(Jesse Valencia: Author of the upcoming book: Straight Up and Down – The Rise of The Brian Jonestown Massacre)
By: Jordannah Elizabeth
As a journalist, there are times when I have to discern what types of information I want to share with the world. I believe readers expect me to share formative and unique interviews and information about their favorites bands and artists.
When Jesse Valencia first approached me about his ambitious literary pursuit (which I was aware of, and had scoped his blog once or twice over a the last couple of years), i had to think long and hard before actually publishing a story/interview about this young man and his life.
Whether his upcoming book, Straight Up and Down – The Rise of the Brian Jonestown Massacre will be authorized or unauthorized, I don’t know. What I do know is that our little scene has a nuances and a bit a politics driven deep within it, and the politics are usually expressed with passion, (whether it be anger or excitement is always a gamble), and I, for one, try to stay as neutral as I can.
Many of us who have given our lives to shoegaze and psychedelic rock are protective and as responsible as we can be about being critical or even too personal with our opinions about music and art within our circle, because… well, there is a chance that our motives and visions could get morphed into something sinister.
Is Jesse’s book a beautiful idealist pursuit, or a ploy to exploit a controversial band’s formative music and life long journey? I don’t know. But what I know is that Jesse seems to be a genuine guy and a pure and knowledgeable fan.
Am I to protect him from the love or backlash this interview may cause? No. I’m just a messenger and I am honored he trusted me to help him tell his story about a story he’s trying to tell:
What’s a Stenographer? And what does it have to do with Brian Jonestown Massacre?
Well, first off, the process of writing shorthand is ‘stenography’. It comes from the Greek ‘stenos’ and ‘graphē’, or narrow-writer. I basically see my role, where applicable, as a shorthand reporter. But a stenographer as an occupation people usually think of as being in a court. The thing is, ever since the movie has been out Anton (Newcombe) has been on trial with the press, or in particular the music press, who tend to lean towards the idea that the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a big joke, but this has been going on for much longer than that. They’ve been getting bad press since the mid-nineties, and a lot of it is unwarranted. There are a lot of times, too many in my view, where reviewers of albums and shows and so forth tend to focus on the antics of the band, or the eccentricities and what not, and don’t give the music the proper merit it deserves. It’s a travesty because these last two albums, and now this new one coming out, Aufheben, are some of the best records Anton has ever made.
But no one asks where the albums were made, or even analyzes the work. I’m referring to so-called ‘music journalists’. In the way our consumer culture operates you have more jokers than not telling people what to think before they even have a chance to listen. But, getting back to the question… a stenographer makes transcriptions of legal proceedings right? Well, guess what? The difference is I’m taking them home to build a new case. Music journalism, and journalism in general, is bullshit these days because it comes right out of that same instant gratification culture. The Brian Jonestown Massacre isn’t about instant gratification. It’s about exploration and mind expansion, and much more than that if you know where to dig. There needs to be a new framework by which to talk about this stuff.
Why did you decide to write a book about them?
It wasn’t really a thing where I woke up one day and decided to write a book. Prior to Anton’s USTREAM Dead TV channel he had this thing on Myspace called the We Are The Radio blog, and on that blog he and his Myspace friends would share music, art, news, and what not. A lot of people I noticed would ask Anton those questions the press had failed to ask… what is this song about? Where was this recorded? When? How? Etc. And Anton would post answers, but they were really interesting, too interesting to not have in some other format. Something more tangible. So I said “Why don’t you write a book?” And then he said, “Why don’t you write a book?” So, long story short, that’s what I did.
What led you to this amazing task and/or revelation?
The revelation came after I met Anton in person, in Denver a couple summers ago. They were playing a show at the Bluebird Theater off of Colfax. I gave him this manuscript I’d written, that looking back now was a piece of shit, but that’s where I really got the bug. That manuscript was a prototype. I started emailing, calling up people, networking. But I got backed up on interviews because new shit would come to light and I would have to backtrack and revise. It’s not like you can go back to the early nineties when the band started and ask people things, you know, so you have to rely on people’s memories, and everyone has memories going back twenty years and some of those are compromised because of various substances and things. The task itself is strenuous in that regard, but it’s all worth it, and once you’ve gathered everything in one spot the timeline becomes pretty clear.
Really what drives me is the fact that I’m a fan. I’m also a musician, you know, I make records and play shows with my own band. So the recording process and songwriting process is something I understand, and that’s what I really want to emphasize in my book because it’s interesting to me the way that the band has made their records. Especially now. Anton has come to this point in his creative journey where he’s making stuff up on the fly and it just sounds incredible. You can tell a lot of the earlier work was more structured, you know, in the sense of how someone sits down to write a song, but the creative emphasis now is more on this stream-of-consciousness composition. It’s like Surrealism, with automatic writing? It’s like that but with musical instruments. And you can watch him do it. He’s recorded most if not all of Aufheben on Dead TV, live for everyone to see, and he’s shared his mixes as the process has gone along. They’re all out there. And here it is now coming out in a couple of months. That’s very revolutionary, and he was the first one to do it.
A lot of people are worried I think that the book is not going to show things like that, like it’s going to be Dig! Part 2 but in book form. The thing that I say is Ondi Timoner was not a musician. She was a filmmaker, a documentarian. And Dig! was entirely dependent upon her arrangement of events, and some people in the BJM camp complain about how stupid the movie is because there’s little-to-no emphasis on the music. And that’s a big issue. If you think about it, in that movie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre are portrayed as a drug-addled, unstable version of The Monkees. My book is the anti-Dig!, I would say, or actually a good way to describe Straight Up And Down is that this is the documentary Ondi should have made. I have had to do a lot of cleaning up, you know, correcting shit that was taken out of context or out of order in the film, but I should also say that’s not what the book is about. It’s not a rebuttal to Ondi’s film. It’s it’s own thing. But, having said that, my intent is to craft a story that the fans are going to love and the band will be able to look on positively. And that’s already happening. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how happy they are I’m doing this and a lot of people are behind me, which helps tremendously.
Are you a professional writer?
Not in the traditional sense, no. I mean, I don’t have a column in a magazine or anything. I’m not a newspaper reporter. But I’m going to grad school now as an English major, emphasizing creative writing, so really I’m more of an author. I would describe myself as an author more than a stenographer or professional writer. I like to think that I attain a certain level of professionalism besides that, you know, in how I conduct myself. In the beginning I was a little too over-excited and a little vague, but now that I’ve been at this for a while it’s starting to come easier. There’s a quote from this graphic novel Transmetropolitan about this journalist in the future named Spider Jerusalem. Very much based off of Hunter S. Thompson. He goes, “You don’t learn journalism in a school. You learn it by writing fucking journalism”, and that’s kind of the approach I’ve taken. I didn’t record my first two interviews, with Naut Humon and Christof Certik, which was an idiot move, but thankfully I did shorthand on those. I guess that’s where the ‘stenographer’ bit comes from.
How long have you been researching for the book?
Almost three years now. I started in the fall of 2009.
Who have you met along your journey?
Oh, lots of folks. Mainly online, but it’s hard to think of everyone right off the bat. I mean there’s Anton, Ricky, Joel, you know, those guys, but also people like Tommy Dietrick and Brad Artley, who are no longer in the band but they had so much to say. Lots of people from the band’s history. There’s also random people. Like in Tucson when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was playing in September a couple years back, I was doing this interview with Peter Hayes, and at the gig I was talking to the merch people of their opening act, Jefertit’s Nile, and we’d hit it off about BJM because they know them, you know, from this period or that period. It’s really strange, because it’s like this whole other community that I’ve kind of become a part of, and thankfully so. Like there’s this guy Del Beaudry, who was the first manager before Dave Deresinski, and we talk back and forth a lot not just about the band but about other things going on. He’s really great. Really a good guy. The biggest perk I’ve gotten in my journey as you call it is becoming friends with a lot of cool people and being introduced to a lot of music I otherwise might not have been exposed to. It’s also helped me in my own creativity.
What draws you to Brian Jonestown Massacre?
Musically they’re out of this world. When I first saw Dig! I thought ‘here is the band that was the start of it’, you know, the garage rock revival, and they’re not credited with that in the press but they were a big part of it. Now people are starting to come around to it and I feel like I have a duty culturally to give that merit to them. What I do with my band would not be possible had they not paved the way, in other words. Now I just love the art of those records. They challenge me.
When do you plan on finishing your book?
The tentative plan is to finish it by summer. It’s basically done. The framework is there. All that needs doing is twenty or so more interviews, and the transcribing, and then if necessary some fact-checking. I’m putting multiple points of view in there, so that might not need to happen because you’ll have both sides and readers can decide for themselves. Transcribing is really the biggest part of the work.
Do you plan on publishing it?
Yes, of course, and if no one wants it I’ll publish it myself, and if I don’t have the funds to publish it myself I’ll put it out for free. I’m not writing it for money. Money is relative. I’m concerned with the story. When it does come out, and I expect that it will. This year or next. I already have a few interested parties. But when it does come out I’m going to continue the blog, to document whatever occurs. There really is nothing for anyone to be worried about though, I mean the band or those connected to them. It’s an ode to the band, you know? Like how bards used to travel town to town and sing about myths and heroes. That’s this.
Do you have the band’s blessing?
That depends on perspective, and by that I mean what your definition of ”the band” is. The impression I get is that it’s one third in favor, with the rest of the band basically uninterested at this point. But that’s the live band. Anton gave me the idea, and he helped me a lot in the beginning to get started. Joel (Gion)’s helped me a lot, and Ricky (Maymi) especially has helped me. Collin Hegna digs it too. I see that as favorable. I reckon more of the live band will be supportive when they read it, if they read it. As far as past members go, they seem to be really interested in the idea of an oral history, a recording history, and having the freedom to say whatever they want or whatever they are inspired to share. I mean, some stuff wont go in there because it doesn’t pertain to the band or the story, you know, idle chit chat, but that’s just an editorial decision. I wont talk too much more about that but there are heroes, villains, danger, mystery, romance… anything you’d expect out of a good novel. And that’s really what it is. It’s a nonfiction novel about the greatest rock and roll saga of our day and time, in my opinion.