[Cover photo credit to Rafael Cardenas]
Joel Jerome is a Mexican-American songwriter, Producer, mixer, and all things in between, with his own studio and label, Psychedelic Thriftstore. This Friday, May 13th, he is releasing new solo album Super Flower Blood Moon via Dangerbird Records. While Joel is a master of bringing atmospheric, layered Production to his own work and that of many other bands, this new album took a very different turn when talking to his friends at Dangerbird Records.
Longtime friend Jim Fairchild suggested that Joel make very stripped-down and spare demos of some songs for a new collection, and Joel set himself of writing a song a day across a two week time span. He was surprised when the experiment worked, but even more surprised when the stripped down sound of the demos convinced him of the sound-direction for the album, minimalism paired with emotion.
Influenced by the directness and intense emotion of Ranchero singers and the romantic tones of Bolero music, Joel explored new territory and loved the result. It’s an approach he’s sure that he’ll try again in future. I spoke to Joel about his relationship with vinyl, his long history of recording his own music, his impressive track record when Producing other artists, and how doing everything differently on Super Flower Blood Moon led to amazing results.
[**By the way, there’s also “Super Flower Blood Moon” lunar eclipse this Sunday, May 15th, if that’s your jam. There was also one happening in late May 2021 when Joel completed this album, hence the album’s name.]
Hannah Means-Shannon: What’s your personal history with the vinyl format?
Joel Jerome: Records are real for me. I’m 46 and I grew up with them around the house listening to music on record or cassette. When I had my own money, I used to live in Santa Monica, and I used to to go Record Store Plus every weekend. It was a great used record store where they didn’t put anything out that had scratches and you could find a good copy of a Beatles record for five bucks and under.
For five years between 97 and 2002, I was there every weekend spending 40 bucks, but getting 5 classic records, whereas now you couldn’t pay 40 bucks for one of them. I’ve always loved it. I’m also a pro-tech person, though, I won’t lie. If I want to go to the beach, I can’t take a record player with me. But it’s all familiar to me.
HMS: I know that you are also a Producer with a recording studio and a label, so I’m not surprised that you listen to music in many formats.
JJ: I’m DIY until I die. I’ve never had a lot of financial support, so I had to make things happen, which meant doing things myself. I never had the money to go a studio, so I did it myself. I had to figure out how to do things on my own by trial and error, but I was always a curious kids. I like doing stuff myself, and it’s fun for me, but it’s also been a necessity.
HMS: How long have you been recording music?
JJ: My bedroom was my first studio. I think that started around 1997. I worked six days a week in Berkeley at The Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods, then every night from around 11pm until 3am, I’d spend recording all night on the 4-track. That was my first studio experience. It was my most prolific era even though I worked so much. I’m a night owl. Since then, it’s been whatever makeshift studio I can use, whether it’s my garage, my bedroom, a friend’s garage, a rehearsal space. I’ve done it all and I just try to make it work! I like having a work area.
HMS: Never has that been more valued than during covid times.
JJ: Yes, I was pretty lucky in that I was already insulated and could do everything from home. I was counting my blessings.
HMS: You’re now very in demand to record other peoples’ music, too. Was that just a gradual development?
JJ: I kind of backed into, then it went fast. I had been recording the music for my band Dios, and meeting people through playing shows. More people started coming in. I had moved to an area of LA with more musicians. The 2010s were very busy recording other people, which was a first for me. It was really cool because I was cutting my teeth on other types of music that I wouldn’t necessarily be doing otherwise. It was really educational for me. It was fulfilling mentally and artistically, a challenge.
HMS: You probably hear this a lot, but I love the Production work that you’ve done, both on your own work, and for other artists. One last question about that: Do you think you have a philosophy about being a Producer that you follow?
JJ: That’s awesome, thank you. Yes, the number one rule is that there is no rule and there is no philosophy. Because every time I think I’ve found the answer to that question, there’s a new question. It really is like riding a new wave each time. You learn things on the way, like how to get the best out of someone else. I just support, encourage, and see what the other person needs. It’s a very fluid situation.
But you have to know what kind of Producer you want to be. I read a book about Glyn Johns. He was a very “my way of the highway” Producer, and obviously got results. But there are other Producers who have been more collaborative and got results that way. As an artist myself, I know a little bit about how artists might be feeling, like vulnerable when trying to get approval from people. I feel like I know what’s going on in their heads and I try to tap into that. Sometimes they need me to take a hardline approach, sometimes they need me to support them. There is no real rule at all. I go in, armed with different tools from different jobs, and then decide which tool to use.
I’m actually both an engineer and a Producer, and that can be a little tougher doing that. I noticed that Glyn Johns was doing a little bit of that in The Beatles documentary, moving around the mics. I have to be on top of the creative psychology and also be the labcoat technician. My “herbal jazz cigarettes” help. [Laughs] I try to have fun, ultimately, or why am I doing this?
HMS: It seems like all this work has connected you with a lot of other musicians and technicians and that can only be helpful for your own projects.
JJ: That’s another benefit of the job. I meet so many talented people. If something comes up, like needing a violinist, I know someone. That happened with Laena Myers-Ionita, who played on my record. I put people together, and later that helps me.
HMS: That really happened clearly on this album, working with the great Rob Schnapf as Mixer. Did you have a previously relationship with Dangerbird too?
JJ: Exactly, Rob’s a neighbor and lives down the street. I have known Peter Walker, the owner of Dangerbird for a long time. James [Jim] Fairchild, who does A&R for them, is someone I’ve known since 2004 and we’ve toured together. I felt super-comfortable working with them.
HMS: Did you have any inkling about the shocking things Jim was going to subject you to, taking away all your tools?
JJ: [Laughs] No, because that was originally a suggestion he made for the demos. It was a way for him to hear the purest form of the song. He knows me, and knows I want to put bass and drums on things because I get super excited in the studio and can’t leave stuff alone. He wanted me to just play the song, which was a great idea. Hearing the results play back, it was super inspiring about how the record should sound, in general.
I didn’t think about adding any more things, maybe just some atmospheric touches. It was a happy accident. The approach to the demos led to how the record should be, which was super-minimal, stark, intimate. I have a lot of Production tricks and I can definitely get on that train and not look back, but I wanted to take things differently on this record. I wanted it to sound like the way that I wrote the songs, which was in the middle of the night, on a nylon string acoustic guitar, singing really quietly into my phone. I didn’t want to lose that. It informed the record really nicely.
HMS: It’s funny because it’s the only time where “demo-itis” is a good thing, wanting the original form of demoing it.
JJ: It’s even funnier for me, because I never get demo-itis. I will record a song 20 times in 20 different versions. It’s like a painting. I still have the same view outside of my house, but I want to paint it in different ways. I have the same song, but it can work as a Folk song, or Rock song, or an ambient song. But for this album, I didn’t throw everything in. For each song, I wrote the music in one day, and the lyrics in one day. I don’t normally work like that. I take a long time to finish things usually, particularly lyrically. I’m a really bad procrastinator with things like that.
Over the course of two weeks, I wrote these songs, and saw a little bit of a theme going, so I thought it might work as an album. I knew it was going to be personal and low-key, and I liked it. I’m sure I’m going to work this way again. It just worked for me. I think I made minor changes to the songs, but every song is pretty much how it is written. I was focused on being as genuine as I could be.
HMS: I do see some commonality among the songs. The songs seem to really focus on the human element in them, bringing a lot of emotion.
JJ: I got down Youtube holes with Ranchero singers watching live performances. Their thing is that they bring a show, and they bring an intensity to the stage. All the best ones didn’t feel fake at all, it’s almost like they tapped into something and became the song. That’s what I wanted to try to find somehow and be a little more aware of that for this album.
HMS: That really comes across in the vocals. No doubt that makes it easier for audiences to form an emotional connection, too. The song “Nobody Like You” has a mysterious tone. It’s kind of happy-sad and isn’t totally spelled out how the audience should feel. Is that something you were aware of?
JJ: There are stories to the songs. That one started off as a positive, affirmation type of song, but turned into something else, between saying there’s no one like you, but actually there are many mediocre people like you. Lyrically, it veers off. Sometimes I don’t give the full story. The song gets to point where I’m saying, “There’s a lot of mediocre people who think they are special, but they are not. That’s fine. I’ll get there myself, but I’m not going to do what you’re doing to get there.” While these stories are made up, some tap into my own experiences.
HMS: It feels like the speaker has learned something, and is holding onto that truth, so that can be a positive thing.
JJ: I think the record has that feeling. I’m in my mid-40s, I’ve been through a pandemic, and I’m older now. It’s where I’m at. I think a lot of this searching for answers stuff, and maybe a higher power answering that, was a reference for me. That seems to have crept into a lot of these songs, like there’s a narrator telling you to just relax, that things are okay.
HMS: The song that references that idea the most is “We Made It Home”. That one actually refers to cosmic things in an interesting way. I like that it’s not confined to one religious perspective, but is a very universal idea.
JJ: There are a couple of moments in the song where it seems like I’m even meditating, where it’s like I’m chanting at the middle-section and the ending. When I was writing it, it felt like a kind of prayer you might tell yourself over and over again in a meditative state. So I threw in a lot of questions about happiness. That songs asks, “What’s going to go through your head in your final moments? Is it really going to matter what you did or didn’t do?”
HMS: That music has more traditional elements to it, with sweeping sound.
JJ: I do remember the lyrics being informed by the music. I let the song vibe and form while I was playing two chords over and over again in a sweeping motion. It became very trancey. It felt like a mantra-type thing that didn’t need anything added, just a quick chorus because I’m a sucker for a chorus. [Laughs] I usually add a lot more stuff to songs, like a bridge, intro, and outro, but it didn’t need any of that.
HMS: Some of the other songs on the album talk about relationships, or seem to speak to another person who might be in a relationship, like “Falling Star”. Did that happen intentionally?
JJ: I think the sound informed some of that stuff, and the style. I was listening to a lot of Mexican Bolero music from the 50s and the 60s, and a lot of their themes are very romantic, about love, lost love, yearning for love. The chords and the music informed the lyrics more than anything I was experiencing. I’m not very autobiographical in songs unless it is a philosophical thing.
“Falling Star” is the most direct example of that. Normally I wouldn’t write such a straightforward lovey-dovey song, but I thought, “Why not?” Just because I’m not overtly romantic doesn’t mean other people aren’t. I knew my mom would like it, and my family would like it. It felt like that kind of song.