Interview: Janet Weiss, Drummer of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Janet Weiss headlines the Siren Festival this Saturday, July 19 with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at Coney Island.
On the last.fm group Janet Weiss is Hot: "I love it. It's not annoying at all. It's fantastic. I'm just glad someone out there is noticing me at all. You know, no one notices drummers."
Janet Weiss will probably not be wearing that hat at the Siren Festival.
Drummer Janet Weiss grew up in Southern California, obtained a degree in Photography from San Francisco State University, then saw her music career take off when she migrated further north to Portland just about twenty years ago. In that time she's played on records by the Go-Betweens and Bright Eyes as well as her own bands, the currently on-hiatus Quasi, the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney and her newest stint as "the Jick in the back," furthest behind former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus.
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We spoke by phone on Thursday, July 10th, just before an early afternoon (Oregon time) band practice and a mere 9 days before Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks headline the Siren Festival.
Hey Janet, I want to start with a few lighter questions before we get into real world issues.
Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.
I've never skydived.
Okay. Tell me something that you've . . .
Or bungee jumped. I've haven't bungee jumped either. Bungee jumping's more exciting.
Why would that be more exciting?
I don't know, because it's just sillier. I would rather say that I'd bungee jumped than I had sky dived. Skydiving's kind of like, it's kind of retro, you know. It's kind of '70s.
So bungee jumped is going to be the answer.
It's more modern [laughs].
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
That's a tricky one.
Yeah, I like that one.
You know, you can't be too revealing. If you only did it once, that means you didn't like it.
Well, not necessarily.
Let's stay in the sporting vein. I only snowboarded once.
You've snowboarded once. Okay. You know, it's amazing how innocent the first question comes across and everybody's mind instantly goes into the gutter for the second one, and I'm not really sure why that is but it does seem to happen.
But, you know, you only graduated from college once. That would be one that your mom could read and it wouldn't be a problem.
Yeah, but that's like less taking action. Graduating from college just kind of happens to you.
I'm just saying. But you want to maintain the motion theme. Got it. Tell me the name of a book that you've read at least twice.
Catcher in the Rye.
A movie that you've seen at least three times.
Okay. Your favorite Beatle.
And is there a beverage within your reach at this very moment?
Yes, there is.
What is that beverage?
[laughs] I'm on my way to get coffee, though, so very shortly there's going to be a double latte in front of me.
Boy, I hate to know that I'm keeping you from your caffeine.
You're not keeping me from it. It's going to happen.
Do you know any good drummer jokes?
[laughs] Aren't you supposed to ask me if I know any good singer-songwriter jokes?
I didn't know there were any.
[laughs] I'll make one up right now. No, we make fun of them. We let them make fun of us.
When was the last time that you resented hauling more equipment than everyone else in the band? Or is that why God made roadies?
No, I resent it often. Often, and filled with hate and rage. I think probably three days ago I resented it. I really do. I have a constant resentment towards . . . Especially [bass player] Joanna [Bolme] because she literally waltzes up there, looking gorgeous, sets up her one thing, you know, carries her one thing. It is true that hers is the heaviest item. But she gets up there and looks great. She doesn't even break a sweat.
It is horrible. It's degrading. And that's why we [drummers] bitch so much, because we're tired. We're broken down. We're broken down old mules. We're tired.
I empathize completely. But I've been the bad guy. I was the singer in a band and at the end of the night I would just unplug my microphone and be sitting on a bar stool with a beer before the drummer even started unscrewing the wing nuts on his cymbals.
[laughs] Yeah, it's really annoying. Although it keeps me from having to talk to people if I'm feeling unsocial. You know, I kind of want to change my favorite Beatle to George just because it'll irritate Stephen.
George is his least favorite and we have arguments about this constantly in the van.
George is his least favorite Beatle?
Least favorite. George is at the bottom. He thinks George is untalented.
How could anybody have a problem with George?
Well, that's exactly why he's got a problem with George, because he wants to be the only one who has a problem with George.
I guess that makes some kind of contrarian sense. Like I know people who don't own an iPod just because everybody has one.
He doesn't have an iPod either [laughs].
There you go. It's the Paul Westerberg theory. It's like, 'Fuck you, I'm not buying a cell phone because everybody else has one and I'm not using a computer because everybody else does.'
[laughs] That's so hilarious. Maybe if I say it's the Paul Westerberg theory maybe he'll get one.
Maybe so. How's the photography going?
It's good. I just actually had my very first show last night.
Is there a website that I can go to to like look at stuff online?
No, it's not really that kind of show [laughs]. It's just like my photos are up in a bar basically.
While we're on the photography thing, is there any way to get a decent shot of a drummer in concert? Because drummers are so far away from the front of the stage and there's all that equipment - cymbals and microphones and stuff - ruining the angle, blocking your face. And then the lights are so low and your arms are moving so damn fast that it ends up being nothing but a blur. Is there one great in-action photo of Janet Weiss out there suitable for a Topps baseball card?
There's a couple decent shots, but there's a million that aren't decent. It's like, you know, a needle in the haystack kind of thing. There aren't really any Jicks photos because they're all shooting Stephen. No one is taking pictures of the drummer. But sometimes in Quasi I sit sort of closer to the front of the stage, so I think people have a better chance of getting a good shot. And for a long time there was just two of us so, you know, you're either going to take a picture of me or Sam [Coomes].
Speaking of no good recent photos because everyone's focusing on Stephen, when the Jicks played Coachella - and this is going to contradict your broken down mule analogy, so be ready - there were something like 37,000 pictures of Stephen on the Brooklyn Vegan website, but there was at least one photo of you. And one of the comments was, 'Janet Weiss is looking fucking good.'
[laughs] Okay, then you have to have dot dot dot 'for an old person.'
No, no, no. It was a period. There was a hard period after that comment. They might've even put the period in bold. It was definitive.
And when I was doing my research for this interview, I ran across a web group called Janet Weiss is Hot
[laughs] That's ridiculous.
I can send you the link. There's 14 members . . .
Now wait a minute. It's a relatively new group. It was founded less than a year ago and they probably don't have the greatest publicist in the world. The group consists of - and this is a quote - "admirers of the mad skills and subtle sexiness of the Sleater-Kinney/Quasi/Jicks drummer."
Bless their hearts.
So what's the secret of your magnetic appeal to the fan boys of indie rock?
[laughs] Who says they're boys? There's probably some girls in there, too.
I'm sure there are. But the few members I followed up on were guys. So what's the secret? Is it an innate magnetism? Do you wear a special perfume?
I think maybe these are the guys that like a challenge when they're arm wrestling a girl, I guess.
Okay, so it's the power of the drummer.
They're not into the pushovers.
No wispy, waif-like, diaphanous singer-songwriters for them.
Maybe they're extremely powerful themselves and they just find that most people are, you know, too light weight. They need a girl that pounds on things like a caveman. I'm really very delicate, though, in real life [laughs].
I'm sure you are.
Don't let all that pounding the shit out of the drums fool you.
I will try my best not to be intimidated.
So given that this is an interview just before the Siren Festival and we've already discussed your own powerful pull, what kind of grades did you make in Greek mythology?
Not very good.
But you're aware that O Brother Where Art Thou follows the text of Homer's Odyssey, right?
Well, probably just because I read it in the New York Times [laughs]. Sorry, I read it in the Village Voice. Let's change that.
No, no. No obsequiousness necessary. But I did look up the term "siren song" and it refers to the enticing appeal of something alluring, yet potentially dangerous, something that's hard to resist but will eventually and inevitably lead to a bad result. Does that ring any bells? Is that you, or are you going to stick with the whole "I'm actually delicate" story?
[laughs] Well, delicate, that's for the birds. Yeah, I think every woman is dangerous. I definitely believe that. We're trouble [laughs]. We are trouble, and throughout time. It's nothing new. Everybody knows it.
And we obviously don't have to discuss the alluring and enticing part . . .
[laughs] We'll let those 14 people on the Internet tell you about that.
Don't downplay this too much. I couldn't find a matching Stephen Malkmus is Hot website, and I tried. Is that kind of attention flattering at all? Annoying? How does it feel to be an indie fan fantasy object?
I love it. It's not annoying at all. It's fantastic. I'm just glad someone out there is noticing me at all. You know, no one notices drummers.
Well, that's right. Drummers are the baseball catchers of the stage. I mean, I guess we should be thankful they're not making you wear a mask.
[laughs] Seriously, we're like two steps away from having to wear masks. Or a bag over our head or something.
Rock is and always has been a very male-dominated industry. Do you have any kind of, you know, responsibility to up and coming female musicians? Do you in any way see yourself as a role model?
I guess so, yeah. I mean, I feel like my job is to like transcend any sort of line of what women can or can't do. I don't like really measure myself against any other women. It's just I want to be a musician that's taken seriously. I don't want to be taken seriously because of my clothes or, you know, whatever, because of my haircut. I want to be taken seriously because of my playing and my songs, my drum part. It's simple. I don't know why that would be anything that people would look to, you know, but I think that it's important to have people that you can reference when you're young and you're trying to make yourself into something, you know.
Like Hillary? [laughs] She's a great musician. Her guitar playing is fantastic.
You should see her play bluegrass. She's amazing.
Obviously those years in Arkansas did her a lot of good.
[laughs] No, I mean, that's on a much broader, more mainstream level. But yeah, you're right. I mean, I don't feel like I'm doing something that no woman has done. It's not that ballsy. But I am trying to be really good at something. And it's just so strange. It's a strange world where as a woman you're not encouraged to be as good at something as a guy, you know. That just seems really, really ridiculous.
But hopefully things are changing. Though very slowly.
Have there been any gender issues that have flared up in the past few years?
Not really, but I'm vigilant about it too. You know, like I push myself hard. I practice. I'm not happy to just let things happen to me, you know. Like I'm very ambitious when it comes to my band or music or playing the drums. I mean, there's so much room for improvement. I need to be so much better. It's like you've got to really learn and embrace the sort of nature of never being really content with, you know, your abilities or what people think of you. I just try to be happy with myself really.
I hope this isn't too problematic but you probably know that your wide range of musical experience kind of makes you a little goldmine as an interview subject. Of the bands you've recorded with - and we can just look at Sleater and the Jicks if the longer list is too confusing; and by too confusing I mean for me, not for you - I would think that the difference in roles would be most stark in the recording studio. Like during mixing or playback. How much input do you get on, say, your drum takes? When you're doing basic takes for a Jicks album or for Sleater or for that matter if you're doing the Go-Betweens record or even playing with Bright Eyes? Do you always get the final say?
Of course. I mean, I think I would get final say. I can't imagine playing with people who would disregard my feeling for my own take, but I also am experienced now as to when to let my own foibles go. I have an ability to look at the whole, you know so I'm not like one of those drummers that's going to like, 'Oh, it sped up here. I messed up.' I've left a lot of mistakes in a lot of takes because the take was so good. I mean, of course I would have less input for a band I'm not actually in, you know. Like if I'm just hired to do something I feel like the people have an idea what they want and I would do the best I can, and I would let them decide, you know. If it was something that really bothered me I would speak up.
If it's a band that I'm in, that I'm a member of, you know, a card-carrying member of . . . It differentiates between songs, too. Like certain songs you get, you know, really attached to and you want to be a certain way, and then other songs someone else in the band is really attached to it and you kind of let them have them their way. There's no cut and dry. I mean, like when Sleater-Kinney made the record with Dave Fridmann (The Woods), we weren't even in the room. He just mixed it himself. He just mixed it and played it for us and most of the time I'd say like,' Wow, you think maybe the snare needs to be a little louder there?' And he'd say, 'No.'
Like, 'Okay. I trust you.' You know, if you trust the people you work with . . . As long as someone has some kind of vision for it.
The most difficult situation is when things aren't going well and no one has a vision and you're scrambling and everyone's got their own idea of how to fix something that's kind of breaking down. So those are the toughest kind of situations, but that doesn't happen that often. None of the bands I'm in are that rich that we can just go and hang out in the studio for three months. You know, like you have to be pretty ready to go when you get there.
I'm sure I asked that question in the most hackneyed way possible, because I really do understand all of that. I understand that it's a case by case situation. I know that nobody's going to kick you out and say, 'No, fuck you. I don't care if you think it's wrong.'
Like the most trouble is just people have different ideas about the drums really. It's not so much the take. Like I think everyone can pretty much agree on a good take. It's like how loud you want them, how present you want them. How much you want them like there or not there. And people have a lot of different ideas about that. Some people don't want to hear the drums at all. Some people think if you can't hear the drums then it's not a good song.
Just in terms of drumming - setting aside songwriting and everything else - what's your recorded pinnacle so far? If you could give everybody in the world a copy of one album that you played on and say, 'This is about as good as I can do as a drummer,' what album would it be?
Obviously your best work is to come . . .
But up to July 10, 2008, what album are you particularly proud of as a drummer?
Well, I don't really think about it like that. I don't dissect out the drums. To me the best album for the drums is the best album, you know. Because it's not just like I'm playing . . . I mean, I'm not that technical drummer. I'm not just playing these amazing riffs, you know. I mean, technically I'm just a hack. But to me what makes me valuable is just that I help arrange songs and help try to make a record meaningful. You know, make it have impact and weight. So I guess to me the best drum record is the record that you like the best, and you know you can't say which one you like the best [laughs].
Because they're like children. They're each special in their own way.
Yeah, you know, they just represent a place and a time more than like, 'This is the best I ever played that roll.'
Well, the studio's probably not the best place for it, but you're not telling me that you don't have those moments where at the end of the song you have a secret little internal grin or think like, 'Boy, I kicked the shit out of that one,' are you?
No, I think that. I definitely think that. You know, I thought that when we recorded some of those Jicks songs on that last record [Real Emotional Trash]. And definitely there's a couple of Quasi songs. Like there's a song called "The Rhino" where I definitely kicked some ass. And maybe that last Sleater-Kinney record would be one of my more favorite drum records, The Woods. But I can't say that like my drumming was so amazing on that record, you know.
No, no. I wouldn't try to make you unhumble at all, because probably some of these 14 fanboys would withdraw their membership . . .
But we all have our moments. Even if we like to bathe in false modesty, we still have those moments where we think, 'Yeah, that's pretty good. This is why I do this.'
Yeah, I mean, it's mostly like the real wild stuff. That's what makes me feel more like that. Like the second half of "Baltimore" on that Jicks record or, you know, like "The Rhino" on the Quasi record. Those kinds of songs where I'm really like out on a ledge. It's unscripted and I'm improvising and I'm really, really in it, and I can tell that I'm in it, you know. Kind of losing my mind. Those are my favorite moments, and, yeah, they do happen live more than in the studio. It's challenging to reach that point in the studio.
Some of Stephen's lyrics are more playful than others. And I know you have to focus on what's happening musically, but do the lyrics of a song ever affect how you choose to play it?
Usually I can't even really hear what the lyrics are. I'll hear like a line or two. It's more like his delivery, the way he's singing it. I think the way he sings it usually references what he's saying. And his lyrics aren't set in stone until really the record is made. They change a lot. And oftentimes I'll hear something hilarious and just laugh. But I can tell it's playful by the way he's singing it, you know.
So if I gave you two tests, one on Greek mythology and one on Stephen Malkmus lyrics, there's a good chance you wouldn't get a passing grade on either?
I'd do better on the Stephen Malkmus lyrics at this point [laughs]. But I've heard the record many times, many times. And when we're working on the songs at first, it's everchanging. The lyrics are everchanging. And we're in this like this little room with no . . . it's very primitive practice conditions so I can't really . . . I can hear a little bit, but I can't hear very distinctly what's going on.
When you're joining a band, whether it's three albums ago or old Pavement material that Stephen's bringing in, do you have to be at all deferential to the styles of previous drummers? Or since you're good and you're Janet Weiss and Stephen knows what he's getting into, do you just play your thing and forget what was done before?
Well, I'm not totally oblivious. I mean, I've listened to those songs, the earlier Jicks songs and the Pavement records, a lot. They're pretty ingrained in my head, and I don't necessarily think that the drummers . . . I think the drummers are reacting to him and how he wants it. You know, like I may play a little bit swingier than I'm used to, and that's not because I'm trying to emulate a past drummer it's just because that's how he likes it. You know, he may express that he likes it that way verbally.
That was my next question. Is that something that you actually discuss? I mean, I know that it could be something like, 'Go a little less on this phrase,' but when you join the band do you and Stephen ever talk about drum styles? Or is that something that's just kind of understood when you join?
I think it's understood. I mean, I think you're right. He knew what he was getting himself into, you know. But that said, I don't want to just impose. I definitely try to take into account like what the band has been. When I joined Sleater-Kinney it was the same thing. I didn't just waltz in there and try to change everything, you know. I'm trying to integrate into their established framework, but also to express my own personality and hopefully make it different and bring like a new tension and dynamic to the band.
Great. Why have I never seen a Janet Weiss interview that talks about the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Have I just not done enough research?
[laughs] I don't know. More than likely people have forgotten. Every now and then some person at a cash register will say like, 'Oh, your name. That's really familiar.' And I'll say, 'Did you see Rocky Horror Picture Show?' And they'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's right.'
When you saw the movie for the first time, did you know what you were getting into?
Hey, that's something else I only did once. I saw that movie once.
That's it? Just once?
Yeah. I definitely knew. I had a teacher in my middle school that really loved that movie and would bring it up all the time.
An art teacher?
No, a science teacher actually. She was kind of a freaky weirdo.
Okay, but since you're an underappreciated drummer, I guess you've never walked onstage to your own theme music. You know, something like "Planet Schmanet"?
[laughs] No, I haven't. It's a great idea, though. Maybe at Siren.
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