Punk troubadour Malin offers dual perspectives on ‘New York’
Jesse Malin hasn’t released an album in five years. Speaking with the genially manic rocker on the phone from his home in New York, it feels like he’s been waiting that long to talk about it. A human live wire who practically vibrates from some internal charge, Malin spouts highly entertaining, tangled tangents of Queens-accented humor, reflection, and boho poet-rock-star patter about the superb, just released “New York Before the War” — scarcely pausing for breath.
Describing the first recording sessions for the album, during which he and his band shared a farmhouse in rural Virginia, Malin zigzags through the daily routine: “Waking up, making the oatmeal, doing the push-ups, no privacy, just communal military-style, and hanging out playing music. I always go for a run in the morning — ‘Lively Up Yourself,’ Bob Marley, ‘Stir It Up’ — and goats are chasing me and yelling, and I want to eat vegetarian food, and the closest health food spot is 5 miles away, and it’s called Walmart. But we banged out about 25 songs.”
As he listened to the songs while on tour in Europe, the former D Generation frontman, who plays Church next Thursday, felt like they were missing a certain je ne sais New York.
“Live, as much as I love the sad-bastard songs, I also like the jump-around, in-your-face exorcisms of athletic insanity,” says Malin. “I liked the whole vibe down in Virginia, but I needed a little bit more of that dirtier, sleazier, nastier, uptempo stuff.”
Back home, after a breakup and a bout of existential soul-searching over a quiet holiday season in a less than ideal apartment — “It’s crooked and it’s cracked and it sucks,” he says of the building — he wrote and recorded a new batch of songs, then culled the cream of the crop from both sessions for “New York.”
Unsurprisingly, the record has a split personality. It toggles between contemplative — the churning opener “Dreamers,” the slow, sultry “She’s So Dangerous” — and full throttle, as in swaggering stomper “Turn Up the Mains” and bouncy first single “Addicted,” where Malin tries to split the difference between the Ramones and Paul Simon. “I had this idea to have both sides of my Queens Boulevard roots represented, but I’ve always loved songs that have a great narrative, but also can romance the sadness and beauty in life.”
Malin enlisted engineer Brian Thorn to help the recordings align. Thorn, a veteran mixer who has worked with everyone from Coldplay to David Bowie, reports that on hearing the Virginia material, he “brought out some of the muscle in it.”
Malin also provided some muscle, in the form of notable buddies including Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Alejandro Escovedo, and Wayne Kramer of the MC5.
“Some of them, we would send them the track and then get the work back, and it was like this little gift that came in an e-mail, and we’d download the file and say, ‘OK, let’s see what they did!’ ” says Thorn with a laugh. “Luckily, it worked out every time for us.”
“These things just kind of happen,” says Malin, who also bumped into Dave Grohl in the studio when the Foo Fighters were shooting the New York episode of “Sonic Highways,” Grohl’s recent HBO series. “You roll down the road, you bump into people. And I always say one of the greatest perks of this business we call show is not being in an autograph queue, but meeting these people that you look up to.”
Together, the musicians helped Malin craft an album suffused in parts with longing and dislocation, yet elsewhere brimming with optimism: a juxtaposition Malin chalks up to observing the world around him change, or in some cases, remain static.
He watched some friends marry and have children, others pass away. Still others, who once had subscribed to the same punk aesthetic that Malin did, “made a lot of money going straight, and they’re healthy and happy.”
Malin, 47, has experienced his own musical evolution, from teen punk singer to D Generation frontman to solo troubadour. He’s grateful for the changes, but says that “in some ways it feels the same, it’s still writing the setlist, waiting for the van, getting ready, waiting for the beer to get there, where’s the motel? There’s a comfort in that, but I’m also always yearning for something more, to make something I can be happy with and present in. I get a little taste of that and I have to move on, and it never fills the hole completely.”
Conversely, he is aware that he is living his dream — and that of many others — in making a living as a musician. He reminds himself to be grateful for that, whether 100 or 3,000 people show up. “Every job has its Mondays. Sometimes we’re staying at a posh hotel, other times we’re at the Travelodge in Great Britain off the motorway with lot lizards and Burger King wrappers. But for the most part I love to play, and we play every show as wild and as hard as we can.”
(Malin was originally scheduled to be the first act at the new Somerville club Thunder Road, but the show has been moved to Church. All tickets for the original venue will be honored.)