Finding an Artistic Center: An Interview with Jon DeRosa

Posted by on October 22, 2013

It’s a sunny late afternoon in Berlin. Industrial trucks are delivering packages and furniture, children are playing variations on pat-a-cake in the street, and young professionals are returning home from work on their bicycles. Wild at Heart, the mainstay alternative music club in the Kreuzberg district, just opened its front door. Tonight, American legendary no-wave performer Lydia Lunch fronts noise rockers Big Sexy Noise and brings Jon DeRosa as support.

I found the pairing at the gig unusual, but Lunch and DeRosa share a fierce, musically independent streak. Lunch has collaborated with a wide range of artists from post-punk pillagers The Birthday Party all the way to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who created a kind of jazz-fusion with Lunch on a record in 2007. DeRosa, on the other hand, has veered from country to ambient drone to pop throughout his career. Neither Lunch nor DeRosa have seen their work released on a major label. And Lunch’s current outfit plays loud, confrontational, fuzzed-out grooves, while DeRosa, no stranger to experimental composition having released music under the guise of Vlor, Aarktica, and Pale Horse and Rider, stoically plays quiet, melancholic guitar pop songs.

Jon DeRosa offered me the opportunity to speak with him about his recent work, touring with Lydia Lunch, and who has armed him with artistic inspiration as of late. We sat down in the heavily stickered backstage lounge of the bar to chat before sound check. DeRosa was promoting his recent 7” single Signs of Life on Rocket Girl Recordings.

DeRosa

Adam Pearson: So you’ve been to Berlin before?
Jon DeRosa: Yeah, a few times but it’s been maybe close to ten years.

Has it changed a lot?
I have to admit that I don’t remember a whole lot. I think last time I was here I may have been doing shows with Pale Horse and Rider, which is a country band I had. To be honest I’m not really sure that I performed here. I may have just come to hang out with some friends.

[At this point, Lydia Lunch’s yell pierced through the room. The bar’s manager, a tattooed, strong-willed, tall woman with a ponytail, had brought her neighbor’s dog into the club to watch it for the day. The black-haired terrier pranced around the backstage lounge, making the first of many intermittently appearances throughout the interview.]

She’s calling for James (the guitarist of Big Sexy Noise).

We’ll start with a few fun questions. You mentioned you haven’t been on tour in these parts for around ten years. What’s been the most unexpected or exciting thing that’s happened so far?
I’d say that most of the shows have been incredibly successful for me. I went into this [tour] thinking like I was walking the plank a little bit. I’m familiar with Lydia’s work and Gallon Drunk’s work. I don’t think anybody thought [the pairing] made that much sense musically, but the personalities fit and the logistics fit.

I feel like there’s always a stigma for the solo guy with the guitar. I’m much more comfortable with a six- or seven-piece band. I think it looks better and sounds better. But aside from that, the styles of music, just being so different, I don’t always assume that the audience is going to be able to mind it… and especially with Lydia’s music being what I’d consider to be very intense and extreme, and having its own dedicated audience, and it just being special for [the audience to] see her, I was not expecting much of a response. I was kind of doing [the tour] for the experience. And so when I started to feel like I was winning over audiences by the second or third song, to me that was the most surprising thing, and it gave me a little confidence and momentum to keep getting through every night.

WaH2Yes, I wanted to explore the contrast you pointed out between you and Big Sexy Noise, but another lighthearted one for now. What is your pre-gig snack of champions?
I normally don’t eat. What I’ve found when you’re on tour is that you eat when you’re given food, and that’s taken some getting used to. I’d say my pre-gig snack of champions would be Fernet Branca, so it would be not a food but a liqueur.

Haha, that’s a great answer! Music or not, who do you look up to these days?
That’s really difficult. I’d honestly have to say my grandfather, who was a big band singer during World War II. And throughout the years he taught me a little bit of everything, mostly about music in the style that I sing now. He passed away earlier this year. I obviously always really respected him and he was always a big influence, but it wasn’t until the very end where some of the things he said have had a profound effect on me to continue the style of music that I do, how I do it, and certain mental things I exercise when I’m on stage.

You’ve juggled a lot of projects over the years and you’ve already mentioned one of your previous bands. I’m a big fan of your work under the name Aarktica as well. You’ve now chosen to focus on the band that you lead under your name. What is it about this work – why are you exploring this sound so much these days?
The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t think one should take away from the other. I compartmentalize things a bit. I still do work as Aarktica. In fact there was a soundtrack for a film by Lucy Walker called The Crash Reel (it was just amazing) that Aarktica did a track on. There’s still a lot of soundtrack work that I’m working on. Aarktica is not dead, I’ll keep doing it.

It’s just that it takes everybody a different amount of time to figure out what their true voice is. I think I felt pulled in a lot of different directions. I wanted to be all over the map stylistically when I was younger. And it wasn’t that it wasn’t genuine, I truly believed in the things I was doing. But I think that as I got older, I started to accept what my capabilities were and what my true vision of what I wanted to put out into the world is – that’s only something I started to do the last couple of years. While I’ve been playing music professionally the last twenty years, it’s strange that I feel kind of young again doing this orchestral pop, or modern-day crooner sound.

And that current sound is fascinating. You mention you compartmentalize. When you come up with ideas, how do you know which project they will become a part of? Do you form ideas, or do you put yourself in the Aarktica mood first and then create? Is it based on tempo or mood – how do you know where to place the ideas?
Lately with Aarktica, it’s much more deliberate. If there’s a piece I need to compose for a film, I have a certain approach. The solo work I’m doing is a little bit more at the front of my brain these days. Aarktica became – I don’t want to say limiting, but this expectation – where if I put vocals on [a track], there was this big [backlash]. [Vocals] weren’t what people’s expectations were, and [that type of response] shouldn’t affect the artist, but it affected my confidence a bit because I was trying to expand my music world by not falling into the trap of doing these ambient drones constantly. I wanted to make it more interesting and textural. And by doing the solo work that I’m doing, even though it’s got a specific sound, it resonates much more with me as a 34-year-old guy, rather than the 19-year-old I was when I started Aarktica. I think it’s a matter of musical maturity changing when you get older.

“I’m at a point where I can write these words, deliver them, and give them weight. And I don’t think that that’s ego; I think that that’s art.”

Sometimes you get to a point where it’s not specifically about emulating the past, but it’s about capturing something special. I get a lot of that sense when listening to your music.
It’s a slippery slope. For me the biggest influences are everyone from Frank Sinatra to Scott Walker to Dick Haymes and other big band singers that did the standards. It’s difficult to update those songs because times have changed. You want to keep the melancholy, the longing, the loneliness, and the frail issues of masculinity, but we’re not in the 1940s or 1930s anymore. If you try to recreate the songs too closely, you end up just sounding like shit. You sound like some novelty act and no one takes you seriously. So the challenge for me is to update that style and those songs, but to do it in a way that’s more relatable to the age that we’re in.

Yeah, a lot of that music really is in its time, and can only exist in its time.
I was listening to a lot of [my grandfather’s] Roy Orbison collection that I hadn’t gotten to yet. There’s a great Roy Orbison collection, a great Neil Diamond collection – really early Neil Diamond. I spent a lot of time listening to it and thinking about what makes it special. It’s not in the lyrics a lot of the time, it’s really in the delivery. When I think about my favorite songs – among them is “Crying” by Roy Orbison – [it doesn’t have] a masterfully complicated lyric but a very straightforward and direct lyric. It’s just in the delivery that it becomes powerful. And that was the one thing that my grandfather taught me that resonates every day. He said something like, “When you’re singing a song, it needs to be the only thing happening in the world right now. You need to believe it and you need to make them believe it.” It was like the best advice I’ve ever got. At the end of the day that’s what it is – it’s the delivery, it’s the sound, and it’s if you believe it or not. People are smart. They can tell when you’re not genuine about the thing that you’re trying to sell them.

Speaking of delivery and the way you get into this mindset to be genuine – it seems your vocal confidence has really developed from the Anchored EP to the A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes release, to the most recent 7”. How has it been to sharpen this knife in your tool set? Has it been your grandfather’s words and advice and your experience touring that’s really given you so much more confidence?
After we released A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, there were a lot of shows around it, mostly in the northeast and New York. Those gave me an opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. When I was doing Aarktica – that wasn’t a band that I ever rehearsed – we rehearsed, but we rehearsed for the show. This was rehearsing with six professional musicians, jazz or classically trained, and I needed to be up to their level.

Part of it is just doing it over and over and seeing every night on stage, “Oh that didn’t work,” or, “I got to breathe more there.” But another part of it is having that enlightened moment, where if you don’t want to do it or if you don’t believe in it, how is it going to work? So it’s more of – without getting completely crazy heady about it – [building that confidence] on a spiritual level, and being more comfortable, at peace, and confident. I think I accepted at some level that I’ve been doing this for twenty years.

And I have no ego about it whatsoever, but I can say that, “I do have something to say, I’ve been playing this long, I’ve been alive this long.” I’m at a point where I can write these words, deliver them, and give them weight. And I don’t think that that’s ego; I think that that’s art. And I think that’s something that I didn’t accept until probably a year or two ago, really.

WaH1I think that I’ve come to similar realizations lately.
I also think that, not to get on a whole New York tangent, but New York is really under-rewarding a lot of the time. Performing in New York can completely destroy your self-confidence. For me, having lived there for fifteen years, just trying so hard – one really starts to believe what the outside influences say (or imply when people don’t show up to a show).

I think the hardest part is to define your artistic center and say, “This is the thing I believe in. I stand behind it. I think it’s good. I think it has quality and weight, and I think it can be meaningful to people. And if it’s not, it has meaning to me and I have to do it.” That’s something that I think all successful artists approach at some point in their lives. Sometimes people get there at eighteen, sometimes people get there in their 40s. For me, I feel like I’m reaching that point. I wish I would’ve gotten there ten years ago. I’m not going to whine about it. I’m quite happy about it.

This is more of a question about your composition process. How much of the full orchestral sound is fleshed out ahead of time versus in the studio where you have the musicians there to write or perform with you?
It starts with the basic structures and vocal melodies. I think in the beginning when we were doing Anchored, a lot of the orchestrations happened in the studio. And when you’re working with Julia Kent, who’s one of the best cellists out there, Claudia Chopek, who’s an amazing violinist, and Jon Natchez, who plays in Beirut, it’s easy to say,I’m hearing this thing, can you do ‘na-na-na-na?’” and they know exactly what you’re talking about.

When we went on to do A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, it became a little bit more composed in the sense that Charles Newman, my producer and I, had the parts more fleshed out. I think now in the new album we’re working on, it’ll be even more so, because I’m more comfortable writing in that style. So as I’m sitting on my patio putting the basic tracks down, I’m hearing what needs to happen in between them. And that’s cool because it obviously speeds up the process when we go into the studio, rather than saying “let’s try this, let’s try this.” Luckily, I give the musicians on the record so much credit for making the sound what it is, because even though I studied music tech and music composition at NYU, my skills are shit for writing out music at this point.

Ha, traditional rock star?
I was really good at one point. It’s like a language. Unless you speak it all the time, you lose it a little bit.

“At the end of the day that’s what it is – it’s the delivery, it’s the sound, and it’s if you believe it or not. People are smart. They can tell when you’re not genuine about the thing that you’re trying to sell them.”

What’s up next, you said a new record?
Yeah, there are a lot of changes happening in my life. My wife and I are looking to move to the west coast. I love New York, it’s my favorite place to be. But I think that it’s time for a little change in scenery. [My wife]’s a writer. She lived out there for ten years in Los Angeles and wants to be back. On a physical level, there’s that.

As far as music, I released this single, Signs of Life, a week or two ago. Basically yes, I’m working on a new record in that style. These days, making a record is kind of funny. You don’t necessarily just go into the studio and make the record; it could be piecemeal. I tend to like to work in a short format, like an EP.

All I can say is that songs have been written. When I get back to the States, there are plans to get these songs recorded by the end of the year, and then hopefully get [the record] released early next year, and maybe do some more touring, if all goes according to plan (which it never does). That would be the ideal. And I feel like I have a bit of creative confidence at the moment. I’m going to try to take advantage of that, because I was getting a little bit of writer’s block the past year after we did the A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes record.

You want to capitalize on that while you have it.
Yeah, I was very pleased when the record came out. But there was just something – I wanted to elevate it in some way. I couldn’t quite figure out what it needed to be. And it was only recently that I had this – I don’t want to use the word epiphany – but I had this realization, and I can envision the next project, how it will differ, and how to do it.

The whole goal is to find the right way to express what you’re feeling. And hopefully when I get back to New York it won’t completely wreck me again. I’m going to sit down and write and get everything sorted.

Just a quick follow-up on the discussion of elevating a song: I think “Hollow Earth Theory” was one of the most surprising moments when I listened to A Wolf In Preachers Clothes for the first time because it was one of my favorite Aarktica songs, and that was taken to the next level. I remember thinking, “It’s a little strange that he’s covering himself.” But then I connected the dots, and I understood at that moment how you envisioned taking your work to the next level. Is the 7” a preview for how the next record will be elevated to the next level?

A little bit. I should sometimes leave things well enough alone. But I always heard “Hollow Earth Theory” with a string quartet. I was always thinking in my mind of Street Hassle by Lou Reed, and [strings] just weren’t feasible when we were doing the Aarktica record. So it was just like, “Fuck it, this is the way it should be.”

It was also the same with doing “Submarine Bells,” The Chills song, on the Anchored EP. It’s one of my favorite pop songs of all time. I just felt that it sounded dated on The Chills record. It was such a beautiful song and I felt it deserved the orchestral treatment. That’s not to say The Chills’ version isn’t good. I love that song. I loved it enough to spend a bunch of time making a redo of it. In that sense, sometimes there’s just something so good that you want to bump it up a notch, or just change it in some way. I get a little bit obsessive about that stuff sometimes. [laughs]

•••

After the interview, Jon prepared and changed for the gig. I met a friend for dinner. We returned to a full house of occasionally leather-clad no wavers, prepared for a night of Lydia’s snarling. Whether or not the local rock scene in a Berlin is ready for a crooner and orchestral pop revival, one thing is certain. Mr. Derosa’s personal brand of baritone melancholy was the only thing happening in the world at that moment on a September night in Kreuzberg.