Jesse Malin – Re-generation
Jesse Malin shows up on rock-star time, a half-hour late. But he comes in with an un-rock-starrish show of contrition, affability and New York breeziness that makes you think he’s the kind of guy who would probably show up late whether he was a rock star or not, and that you wouldn’t hold it against him.
And, truth to tell, Malin isn’t quite exactly a rock star. He looks the part, in a black jacket, jeans, blue wifebeater shirt and unfussed black coxcomb hair. But his entrance turns no heads in the small Lower East Side Mexican-Cuban restaurant where we’re meeting for lunch. A New York native and longtime downtown denizen, he’s nevertheless removed from the city scene that has, over the past few years, given rise to the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and other post-punk revivalists.
“A lot of these kids that are wearing little skinny ties and suits and stuff, in three years they’ll have their hair back like Steven Tyler again,” he says, over a plate of beans of rice. “That’s just what goes on. You know, you want to have a name, ‘The.’ The Jesse Malins. I could do that, I’ll fit in. Maybe I should be The Jesse Malins.”
But Malin, who talks in a rapid Queens patter, hardly begrudges his younger cohorts their moment in the buzz bin. At 36, he remembers the first coming of skinny ties. He was a punk-rock prodigy, playing New York City clubs in the early 1980s as the snot-nosed leader of Heart Attack, who released their first records before he turned 15. He spent the late ’80s and early ’90s leading the misunderstood D-Generation, who, the story goes, were trying to be the New York Dolls when everyone else was trying to be Nirvana.
After a layoff spent writing and gigging around New York clubs, Malin emerged solo on last year’s The Fine Art Of Self-Destruction. Produced by his longtime friend Ryan Adams, the album recast Malin as a six-string troubadour, a sensitive rocker type with songs about subways, Brooklyn and growing up lonely.
Many favorable reviews and one Bruce Springsteen endorsement later (more on that in a bit), Malin is, on this May afternoon, preparing for the late June release of his self-produced follow-up album. The Heat is both noisier and prettier than its predecessor. Malin says he wanted to make a summer record, and the disc has a pervasive haziness.
The leadoff track, “Mona Lisa”, opens with a chiming guitar figure straight out of the Byrds’ fakebook and builds to a la-la-la chorus. But the first album’s melancholia lingers; if this is a seasonal record, it’s August edging toward autumn. (One song is even called “Indian Summer”.)
There are a few overtly topical references, like the opening line of “Mona Lisa”: “Steven’s selling marijuana/Uptown to a prima donna/Medicate the counterculture/9-11 baby, boom.” But more broadly, The Heat reflects the perspective of someone who spent much of the past year on the road, often out of the country, watching from a distance.
“We were going to war, and I was in Germany and France where they wanted to kill anybody American,” he says. “Being out of New York in this post-9-11-recession-economy-Bush time, being away and just being an outsider just really helped me. It gave me this perspective. It wasn’t a positive thing, what’s been happening, but it gave me a different view as an outsider than being in New York and starring in the movie. It was like watching the film.”
Just a few years ago, it wasn’t clear what role, if any, there was left for Malin to play. D-Generation gave him the chance to live out some of his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies — the band toured with some of Malin’s childhood heroes, including the Ramones and KISS (opening for the latter at Madison Square Garden), and worked with producers Ric Ocasek and Tony Visconti. But after three albums with marginal commercial success, the band had run its course. When D-Generation broke up in 1999, Malin was at loose ends.
“I played a lot locally and put my fliers up with Scotch tape and really had to go to the bottom,” he says. “I thought I was gonna get a deal real fast. But it was kind of a weird time, kind of a lot of growing up in public in a lot of local clubs.”
There were no immediate offers from record labels. Fortunately, Malin’s landlords were more obliging. The New York rental market was booming, and they offered to buy out his rent-controlled lease.
“They paid me to leave my apartment, on Third Street,” he says. “I was living in a $400 rent apartment, across from the Hell’s Angels — it’s the safest block in New York. And they gave me like $20,000 to leave, so they could raise it from $400 to like $2,200. So they gave me this money, I paid some debts, and I had enough money to go in the studio for like five days.”
He didn’t go alone. He’d been friends with Adams since meeting him on a D-Generation sweep through North Carolina in the mid-’90s, and they became even closer after Adams’ move to Manhattan. Adams was enthusiastic about Malin’s songs, and he offered to supervise the sessions.
“Ryan did it for free, as a friend,” Malin says. “It was the first thing he’d produced. And I just needed to do it. I had this body of material; it was a personal record. I had a lot of fear about being a solo artist, because I’d always been in bands, needing the power of being in a gang. I didn’t know who was gonna hear it: my cats, my girlfriend, my cousin.”