Novelist Jonathan Lethem is well known for the beautiful invocations of pop music in his books. He’s also written a fair amount of music essays, guest-edited a Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology, and even coerced fanboy bands into recording “Monster Eyes,” the fictional centerpiece of his rock-and-roll novel You Don’t Love Me Yet. Now Lethem’s making music himself with the alt-country duo I’m Not Jim, a sideline collaboration with Silos frontman Walter Salas-Humara. The pair recently released their first full-length You Are All My People (Bloodshot Recordings) under the production auspices of the Elegant Too (a/k/a Chris Maxwell and Philip Hernandez) and tonight they’ll be promoting it at the Housing Works Book Cafe. Lethem (“It’s Lee-them“) will be there too, performing spoken word in what he promises will be his best Twilight Zone voice.
―Michael D. Ayers
You spent time playing in bands, out in California, right?
Oh, just barely. One. And it was really—we barely got out of the rehearsal stage. I’m really not a musician. It really would be easy to exaggerate, so I wouldn’t want to do that. I’m really not a musician. I hate to admit how feeble my attempts were at vocalizing.
Was there, then, some apprehension in starting this “I’m Not Jim” project?
Well, you know, that question suggests that there was a lot of intentionality in there to begin with, a sort of master plan. And there really wasn’t. It was something that arose from Walter and I fooling around, and talking about doing some songs together. At almost every point, I thought it was going to be a passing fancy, where I would do a lyric or two for a Silos song. I had no idea that it was going to emerge in the form that it did. So, it was so much its own thing. We were trying to make each other laugh a lot, and the work sort of tumbled out of the friendship.
How were the sessions done? Was the writing done first, and then that was put to music?
Well, Walter and I sat side-by-side. He was kind of making demos right on the spot, with a guitar and his voice playing right into his laptop computer. So, we were kind of writing songs, and he was working them up in rough form, almost instantaneously. He’s such a good singer that the vocal tracks that he created under those circumstances he mostly stuck with. I think later, he went in and patched in. But that’s pretty much the singing you hear on the record. The rest of the music―the full drums and fuller bass lines, and any other color or effects―got built up around the original demos.
Were you sharing the lyrical duties?
The songs kind of came out of every quadrant. There are bits and pieces, ideas that I brought to the collaboration and he had unfinished choruses or ideas he had for songs, that he brought. And there were things that arose there between us―there hadn’t been anything before. So, really, all points of origin.
From what I read, it sounds like there was this mutual energy that you both fed off.
Yeah, we definitely struck sparks and got on a good roll. It was something that neither of us predicted, and don’t want to count on being possible again. Essentially, we wrote 11 or 12 songs in a couple of days. It’s sort of surprising anytime I think back on it.
Music has informed many of your novels. But was shifting into this different form weird or challenging or surreal in any way?
Well, the surreal really comes right now, having conversations about it. Doing it―it arose to much as a part of our enjoying each other’s sensibilities. I had written enough lyrics here and there, for a character in a book, or to help out a musician friend here or there. I’ve done this, always, inadvertently. It’s only really in the sense that it’s come together, as it’s being taken as a band. That was a surprise to me. There’s nothing about the process that was that unusual. I had a lot of dry runs I guess, for a long time, in writing lyrics. Even when I was a teenager I wrote lyrics with friends of mine, back before I wasn’t so sure as I am now that I’m not destined to be in a band, and even after that. My friend Philip [Price], the leader of The Winterpills; I’ve written a handful of lyrics for him, and I did a song for [New York band] One Ring Zero. So over the years, it wasn’t a totally disconcerting context for me. What’s funny about it now, is to be in this position where suddenly I have this record, and it’s being reviewed by the Village Voice or whatever.
I know you’re a big Dylan fan. Do you listen to a lot of alt-country?
Yeah, well, all sorts of things. I usually don’t worry too much about categories, as you can imagine from my writings. But I guess I do like plenty of bands in that vein. I associate Walter’s work with the Silos with the very beginning of that movement. There are a lot of bands from that I especially like. The Silos and Vulgar Boatmen and Souled American and a bunch of others.
After everything got mastered and came back, what was the reaction around the table?
Well, it wasn’t an all-at-once situation. The Elegant Too were working on tracks sporadically, and they would shoot us off an MP3. Walter remarked somewhere that it’s almost like a remix album, because they were really challenging a lot of the melodic underpinnings and the stylistic leanings in the demos we recorded. So that was thrilling. As a non-musician, the only way I could ever be in a studio in any sense at all, would be to hand things over to these maestros.
I’m Not Jim also plays on Saturday, October 25 at Union Pool for the Bloodshot CMJ Showcase.