís funny because this person who is in (CockRockDisco artist) Duran Duran Duran had covered himself with peanut butter but I donít think he knew that Iggy Pop had done it before. But yeah, Iíve done all sorts of crazy shit and gotten bloody and fallen off stage. Iíve done a lot of different things.
CM: What are some of these things?
JF: Unfortunately at the second show Iíve ever played in Berlin, I actually did break my G4 laptop that I only had for a month. It shows that alcohol and computers donít necessarily mix.
CM: How did you break it? Do you push it onto the floor or smash it?
JF: No, what happened was that there was a weird bar setup. All they had was beer and wine, and I had been drinking wine all day, so I said, ďAnybody who brings me a glass of wine, gets a free 7-inch,Ē because I only had like two drink tickets for the night. People did, so I figured that I actually drank 11 glasses of wine in an hour and a half. By the end of the set I was completely, crazy, fucking drunk and I had no idea I was that drunk. I meant to just push the laptop forward a little bit, but I slammed the screen against the table and the hinges that hold the monitor part to the computer part snapped in half. So I had a two-piece computer after that.
This whole idea of computer abuse Ė I went to this show where these guys destroyed their laptop at the end and it came across as really dumb; as a really hollow gesture. It has to be somewhere in between, because I really like to get crazy onstage and really go berserk and hopefully push this energy into the crowd, and it usually works. Sometimes things get broken for sure. I thought about burning the laptop as well, but unlike the guitar, it wouldnít make any sound. Itíd just go like, ďchripĒ and itíd just turn off.
CM: So how did you get into this kind of electronic music? I understand that youíre primarily a visual artist and I read an interview where you said that your music is an extension of your visual art.
JF: I was a photographer, and I did photo, video and sculpture for years and years. I think that before that, I can say that I consider my life to be changed by Public Enemy back in 1989, when It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out. Before that, I was listening to a lot of punk music and I still love a lot of punk music as you can hear in my albums. When that (Public Enemy) album came out, everything changed. I was just really, really obsessed for those songs. Then I made some weird music when I was in high school, and then went to art school to do photography and everything. I was always interested in these ideas of appropriation in taking images and taking sound and manipulating them to some other effect. I then moved to New York to make it in the art world and realized very quickly that I didnít want to be in the art world.
I started making music Ė just really bad noise music on a computer. Then I figured out the music that I wanted to make, which was a combination of rock with a kind of drum Ďní bass or IDM beats into what eventually became my style. At first, it was not a joke but it was like a hobby. I was an artist first and I was making music second. The first 7-inch that I ever put out, which was on Broklyn Beats, was played on John Peel (BBC radio show). Thatís when I realized that I could probably take my music much further than I could probably ever take my visual art. And then I got really serious about it.
CM: How did the Bomb Squadís productions influence your sound?
JF: I was always really captivated by how they would insert something that you could find out what its source was, into their compositions. A great example is the first track on Fear of a Black Planet; you have this looping bit of the end of ďLetís Go CrazyĒ by Prince. You have this Prince guitar solo that loops in a weird way, and one day I realized thatís what it was. I was like, ďOh my God, thatís Prince!Ē I had been listening to the song one and half to two years already. That feeling was really strong. I also love that there is just so much information in those songs.
I recently did an interview with (Bomb Squad engineer) Hank Shocklee, which was a real highlight of my life, and in getting ready for the interview Ė this is 11 years after the fact of hearing these albums so much Ė I still heard new information, new little notes, noises and sounds. That had a huge impact; that sheer amount of information.
CM: Speaking of Prince, in your first 7-inch on Broklyn Beats, was that Prince I heard on ďPopxlosionĒ?
JF: There was no Prince in that one. That ďPopxlosionĒ song was all 80ís stuff like Laura Braniganís ďGloriaĒ and a little bit of ďAbracadabraĒ by the Steve Miller Band and ďMickeyĒ by Toni Basil. When I first started making this music, I realized really quickly that whatever you sampled had a radically different idea behind what it was - when you insert it into your music. Sampling a heavy metal guitar riff is obviously way different than some kind of disco clap. I started playing with these ideas early on, so I got a bunch of 80ís music from the bands I knew. I started making this ďnewĒ 80ís music.
CM: Given your art of appropriating from other records, where do you see that practice in our time? Intellectual property rights is now a major issue in music. Is your appropriation some kind of defiance, or a celebration?
JF: The first thing is that I never think about those (intellectual property) laws. I just donít think it matters, to be honest with you. I just do the music/art I want to make and I donít really think about it so much. At this point, after the music is done, itís been mastered and printed and everything, we start doing the interviews where I actually start thinking about it. Itís funny, I never really thought that my music would take off or be listened to like it is. Primarily, Iím still pretty much shocked that Iím able to live as a professional musician. But the second thing is that everyone wants to get a statement about what I think about the legal properties of this issue and the answer is that I donít think it matters. If someone wants to sue me, of course itís their prerogative to do it now, but theyíre not going to get any money from me. It just doesnít matter. If they sue me then there are 4 to 500 kids getting ready to do the same (sampling), if not worse. Itís simply a numbers game and it canít be stopped at this point.
Now, the one thing that I do see is people getting pissed off about sampling that is derogatory or is done in a mean-spirited way, like how musicians would personally get offended if someone debased their music. But my music is not done that way. I think that anyone who hears it can hear that itís music made from a real respect for the stuff that Iím sampling from. Iíd like to think that I havenít gotten in any real legal troubles so far, because if anyone has heard it, they liked it.
CM: Itís interesting that when you sample from other artists, you have a clear respect for them. Iíve heard so many artists who sample or remix pop artists in a sarcastic or vandalistic way. I mean, one example is your Van Halen remix (on Tigerbeat6ís Revenge of the Fight Club 12-inch compilation).
JF: I adore Van Halen, I listened the shit out those Van Halen records. When I started this music and tried to do this more and more, when I listen to music, I feel like I try to learn why itís good from the inside. So I feel like Iím not so much sampling this music, but learning something from the music Iím sampling. When you start sampling these Van Halen songs, youíll realize that 1.) They are these brilliant pop songs and 2.) Eddie Van Halen is a monster on the keyboard and the guitar - itís unbelievable.
CM: In listening to your work, itís interesting how you have the same respect for Rod Stewart and Minor Threat.
JF: Itís funny, somebody asked me recently if there was any musician that I was ashamed of as a guilty pleasure, and I donít have that. There is certainly music that I donít like, but I really try to open up the door and sweep away any preconceived notion of what is good and bad, and just leave it be for the music itself. This whole idea started from a friend of mine who was really into ELO, and everybody else was like, ďEw, ELO, thatís crap!Ē I started listening to it and I realized how absolutely ingenious it is. Now (Electric Light Orchestra founder) Jeff Lynne is one of my complete idols; I think that I have every ELO record at this point. After learning that lesson to dispel this cultural myth, Iím really open to anything. On the (new) album there is a lot of 70ís soft-rock, which is also really uncool music, but when you listen to it again, you realize how absolutely great it is. A lot of them were simply good musicians.
CM: In speaking of sampling the music you love, on your new record, how did the idea for ďMy 36 Favorite Punk SongsĒ (on Shamelessly Exciting) come to be? Were you displaying your roots on your sleeves?
JF: What happened was that I went to a party where somebody played a Minor Threat song and I was like, ďOh my God, I havenít heard that song in 10 years!Ē I had all of those (Minor Threat songs) on cassette, and listened to the cassettes until I had worn the ink off of the stickers on the front. I started the song by sampling Minor Threat and it just never really worked. I then realized that I had to keep building more and more songs to it and then I realized that I had basically sampled every one of my favorite punk songs. After I had my favorite punk songs then I organized them this way a bit more. Itís one thing to make a mass of all of these songs, but itís another thing to actually make that into a song itself.
CM: How do you generally compose? With many of your songs, they start with a rocking beat before things get chaotic, and then there is a quiet part before the beat drops back in.
JF: Itís all done on a computer obviously Ė itís all sequenced down in a program called Logic. Because itís in Logic, itís very linear-looking, you can really see whatís happening in the song. So when something starts and develops and changes and changes again, itís all visually laid out that way. The other thing is that one of the bands that I grew up listening to a tremendous amount was Yes. The one thing about prog-rock that Iím so captivated and amazed by is that the music is very strong structurally, as well as being amazingly played and really rocking in certain spots. So the idea of developing something with structure was a need for who I was as a music listener.
CM: There are also short tracks that are ambient, like that one track filled with audience chatter before the beat picks up.
JF: Iím really interested in making albums and making something that has a flow from one song to the next and within some songs youíll find yourself in a different place and then maybe youíll go back to the development of a theme. Thatís one of the things that I learned from older musicians and songwriters. You listen to the Beatles records, one song would be ragtime, the next some kind of blues-rock thing and the next is some kind of tape collage. Itís this thread and this journey that you go on when you listen to the record. It happens over and over again. Certainly Yes songs go from being very frantic to very quiet to building. There are a lot of different issues within the music with juxtaposition, building something, having to break it down, having something break into chaos, having something lock into a very prescribed rhythm, theyíre all different ideas within the music. I donít feel any need to just explore one thing. Why not explore all of them in some hopefully musical way?
CM: Your love of prog is remarkable. I recall Alec Empire sneering that ďtechno is the new progĒ about 10 years ago. Many laptop-noise artists tend to dismiss prog.
JF: There are other bands that do it quite well, and the whole prog angle isnít really pushed so far. Like Deerhoof and God Speed You! Black Emperor are really heavy prog bands, theyíre just playing them now, and nobody really pushes the prog angle. I love prog, but Iím really amazed about how people bring it up so much (to me). But itís cool. I think that there is nothing wrong to making something that is both rocking and intelligent; I think that itís quite difficult actually. So if they can pull it off, thatís more interesting.
CM: As for your trash aesthetic, itís interesting how you posted pictures of the Playboy Mansion back in the 70ís on your (CockRockDisco Records) Web site.
JF: I developed this aesthetic based on the idea of trying to inject more fun into electronic music. I think that electronic music got to be so boring when everything seemed to be about minimal designs with minimal graphics. Everything became a B-grade copy of Warp (Records), fuck that! Itís the same thing over and over again. Warp was a great label and they certainly do have some good artists on the label, but I donít understand why everyone has to be so subservient to them. You can do your own thing and not be ostracized for it.
While Iím ranting, I feel that in general, music as a whole has gotten less fun. You see all of these Maximo Parks and the Bravery, and itís not fun. Some of it is OK musically and they give you the image that itís fun, but itís just not fun. One thing that I really try to do is to try to be fun and provide music thatís enjoyable to listen to and have a show where you can have a good time. I donít know how we missed fun all of a sudden.
CM: Given your aesthetic where you embrace 80ís hair metal and scenes from the Playboy Mansion during the 70ís, you seem to be harkening back to a decadence that had an odd innocence.
JF: Thatís an issue that Iíve talked about with my wife. I want something that is trashy and fun, but there is also a degree of sincerity in all of it. I mean, the picture of a naked lady with a robot (posted on his CockRockDisco Web site) is funny. I try to be legitimate. Yeah, there are a lot of things that are jokes, but they have good intentions.
CM: When you began getting into electronic music in New York, were you a part of a particular scene?
JF: It was only a scene of two people (laughs). It was myself that started making this music and End who did an album on Ipecac last year that I thought was the best record of the year; itís kind of like my music but way better. He uses more 60ís sounds like surf guitars, country twangs; more of a 60ís kind of exotic sound. Charles Pierce (End) and I would meet every week for lunch and talk about what we were doing with our music, exchanged CDs, and we would push each a lot musically. It was a really great time. I know that I learned a lot from him and I can say that I influenced him some as well.
The other thing about our type of music is that for what weíre doing in this electronic breakcore, whatever you call it, is in a scene that is really online. Itís a completely multinational thingÖ(There is) DJ/rupture in Barcelona, Sickboy in Belgium, this guy named Hardoff in Australia, Duran Duran Duran in Philadelphia, and I live in New York. There are people all over the world who are doing things that Iím really influenced by. Stuntrock is another guy, he and Doormouse are both out of Chicago. Itís a scene that was really fostered online, which is a little different from most rock scenes.
CM: How did you hook up with Mouse on Mars and their Sonig label?
JF: On my very first tour - which was very ghetto as I was sleeping on floors every night - the first show in Cologne was at one of the guys who runs A-Musikís art galleryÖThe DJ of the night was Frank Dommert who runs the Sonig label in Cologne. They had an office with A-Musik and when I met him, he came up to me and said, ďYou sent us a demo last year and we always really liked it.Ē Itís simply the fact that I sent a demo, and they liked and we got to be friends, and they were fans and they released it. Ever since then, Iíve been so shocked that they would be into my music. The catch with the Mouse on Mars guys and their label is that they are very open-minded. They get a tremendous amount of demos and they definitely listen to all of them. Iíve seen (Mouse on Mars member) Jan St. Werner DJ before and he had a really eclectic set of music from academic stuff to real 18-year-old gabber trash.
CM: Where do you see yourself taking your music in the near-future? Will you do more collaborations?
JF: The collaboration that I did with Laura Cantrell on the new album is one of the best songs that Iíve made so far. I am really happy with and touched with how generous she has been. As a result from that track, I really want to work with more musicians in the near-future. Right now, Iím just starting to think who it will be. Iím going to try to approach these idols that I keep talking about. There are definitely some indie rock people. Iíd like to work with Laura again. Iíd also like to work with Michael Gira from the Swans. There is this band called the Rock*A*Teens Ė I donít know how famous they got in the indie world Ė but theyíre from Atlanta and this guy named Chris Lopez who is the singer has a voice and a style that is really cool. And then there are my heroes, Iíd really like to work with Todd Rundgren.
CM: How far do you want to take your live show? Pyrotechnics?
JF: Iím a really funny musician, because on one hand, Iím really underground who is not so well-known compared to your Daft Punks and things like that. On the other hand, my music could be more poppy than it now is and it could be relatively well-liked. Iím open to making a rock spectacle. Iím definitely open to making a giant stage with pyrotechnics and rocking out. At the same time, Iíd really like the idea of just being my 200-megahertz laptop and me - I really the idea of having the full rock experience made by a guy with a computer.
CM: As for the future, what are you releasing next on your label?
JF: A few things that are coming out are already manufactured, so Iím just waiting to put them out. The first guy is Vorpal, heís from Pittsburg Ė he makes this amazing music that kinda sounds antique, like itís sampled from 78 (rpm) records, and the beats are more like alt. hip-hop beats that go really fast as well. There is this guy named About from Amsterdam and he makes the best combination of electronic music and indie rock that Iíve heard. All of the songs have vocals; itís kind of like the Postal Service but way better with really good music and good beats. The last thing I have is Next Life, itís really like Gameboy death-metal. The guys are really into metal and theyíre really into Gameboys and the beats are all sequenced out with Gameboys and some of the guitars have Gameboy sounds and some are real guitars. All of the vocals are from old video games; itís really amazing, itís really quite fetishistic. There is this other guy named Stuntrock, who is the Richard Pryor of breakcore. Itís all done and should come out before the end of the year. He has all of these samples of people talking; heís got a huge movie collection and he is rocky as well. Itís really great musicÖand is all about drinking as well.
CM: As for the $64,000 question, why did you name yourself ďDonna SummerĒ?
JF: Basically, I wanted to "sample" another artistís name, verbatim. Also, I figured no one would like my music, so being somewhat "gutsy" wasnít really an issue. I just figured maybe I would get to release a 7-inch of something and always be somewhat unknown. Who would (have) figured.
By Cameron Macdonald