Duane Jarvis – Nevermind Americana, here’s the British Invasion
Duane Jarvis has a secret. Or maybe a confession. Though his work with the likes of Lucinda Williams, John Prine and Rosie Flores would seem to accord him premier sideman status in alternative country circles, he doesn’t consider himself a blazing guitarist for hire. Which is why he is pleased to hear his two solo albums praised more for the strength of their songs than the heat of their instrumental breaks.
“The truth of it is that I’m not a hotshot guitarist,” explained Jarvis with a laugh from his Nashville home. “I’m not that kind of guy. What I try to do is support the song, have respect for it, maybe help define it. Man, there’s tons of hotshot guitar players, and I respect them, but I have never aspired to that.”
On both his solo debut D.J.’s Front Porch (Medium Cool, 1994) and the new Far From Perfect on Watermelon, Jarvis wears his musical aspirations on his sleeve. His jangly hooks and indelible riffs pay homage to the British Invasion bands that were his first musical love, while the themes and twang of some of the other material fit comfortably within the alternative country niche. As a kid from a Coast Guard family who was raised mainly in Portland, Oregon, he came to country through a circuitous route: the Stones during their Gram Parsons period, the Kinks of Muswell Hillbillies.
“I’ll probably misquote Donald Lindley [longtime drummer for Lucinda], but he once said something like, ‘Our roots extend across the pond,'” Jarvis continued. “A lot of the music we really love is like Ian Hunter and the Kinks. My dad always listened to Roger Miller and George Jones, but I didn’t have a big country collection, that’s for sure. I kind of got it through the English rock bands, which is how I got deeper and deeper into all sorts of music, from the Stones in particular.”
On Far From Perfect, there are echoes of the Stones in “Broken Clock” and the Kinks in “Hat Check Girl”, along with a Merseybeat lilt to more melodic fare such as “Mr. Dependability” and “Cocktail Napkin”. On the American side of Jarvis’ musical equation, Far From Perfect yelps like Jason & the Scorchers, “Drive Back To You” and “There Is A Light” could be Tom Petty outtakes, and “I’m Not Gonna Break Your Heart” echoes Buddy Holly.
Which is not to say Jarvis is a particularly derivative songwriter — at least any more derivative than Petty — but that his music is steeped in rock tradition and shaped by popcraft. It’s a sign of the times that such music has been relegated to the cult fringes, for almost all of its inspiration is thoroughly mainstream in approach and appeal. He makes music for a Top 40 that no longer exists; he’s AM in an increasingly niche-marketed FM world.
“I don’t even know what electronica is, though I keep reading about it,” admitted the 40-year-old Jarvis. “I guess I can’t chase whatever’s happening, because I know I would look silly, and I couldn’t do it anyway.”
His musical instincts were more in vogue during the latter half of the ’70s, the new-wavey, power-popping days, when he fronted an Anglophile band in Portland called the Odds (not to be confused with the band from Vancouver, B.C., that later recorded for Zoo). While in Portland, he got his first taste of what was then known as “cowpunk” through touring visits by Rank And File, featuring the brothers Kinman and Alejandro Escovedo. The principles that bridged the gap between skinny ties and cowboy boots were respect for the concision of the three-minute song and disdain for the evil empire that album-oriented radio had become.
In 1984, Jarvis moved to Los Angeles with the intention of putting together a band. Instead, he spent what he terms “an awful first year” spinning his wheels, though the opportunity to immerse himself in the roots-rocking music of Lone Justice and the Blasters brought some sort of respite. A chance meeting with Marvin Etzioni in a music store led to Jarvis’ Los Angeles breakthrough: He told Etzioni how much he liked his material on the first Lone Justice album, and Etzioni responded that he was forming a band and looking for a guitarist.
“Marvin kind of introduced me to the whole scene,” said Jarvis, who found himself in the midst of what was becoming a hotbed of hardcore twang. In addition to an extended stint with Etzioni, he connected with both Lucinda Williams and Rosie Flores in Los Angeles, and has continued to play with both. As a guitarist for hire, he also availed himself of more curious opportunities, such as his term with Australia’s Divinyls before they struck it big Stateside with “I Touch Myself”.
“That kind of came out of left field,” he said. “I’m friends with Nigel Harrison, who was the bass player for Blondie [and later became an A&R rep]. We went to the same gym, and he was friends with that band. He’d come out and see me play with Marvin, and one day he said, ‘Hey, I’d really like you to meet my friends Chrissie and Mark [the Divinyls’ Amphlett and McEntee].
“So I did, and a week later I was in Sydney, and they kept me really busy for a year and a half. We were working up songs for the album that ended up having ‘I Touch Myself’ on it. In fact, this will crack you up, but that song ‘House of Stone’ that’s on my Front Porch record, they really dug it and we worked up a [Divinyls] version of that.”
When the song finally surfaced on D.J.’s Front Porch, the album earned rave reviews but had trouble establishing a marketable identity for Jarvis amid the shifting musical currents of the time. It was issued by Medium Cool, an offshoot of Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone, which is best known for unleashing the Replacements upon an unsuspecting world. While Jarvis’s credentials were best appreciated by fans of alternative country, the album’s cover of the Kinks’ “This Is Where I Belong” and its affinity for the sort of popcraft more commonly associated with the likes of Marshall Crenshaw resisted such stereotyping.
Far From Perfect offers Jarvis a fresh start on a new label, Austin-based Watermelon. Co-produced in Nashville (where Jarvis moved a couple years ago) by E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent, the album originally was slated for release a year ago on Tallent’s DeVille label. As the indie wing of the music industry suffered through a disastrous deluge of returns, Jarvis was allowed to shop the album elsewhere. With Watermelon enjoying the benefits of its recent deal with Sire and the higher profile of artists such as Don Walser and the Derailers, Jarvis figures the wait was worth the frustration.
“This was probably the best thing that could happen to me,” he said. “I think this whole thing has taught me a lot of patience, and it seems like the climate is better now. I know that a record deal is an opportunity, and I don’t have any delusions about it. It’s a lot of work, and I know that I have to tour a lot, but it’s an opportunity to play these songs for people.”
The move to Nashville influenced his songwriting, as Jarvis found himself writing more in what he calls a “country-soul” vein. As a Coast Guard kid, he’d grown accustomed to packing up and moving around, and the time felt right for him to leave L.A.
“A lot of people I knew had moved here, from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles,” he said. “And the L.A. scene that I was a part of seemed to be evaporating. Rosie wasn’t around much, and Lucinda had been encouraging me to move out here. I’d written a lot of songs on an exploratory trip to Nashville, and there were a lot of things happening at once, a synchronicity.”
In addition to the release of his own album, Jarvis continues to work occasionally with Williams, and co-wrote a song with her, “Still I Long For Your Kiss”, that appears on the Horse Whisperer soundtrack. He has also toured with the likes of Greg Trooper and Buddy Miller, and hopes to promote his album through one of those collaborative ventures, with artists accompanying each other. If such musical association finds him a seat on the alt-country bandwagon, he’s happy to be included within any club that will have him.
“It’s all song-based music, and to me it seems like a pretty big umbrella,” he said. “I know I’m not the first person to say it, but it almost seems like one artist or one band has got to come out and kill people with sales, like Nirvana did. Maybe it’s too simplistic to think this way, but something has to hit people over the head and say, ‘Check it out, man, there’s all these great artists you should be hearing.’
“In the meantime, this is a cool club, and we can help each other out, but we also need to figure out ways to get it out to more people. I wouldn’t want to make it more exclusive. I’ve been underground long enough; it’s getting hard to breathe.”