by Rob Callahan
Rob Callahan checks in with hometown fave, Jeremy Messersmith as he gears up for a big show this Saturday at First Avenue. Hot off a summer of touring in support of his latest album, Messersmith chats music, the creative process and his unique approach to self-promotion in a digital world.
The Reluctant Graveyard is an album about death. Well, mostly. It's an album full of songs about love, friendship, obsession, loss, judgment and vision. It's also about the impact death has on all of these. For Jeremy Messersmith, the chief undertaker behind the pop sensibilities and rock n' roll spirits that haunt this eleven song requiem, the moodiness lurking just below the surface of the upbeat hooks and lyrics arose from something of a personal soul-search.
“I'd been thinking a lot about it,” he recalls. “And I had moved from a belief system that included an afterlife to one that didn't, and so I had to re-think death as something that's pretty much the end. I think these songs were just me subconsciously trying to process that.”
“For the most part I'd say they're pretty fictional. They all ended up being about characters and stories,” he says of his songs, in which the intimacy of a close and personal conversation is often implied. “But there are little moments that ring true for me personally like in A Girl, A Boy and a Graveyard. A lot of those lines are sort of taken verbatim from conversations I've had, so that song is very personal, even though it's within a fictional framework.”
Although the subject matter may be dark, the album's tone and delivery are often upbeat. The opening track, "Lazy Bones," is presented with the polish and production values of early Jeff Lynn. "John the Determinist" could have been a breakaway track off of Revolver just as easily as it is the midpoint along Messersmith's meander along the mortal coil's many twists and turns. The homages to classic rock conventions go on, employing elements of the Zombies, the Turtles, the Easybeats and the Kinks to craft the songs.
“When the four of us were sitting down to arrange the songs, we were throwing out ideas,” Messersmith recalls of the creative process, in which he worked with fellow musicians Andy Thompson, Dan Lawonn and Brian Tighe. “We would ask 'What if the song went this way, or what if we moved this section over here.' Brian is a huge Kinks fan, and sometimes he would say that's a very Kinks-y thing to do. Then we would basically end it. We'd say, 'Well, it it's Kinks-y, we have to do it.'”
The decision to draw from their upbeat influences within the classic rock canon was a conscious one. The band considered the album's otherwise dark tone and concluded, “Nobody is ever going to want to buy a record about a graveyard. It just sounds so depressing.” So Messersmith et al. sugared the proverbial bitter pill, layering it within a symphonic suffle and toothsome three chord riffs with just a hint of bubblegum.
“If I were a chef and I were creating a dish,” Messersmith muses, “That's sort of what this is.”
The creative, collaborative process behind The Reluctant Graveyard produced a sound rich in detail bespeaking a practiced, meticulous creativity while it retains and expands upon Messersmith's earlier, more organic sound. “My first record was just me recording in my basement, and I just did the whole record. The demos just sort of became the record,” he says. “On the second one, I went in with full songs and then sat around with Dan Wilson goofed off. We did some arrangements, but it was mainly just me and Dan, and then sometimes Andy. Some of the demos made it on to the final record.”
In order to hone his craft for the new album, Messersmith used a minimal, low-fi setup to record the demos. Using only his lap top mic and Garage Band, he produced recordings that were intentionally horrible to listen to.
“That way, none of us would get too attached to the demo, and we would feel okay rearranging it or making it sound better. If you make it sound a little too nice, you might get attached to a particular line, or the way you sang it.” In the end, all but one of the songs had been extensively reworked from a rough outline to a rich, dense story. Only stripped-down ballad "Repo Man" was recorded just as it sounded in an earlier demo, its voice already fitting its tale.
Noting that his success as an independent artist stems from his roots as a fan, Messersmith considers the relationship he has nurtured with his own fans. “If I was a fan of someone I'd want to hear what they were doing every week and find out what was going on, so I try to update my website every Wednesday with something.” Not unlike They Might Be Giants' now defunct Dial-A-Song service, Jeremy Messersmith's website has provided enthusiasts with a new weekly tiding straight from wherever the singer-songwriter happens to be at the time. Between offerings of new music and live videos, he sometimes also puts out personal messages, sharing the books that take his interest or commenting to his fans that he'd like it if his wikipedia entry, for one, was factual and accurate.
“I like doing that,” he admits, noting that an online presence not only keeps him in touch with his audience, but fuels the karmic engine that propels us through life. “I feel kind of guilty for all the content that the internet has given me, and I feel that I should try to contribute something. So I'm giving something back. The other thing is it keeps me constantly motivated to put something new out there, so it's a way to keep myself engaged.”
Like many in the music industry, Messersmith watches the trends in online sales and distribution, indulging his self-confessed nerdy side by checking in on techdirt and boingboing to keep abreast of the changes inherent in technology's relentless advance. This influenced his early decisions to offer free content online, and the content he adds to his website doesn't just please his fans. It also helps to satisfy his curiosity and his creative passion. “It's interesting, and I'd rather have somebody listen to my music than not listen to it, so it seems like a good idea. And it's nice that you can go and download whatever you want off of the Bandcamp.com page.”
Bandcamp is an online distributor that has gained popularity among independent artists for its ease of use and fair royalty structure. It has served as the digital distribution model for other well-known artists including Amanda Palmer and Imogen Heap. “I started posting stuff in February or March,” he says. “I put my first two records on bandcamp then and, right from day one, I put The Reluctant Graveyard up.” In addition to iTunes, Amazon and other more established eMusic sites, it has boosted the number of people enjoying his music around the world.
“You pay what you like for my album,” Messersmith explains, “And basically, as long as it doesn't cost me anything to distribute and I can make my records fairly cheaply, then I have no trouble giving it away, cause it doesn't cost me anything.”
Messersmith sees the Bandcamp model as an extension of his other online experiments. Just as putting up free content provides an incentive for fans to check in and keep track of new shows or the next release date, the pay-what-you-like business model that was made famous by Radiohead's In Rainbows album has helped to bring in new fans who might not have access to independent music stores, or who may not want to spend a lot of money on an unfamiliar artist. Those higher numbers translate into larger shows when he's on tour, where he enjoys bringing his online relationship with his fans full circle, and playing for them live.
For Messersmith, this is a mix of business model, science experiment and artistic vision. “I sometimes think it's some sort of movement, but virtually everyone I've talked to – labels and indie artists alike – nobody has any idea what to do anymore. Everybody's just trying all these different things until something kinda sticks and they find something that works.”
“Halloween Alaska is using a pledge to raise money to make their new record. I know Kaiser Cartel, who I toured with, did much the same thing. And I know Sufjan Stevens just released his new record on bandcamp, so maybe it's a trend. It just seems like all the digital tools are there, the things that you would traditionally need a record label to do for you. Right now, you can do them online pretty easily.”
Although, even when the album is in the bag, the music keeps evolving. Fans see this happen when a new live version of an older tune hits his website, as there are always tweaks and changes that can be made. There are new arrangements, new angles and new perspectives. New arrangements are a part of Saturday's show and that excites Messersmith most. “I'll be very happy to have the strings section back,” he says. “I haven't played with them since the release show back in May. So we're working on a bunch of new arrangements and I think we're going to use the strings section a little more heavily during the show. I'm also collaborating with a VJ who's going to do some very interesting lighting and visual stuff.”
The First Avenue Mainroom show wraps up an extensive Summer tour and, as his busy schedule winds down, Messersmith is easing back into life at home. As an instructor at McNally Smith, he'll resume teaching songwriting to younger, aspiring artists and he'll complete a hand full of other shows before the year is up.
And if any of those shows get recorded, look for footage to join the ever-increasing repertoire of video, thoughts and commentary at JeremyMessersmith.com.
Jeremy Messersmith performs an early show this Saturday in the First Avenue Mainroom. 6pm, 18+, $8 adv/$10 door ($5 with a valid student ID). Openers include Total Babe and Chastity Brown.