KWNK DJ and correspondent Emma Rash sat down with prolific musician Joe Jack Talcum (The Dead Milkmen, I Think Like Midnight) when he was in Reno for a solo show in April. Hear them talk art, inspiration, the differences between performing solo and in a group, and imaginary punks!
Big thanks to Joe Jack Talcum for stopping by the studio to give an interview! You can keep up with Joe at his website, jacktalcum.com.
A transcript of the interview is available below.
A Conversation with Joe Jack Talcum of The Dead Milkmen
Intro: Hi, this is Emma from Emo Disco. My friend Sunday and I got the chance to interview Joe Jack Talcum from The Dead Milkmen. So here’s that.
ER: So, just go ahead and introduce yourself.
Joe Jack Talcum: Hi, I’m Joe Jack Talcum from The Dead Milkmen.
ER: What’s your favorite color and why?
JJT: I like yellow, it’s bright. It’s how I would color the sun.
Sunday Sasser: The sun’s white..
JJT: Is the sun white? But it’s how I would color the sun. I never liked the white crayon because my paper was white and I couldn’t see what I was writing.
ER: What’s your usual songwriting process?
JJT: There’s never a same way, but typically I start with a piece of music, maybe a riff, and I go from there until I have the song formatted the way I like and often the lyrics are the last thing I put on.
ER: What like, inspires you to write a song?
JJT: Different things. Sometimes it’s depression, also boredom, and I find if I can focus on a song that gets me out of a worse state of mind than I would be in if I wasn’t doing that.
ER: How is playing solo shows different from playing with a band?
JJT: First of all, I have full control over what I play. I don’t necessarily have to use a setlist, I can feel my way through a show. I can make a setlist if I feel I need it as a crutch. But, I can at any time, divert to play a song that I think the audience would like to hear at that particular time and moment. Whereas, in a band situation, we always, we have a setlist and we stick to it. Another thing is that because when I’m solo I can take risks and be more improvisational, in the moment, not just with the set but with a particular song.
ER: So, is there one you prefer?
JJT: I like both. It can get boring doing one thing and only one thing. I enjoy playing with other musicians. I play in more than one band, I also play, besides The Dead Milkmen, I play in an instrumental band, where I don’t play guitar, I play keyboards. And Dean, from The Dead Milkmen, is also the drummer of that band. But we have a guitar player named Andy and a bass player named Joshua. And all of our songs are instrumentals, we don’t have any words. We are called I Think Like Midnight.
SS: What inspires the names of all your bands?
JJT: I came up with the name The Dead Milkmen when I was a teenager and there was no such band. I wanted the name of a punk rock band that was kinda cow-pokey. For a newsletter I was writing, I made up this fictional character named Jack Talcum and made a fanclub for him and I made a Jack Talcum Fanclub newsletter. Which I wrote and typed up on typewriter and miniographed at the local public library and gave to certain friends of mine, just from fun and for humor, and Jack Talcum, in that, the storyline, needed a band to front. He was a folkey who was turning punk, so it was kinda like folk punk, and I thought Dead Milkmen would be a good name for that band. I Think Like Midnight, I didn’t come up with that name. Andy Chalfen, the main guy in the band, came up with that name and I really don’t know how he came up with it. The way I remember the name myself is, I think of it as “Hey, what time is it?” “Uhh.. I think like, midnight?”
SS: What made you want to start a punk band? Did you have idols?
JJT: I did have idols. They weren’t punk, at first. I like the Beatles, I like Bob Dylan, I like the Byrds, I like the Rolling Stones. When I first heard the Ramones, I think that changed me completely, I heard them in high school and I wanted to be punk after that.
ER: You should talk a little bit about Ornamental Wigwam.
JJT: Okay, Well, after the Dead Milkmen became a real band, we had Dean, Rodney, Dave Blood, and me. Dave Blood and I, wrote a ton of songs together, but we found that not all the songs we wrote could fit with the Dead Milkmen, or were songs that the other guys in the band would would want to play, or could even be in the punk format. So what we did, was we made a duo where it was just bass guitar and vocals. He and I both sang and we called that Ornamental Wigwam. Where we got the name, I don’t really remember.
ER: So, what advice would you give to someone who is trying to start their own band?
JJT: Do what’s fun, because I mean, of course do what’s fun. Practice a lot, so that at least, so you have the confidence, because when you go onstage, the best thing you can be is very confident in what you do, because from experience, I’ve learned that anything can and will go wrong. But it won’t be like what you expect when you first hit the stage or your first show. But if you are very well practiced, you’ll at least have the songs pat down pat so you’ll be able to control the situation and your confidence will help the audience like you better and if you have the audience on your side, everything will start to go, everything will usually go your way. That’s one thing. And most bands today write their own material, so just write and write and write, and seize the moment. When you have that creative juices flowing, just overwrite. Write more that you would possibly think that you would ever need. Because later on, you might hit a dead spot in your creativity, and it’s to get and go back on some of the stuff you haven’t used and use that as a starting point to get your creative juices flowing again.
SS; When you’re writing instrumental songs, it’s not very typical, I think, especially in modern times, to hear a lot of instrumentals. So what are you trying to convey most of the time when you do that?
JJT: It’s emotion. So it could be a __ of things. You don’t need words to add, I mean words will add or change emotions, but what’s great about instrumentals, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it can be open to wide interpretation and therefore, can connect in a lot more ways than you would ever expect. I like to think of it as life’s soundtrack music.
SS: So when you say soundtrack, do you mean imagining your life more of like a movie?
JJT: I guess that’s what I mean, or a dream. It could be dream soundtrack.
ER: In the Dead Milkmen, all the members, they have a last name that’s not actually their last name. Is there a story behind that and how everyone got their fake last name?
JJT: A lot of the punk bands that we liked had fake last names, so we just decided we’d all have fake last names too.
ER: Is there a story behind each one of them and how you got them?
JJT: I don’t know where Dave got his name, Dave Blood, but I really like that name. And Rodney’s name, I thought that was very clever, to be anonymous. And Dean Clean just rhymes and it sounds so cool. And not only that, but Dean is a very neat and clean person. I got mine because I was sittin on the toilet and I saw on the shelf, baby powder, which was Talcum Powder. And I just thought Talcum is a good name. But you know I’ve kinda regretted it later on, and so midway through the band I changed my name to Jasper Thread, and then changed it again. But the first person to change his name was Dean, he changed his name to Malarie. So I thought if he changed his name to Malarie, I could change my name, too.
ER: So, how did you get Jasper Thread?
JJT: At the time, I was living with art students, and one of the artists, one of my roomates was like Jasper Johns and I liked him, too. So I took Jasper from Jasper Johns, and thread is just a word I liked. And i wanted the initials to stick to J.T. like Jack Talcum.
ER: What about any of your other nicknames?
JJT: Butterfly was something one of my, I was very fond of a fan I had, and we actually became friends, and phone friends, and real friends, and he kept calling me Butterfly. I don’t know why, but that’s what he would call me, that was his, I guess, pet name for me. So I took it and made it into Butterfly Fairweather.
SS: What’s one of your favorite songs that you’ve ever written?
JJT: I really like, Dean and I wrote a song called “Dean Stream” and he wrote the lyrics first and I put the music to it and I like the way that one came out. I also like a song I wrote called “Sometimes I Like To Be Alone”. I like “Punk Rock Girl” because it connected with a lot of people and it was a story I had in mind, to tell a love story, in the point of view of an outsider who was outside the punk, but being attracted to punk because I felt that I was that kind of person and the girl was kind of like a metaphor for the whole punk culture, itself, for me.
SS: So what do you think the benefits are of writing with people and writing by yourself?
JJT: It’s almost the same as the benefits of playing. When you write on your own, obviously you have full control of everything. But on the other hand, when you have collaborators, you can often times come up with stuff that neither of you would have thought of on your own and come up with an actual better song. A lot of the especially the early Dead Milkmen songs were three, or even four way collaborations, believe it or not. Like for instance, “The Badger Song”, was music that Dave and I put together from a riff that i had that he finished and then Rodney put his lyrics over top of that. Similarly, “Jellyfish Heaven” came out of that. A lot of the early stuff was either Dean and me, or Dean and Dave, or me and Dave, or the three of us coming up with music and then Rodney coming up with the lyrics. Then as we progressed, Rodney became more musical himself, playing keyboards, that he would actually contribute to music. Music and lyrics. Sometimes I would write lyrics for Rodney to sing, and sometimes Dean would write lyrics for me to sing, like he did in “Dean Stream”. Sometimes Dean would write music and I would put lyrics on it, like the song “Jason’s Head”. All those examples are things, I think, we came up with things we would never have come up with if we wrote just on our own.
ER: What’s your favorite Dead Milkmen song?
JJT: I’m kind of impartial to Metaphysical Graffiti because i had a lot of fun making it. But I like them all, it’s like you can’t have a favorite child, can you? To me, they’re all good. I like them all for different reasons.
ER: Do you see your albums as your kids?
JJT: I don’t think of them as children. Although, they do, like people, they grow on me or grow away from me. But no, I think of them, I think they’re special and we put creative effort into them and a lot of thought into them.
ER: What’s your favorite movie?
JJT: My favorite movie is a comedy called “Fargo”.
JJT: To me. it’s funny, i like the character in it and the characters and yeah, I just like the plot.
ER: A lot of your songs kind of tell stories, I guess, and are fictional and how do you usually come up with an idea for a song?
JJT: You know, I don’t really know, it just happens. Sometimes I start by thinking of “what would I like to hear in song?” And sometimes I just play the music and sing the first thing that comes to my mind and then work it from there until I’m happy with what it is. So i don’t know exactly, when I start it how it’s gonna be. It’s very rare that when I put paper to pen that I know what the outcome of it is what i want. “Punk Rock Girl” is one of those rare instances where I knew what exactly I wanted to write, i just had to get it own.
ER: When you’re writing songs, they don’t always turn out how you want them to?
JJT: Well it’s not that I want anything, I get it until I think I’m satisfied with it, so I don’t know where it’s gonna go right away. A lot of times I’ll get the chorus first, and then I’ll work backwards and say “Well, this is the chorus, how many verses does it need for me to be satisfied with it?” or before I think it’s going to bore someone completely to death.
SS: Would you say music is your favorite art form and what’s another one of your favorite ways to express yourself?
JJT: Music is my favorite art form, I’ve loved it since I can remember remembering things. And my second favorite art form is drawing, or I guess doodling, or whatever. Outline, drawing, stuff like that.
SS: When you were growing up and forming as an artist and musician, were there any things that held you back and how did you overcome those things?
JJT: Things that held me back, the ability to properly play. The first thing I tried to play was the piano, because there was one in the house where I grew up, and I took piano lessons for a year and that helped a little bit, but it wasn’t really enough. I could bang out a song on the piano, but I needed more. So I think I was in engineering school or something, or the beginning of high school, I got a different teacher and I took some more lessons on that, and I told my teacher that I wanted to be a songwriter. In fact, I had already written very rudimentary songs and so she incorporated a little bit of music theory and songwriting into our lessons, so it wasn’t just like sight reading and learning to play properly. It was theory, and I would bring songs that I’d written in and she’d critique them. So having her, that, I think, helped me understand how to write a song or what formal song structure is. Guitar, I was self taught and it just took perseverance. I was 15 and I heard Bob Dylan on recordings and I wanted to be like that and it just took perseverance. I got a chord book and just learned chords, and it was hard going at first, but you form those blisters on your fingers, they’re calices, are what they are, really. It gets easier after you get over that one hump of, yeah, you really gotta put a little pain into your fingers and it gets easier and easier after that.
ER: I like the place you are right now, like being a well known musician. If you could call attention to anything, what would it be?
JJT: Diversity, community, watching out for each other, I think all of this is important. Music thrives the more diverse things are. Look at rock and roll. Rock music came from blues. Jazz came from blues and classical combined, I guess. Cultures mingling tend to, well I would say, always produce something better. Just like people collaborating. The sum is greater than the individual parts. So I would call attention to anything that promotes diversity and inclusiveness.
SS: Do you believe in like zodiac and astrology?
JJT: Do I believe in zodiac astrology? As in, like we’re in mercury retrograde now, that sort of thing? I’m not going to discredit it, but I don’t really follow it.
ER: So what’s next for Joe Jack Talcum?
JJT: I’m working on another solo album for Happy Happy Birthday, two new records. So I guess what’s next is that, for me, solo. I got asked to play the Athens Pop Fest, and I accepted and that’s gonna be in August, in Athens, Georgia. And that’s all I have on my docket right now. The Dead Milkmen are going to be playing some shows in Los Angeles and San Diego at the end of May, beginning of June. And I Think Like Midnight just released our second and we have a few shows coming up in the local Philadelphia regional area. +
Thanks to Noah Linker for providing this transcript.