Jay Ferguson interview pt. 2
by Steve Burgess, from Dark Star magazine.
You can read part 1 of this interview at my Spirit web site.
The story so far; Jay Ferguson, svelte ex-mainman of the trailblazing original Spirit and creator of much of their Topanga-window wordview, has been cornered in a luxury broom-closet in the Montcalm hotel by a small, wild-eyed writer with a headful of pertinent/impertinent questions, most of which, truth be told, centred around the life-span and wild talents of that firstborn band. Latecomers to this dramatic confrontation of singer/writer/pianist/vibeplayer versus near-illegible scribbler are referred to the leafy portals of DARK STAR 14 for the fullblown lowdown. Edited highlights will not be shown on BBC 1.
But scratch a smile and you find some pain. Jay spent the first segment of the decade in a decibel prison of his own devising, fronting Jo Jo Gunne, whose speciality was obligingly blasting America's teen tribes to heavy-metal hell and gone (you'll excuse a haziness of detail on the writer's part, I'm sure, he found JJG rather unkind to the lugs and therefore views their records as less than collectable, shame). Nevertheless, four albums and four years flatspin roadwork took its toll on Jay and what you're about to receive (Lord, make the readers truly grateful...) is Jay's verbal account of the lessons learned and dues stamped and paid.
He's a solo artist now with the title cut from "Thunder Island", his second solo satisfier, riding thumb on the great American hit-single highway, something that's surely doomed to alienate him still further from diehard Spiritualists who've always viewed his determination to walk his own track as a high-treason offence. He'll be talking on that, too.
But both his solo elpees, "All Alone In The End Zone" and "Thunder Island", really do deserve Status in the discerning rockjunkie's shelves, they're high quality mainline studio rock with a distinctly Spirit over- tone, ancestrally true, tidied-up most certainly for the pablum-fed rubes (watch out for Mr. Clean...), but much more than mere examples of the assemblyline coke-suede-and-water-beds lullabies that his Asylum Malibu-mafia colleagues shovel out in endlessly Sterile shipments. Not fresh garbage, no.
Straight Arrow was his name and now he's coming home. Here's how...
DS: Had you actually formed Jo Jo Gunne by the time "Sardonicus" was complete?
JF: No, Mark and I had talked about it amongst ourselves, trying to workout what we'd do after Spirit, and we actually talked about a band like Jo Jo Gunne for months. After "Sardonicus" was recorded we started playing with Matt Andes and Curly Smith, and then we realised we would have that band. So we were working on Jo Jo Gunne before the official split, but on the other hand we told the rest of Spirit we were leaving, and we did another two months of tours, then we left the band but didn't come out with Jo Jo Gunne for another six 'months. So it's not like we were waiting to spring out with something immediately. We tried to be as fair as possible. Everyone was very surprised that we were gonna call it quits, but I couldn't believe it because the fights we were having were so bitter and people were threatening to quit all the time. But we were serious, and we did. And I remember the night we announced it, we'd been rehearsing - Randy understood, he knew it was painful, and he didn't seem that surprised really, but he was really good about it...
DS: Did Jo Jo Gunne really get to become a drag?
JF: Oh yeah, it did.
DS: I know the press labelled you as a heavy metal band.
JF: Well, in a sense it was - we sort of lost the initial vision we started off with. The first album was pure good music. I mean it was four guys who'd sat together for six months and decided how they wanted to put it down with no compromise - and we did it, we accomplished that on the first record, very simple and direct. But then in the course of four years we had Mark Andes leave and Matt Andes leave, and so the band changed - it lost that initial concept, the original vision, and Jo Jo Gunne ended up as a pretty confused band, trying different things - trying always to rock and roll and eventually getting trapped by that. We had lots of fans in the States, but they always wanted just to hear the one thing - hard rock. I realised then it was a monster of my own creation - here I was in a band that I wanted to be a rock n roll band but it damn well wasn't, and there was nothing I could really do about it, I couldn't be creative beyond that. And we started doing these long tours, hard rock ballbusters, where there were four bands every night playing 130 decibels, and you were just drenched - it was burning me out. So ended Jo Jo Gunne. I made a whole lot of mistakes with it, but I learned a whole lot from it which I wouldn't trade for anything. But I reckon now I'm possibly a lot closer to Spirit than Jo Jo Gunne. If I had to place my music, I'd put it halfway between the two right now.
DS: Is "Thunder Island" true to the kind of concept you want to follow? I mean, you structured both "End Zone" and "Thunder Island" very much the same way, they've the same sort of pacing....
JF: Yeah, right, I'm just discovering this as I record, I figure album three will be pushing pretty close to my main vein of music, but, yeah, there's a continuity there which I'm learning from, too. "End Zone" was a first attempt, it was a very new experience; it was a very self-indulgent kind of record in that I did what I wanted to do for myself to get things out of my system. I remember having the attitude that I didn't care whether it sold or not. And it was good just to do that once in your life. It was a first effort and there were a lot of hit or miss things about it, but the biggest element I had to face with this album was - 'Hey, I'm starting all over again for the third time.' And when you start off like that again you're surprised by how few people really remember you. Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne were well-known, but Jay Ferguson was a new entity. So in a sense I was 19 again, with my first record, which was very exciting. I had a big creative surge, but it was a realistic uphill battle which I welcomed because I liked the challenge.
DS: I wondered if you could be more specific ahout what went wrong with Jo Jo Gunne - was it more than just the chemistry?
JF: Well, let me think... what did go wrong? The membership changes, the image of the band changing, the times changing... the first album was just a very natural organic shot that worked beautifully. After that it was just a band confused, trying to find out what it should be doing.
DS: You found it again for "Bite Down Hard".
JF: Yeah, we found it again, but we didn't know what we were doing - that was what happened to Jo Jo Gunne in a nutshell - Jo Jo Gunne knew exactly what it was doing and what it was about when it made that first record; from then on, hit or miss, good or bad, it didn't understand what it was trying to do - largely my responsibility. Okay, we tried to be a glitterband for a while, no, that didn't work, we tried to be a hard rock band, we'll try this, we'll try that ... we were just switching styles all the time - always within a rock'n' roll context, but never with the confidence of knowing that we were going to stick to one thing and stay with it.
DS: Do you think Asylum had anything to do with it? Did they understand what you were trying to do?
JF: Well, here was a band needing guidance, right? We didn't have it from ourselves or our management, and at that time Asylum was taking on its character as a country-rock label, so we felt kinds like a bull in a china shop with them. So here was a band saying, 'Help. (laughs) . We had this thing, we had talent, but we were confused as to what we were, and we never quite found out. We made some good tries and had some good times, but after losing sight of the original vision, it was never quite on.
DS: What were you doing between the last Jo Jo Gunne album and "End Zone"? It was quite a long gap.
JF: Well, it was mostly a long rest after the last year with Jo Jo Gunne playing my brains out on the heavy-metal circuit. It was time to stop that old search for rock'n'roll and start the search for Jay Ferguson and it took a while. I went to Miami and with Bill (Szymczyk), I got feedback from my friends and found my legs again along with the confidence to pursue a solo career. At the time I was offered membership in different bands - there were different possibilities floating around. But it was Bill who finally said we'd have to do a solo album. He said, 'Come to Florida, I've just moved here and there are great studios, you just bring yourself and your songs, and I'll bring the band. So he brought Joe Walsh, and Joe Vitale from Barnstorm, Chocolate Perry and Joey Murcia who were just brilliant session musicians at TK Studios. So I just walked in and it was all fixed with this great band - it was really scary the first day, I was petrified.
But in the first two years following that, wearing the title of solo artist has gotten comfortable, it feels right. The responsibilities are much greater in that you have to look to yourself for the excuses for things that don't go right, you can't blame anyone else - but that way I'm learning faster. In Jo Jo Gunne or Spirit I could always hide behind the name and not take responsibility, and that's avoiding the issue. It's given me a challenge and it's making me more honest. I mean, in Jo Jo Gunne I wrote the songs, and sang, and was virtually the leader, but I didn't take responsibility for where the band was heading.
DS: You came back to the same band for the second solo album - why do you think it works so well far you?
JF: Maybe, answering for them, the fact that they're on holiday when they make my albums - also Joe Walsh isn't in the spotlight or Vitale isn't and it's not their own project so they don't have to worry about it. I can speak for all of us in saying that making those two albums was a whole lot of fun - and that's probably what you're hearing in the music. You're hearing serious musicians that are suddenly on holiday.
DS: Yeah, I do hear that, this was what I was saying before about the structuring of the songs - short gaps bet ween songs, straight in and straight out... Is it a kind of pop feel you're going for?
JF: Right, yeah, on "Thunder Island" I am definitely going for more of a pop feel than on "End Zone"; it's just facing the realities of a career - like here I am, a solo artist, now am I going to make a career of this or not? Without compromising my music, I tried to make an album that was more accessible and therefore more of a commercial success. I've been through a lot of rock'n'roll forms and I'm into concise forms now; so maybe my songs are getting tighter and maybe more pop-orientated in that sense, but I just look on it as better construction and arrangement on my part.
DS: Getting more personal, too? "End Zone" strikes me as being a very personal song, for instance.
JF: Well, you're hitting it on the head. In Spirit. for instance, my lyrics were largely fantasised and in Jo Jo Gunne I created lyrics out of the rock'n'roll situation, like on the road, hotel rooms - the typical rock and roll school of writing, like taking a tough pose and writing about it.
So now I'm into a solo career and there's nothing to hide behind so it's time to get honest about lyrics. And "End Zone" particularly is constructed lyrically from song titles, album titles and phrases from works I did with Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne and the reason why Bill Szymczyk gets co-writer on that is because he posed the question to me of composing a song just by using the old titles, 'Can you tell a story with them? And while you're at it, can you tell your own story?' And so that's what "End Zone" is - it's an autobiographical song written in my own song titles from the last eight years. It's American football metaphor actually--'all alone in the end zone', but I meant it to mean simply that instead of being involved in the teamplay right there at the time of scrimmage, for the first time I've broken away I and I'm all alone. The end zone is where you score points and the question is will I score or not? (Laughs) It's a fun song.
DS: "Snakes On The Run" is, of all things you recorded with Szymczyk, most like Spirit... but it's kinda ambiguous, you never refer to events that song...
JF: No, the tone of that song is slightly bitter, and I guess it's coming after being eight years in the business and being a little bitter at the business itself; the record company side of it.
DS: Another thing is the Carribean rhythms you're getting into - where does that come from?
JF: It's traced to two things - being in Florida when you're recording and the main reason is Joey Murcia, who is a session guy who's spent time in Kingston, Jamaica, and has done a lot work with real reggae musicians. So with him in the band I thought we could do some legitimate reggae ideas - although it's not stone reggae, it's a combination we feel comfortable with. .
DS: If I'd to make any comparison between "End Zone" and "Thunder Island", it'd be style. "Thunder island" is much bigger and you seem to be going towards an anthem-like quality.
JF: (Laughing) Yeah, I guess like on "Happy Birthday Baby" it gets really big and anthemlike, and the title track has a chorus that just seems to build and build - but I'm always a sucker for a good chorus, I'll drive one of those to Phoenix and back!
DS: "Thunder Island" strikes me as being really erotic song...
JF: (Laughing) Thank you! Well, I was in very erotic state of mind when I wrote that, and I'm trying to write this song that would have to be clean because it may be a single--but on the other hand, wait a minute! (Laughs)
DS: When will you be touring here then?
JF: Sometime in '78, but is our first trip over here and things are all very preliminary right now.
DS: Does the fact that the album will have preceded you by some months bother you?
JF: Well, it's not my favorite kind of timing, I have to admit. If things go okay it might be in March. I'm using the band that made "Thunder Island" with the exception of Tony Battaglia, the lead guitarist, who's replaced by Bob Webb, who's also on the album in a reduced role, but he's now taken over as lead guitarist on stage.
DS: How much control do you have over the album's packaging--they're both very striking.
JF: I vowed after "Jumping The Gunne" that I'd never let anything like that happen again, so I've always been in the position to overseeing the covers since then. It feels good, although I don't claim to be a graphic artist or a designer, but you do get a feel for what pays proper respect to your music, or at least reflects it.
DS: One more thing I have to ask (laughing) is that now you're considered the black sheep of the Spirit family, who do you think will buy the albums?
JF: Well, that's a question I had to face when I went solo. What I've done is not to try and trade off the success of the two bands--I don't expect those fans to follow me, so I've kind of burned my bridges behind me. So I take the consequences and I'm starting from the ground up as Jay Ferguson and it's good/bad. It is starting from the ground up which can be frustrating after having been successful, but it's also a fresh start--in a sense I feel like I'm 19 and starting all over again and that's a great feeling. it's worth it.
DS: You're making albums now that are at a sort of crossover point between AM and FM. Which way are you hoping it'll go--AM is obviously where the big money is, but would yoy be satisfied working in a restricted format?
JF: No, I would not. I've been spoiled by being creative in the 60:s, when you had so many outlets for fresh sounds and obscure ideas. No, I'd feel really limited--that's one of the reasons I left Jo Jo Gunne, that was limiting in another sense, and I dont want to go back to that. Obviously I would like to be successful with what I do, so I will pay respect to commerciality now and then. But to cross over completely to AM would probably be one of the worst things that could happen to me, because it would mean that I'd found my mainstream and I might as well stop being supercreative for a while because they're buying it and you're making it. That thin line there--hopefully it's not that'' thin--between craetivity and commerciality is a very nice place to be, if you can do it.