Joey Cape’s first UK show of his debut solo acoustic tour brought him to London’s Islington Academy on 29 March. Last Hours managed to pin down the Lagwagon frontman just before the show to find out how he feels about striking out on his own, his ever growing array of musical projects and the politics of punk.
LH: After 20 years with Lagwagon and various other projects, what finally inspired you to make a solo album?
JC: It’s kind of a difficult question to answer because there wasn’t any original catalyst for the record. I always have written on an acoustic guitar and I often demoed the songs in the past and so it was something that would come natural to me anyway. But I always felt it was the kind of thing every songwriter should do at some point, just because it’s sort of a rite of passage. It took me over two years inbetween tours with other bands – I would just work on it periodically. So there was no decision that was ever really made. It just kind of happened. The other thing that’s very strange is that there wasn’t any set goal that was realised with it, because the songs all had been recorded at completely different periods. At the end it was more a matter of trying to find time – and finding continuity and the right sequence for the record. If I ever did it again it would be a completely different process – it would be just write songs, sit down, record the record. You know, a good thing about a record is that it’s something that marks a point in history for you as an artist and this record in a way does that, but in a broader sense – kind of a broader period than usual. So I think if I did it again I’d like it to be more exactly what’s going on at that period in my life.
LH: You say ‘if’ you did it again – do think you might not?
JC: I say ‘if’ all the time because I never know what’s going to happen – I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to be alive! That sounds morbid, but you know what I mean. And the other thing is I’m always doing so many different things that nothing’s ever certain in my work and I have other bands. But yeah, I think I will. I should! It’s sort of silly to do that one if I don’t do another. I’d like to, it’s fun.
LH: Did you find that writing for the solo album made the material more personal or autobiographical than writing for Lagwagon or your other bands?
JC: There’s really almost no difference for me because very song that I write for whatever band I’m writing for, I’ve always just written from that point of view. I just don’t know how else to do it. And I can only connect with pretty dark themes – it’s just what makes sense to me musically. So, really it’s just formatting. It’s like ‘is this song going to be for this band or this band or is it just going to just be me on an acoustic?’. It will change the dymanic of it all and it maybe has a small effect on the lyrics, because at slower speeds, with better dynamics you can fit in different melodies and you might be able to fit even more words. I mean it’s that simple. Sometimes some of the stuff that I’ve written acoustically doesn’t work with the faster band because there’s not enough time to get the words, so I have to simplify. But it’s very often no different other than just the feel.
LH: On the track ‘Canoe’ you have your daughter speaking. How did that come about?
JC: That was really amazing! It was totally an organic thing. I have a studio basement in my house – it’s nothing fancy – and I was down there a lot. Actually that was pretty early on in the record because she’s five now and I think she was just three. Anyway, I was spending too much time down there and there’s a problem with having a studio in your house – anybody needs you in the family, they just come down and go ‘alright, wrap it up!’. Violet, my daughter, would just walk in and I’d have a heartattack – I’m in the middle of some intimate vocal moment in my no windows basement studio, going insane, with my beard and BOOM the door flies open. And when you’re wearing headphones and you have a mic… it was really funny. Sometimes she would come in and just straight up go ‘Dad, let’s go’ or mess me up enough and I’d realise how many hours I’d been in there and I’d go up. That time she came in and she could hear the music playing and she just started singing and humming to it and then started talking and I was rolling a vocal take and it’s very near where she ended up in the song. She just was like ‘come on Dad let’s go outside, the sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day’. It sounded so good. So I edited it and I moved the comments around a little bit so it fit the rhythm better, but it was all right there and it took five minutes. Yeah, just one of those things.
LH: How has being a father changed the things you want to write about?
JC: There’s no question that most people that are good parents and good people would admit that when they have a child it changes your perspective entirely. There’s just no looking back. You never really see anything the same way. It certainly changes your perspective forever and your priorities change. You see the world through their eyes, you start to feel a little more fragile yourself because they’re fragile. And so yeah, it changed the way that I wrote lyrics because I think it renewed a lot of passions that I had – things that I was passionate about I became much more passionate about, because it just magnifies the way you see everything. I think indirectly it ends up affecting everything you do. Which is nice.
LH: You’ve said that the album is a ‘dead art’ and Lagwagon’s last release was an EP rather than a full length. Do you think this change is a positive thing?
JC: I don’t know about it being in anyone’s favour. It’s just an interesting subject because there’s so many feelings about this but I think that things have really changed. When I was a kid there was more romance in the search for great music. You didn’t have the internet or any of the ways of so easily finding something. So, I would have to take two buses a fairly long distance out to this record store that had vinyl, that actually sold punk and metal and that kind of the bands that I like – most of which were UK bands. I’d hear a rumour that it was coming out and then I’d call the record store and we’d go all the way out there and you didn’t always score. It was usually me and a buddy and we’d get on a bus and we were so excited and we’d got our money that we’d saved up. And I just kind of miss that and, of course, being a big fan of vinyl – you know, that ceremony of when you had a record and you came home and cracked the plastic and pull out the artwork and you put it on, that was a great thing. And now you download a song on your ipod – and I’m guilty. But I listen to vinyl all the time and every once in a while I get new vinyl – it sounds obviously much, much better. And younger people they never experienced that, so why would they care? I don’t blame them for it at all, they just come from a different time. They don’t have that same experience with music. But here’s the thing, I see that in a broader sense – that is just part of getting old. You just start to become a little bit disappointed because you start to see people repeating the same mistakes that you’ve seen in your lifetime, maybe within decades of them happening, as if there was no history. You see bands regurgitating bands’ sounds. Sometimes they’re emulating a band’s sound that was emulating another band’s sound, a band that you grew up on. They can’t be blamed for when they’re born. But you know, ultimately, you start to identify with your grandparents after a while – you start to realise, boy they must be REALLY bummed because they’re in their 80s, how many times have they seen people do stupid things that they had already done and we supposedly learn from?
LH: We seem to be seeing more intimate, acoustic shows by punk acts – why do you think this is?
JC: There are two big reasons that’s happening. One, I think, the financial obvious reasons – like record sales are way down, touring is really hard and expensive now. I think more and more people start saying, ‘well fuck, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, I guess I’m going to start doing acoustic stuff’. That wasn’t at all what happened to me – but just by luck I’m able to do this now. It’s just a much more inexpensive way to tour. Not that I’m making any money on this tour – I’m maybe going to break even. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that was probably the reason more and more people started doing it, because they just couldn’t afford to do tours with their band or they’re just not selling any records and the band is breaking up. So you’re seeing a lot more songwriters and singers doing it. The other thing is, it is a very cool thing – it’s sort of a punk rock thing in it’s own right, because there’s that intimacy that punk rock always had with the crowd when you do an acoustic show. So I’m drawn to it for that reason. Most times you play punk shows it’s a small show. Small enough that you’re able to point at any random personalities and you can have conversations with people. And I always try to, because I feel like I’m just hanging out with people. And the acoustic thing is just totally that way…a synergy with the audience.
LH: Is it very different, is it scary going out on tour on your own?
JC: I had a really scary show last night! Most nights we play bars and people are drinking and people heckle me and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like a party and those nights I’m already totally used to and I really enjoy it. It’s definitely challenging in a different way because you’re really naked when you’re playing an acoustic set and I love that about it. But last night we played a theatre in Brugges, in Belgium. It was this really quiet, nice theatre where they have ballets. And I think a lot of people there were townspeople that just go out to any show that happens. And you know I’m kind of from a punk rock background so I don’t play those – I’ve never had an experience like that. And these guys loved it, the guys I’m touring with (Jon Snodgrass and Chad Rex), they were like ‘this is great, everyone’s quiet and paying attention and listening’. And I was like ‘I don’t think I love this!’, you know, I was really nervous. I prefer the kind of rowdy, drunk bar shows.
LH: You’ve said in the past that you’d like to do a film score – is this something that’s any closer to happening?
JC: I think that it would be really time consuming so I’d have to not be busy, but yeah it’s something that I always wanted to. First of all, I don’t really like touring – it’s just what I ended up doing and I enjoy it a little, but I’m definitely not one of those people that go ‘Ah, I can’t wait to be on stage!’. It can be fun but there’s certain people that love that thing, you know? They love fame for lack of a better word and I’m not into it. I like playing music with other people but not nearly as much as I like songwriting or recording, those parts to me are much more enjoyable. It’s the art side of it, it’s more like what the painter does. I prefer that creative process. So I always thought that if you were someone who had the ability to score a film that would just be the ultimate job because there’s not really any limitations to that genre. It just seems like the most limitless thing to do. And I am equipped to do it but I have a lot of friends who do do it and, you know, it’s a full time deal. And also I think it’s incredibly competitive and difficult to get into. Every once in a while someone will ask me to do like a really kind of indie film or something and believe it or not the only things that I’ve been offered have been so bad. Just being honest. They’ll send you a treatment and you read it and you go ‘hmm.. I just don’t see this can be anything but dull and unoriginal and just bad’. So, I’m not really I’m in a position to be getting offered anything great. (Laughs) But recently somebody asked me to score a documentary about anti-depressant and chemical abuse in America and that’s something that I feel really strongly about, so I think I might do it. But I have no idea where that’s going – I hope I get to do it. We’ll see.
LH: If you could choose any film director to work with, who would it be?
JC: That’s tough, because the directors that I really, really like already have guys that I really, really like aswell! Aronofsky has Clint Mansell and that guy is, in my opinion, the best. You know, any of the really great film makers, there’s so many. I don’t know, I mean, Scorsese would be alright, maybe a Spielberg film (laughs). But it would be great if there was a film that you really loved, to actually be able to make the music for it because it would very inspiring and it would be easy to write for, I think.
LH: What are your plans for your various projects over the coming year?
JC: Well it’s funny, it’s getting a little more simple nowadays for me because Lagwagon is on another sort of hiatus. The plan for the year is to do this acoustic touring. Our drummer is playing in a band called Black President, which is funny because now we have a black president so..not so sure the name means the same thing anymore. But they’re a cool band – they’re actually going to be here really soon. Some of us are just doing different things now, just trying stuff. And that’s nothing new for me. I’ve been doing different things and taking breaks forever with Lagwagon and making everyone angry. (Laughs) So Lagwagon’s not too busy and the Gimmies we only really do like one tour a year. We’re coming to Europe in May. And the other things that I’ve done basically don’t really exist, they’re just projects. The one thing that was something substantial in my life was Bad Astronaut and that ended a long time ago. But in very much my fashion, of course, I’ve started a new band recently, because I just can’t be busy enough! (Laughs) Yeah, which sounds like a suicidal kind of move. But I’m doing this new thing called Bad Loud. Which is my pirate name that my daughter gave me on her third birthday – ‘you’re going to be Pirate Bad Loud’ and I thought that is a good name for a rock and roll band. So I’m making a record right now with some guys. Something different. I’m going to maybe try and make another acoustic record and I think the Gimmies might make a record. But if we do it’s very much not time consuming. That band, we literally get together in like a day and learn a bunch of songs and go in, sometimes we learn them in the studio and just record them right when we get it and hence the records being a little sloppy.
LH: How does it work with Me First And The Gimmie Gimmies in terms of deciding what songs to cover?
JC: Well, we get either a genre or a theme – we have different kinds of criteria. And then most of the time it’s myself and Spike that just go to town and Chris Shiflett as well. But I was raised in a family that listened to a lot of music growing up and was a huge music fan, so anything those guys throw out I’ll just be like ‘I’ll be right back’ and I can come back with like 200 songs. And most of the time the trouble is a matter of just having way too many possibilities. We go over to Fat Mike’s house and we bring all these CDs and he sits and listens to them and has no idea what half the songs are. We basically let Mike kind of have the power of veto and it works, that’s the way we’ve been doing it for a long time. And then after that we get it down to about maybe 20 songs and then once you’re in the studio and you start trying to play a song and arrange it, you know pretty quick some just don’t work, just time signatures. And, sadly, the whitest, least soulful songs seem to work the best every single time for the punk rock thing. I don’t know what that says about what we do as far as the punk rock thing goes! (Laughs) Like when we did the black artists album – because we couldn’t specifically call it a soul record or an r’n'b record or whatever, we just call it black artists, which is dumb – when we did that record we couldn’t do any of the funky stuff. We couldn’t make it work, and when we did it kind of ruins the song, the song has a groove and that groove doesn’t work with punk rock. So we had to do Lionel Richie and stuff like that, which is basically like Barry Manilow again.
LH: Going back to your reference to Black President, how do you feel the change of US presidency is affecting the feeling among bands and the music scene?
JC: Oh, it’s huge. I mean there’s certainly going to be less inspiration for political songwriting in America. I’m certain that most bands and most of America is really happy about it, especially young people and it’s like a massive relief. It’s kind of bitter sweet because the reality is we need a lot of years of a reasonable, smart, intelligent leader in our country to fix a lot of wounds and everyone knows that. But I think the most important thing is that it gives a little bit more credibility in the eyes of the world. I mean it was getting really hard to travel for a while there – the second term with Bush, it was just getting to the point like I didn’t want to speak, you know what I mean? There’s definitely a different feeling happening on a certain level in the States, it’s just hard to see because of the economic problems. People are out of work, more than ever. So it’s going to be a while. And the funny thing is that only has to do with Wall Street – that crisis that kind of started there and is now a problem for the whole world. I mean, I don’t know that you can really blame George Bush for that other than that they turned any kind of blind eye to greed. So, we’ll see. I hope things change for the better. There’s a long way to go.
LH: Lagwagon was never overtly political but do you feel your writing has a political edge to it?
JC: I always say that I write about the politics of human nature. I write about my issues, which are sort of political in a certain sense of the word. I’m active enough in my life, politically speaking. I care about people and I care about what my government’s doing, of course. But I always had this thing with punk, with the really political punk bands – I think it’s great, I just never really felt it was right for me. I think too many people force that – in punk rock especially – they think you have to be extremely political in the sense of governments, you know, when you are playing punk rock. A lot of punks think that you have a big responsibility to that. I don’t believe that at all. I think you can do far more damage by actually just being inactive. There are certainly exceptions, a band like Propagandhi they’re active and they’re political, and Fat Mike is very active and political on his records. There are many exceptions, of course, and always have been, for example The Clash – they’re amazing, but it just wasn’t for me. But every once in a while there is something that happens that’s just so atrocious to me that I have to write about it. So it takes a lot.
LH: Are there any punk bands you particularly like at the moment?
JC: I think punk rock means something different to everyone. I grew up listening to 80s and late 70s punk rock, so if I put on a punk record, I most likely put on a Ramones record or Stiff Little Fingers or something that I grew up loving. For every kind of music and every kind of song there are thousands of options already. Once you have one of those huge ipods and you load it with all your tonnes of music, that’s when you really kind of realise, ‘I don’t think anybody ever has to write another song!’. And I mostly listen to vinyl too and so not all music is available on vinyl. There’s too many great bands. I’m very open minded about music and I certainly don’t listen to only punk, so I’m always kind of aprehensive to even say one or two bands because it feels like I’m having some sort of prejudice.
LH: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with that you haven’t yet?
JC: So many people. I wouldn’t want to duet with anyone – as I said, I don’t really like performing. There’s a lot of people I would like to record and I’d like to engineer. There are people I’d like to co-write with, like Badly Drawn Boy – I would love to work with someone like that because I think he’s really great. I would have loved to have worked with Elliot Smith and.. John Lennon wouldn’t have been too shabby.(Laughs) But in this acoustic world there’s a lot more cross pollination going on, which is cool, so we’ll see.
LH: The last time you played in London was with Lagwagon last July (2008) – is it true that you think you’ve never had a good show in London?
JC: I think we had a shitty show. That’s how it is when you’re in a band. I wear these ear monitors when I play with Lagwagon and I have a great studio mix in my headphones, so I really can hear what’s going on. And it wasn’t good that night. We were just off and I wasn’t funny, I didn’t sing well. I’m really hard on myself when I have a bad night, I just get really depressed. I do sort of feel like we’ve never really had a great show here. Yeah, we’re sort of cursed in certain towns. I feel that way about New York. Maybe I psyche myself out whenever we play in cities like London and New York. But we’ve had great shows in LA! Our last show in LA was one of the best shows we’ve ever played. And we’ve had great shows in Tokyo, certainly major cities aren’t always the issue. But I will say this, if you have a bad show in a city and then you come back next year and you remember it, and you go, ‘I’m really going to get a good night’s sleep because I want to play great tomorrow’ and then you have another bad show, like you didn’t sleep or your back hurts or some wierd thing or the band sucks that night or one guy’s way too drunk or something falls apart, and then you’re like ‘oh shit!’. And then it becomes a complex. I’m glad you brought it up because I would wish to talk to any journalist in London about it so I can drop a disclaimer. Make sure everyone knows that I don’t think I’m hot shit. (Laughs) I’m really sorry you never saw us when we were great! No, just kidding. But there is a part of you that knows when you really have a great show and it doesn’t happen all the time. But we also go through phases and sometimes we’re just great for a year and then there’s like two years when we just can’t have a great show again and you keep going, ‘what was up with that one year we were just killing every single night, we were just locked and just on fire?’. I don’t get it. I think most bands are just on and off and on and off. We have long periods of time that are bad or good. It’s very strange.
LH: A few of the songs on ‘Bridge’ appear in a different version on Lagwagon’s last release ‘I Think My Older Brother Used To Listen To Lagwagon’ – why is that?
JC: I recorded those songs a year before Lagwagon did. The irony is the fucking Lagwagon album came out first (laughs) but those songs were learned from my acoustic record. I didn’t have any new material and we needed to do some new stuff and I was like, ‘well, I’ve got this new record I made’ and so we reinterpreted my acoustic songs.
LH: Are you playing much Lagwagon material in the solo shows?
JC: I play a lot of my Lagwagon stuff but I don’t play much of my solo record. I don’t have any delusions – people that are going to be coming to see me play, they think of me as that guy, so I’m happy to play those songs on acoustic, it’s fun and for me you can kind of reinterpret that. I’ve learned as many as I can possibly squwish into my head and I will fuck up for sure. Somebody requested a song last night actually, the one request I got, and I didn’t really know the song at all and I played it anyway – it’s a song called ‘The Chemist’, this hidden track at the end of the Resolve record and I kind of did OK.