Interview: Jarboe

The interesting thing about doing my own work at the same time that I was in Swans is that it was inspiration inspires inspiration.

Jarboe has had a vast and inspiring musical career as one of the most unique, intense and ethereal vocalists the world has ever known. As a solo artist, a member of Swans and her Skin, AEAEA and Blackmouth projects, she has created a multitude of visionary and beautiful albums over the years. With the re-release of her second album Sacrificial Cake through The Circle Music, Jarboe tells Gavin Brown all about the album and its creation in depth with some wonderful insights about the record as well as her tour with Jozef van Wissem in a detailed and inspirationally informative interview.

E&D: You have just reissued your Sacrificial Cake album in a remastered form. How did the idea for bringing this new version of the album come about?                              

Jarboe: Well, it was originally released on vinyl as a sleeve with mine on one side, and then Michael Gira’s Dreamland album on the other side. That was put out in 1995, so it’s been out of print on vinyl for many years. This is the first time it’s been available on vinyl again and this company does special packaging, so they’re doing a lavender vinyl, because the first song is ‘Lavender Girl’ and they’re doing elaborate packaging and all that. They simply approached me saying they wanted to do vinyl of some my back catalogue, and so that was basically how it came about. I knew some people that had worked with them and asked how it was going, they liked the quality of the work and so that’s basically how it came together.

E&D: What are your main memories about making the record?

Jarboe: It was a time of extreme productivity and the interesting thing about doing my own work at the same time that I was in Swans is that it was inspiration inspires inspiration. This constant life of just nonstop creativity and so I was always prolific and writing my own songs and lyrics the entire time I was in Swans. The guys after rehearsal would go out to the bars in the neighbourhood, and I never did. I was a dork that stayed at home and aired out the space, because everybody smoked but me. I entered out the little space, a little tiny window, we have the back room, there on 6th Street and I’d air that out, it was the full of sweat, beer and smoke and then I would just go back into the other side of the living space was, and that was a very small space, it had a sheer wall, we put up dividing sheet, so there was a sleeping area and makeshift kitchen, the hot plate and little tiny refrigerator. Then the other side was the desk that Michael had built into the wall for his office. You would go through a soundproof door, meaning it was full of cork board and materials to thicken it, and that would shut and then inside the rehearsal space we had everything to soundproof it as best we could, because you gotta realise we were basically the sound of a jet aircraft taking off as a decibel level of rehearsals.

The upstairs, people lived above and the man that lived above was cool at first, but then he started dumping water onto us and the ceiling and that kind of thing. It was a very nonstop drama, basically. They would go out, and then I would stay back behind airing out the space and then I just set to work with what I had at that time was just a little Casio. I would turn on the creative metronome or a drum beat, and then I would just compose. I was always doing this, and I would record everything onto a cassette. This was how I worked and this is what led to all the songs on Sacrificial Cake. I just went out and was constantly exploring my ideas.

The interesting thing about some of the material on Sacrificial Cake was we were recording in a studio in Chicago, which would result in The Great Annihilator, and the recording process was just fraught with disaster. This building was an industrial building right on the edge of Cabrini Green, which at the time was, they said the most dangerous projects in America. It was quite hard because no cab would come pick you up to take you to a grocery store or in town and it was kind of like being a prisoner inside this industrial building. I had this time when I wasn’t called upon to play keyboards or to sing. I had this time and a little room off the side of the control room there at the studio, so I had my Casio with me and a cassette recorder with me. That is where I composed ‘Lavender Girl’, the first song and what happened with that song was in the studio, this is just going to get more and more melodramatic.

The studio was infested with mosquitoes and when I say that I’m not being light, it was infested. We were living in this little room by the edge of the control room in the studio, Michael and I were living in that room and some of the musicians were sitting there, depending on their schedules, so you couldn’t sleep because these mosquitoes are everywhere. You’re constantly killing mosquitoes. Finally, I decided to research what would keep the mosquitoes at bay. They didn’t like the smoke or the incense sticks. I can’t remember who, but somebody came by and picked me up, they took me to the whole foods, which is a grocery store that has the natural products. I went in there and I bought a big box of incense and I started burning it in this little room just to survive, just to keep from being eaten alive. I was sitting there, staring at this box and I started writing down the names of the incense. That song is basically inspired by the incense that kept me from being eaten a lot because we’re burning it nonstop.

Now finally, Bill Rieflin, who worked on this album, a good friend of ours, he was left and he was called to come back to playing drums to help with some of the the mixes and stuff. He said okay, but you’re gonna have to buy me some kind of a tent to put over my sleeping bag because can’t tolerate that, so they got a little tent for him to put over a sleeping bag, then we got the idea. Let us buy a tent, just put a tent over the mattress that we were sleeping on the floor in this room, so we basically had tents protecting us from being eaten alive in the studio. The other aside to the ‘Lavender Girl’ composition was my vocals on the song ‘Mother/Father’ on The Great Annihilator. I did in my opinion, a class take, this was an incredible vocal performance for me. I mean, I pulled all the stops out well, but while I was recording, I was simultaneously being attacked by these mosquitoes. I had welts all over my neck, my stomach, all over my arms and I kept going, I didn’t stop. I just let myself be eaten and got the vocal performance done right. I finished this vocal performance, I have ripped my voice and ripped my throat to pieces with the song because it’s a ferocious song at the end but the engineer says I forgot to press record. Can you believe this is what it was like? So, the take on the record was my second take when I was exhausted. I had given everything, so that’s the story of this album.

A lot of this stuff was written during my downtime, recording the Swans record. I was reading Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles, so that of course led me to think about Morocco, which ‘Shimmer’ is referencing and then I was thinking about the music business. At the time, there was all the riot grrrl and grunge stuff was happening. That led to ‘Deflowered’, which is a very cynical song about what girls have to do in the entertainment industry to get ahead and there’s a reference there to oral sex and all kinds of nasty things that you have to do, so that was meant to be humorous, but it’s black humour, it’s bitter humour. I was looking at films, I was looking at some dark Roman Polanski so that led to ‘Tragic Seed’. It was just the things that were going through my mind at the time during The Great Annihilator recording. ‘Troll Lullaby’ is referencing an LSD trip that I took when I was a teenager in my bedroom at home, and I saw a type of troll come into the room, It was basically the god Pan, I think he was. I didn’t know at the time about mythology when I was young, I didn’t know at the time what Pan did to virgin girls, so that was kind of a fortuitous vision and that led to that. Every song has a story on there. I’m gonna be trying to do an alternative version of ‘A Body Lover’ on this upcoming tour, and of course that’s a deliberately tongue in cheek dark Gothic poem, about the profession of graverobbing,  where you’re taking jewellery off the corpses and selling body parts to doctors in a certain era when they needed corpses to practice their profession, so that’s about that. I consider this album to be like a a book of fairy tales but it’s fairy tales for those that are adventurous, I guess. I also wat to reference ‘Yum Yab’. The reversal of that is Yab Yum, the Buddhist which is the deity with the consort. We’ve all seen those images. So to reverse that to Yum Yab, that was the reference to mother/father because Yum Yab is the female deity, with the male, smaller on top of her, so ‘Yum Yab’ is a reversal of ‘Mother/Father’, so that is a link to Swans.


E&D: You mentioned the tour with Jozef van Wissem. Are you looking forward to the tour and what can we expect from you working together?

Jarboe: Oh, it’s interesting because a magazine asked me to do records that I was really enjoying at the time. I mentioned the soundtrack to Only Lovers Left Alive, and mentioned  Sqürl. Of course, Jozef won an award for putting that soundtrack together, and of course, plays on the soundtrack himself. He contacted me and said, hey, thank you for mentioning the soundtrack that I worked on and put together, so we became friends, we know some of the same people and he asked would you do some vocals on my new album? I said of course, He sent me a track and the technical aspect for me, was perfectly matching his spoken part, which I did by watching the frequencies on the screen of a computer, and I could see when there was emphasis, so I just looked at that, which is how you do voiceover for things that have been recorded with a guide vocal, I’ve done that before. So anyway, I did that and he was happy with what I did. Our tour of 2020 was cancelled of course because of COVID, and this was going to be my dream tour. I’m still sad, and I hope that someday we can do that exact tour with all the stops, because it was art galleries, and it was a private show in someone’s home in the Netherlands. It was just kind of an amazing dream tour for me, so that didn’t happen. Then the booking agency came back and said, the agent for Jozef is working with one of our agents. The ideas was for us to tour together. I was like, sure that sounds great. All I was concerned with was this won’t terminated again. That’s the only thing that was in my mind was me staying healthy and that things would continue, I could go there and do shows in Europe. Then the situation happens in Ukraine, now there’s a problem. Since the tour was booked, the expenses to do a tour have gone up 60%. I’m looking forward to but there’s a lot of obstacles to do this now. I’m definitely happy to be to be doing it but also, let’s face it, it’s not the best circumstances.

E&D: I saw you live at the Supersonic Festival in Birmingham back in 2012, which was amazing. What have been some of the most memorable shows that you have played over the years?

Jarboe: Yeah, I did that one with a piano player. On my own, I’ve always enjoyed going to Europe. I have to say, it just depends on the era. I’ve had really great shows in Warsaw and throughout Poland and through Eastern Europe. I’ve had extremely memorable shows in Moscow. I had a rather enthusiastic audience in that city and so it’s quite sad I won’t be performing there. London is kind of like New York City. London is temperamental! I did have a good time last time I performed there at Cafe OTO with Helen Money, Alexander Hacke and Danielle De Picciotto. I had a good time there and that’s a very interesting venue so I’m looking forward to playing there again. It just depends on the particular energy of the room. This is going to be quite different because I’m going to try to do something different this time. It has more to do with my learning curve on exploring the future. I’m going to be doing drones and loops and things like that on a MacBook Pro. There is going to be sounds on electric guitar with all these effects and pedals. We’re gonna focus on sonic atmosphere, then I’ll break through that, to do some spoken word and some singing. There’ll be some pre recorded things that I’m working on, so that I have background vocals or sounds to my own live vocal. I’m not going to process my own live vocal, I’m going to try to keep that fairly natural, overtop of the synthesised sounds I’ll be creating. This will be the first time that I’ve been doing an instrument, as it were, since the 1990s. Actually, I did one show at an industrial festival playing a laptop, but other than that, this is the first time it’s been anything other than me singing. It’s going to be focused more on the atmosphere and the mood, and the dynamic between me and the electric guitarist and and then I’ll break through and do do spoken word and vocals, but a lot of it I have to by necessity, I have to create the sounds and all that ahead of time and then play certain things live so it’s going to be a learning curve for me.

E&D: Over the years, you’ve done so many collaborations, with Justin Broadrick, Neurosis and Byla to name a few. Do you look back on on those collaborations with fondness?

Jarboe: Yeah, they were all such great opportunities for learning. I adore Justin, I always have and I had the good fortune of being asked to perform at the NecronomiCon, which was a literary conference in Providence, Rhode Island and is held every two years. It’s a wonderful conference, because it’s all the science fiction enthusiasts. I was asked to do a live show in the summer of 2019 and much to my delight, Godflesh was playing as well and I hadn’t seen Justin since he did some live sound for me. It was really great to see him. He’s so charming, and he’s just a really wonderful man and someone I really admire so that was cool. Neurosis, that was so great because it was very different from what I experienced before with rehearsals with Swans. Neurosis rehearse everything, right down to the second, there’s no improv. I’m used to the people that I work with observing me and realising that we’re going to do this a little longer than we planned. Just kind of feeling it, they don’t do that and everything is precise so that was like being in the army for me. It was very interesting how meticulous and strident they were with every single thing I did. Steve Von Till would tell me what was working and what to do, that was not something I’m used to so I tried really hard. I was very mathematical and precise, and I look back on that now and how great that was because it was, yet again, an opportunity to to learn and to grow, which is what all this stuff is about. You keep learning and growing and the more you collaborate, the more you learn, the more you have to be stretched, because you learn compromise and you learn speaking their language, not just your language.

E&D: You have been fully embraced by the extreme metal community, working with Philip Anselmo and Attila Csihar on your album and with the likes of Cattle Decapitation on theirs. How does it feel to be embraced by those different musicians?

Jarboe: The interesting thing about that the people that I’ve met in that world is how warm and sweet they are! They have this image that they’re terrifying, but they’re actually just lovable. I mean, they’re just adorable. I just have soft, fuzzy feelings for them because they’ve been so sweet and so nice. When I was doing the Mahakali album, Philip called on the phone to talk to me when I was in studio, and then I went got back on the subway. Of course, it was a pretty scary train ride, because the studio is far away from Manhattan, where I’m staying. It was late at night and down there on these scary, desolate platforms to get the subway trains to come back into town. I felt comforted that he was there on the other end of the phone. It kind of gave me a sense of protection on the ride home, so it wasn’t as terrified as I would have because believe me, some people getting on a train that didn’t look terribly friendly. It was cool getting to know him. When he called, I was so excited. I was like, Wow. It was just kind of overwhelming. His voice, he’s got that voice, that middle voice. He fulfilled all my expectations as being a rock star who filled every one of them. It’s fun meeting rockstars. They’re interesting people. Now Attila, that’s different, he’s a classically trained vocalist, he does opera scales to keep his voice in shape. I have to say his solo project Void Ov Voices. That’s one of my favourite projects, and that, to me, is where he really shines. It’s just him alone on stage, manipulating his voice, and he’s really a stellar performer. He’s an extremely sophisticated and dignified gentleman. He’s in Mayhem and he’s also on his own he’s a very educated, erudite gentleman. These people, their image is one thing, but as people, they’re people that I love and respect.

E&D: Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?

Jarboe: Well, I mean, that changes throughout time. I realised that people are extremely busy, and they’re completely maxed out in their lives, so you can have like, I would love to do this, but the reality is these people are booked solid for the rest of their lives. At the top of my list would be Warren Ellis. I completely adore Warren Ellis and my favourite Nick Cave projects have been with Mr Ellis. It’s interesting how Nick has said that Warren kind of takes over and you have to kind of flow with him and you have to kind of compromise because he will override, he just comes in there. I kind of liked that. I think the music they do as Carnage is beautiful and has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever heard, so it definitely would be Warren Ellis.

E&D: What have been some of your favourite ever moments in your musical career?

Jarboe: Other than what I’ve already mentioned, I loved the early days. When I took it for granted that making an album was recording in a very expensive studio with a reel to reel tape, and an old fashioned method of recording now, no one was using computers, it was all massive reels of tape. I would be given the job frequently of walking to this particular store on Broadway and buying these reels is heavy reels of tape. In those days, I remember they’re about $220 reels and you would buy all these reels, and then you would buy another reel from mix down, and the engineer would punch in. So instead of deleting and chopping files and slicing files, you would do the entire vocal tag over again, singing with yourself. Then a really good engineer, when something had to be corrected or done better. This is a completely different way of recording people do now today, because I’ve had the opportunity to record with some of these modern musicians in these big groups. Well, they will play what you call a stem, they’ll play the bass part and the guitar part for a certain amount of time and then they’ll just stop, Okay, there you go. That is not how I was taught with early Swans. I did all those vocals and background vocals, layers, that’s me the entire length of the song, Do a take and then going back again, doing another take and it’s exhausting. It’s a completely different way of recording. You’re recording live and if you make a mistake, everybody keeps going and then you go back and a good engineer will be punching in a splice in the tape with a razor blade. Those are the things I think were the highlights for me, you know, that way of recording, it was was truly extraordinary compared to the way people work now.

Sacrificial Cake is available for pre-order through here.

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