Jesse Malin on New Music and New Bar Berlin: 'We Wanted a Home for Musicians'

Jesse Malin at BerlinEXPAND
Jesse Malin at Berlin
Nicole Fara Silver for the Village Voice

Perhaps it requires a certain kind of crazy to take off in the middle of a steamy New York summer and head south to Louisiana for an even hotter one. But that's where Jesse Malin chose to shoot the video for the first single, "You Know It's Dark When the Atheists Start to Pray," from his upcoming album Outsiders, due out October 9.

"We are out of our minds," admits Malin, speaking from his home in the East Village. "I decided to film in a graveyard in New Orleans in the middle of August. It was so hot, but that's a really cool city. I didn't realize how small it is. It's just a bicycle ride from the Ninth Ward to the French Quarter. It's pretty compact," he recalls of his trip, which just preceded the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. "I'd been there since Katrina on a tour, but I'd not managed to see it like I did this time. You can see where they've recovered and where they haven't recovered. There's a great energy there. I come from Queens, and I didn't know there was such a connection: For one thing, Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans and resided in Queens in the Forties. The whole story is interesting."

Malin might have been raised in Flushing, but the Lower East Side has been his stomping grounds since his teens, when he began playing in various punk-influenced bands, eventually achieving wider success with D Generation and a major-label deal in the Nineties. It's also where he has built a growing empire of bars and music clubs he co-owns with a variety of like-minded partners, the kind of people who want to keep downtown downtown. These are the sorts of places Malin likes to hang out in: Niagara, Dream Baby, Bowery Electric, et al., now joined by the recently opened Berlin on Avenue A. "When I'm on tour, if I'm not looking for a vegetarian restaurant, I'm looking for a place like this to have a drink and hear some cool music," he says of his latest venue.

For all his midnight rambling and rock 'n' roll lifestyle, when we chat, Malin is fresh off his daily run down East Houston Street and under the bridges — Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn — and on through the South Street Seaport. It's about six miles in all. "Like Bob Marley said: You've got to lively up yourself and get going. I'm not a kid anymore, so I've got to stay in shape so I can jump around onstage and drink more," he says. He lets out a dry cackle. "I even wear short pants and hope no one sees me. Unless you're Angus Young, no one in rock 'n' roll should be wearing short pants."

Malin is certainly having a lively year, even aside from opening Berlin — Outsiders is the second album he'll release in 2015. It follows New York Before the War, which came out this spring. He will also debut a D Generation single, the first in fifteen years. ("We're working on an album, too," Malin attests.) He even did a recent stint DJ'ing on Little Steven's Underground Garage. "I was filling in as a jock there. You've got to stay busy. Life goes by fast. I've got A.D.D.; I'm an A.D.D. DJ," Malin cracks. Following some gigs in Ireland and the U.K., and before he sets off for another U.S. tour with his band, Malin will play at Irving Plaza, opening for Chuck Ragan, on Saturday, September 19.

Like his own records, the D Generation single and eventual album will be released on Velvet Elk, a label Malin started with musician, producer, and frequent collaborator Don DiLego. DiLego created Velvet Elk Studios — the rural retreat in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains where Outsiders was mostly written and produced — to release his own records. But, with the injection of Malin's boundless energy and enthusiasm, it then expanded to a "proper" label with an office in the East Village. (Where else?) "I wanted to have a record label but I didn't want the responsibility," says DiLego, who has lived in New York for twenty years. "Jesse and I were so excited about our recordings out in the country, we wanted a studio in the city. We tried two locations; one was where Berlin is now. We burned through a bunch of money. Nothing sucks up money like a studio."

Eventually, the not-so-fiscally-minded label heads figured it out and found a new space in which to base their operations while leaving the studio in the mountains. It was important to have a physical space, and not just an online hub. "We're not trying to bring back CBGB, but we wanted a home for musicians, something we're proud of. We started unofficially with Jesse's last record and we had initial success despite ourselves," DiLego says. "We want this to be something special, like a Third Man Records," he adds, referring to Jack White's Nashville emporium and label. "We don't have those kind of resources, but the spirit is the same."

Releasing two albums in the space of six months is putting any A.D.D. Malin might have to good use, even at the risk of overkill. "There are no rules in the music business anymore," he says. "I just do what I do. There's no label guy telling you what to do. Velvet Elk is an imprint through One Little Indian, an English label I've been on for thirteen years. Derek Birkett, who started One Little Indian, said, 'Jesse, if you want to put another album out, just do it.' "

Besides, Malin hadn't put out an album in five years, an unusual gap in his lengthy music-making career. "During those five years I had to take care of my dad, who was really sick, so that meant being in Florida a lot of the time. D Generation got back together and we toured and we started an album with Ryan Adams that never got finished. Ya know, it was a pretty volatile bunch," he explains.

He was touring behind Love It to Life, the record that preceded New York Before the War, throughout all of this as well. (The title of Love It to Life is an homage to the late Clash leader Joe Strummer, Malin's undoubted hero. The Strummer mural on the side of Niagara serves as a fond reminder of this.) "During that time I just wrote a lot of songs."

Malin's two 2015 records are very much companions in spirit and story line to his earlier output, mixing street rock with folklore, and rooted in New York culture and characters. Rock icons pop up on the records, too: New York Before the War includes guitarists Peter Buck and Wayne Kramer, and Outsiders counts J Mascis among its cast.

"A lot of the record is autobiographical or about a character that interests me for their beauty, their strangeness, or their humanity," Malin says. "The record kind of has a darker feel than New York Before the War, in my mind. It was built on optimism and disgust. To me, what with technology and advancements we've made, and people's attention spans disappearing, we're burning through the culture; we're burning through the planet. Everybody is out for a quick little fix. It's a snapshot of where I am now and the world we live in."

Jesse Malin opens for Chuck Ragan on September 19 at Irving Plaza. For tickets, click here.

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