Live for Live Music: Jackie Greene Talks Playing All The Parts & Drawing Inspiration From Limitations

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To say that guitarist/vocalist Jackie Greene has led a charmed sort of musical life is a bit of an understatement. He’s payed with everyone from Phil Lesh to the Black Crowes to Huey Louis, and has managed to make some impressive music of his own along the way. After years of near-constant motion, Greene purposefully scheduled himself some time off this summer both to prepare for his upcoming acoustic run with Anders Osborne and to work on new material, some of which will be appearing on his upcoming EP, Modern Lives Vol I. As he puts the finishing touches on the new release and gears up to return to the road, we caught up with Greene to see how all his various endeavors are progressing:

Live For Live Music: You’ve toured with Gov’t Mule, Los Lobos, Phil Lesh, Ratdog, Huey Lewis, B.B. King, Mark Knopfler, Black Crowes, Levon Helm…Do you ever consider yourself something of musical ‘Rosetta Stone?’

Jackie Greene: No, I just see myself as a lucky guy. All those acts are mostly connected in a way. To me, it doesn’t seem weird to be connected to all those acts. Like I said…I just see myself as lucky. I can’t really account for the reason why I am so lucky. In the end I guess I just say ‘yes’ a lot.

L4LM: Having played with so many disparate artists have you developed a process for preparing for playing with these folks.

JG: Well in the case of the Crowes, I was actually in that band, so I had a whole catalog of songs to learn. But I have gotten pretty good at learning material on short notice. Maybe it’s just the way I learn. Like right now I am playing bass on a record, which I have never done before, so that’s pretty exciting. I’ve got a knack for learning songs, I suppose.

L4LM: You’ve spoken of your tendency to pick up elements and traits of artists you work with. Is your whole career like a musical version of Pokémon, where you’re trying to catch them all to make yourself the best you can be?

JG: No, I think that just happens naturally. I don’t really seek it out, but it is definitely there. If you’re a musician you learn from listening to people, listening to records and just playing with people and incorporating into your own style. I love all that stuff and I try and use all of it. I feel like in some ways you’d have to be pretty dense to not have learned something playing with all the people I have. I think it would be a failure on my part to not come out of this decade of my life and not have learned anything.

L4LM: You’re putting together all of this knowledge on your upcoming album, The Modern Lives Vol I. You’ve seen a lot of change over the last decade or so in the music business. What changes have affected you the most?

JG: The technology aspect of it can’t be discounted. It’s weird. It is much more difficult to make a living selling recorded music. But access and ease of recording music has gotten so much easier. There is just this wealth of knowledge to swim in. It’s a sign of prosperity in terms of artistic endeavors, but it has made it harder to find folks who can make a good living at it. But–and I think this is true for all artists–you have to swim in the pond in which you were deposited. For me…I just continue making music the best way I know how. That may change over time. I don’t think about it to much. I don’t let it affect my process.

L4LM: One of the pluses of all this new technology is how easy it makes things for artists who like to ‘do it all.’ You seem to have taken this to heart on Modern Lives. I understand you did pretty much everything on this EP yourself, is that right?

JG: Yeah, I played every instrument myself. I did everything but mix the record myself. I did everything in my basement in Brooklyn myself. I even did the engineering…if you can call it that, myself. This isn’t really that big a stretch for me. There is a homemade element to a lot of my records that has been there since day one. It’s a part of my aesthetic you could say.

There has been at least one or two songs on each record I have done that has been like that, even if I cut it in a big studio. This is just the first time where everything has been like that. I have always been interested in recording, ever since I was a kid and got my first four track recorder. I’d link two reel-to-reel recorders together to get more tracks.

It turned into a part of my songwriting process. I’d make a demo of a thing I am working on. A lot of the time I’d end up using at least part of those demos in the final recording. It’s not something that is new to me. This is just the first project where everything in it is all me from the ground up. I’ve always had some form of a home studio. It’s how I like to work. It’s just so much more easy for me to just go around to all the different instruments and work on it until I am happy.

L4LM: It makes writing the album liner credits a lot easier, I assume.

JG: [Laughs] Definitely.

Check out the video for “Modern Lives” featuring animation by the legendary artist Bill Plympton below:


L4LM: You’re a big proponent of limiting creative choices to spark the artistic process. Do you believe having less options makes you get more creative?

JG: I think that is a universal truth…You see it in all cultures, particularly when it comes to art. This is just me, my philosophy. There are plenty of people who have done great records and art with all the gear in the world. I like gear too, certainly. But there is a point, to me, when it becomes unnecessary. Sometimes you just have to look at what you have on hand and make something happen. When I was recording in the past I was using the tape machines, and you had a limited number of tracks and you had a lot of decisions to make. I am a big fan of committing to things early in the process.

By way of example…if there is an effect like reverb or delay that I really like for a part of a song, I will print it. That’s what it’s called when you add something like that, printing. I’ll do that early on in the process, so then it stays. It is always there. To me, making decisions early can help expedite the process. If I was to not make these commitments early, I would be stuck at the end making thousands of decisions and that kinda bums me out…It transcends disciplines. It’s basic simplicity.

L4LM: You put a “Vol. I” in the album title. Is this a true indication of a coming sequel, or is this a “History Of The World Part I”-type thing where it is just part of the title?

JG: Yeah, hopefully part two will be out in the winter. This is an EP, there are six songs on it. Originally I was gonna put this out all as one record, but there were a couple of tunes that I wasn’t quite finished with yet. When I was looking at what I had, I realized that these six go together pretty well and the other six work well together also. It became pretty clear that what I ought to do is put it out as two separate EPs.

L4LM: You’re releasing this on the Blue Rose Music label out of California. They do a lot of interesting charity work. How did you first get involved with them?

JG: I played one of their benefits a while back and the owner, Joe Poletto, has become a really good friend of mine. Now we are in business together. It was a truly organic relationship that started out there in Petalula.

L4LM: Blue Rose does a lot to help the next generation of musicians. Was that the attraction for you?

JG: Definitely a big part of it. The last benefit we did was tied into started a music scholarship for kids in Sacramento, where I am from. Music programs in schools are pretty much always the first thing to get cut [when budgets decrease]. Who the hell needs that right? But it turns out that music programs are good for more than just music.

Music is really important to the development of the brain. Sadly, I think mine is one of the last generations to be assured of having a music program in school. Even as basic as those programs are, they introduce kids to the idea that there are other ways to succeed in life. That is my angle on all this–to help kids see that there is more than one way to go.

L4LM: You just mentioned you were in the studio playing bass on a project right now. Are you going to get out and promote the EP with some shows?

JG: My friend Anders Osborne and I are going to be playing some acoustic shows together in October. Pretty much all of October I will be promoting that. It’s basically us, acoustic. Maybe I’ll bring a banjo. We did a few shows together earlier this year and people really liked it so I am excited to get out and do it again.

This summer in particular I have been taking a lot of time off to make some new recordings. I am starting to write songs for another record next year with my touring band that will be a straight rock and roll record. It is nice to have some actual time off to write and just be in recording mode for an extended period of time.

Check out a clip of Greene and Osborne performing “Ball And Chain” from their short run earlier this year (via Salt City Live):

L4LM: Now that you mention it, you do always seem to have a show around the corner. Is this your first really long break from the road?

JG: Absolutely. At first it was weird. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. In the past it has been that I had songs that I wanted to work on but no time to do it. This summer I have had enough time to work on things. It was scary at first but now I really like it. And I will have a lot of new tunes to share.

L4LM: Is it ever weird introducing songs you have written all alone to the musicians who will be backing you up on them?

JG: Not really. I am not that particular, and my band is really great. Sometimes I have to re-learn these tunes myself. I think after this time off it will be great to take these tunes out to the people!

For more information on Jackie Greene and his upcoming releases and tour dates, head to his website.