Jeff Jackson on Julian Calendar’s Visceral, Conceptual Rock Sound

"Four" cover

Jeff Jackson is the author of Destroy All Monsters, a heady yet visceral take on rock music, violence, and the nature of communities. Jeff Jackson also plays music in Julian Calendar, a postpunk band whose music could also be described as heady yet visceral. Since 2017, the group has released 5 records, including 4 EPs in the Crimson Static series.As an admirer of Jackson’s work in both spheres, I reached out to him about discussing the evolution of his foray into music, and how it’s affected his writing.

Your latest novel focuses on musicians and music scenes, so I’m curious — did the experience of writing that jumpstart your interest in playing live music?

There’s a strange relationship between Destroy All Monsters and Julian Calendar that I haven’t fully unpacked. Sometimes I wonder if I joined the band in defiance of what I wrote in the novel, where the main character Xenie believes there’s too much music, that bands should break up because they’re only adding to the cultural noise.

In some way, maybe writing the novel conjured up the possibility of playing music for me. In one of the climatic scenes, a band performs at a scuzzy club that’s closely based on The Milestone, a legendary punk venue in Charlotte, N.C. They play the show despite the fact there’s a good chance someone in the audience might try to kill them. 

When I wrote that scene, I had never performed in a band and I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever find myself standing on that stage. It was only after the novel was finished that I joined Julian Calendar. For our second show, we were invited to play The Milestone and it was an eerie experience. I felt like I had written myself into my own novel. And it’s not a book you want to inhabit that way! Before the gig, I paced the parking lot trying not to have a panic attack. 

Another uncanny echo of the novel: the pandemic has shuttered most clubs and made gathering to see concerts feel dangerous. Like many people, I desperately miss playing–and seeing–live music. 

Julian Calendar recently released a quartet of linked EPs. What led to this approach rather than, say, one full-length album? 

The songs didn’t cohere as a single album—they felt too schizophrenic when we put them all together. We found they worked better in small batches. They bounced off each other musically and thematically in interesting ways. And we could give each EP its own distinct arc, with a few surprises thrown in. 

The EP’s short running time also feels more aligned to how people listen to music these days. For a new band, asking people to pay attention for 10-15 minutes seems like a better bet than hoping someone will commit to a full-length record. 

How would you describe the Julian Calendar songwriting process?

It’s very collaborative, which is one of the things I love about it. I start by writing the lyrics, then work with bandleader Jeremy Fisher to marry them to a bass or guitar riff that he’s created. Once we’ve established the skeleton of the song, we bring it to the rest of the band who generate their own parts. The other singer Hannah Hundley and I figure out the vocals together. The band always arranges the songs as a unit and everyone has input into structuring the tunes. Each time we finish a song it feels like a magic trick, like we’ve cast a spell that’s somehow worked. 

The songs on these EPs cover a lot of stylistic ground. Do you have an outer limit on what a Julian Calendar song could be?

From the beginning, Jeremy wanted Julian Calendar to be a song band. We focus on how the music can best serve each individual song and never worry about whether it’s in “our style.” It helps that everyone in the band is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about many different genres. I’ve always admired groups like Yo La Tengo and Sparks that work in various musical modes while still maintaining their artistic essence. 

For us, the only outer limit is what sounds good. We’ve attempted plenty of things that didn’t gel and were beyond our reach. Those songs stay locked in the rehearsal room. 

How has the group been weathering the pandemic? 

Releasing the four Crimson Static EPs during the pandemic makes it look like we’re active even though the band is in deep hibernation. No streaming performances. No rehearsals. No nothing. It’s been too hard to get everyone together safely. 

However, Jeremy and I have been writing music, just the two of us. We’re working in a different way, building up many of the songs from sampled beats and recording the other parts directly into the computer. We’re shying away from guitars and embracing more synthetic sounds. The temptation with programs like MIDI is to stack sound files to the moon so we’re going the opposite direction, striving to be as minimal as possible. 

This new writing process started as a mental health exercise to help us cope with Covid, but a number of the songs are coming together in exciting ways. Hopefully we can involve the other band members soon. And then find someone to help with production…  

Has making music had any effect on your writing? 

That’s a great question. I haven’t given it much thought, but I suspect it’s given me the confidence to explore a wider range of styles. When I was younger, I wrote in a lot of different modes, though I didn’t have the chops to pull off most of them. Now I’m starting to see that I can do more than I previously thought. I don’t have to be beholden to one approach and can trust the material will still have my stamp on it. Over the long run, style is a problem that solves itself.

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