Jesse Malin – It takes the Village
Listeners get lots of glimpses of the Big Apple on Jesse Malin’s The Fine Art Of Self-Destruction: the downtown drag queens and outer borough dwellers who’ve “never been past the bridge” in the haunting ballad “Brooklyn”; the three-card-monty racketeers of the rhythmic “Riding On The Subway”; the jolt of watching a troubled friend split for the Left Coast on “Wendy”. But there’s one uniquely New York story that doesn’t pop up in the singer-songwriter’s succinct lyrics, even though it lies at the heart of the album’s creation.
“I was paid to give up an apartment that I paid $500 rent on,” recalls Malin. “I’d lived there eight years.” The Manhattan location — East Third Street, between First and Second Avenues — was a highly desirable one. “The Hell’s Angels are across the street, and they watch out for everything,” he says.
The gentrification of the East Village may have cost Malin the home in which he wrote most of the songs on his solo debut (due out January 28 on Artemis Records), but without it he might not have made the disc at all.
A Queens native, Malin has been a prominent fixture on the downtown NYC rock scene since 1980, when, at the tender age of 12, he started the seminal hardcore band Heart Attack. From 1991 to 1999, he fronted glam-punk quintet D Generation. Although D Gen was most often discussed in the same breath as acts such as the New York Dolls and the Dead Boys, Malin says the leap from the band’s 1998 swan song, the Tony Visconti-produced Through The Darkness, to the rootsier vibe of Self-Destruction wasn’t so great as some might think.
“We covered ‘Don’t Be Denied’ by Neil Young on that last record,” he points out. The disc’s hidden track, “Violent Love”, was an acoustic number composed for his girlfriend one Christmas. D Gen might have been opening for KISS and the Ramones, but on the tour bus, Malin was listening to Wilco, Dylan and the Replacements. “I grew up on everything from Bad Brains to Elton John,” he explains. “A good song is a good song.”
After D Generation dissolved in 1999, Malin soldiered on through a series of bands, all of them short-lived. His new songs were pulling him in a different direction, but he was plagued by doubts about going it alone. Finally, accompanied only by pianist Joe McGinty, Malin recorded a handful of his more introspective tunes, including future Self-Destruction standouts “Brooklyn”, “Solitaire” and “X-mas”.
“The demos were more like early Tom Waits or Nick Cave, just piano and vocals,” he says. “Very intimate, like Nebraska.”
Calling the results The 169 EP, he pressed up a few copies, just to sell to fans and hand out to friends. Among the recipients was Ryan Adams, whom Malin had met when the boy wonder was still in Whiskeytown. When Adams relocated to New York, the two grew closer; Malin, a co-owner of East Village watering holes Niagra and the now-defunct Coney Island High, even lined up occasional DJ gigs for Adams.
While Adams was staking out a solo career with Heartbreaker, Malin was still reluctant to strike out on his own. “I was afraid of [being placed in] that singer-songwriter niche, like I was James Taylor, or some kind of flannel-shirt guy on a stool,” he says. But after a set of well-received local shows, Malin told Adams he’d decided to use the windfall from his real estate deal to make his own album. “And Ryan said, ‘I want to produce. If you want me to, I’d love to do it.'”
Adams spent a week in January 2001 locked in New York’s Lo-Ho Studios with Malin. In addition to producing and mixing, Adams contributed electric guitar, vocals and keyboards throughout; he recruited Melissa Auf der Maur (ex-Hole) to sing as well. The musicians recorded together, live, and Adams rarely allowed Malin to make more than one pass at a vocal. “In the end, it all came out [OK],” he says. “But at the time, it was happening really fast, and I didn’t know where the record was going. It took on its own life, and became more of a dark pop, rock record.”
The appeal of Self-Destruction doesn’t fade once it crosses the Hudson River, but, just as surely as New Jersey and Los Angeles inform the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman, respectively, the pulse of New York remains perceptible in almost all of Malin’s songs.
“You just walk out your door here, and stuff happens,” he observes. “That element has stayed in my music, from D Generation to now. [Self-Destruction] is still an urban record, a New York record, but hopefully somebody who lives in Finland can relate to it as well. Hopefully it’s universal.”