Look Back in Agoura -
Jason Falkner Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore

by Arthur Brennan
(First appeared in BAM Magazine, March 26, 1999)

"My world has just gotten about a hundred times busier in the past couple of weeks," remarks Jason Falkner as he gives me a tour of his equipment-jammed Hollywood Hills apartment. The seasoned pop minstrel issued his second solo effort, Can You Still Feel?, on Feb. 23 and the promotional bump 'n' grind is in full swing. Photo shoots, promotional meetings, auditions, rehearsals, marathon interviews with nit-picky journalists-it's the usual rock 'n' roll rigmarole. To make matters worse, Falkner is fighting a losing battle with a nasty cold that's a mere shiver away from bronchitis.

Not that he's complaining, mind you. A veteran of three influential bands by his mid-20s-the Three O'Clock, Jellyfish and the Grays-Falkner is no lightweight. And bellyaching is definitely not his style. Enthusiastic and affable, self-confident without being insufferable, the gifted songwriter/producer/player with the teen idol looks is eager to regale me with tales from the life of a passionate pop fan and musician. So let's wax nostalgic, shall we?

Our story begins in the remote outpost town of Agoura in the Northern San Fernando Valley. The area was just starting to feel the effects of suburban sprawl when the Falkners moved into their cul-de-sac in the early '70s. Jason enjoyed a fairly typical Southern Californian b.b.-gun-and-dirt-bike boyhood, with just a touch of the rustic. "With all the development there now, it looks like anywhere in the Valley," he says. "But when I grew up, I could climb over the fence in my backyard and I'd be in wilderness. And there was a large hillbilly contingent amongst the locals."

Early on, his parents took note of Jason's passion for music and steered him towards a career in classical piano. "That's the only real musical education I've had," he says. "And I was very adept-I was performing at recitals and state competitions. I went way down that road, which is why I think I have a propensity to arrange and understand harmonic structure as well as I do. And that's what everyone was expecting me to be: a concert pianist."

But raised on a musical diet of Love, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Procol Harum by his Mom and Dad, it was only a matter of time before this prodigy strayed from the classical path. Falkner brightens considerably when asked about his initial attempts to rock: "I'm so proud of my first bands!" Switching to guitar, he formed his earliest group at the tender age of 11. They went by the somewhat fusion-esque name of Infinity.

Falkner may be an individualist, but he knows how to choose his allies. Despite his extensive experience, the former Jellyfish member chose to have his album engineered and co-produced by boardsman du jour Nigel Godrich, of OK Computer and Mutations fame. "I wanted to give whoever I worked with credit so they'd really come to the party," Falkner says. "So, I said 'I want you to be my brother in this even though I don't need a lot of musical input,' and he was totally in to it. He's an amazing engineer and producer, but in my case, he didn't really need to produce me."

Headstrong? He is a descendent of *the*ed Brains, a more punkish affair that totally upstaged the Quarterflash/Benater-style cover band who entertained at his eighth grade graduation dance. Somehow bamboozling their way onto the stage during a break, this primitive threesome-guitar, drums and cheesy keyboard bass-nearly caused a teenage riot. "We did '1945' by Social D, 'Bloodstains' by Agent Orange, 'Amoeba' by the Adolescents," he says. "Just like classic shit, all the Rodney [on the ROQ] compilation stuff. And people freaked! Everybody who'd been sitting bored on the folded-up bleachers scrunched up to the front and a little pit formed! I was in heaven."

High school found him hooking up with a crowd who had more obscure, Anglocentric tastes, "like Joy Division, the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Monochrome Set-all that Rough Trade, Cherry Red and Factory stuff." Jason describes his first encounter with this gang of misfit hipsters: "The drummer has like a total Maureen Tucker drum set-a floor tom and a snare and, I think, one cymbal. And the singer, his mic stand is a golf putter. Everybody's got Kay instruments and Sears amps. And I'm totally in love with all these guys at this point. We would play 15-minute versions of "Heroin" and just basically freak out everyone in Agoura. We would have parties with weird lights and dismembered mannequin bodies ... we were totally art rock."

Jason's not quite as effusive when discussing the complicated history of his three major-label bands. "All those experiences totally helped shape who I am now," he says. "But I think I learned what not to do, maybe more than what to do.

"The Three O'Clock was a band I adored when I was younger. In fact, one of my high school bands covered 'Cantaloupe Girlfriend.' But that last record [1988's Vermilion]-none of us were happy with it. The production was terrible. But I'm still friends with those guys. And Jellyfish-I really felt a kinship with them musically. Now that's a record [1990's Bellybutton] that I'm really proud of." Still, frustration with his lack of creative input led to Falkner's departure from the group in 1991.

He describes the Grays-a singer/songwriter collective that also included fellow multi-instrumentalist/producer/jack-of-all-trades Jon Brion-as "an experiment that was just completely flawed." Though happy with elements of their one and only album (1994's Ro Sham Bo-the first to feature Falkner originals), he recalls that, "I had really been seriously saying at that time in my life that I was not going to be in another band. As I was signing the contract I was thinking 'Why am I signing this? I don't really want to do this.' And I don't think I was alone in that group." Members went their separate ways after the release of the record and a tour.

Determined to go it alone once and for all, Falkner bounced back a couple of years later with his solo tour de force Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown. Writing and producing each of the songs as well as playing all of the instruments (with the exception of the string section and a guest guitarist on one song), the album was a critically acclaimed, delicately crafted, multi-layered pop treat. And as for those who might accuse Falkner of having dictatorial, control freak tendencies? "I don't play everything to be like an elitist, it's just the quickest and easiest way to get what I'm hearing in my head on tape," he says. "And it's very fun for me to do it that way. Although I don't know if I'm gonna keep making records like that. I do miss the interaction of a band on an even level. I'd love to put together a little all-star band and make a record of my songs."

Which brings us to the present and Can You Still Feel? The basics are pretty much the same: dazzling Falkner compositions played almost entirely by the man himself. The big difference this time was Jason's decision to employ an outside producer. "There are aspects of production that are really non-musical, you know, bureaucratic stuff," he says. "I didn't really want to deal with my label on a day-to-day basis. And I wanted somebody to come in who was a phenomenal engineer." Enter Brit Nigel Godwin, Grammy-nominated studio whiz best known for his work on Radiohead's O.K. Computer and, more recently, Beck's Mutations. Jason was thrilled, personally and professionally. "He's the sweetest guy I've ever worked with," he says. "I told him, 'I'm kind of impatient when I'm recording. Go down any road you want. Just tell me to split while you investigate the sound. I think you're a sonic genius, so go for it.' "

Business went very smoothly at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, despite periodic interruptions from the spirit world. Apparently, the mansion in which the studio is located houses the specter of a man-hungry turn-of-the-century socialite named Germaine. Jason was relatively unfazed, having had numerous friendly encounters with the ghostly piano player at Hollywood's Magic Castle as a child. More distracting was the Big Easy's non-stop party atmosphere. "Nigel and I went out every night; it's impossible not to," says Jason. "You don't have to twist an Englishman's arm to go drink! And the to-go-cup phenomenon-that's the most interesting thing about New Orleans to me. It defies logic."

These diversions notwithstanding, the finished product reflects the efforts of a very focused pop craftsman-from the ethereal Tin Pan Alley snippet of "Invitation" to the sweetly reflective balladry of "Revelation" and "Eloquence" to the giddy bubblegum romance of "My Lucky Day" to the feral Jimmy Page-meets-Liberace stomp of "All God's Creatures." Soaring guitar lines collide with perky synth riffs, haunting harmonies weave in and out of intricate vocal melodies. And the hooks just keep on coming!

The disc contains its share of upbeat numbers, yet it's hard not to detect a certain world-weariness, a bittersweet mix of sadness and resignation tempered with hope on Can You Still Feel? What exactly was the writer's frame of mind during the its creation? "This album ended up having a concept almost by accident," Falkner says. "It's tied into the title and it's just about emotional growth and being able to be present. [When I began writing the songs] I thought it was gonna be happier because personally I'd just entered into some freedom. I'd just ended a relationship and I thought I was happier. And then I made the record and I listened to it and it's not happier. At all! There's a lot of chaos going on and I don't know how to explain it."

The title hints at a vague feeling of dissatisfaction and existential distress. "Can You Still Feel?"-the phrase-"has a lot of meanings for me right now, as far as where humanity is at," he says. "People are just so super-cynical, myself definitely included. And there are certain times in my life when I'm fulfilling a dream I've had for a long time. And I'm not there. I'm not present. And I think a lot of people feel like that. Because everyone is just so jaded. I think maybe immersing myself in punk rock has something to do with it. It was such an intense emotional experience. The music alone, not even taking into consideration the lifestyle. And it's hard to recover from it."

With the new record and various one-off singles he's released on such labels as Sub Pop and Virginia-based Lovitt Records, Jason has finally hit his stride after more than a decade in the music biz. Though mega-success has eluded him, he's not particularly bothered. "I think there are plenty of hits on this album and there are plenty on my last album," he says. "But that particular [radio] format hasn't embraced me. At least not the type that sells bazillions of records. But I still get super-excited when I hear myself on any station.

"And I feel like I've gotten a lot of respect from my peers, which is important to me. More important than blind adoration. I'd like to be able to lure people into my little world. But I won't be changing anything I do, musically or visually, to sell records. I think I have such an issue with it because I wasn't in control of it before. Now there's no one even remotely svengali-ing what I do. It's just me. I'm the svengali."

� 1999 Arthur Brennan

Falk Speaks