If there was any justice in this world, Ben Whitesides would be a household name, but there isn't, so it's up to us introduce a man who shouldn't need an introduction. On the bright side, if you've never been introduced, you're in for a treat. Whitesides is one-fourth of the critically-acclaimed but largely forgotten Portland band The Joggers (MySpace), and one half of The Cajun Gems (MySpace) , an even more forgotten duo that recorded just one album, Richard Byrd At Little America, in a basement in the year 2000. This mesmerizing disc bursts with 19 tracks of lo-fi, finger-pinking, lyrically mesmerizing delight. Whitesides collaborated on the album with Darrell Bourque, who is also in The Joggers, and sold it via mail-order on The Joggers website, where a few copies fell into the hands of frustrated Joggers fans jonesing for something to tide them over until next Joggers' album, which never came. (Or hasn't come yet?)
But Richard Byrd At Little America has just been remixed, remastered, and reissued by Partisan Records, and listening to it again only reaffirms its status as an unjustly undiscovered handmade classic. Buy it here; for reference, here's the second song off the album, "Hat Trick":
Last week we spoke with Whitesides in an attempt to ascertain what the shit is going on, or not going on, with The Cajun Gems and The Joggers.
I'm a huge fan of this album. I first got it in 2003, I think, and would blast it at work. I just listened the shit out of this album. [Laughs] So, how did you get a copy back then?
Mail order! It was through the Joggers website. Oh man, I totally forgot we even had that up. Awesome, that's very flattering.
I would sing along to it actually, and still know a lot of the lyrics by heart. I think the lyrics are just phenomenal. Thank you. It seems so old to me now, but I'm glad it's out there. It's taken forever to be released. So the story of it goes that Tim Putnam, who was in The Standard (MySpace), he moved to New York City and starting working at the Knitting Factory as the manager. Then he started Partisan Records and we had some similar friends, and when he started Partisan he wanted to work with us, work with the Joggers—and that was just theoretically possible I guess. But one sort of thing we said was, "Well, hey, would you be interested in working with Cajun Gems, which is this other project?"
Anyway, it took so long to decide who was going to remix it and figure out who was going to do it really cheap, which was a concern for everybody. So we finally found Rob Oberdorfer, who kindly had the patience to persevere through a very long remixing process. I don't mean to say it was really laborious—though it probably was labor intensive—but it wasn't like we were sitting there 10 hours a day remixing. It was spread out over many months. Anyway, I have very mixed feelings about the record. But some part of me is happy it's available.
What are your mixed feelings? Well, I mean that point in life is pretty intense. Maybe it's awful or maybe it's euphoric or maybe it's both, but for me it was one of the most intense periods of my life. Even though that word is kind of nebulous. There were things that I could do back then that I don't think I could do now, in terms of musical initiative and maybe, sort of, who knows, creativity? But at the same time [Richard Byrd At Little America] also seems pretty rough and ramshackle in ways that I don't think I would reproduce today. But I guess the point of records is that they're moments of time and that's one aspect I like about it. It's just hard to get excited about the record because it's 10 years old.
Have you listened to it much? No.
Why not? Well I have, it's just I don't really like to listen to my own stuff. I mean one of the reasons why I slowed down in music is because I kind of lost faith in my ability to do it. I never really liked what I was doing. When I was younger I believed I would get to this point when I would create stuff that I liked. And as time went on and I kept on making stuff that I didn't really like, it slowed me down. And, you know, there's a few different philosophies on that. There's the whole Martha Graham "blessed unrest" thing; if you're ever satisfied, then you're essentially wrong. You have to look forward to the next thing and that's true. At the same time you have to be able to make some peace with it and say that some part of me really approves of this or whatever. Especially about music, I just had a really hard time with that.
So where are you at with music right now? Are you making music for yourself? Picking up guitar and just playing, or what else is going on? There have been a lot of changes in my life in the last few months. I just moved back to Boston, where I grew up, to take a job opportunity. Because I was feeling like I was just spinning a wheel in Portland. It's a totally different field, completely different. On some level it's nice because it's a change, and, how do I phrase this? I tend to overthink pretty much everything and the job is challenging enough that at least I'm not indulging in useless indecision. At the same time, it's not music, which is still near and dear to my heart. But I'm going to see how this new job goes.
What field is it in? [Pause] Global health.
Did you bring your instruments with you? Do you still have them? I still have my primary SG which was my primary guitar for 10 years, it's a 1962 Les Paul SG. So I have that and I still have my acoustic guitar. A lot of the other stuff I've pawned off over the last couple of years as I sank into a pretty bad rut, I would say. I mean just because I was having such a hard time moving forward with music. And it was all me. You know, the Joggers still wanted to do it and they still wanted to play. But I just, I guess I ran into some issues with performing and recording and keeping the furnace of movement alive.
Does this connect to what happened after Solid Guild when you guys were touring and there was a point where the band sort of broke up for a while? I mean, the answer is yes it's all connected. Part of what slowed me down for a while after Solid Guild was... You know I still haven't totally figured it out, but for many years I wanted to play music in a band and tour and record, that was my aspiration. I worked really, really hard to do that and when it got to the point that we were touring and we were recording and had a label and booking agent, I found it extremely strenuous in ways that probably a lot of other people find strenuous. It's not just that, there's a whole lifestyle component. Which is real, it's not just a cliche. I know some people are pretty successful at moderating it, older musicians who find a way to travel and make peace with that part of the lifestyle. But it was more, for me, about the creative thing. I just had a really hard time getting to a point where I liked what I was doing. That wore me down after a while and that was connected to 2003. Even though I learned a lot since then, it's still not stuff that has an easy answer. There's a trade-off no matter how you look at it.
Everybody I've played the Joggers for and shared this Cajun Gems album with has loved it instantly. I'm sure you have people in your life who say to you "How can you be so dissatisfied with the music? This is really really excellent." What do you say to that? It's a funny thing. I have been fortunate in that there have been a lot people who have been really flattering and have responded well to it.
Stephen Malkmus, for instance. When I interviewed him he was saying very nice things about The Joggers. He did, he's great. Yeah, he was one of my heroes. You'd think that would be a really nice thing, and it was. And then to go on tour with Stephen Malkmus was some of the most fun that I and the rest of the Joggers ever had, I mean that was just great. But it's funny, I just felt like, and maybe it was just lack of resolve and maybe it was being unrealistic about what it takes or maybe I was just so frustrated with what I was coming up with that no matter how supportive people were, friends or strangers, it didn't seem to make a difference somehow. I thought about it a lot, but I'm not sure why.
Well, it's frustrating for the casual fan who's just thinking, "What the fuck?" The Joggers' albums and the Cajun Gems I feel are just timeless. I can listen to them again and again, and I feel there's no reason why the Joggers—or whatever you wanted to do—couldn't be huge. I was always telling people there was no reason The Joggers weren't playing the same big venues as the Arctic Monkeys. So it's just really confusing that you just disappeared. [Laughs] It's confusing to me too, a little bit. It just has to do with a lot of different things. I think the stuff that makes people want to create is usually not happiness, in most cases. It's different in different cultures, and I came from an academic family in Boston and I had a hard time getting over the fact that what I was doing was okay and synced with the family culture. I know that may sound silly, and it sounds silly to me, but that's been a challenge.
Also the problems with making a living. The only way I found to make a living in music was just throwing yourself in it 100% and being willing to take every opportunity and tour all the time. That wouldn't guarantee you a posh lifestyle but you could hack it out. You could tour 1/3 of the year, and it's pretty tough as the years go on. Maybe they're not 21 anymore and they start to get married and have kids, in the case of Darrell [Bourque]. But again, I don't think that logistical part of it... I don't know. I've thought so much about this that I've thought it into the ground and then some and I still have no idea. I try to follow the maxim, "where of you cannot speak thereof you shall remain silent." I totally failed doing that [Laughs].
And I also really sympathize with the people who have been really supportive. We haven't been like, "Sorry we're done, thanks so much" to the fans, or the few fans out there who might want to know that information or to be clear and be like, "Hey we're going to put out a new thing in the next..." And that gray ambiguity also had to do with the fact that we didn't know ourselves. A lot of the bands that we admired like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and bigger bands like Pavement who made money doing it and had success on a large scale, they were really low metabolism or under the radar, and it was homemade music that wasn't done with a lot of PR. And it wasn't received that way either, it wasn't received with a lot of critical acclaim. So that's not the case for Pavement, but it is for some of these other bands. There's this band from Seattle called Welcome that I like a lot. I talked to that guy, Peter [Brand], and I was the frustrated fan in that case, because they put out a record that I thought was awesome. I was like "Peter, what's going on, what's next?" and he would just say "You know, we don't mean to be difficult, but for me it's a lack of inspiration. I'm having a hard time creating stuff, I'm just not inspired." and that sort of situation. They just wait for stuff to happen and then they make stuff. But having a band that has any sort of profile whatsoever that rises above background radiation, you do have to kind of throw yourself into it. There are different philosophies of being in a band I don't think we ever figured out which one fit us... And if we did it was the low-key, low-metabolism model.
I interviewed Jake [Morris, Joggers' drummer] in 2007 and he said, at that point, the Joggers had five songs that were done and ready to record. Yeah. Well, we started recording this last summer in Portland and we got the basic tracking down. But again, I got frustrated and I felt the songs weren't good enough and I felt that I didn't have enough time or money. And by money I mean you can either do it one way or the other. You can either practice your ass off and get really, really tight about what you're going to go in with for three days in the studio, or you can have enough money to perfect it while you're there. We had neither because everyone was preoccupied with other things, so we came out with this thing that I wasn't that stoked on and it sort of dissipated. And I let it dissipate, so there was some choice involved. So, that's me. Again, it probably comes from the same place. I've never really conquered that thing of making peace with the impulse to make music. That impulse has always been strong and it's never gone away, which has been frustrating for me. On one level I love playing music and it's where a big part of me will always be, and on another level I just have such a hard time being productive and signing off on things and being okay with getting things up and going.
Do you think you'll do any live shows with the Cajun Gems material now that this is being revisited? Logistically, right now it seems really hard. I'm in Boston and Darrell is in Portland and busy because he has a renovation company. He's got a wife and kid, too. It would take some coordination. But at the same time, we're all family. Me, Jake and Dan. So nothing seems impossible in that arena. I could imagine more Joggers shows, I could imagine doing any of these things. It's just, I'm trying on a different role at the moment and I want to see how it goes.
So how would you describe the state of the Joggers right now? Inactive. [Pause] I mean we don't put out an official release for what, five years? I won't say broken up because I can't imagine ever breaking up in any cosmic sense or whatever. We spent so many years working on material being in that band and we are still really good friends. That was never the issue, a lot of bands break up because they end up hating each other but that really didn't happen with us. We all got along well. So I always hold out the hope that something will happen but I'm consciously not thinking about it right now.
Do you still write lyrics or poetry, even if it doesn't get put to music. Are you writing? I'm always messing around with words. I've always done that. But not as much as I'd like or I used to. I hate quoting famous people but I'm going to do it. It's whatever Picasso said, "Inspiration does exist but you have to be working for it to find you". I sort of believe that and now my focus has shifted. When Richard Byrd came out I was reading a ton and I was really inspired by the Silver Jews at that time. Well, both of those guys, Malkmus is an amazing lyricist. You sort of have to be swimming in that pool to make progress. I feel that way about music and that's the frustrating thing. I feel like the sort of "blues lawyer" thing where you have a regular 9-5 job doing something then you come home and you have three hours to play. I don't think that works, that's the frustrating thing. You either gotta do it or you don't. Maybe I'm old fashioned. I just think it's hard to get to the place where you really make sincere and good stuff if you're just part-timing it. Maybe that's my problem.
Well those are all the questions I have. I appreciate you calling. It sounds like you're a fan so I both apologize and I'm sorry I couldn't be more clear. But honestly, it's not so clear to me and I'm not going to pretend like I understand. I have theories about why I haven't been as productive as I've wanted to be. I definitely feel frustrated that we haven't completed our third record or that we didn't do a bigger push around 2005, 2006 or 2007. In retrospect that seems like a mistake because it seemed like the time to do it. But what are you going to do? It's in the past.
I hope the path you're on, whichever way it goes, gives you fulfillment. On a personal level, I hope you make more music because it really resonates with me. Lyrically and musically it never gets old. It's amazing, I'll just listen to it again and again. So I hope you do more of that. But that's up to you! Thanks, John. I really do appreciate that. I hope I do it too. [Laughs] Finding a way to do it is a lifelong challenge. I continue to sort of strive to make that happen.
Video of The Joggers most recent recording of a new song, courtesy Into the Woods.