Jerry Joseph started playing guitar in bars when he was fifteen. That was back in the ‘70s and somehow he has managed to hang on in an industry that’s full of what he calls “egos and sharks”, quietly putting out a record a year since the mid-90s and touring with the Jackmormons as energetically as someone half his age.
Recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, Joseph’s a straight shooter when it comes to talking about Portland’s changing music scene, and the business he’s been in for close to five decades. We caught up with the city’s longtime music maker ahead of his “New Year’s Eve Tour of Portland” to hear his thoughts on how the city's scene has changed, and how he's found a fan base in Afghanistan. Here are some of the higlights.
On Portland’s music scene in the late eighties:
“I first moved up here in 1989. Portland was a weird place for us [then band, Little Women]. We never did really well here. It was really cheap, there were lots of street drugs, nobody knew who we were, and that kind of threw us into the Northwest thing. All of a sudden, the whole place started blowing up musically right after we got here.”
On Portland’s current music scene:
“I’ve always thought that Portland was super clique-ish. And for all of its touting itself as a music city, I don't know if it’s really that awesome for musicians. I don’t think they pay people here very well and I think it’s really cutthroat. It’s pretty much the nature of the music industry. It’s definitely got a really successful music scene. At the same time Portland’s been very good to me. They just put me in the Oregon Hall of Fame. I was super flattered. It meant a lot to me.
“But Portland was very hot and cold for me. It always has been. We had great years and weird years and I’ve been kind of in and out since then.”
On how Portland has changed:
“I think the music scene is bigger and much more varied now. I know that I’m constantly reading some review of some band in Mojo magazine from England and it’s like 'Portland, Oregon' and I’m like, 'Fuck man, I have no idea who this is!' I used to feel like I had a pretty good cursory knowledge of the music from the city that I lived in. You almost get the feeling that people are getting P.O. Boxes here so they can say they’re from Portland.”
On some of his favorite Portland music:
"I think I always would’ve put Richmond Fontaine as my favorite band out of here ever. Fernando’s music is great. I love Typhoon. We've lived here for years and years—there was so much great stuff coming out all of the time, from the moment we landed, like the Dharma Bums and Elliott Smith.
(Laughing) “I don’t feel like I do a lot of collaboration here. I don’t know if I’m home enough to do that stuff. I’m constantly touring because that’s what pays my bills. Some of my friends here think that I’m super collaborative and I’m doing all this stuff with other musicians. From where we sit, I think we feel almost kind of secluded.”
On his fan base:
“I’ve been very fortunate to have people that still care about what I’m doing. It’s not hundreds of thousands of people. I’d be happy if it was 2,000 of them that actually bought a record. But they’re super loyal and they pay attention and I hopefully am deep enough to keep them interested.”
On the music industry:
“It’s fucking egos and sharks and that’s what it is. People like to go, 'Oh yeah, it’s just my muse,' or 'I’m just driven by the spirit,' or whatever— that’s not what that is. People want people to clap for them… it’s politics, like anywhere.
“It’s a tough business. At the same time, I think it’s the most exciting time to be a musician. Because of Spotify, my publishing checks went from ten or fifteen thousand a year to like five hundred a year, but at the same time, never in the history of art has there been a more exciting time to make art. When I was in Afghanistan these kids were like, 'What are we going to do?' and I was like, 'Sing in Urdu. There are 78-million people who speak Urdu and you can put it up on Facebook.' So it’s super crazy and super cool and to be able to make any kind of living in it whatsoever is a total gift and to have a home base like Portland is also a gift.”
On himself and his music now:
“I’m kind of like a creepy version of Bruce Springsteen. I keep laughing because we’re old and creepy enough that no one really looks at us as a sexual threat anymore, so now it’s just like clapping for your dad because he showed up.
“A few years ago I just realized I’m never going to be a fucking big rock star. No one is inviting me to Saigon. So I called some film guys that I knew and I was like, 'Let’s start going places and figure out how to book gigs, and film it.' So we did Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. We did Lebanon and Israel. Then I was in Afghanistan for a while, and we did stuff in Central America.
“Arguably, I think the music is more edgy or more heavy, nothing got lighter. I think maybe by surviving this long or, hopefully, by constantly creating it’s like adding to the narrative. I’ve started really pushing going to weird places and playing. It makes the blogs more interesting, at least.”
On longevity and what it takes to stay in such a fickle industry for so long:
“Really shitty self-esteem. Desperately needing people to clap for you. Not being able to give up the idea of someone going 'Yay for you!'... I don’t know the answer to that. You’re certainly talking to someone who never got very successful at it so it’s not the shit tons of money that I make. Without sounding trite, I think you either need to do it or you don’t. It’s a physical thing for me as well as an emotional thing. It’s that human part of it, whatever it is, birth and death and sex and food and that whole stew of being human—to me the music is very much a part of that.
“I’d never in a million years compare myself to some old blues guy but then there’s those guys — I remember going to see Junior Kimbrough and people like that before they died in Mississippi — and it fucking mattered, it still mattered to them. And I suppose at the point that it doesn’t mater to you anymore is probably when you should get out of it.”
Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons play McMenamins Mission Theater
on December 31, and the Doug Fir on January 1st and 2nd.