“I’m not very good socially. I find it kind of a waste of time. I like making music and if I can do that with people and I want to be in a room with somebody, then that’s great.”
Matt Catchpole talks to award-winning producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee about working with REM and U2 and his new collaboration with fellow Irishman Cathal Coughlan, of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions.
Zooming from a damp and dreary London, I’m confronted by the sight of a blue-haired man in his 50s dressed in T-shirt and shorts in a room packed to the rafters with vinyl.
It’s some ungodly hour in LA and Jacknife Lee is just getting up, but already there’s music on the turntable.
“Some guy from London called Alabaster de Plume,” he says by way of explanation, “I think he plays like an alto sax – beautiful, jazz is kicking off!”
It’s the first of a bewildering array of artists, he’ll go on to namecheck during our chat and it becomes immediately obvious why the likes of REM, The Killers and U2 want to work with him.
The man is just obsessed with music and finding new sounds – ‘fresh’ is a favourite word – and his boundless enthusiasm is both disarming and infectious.
And boy can he talk…. my first question illicits a 20-minute response and I wonder if I’ll get another in before the 35 minutes originally set down for the interview is up.
But he’s generous with his time and we end up chewing the fat for the best part of a couple of hours.
He admits to being a ‘ridiculous fan’ of Cathal’s since seeing an early incarnation of Microdisney support Siouxsie and the Banshees as a wide-eyed 11-year-old in Dublin.
“It was amazing like angry [Captain] Beefheart. You know, that strange Cork thing that was going on. He was pretty brutal.”
Jacknife would go to support a two-piece Microdisney himself as a teenager and saw Cathal as a figure to look up to on the Irish music scene.
“His music was on in our house all the time, and we’d go and see Microdisney every time they played, so his voice was just always there and he seemed so much smarter and wittier than anybody else and he knew things no-one else seemed to know about the world.”
As their respective careers developed, the pair lost touch, until recently when they were reunited by Luke Haines, of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder.
“I work a lot with Peter Buck from REM and he’d made a record with Luke and I was just mangling it up, re-imagining it. I did something quite outrageous to it and I’d heard Luke was quite difficult to please. But he liked it and it’s coming out in April.
“Luke had played on Cathal’s new record and told him he’d been working with someone who knew him, which was me. I said: ‘Please get me his email!’.”
The email led to a call and Jacknife “reverting to a kid again, just blurted out that I wanted to make a record with him”.
“He’s just an extraordinary artist, one of the great lyricists, and really underrated. Somebody like Nick Cave, and Nick is great, knows how to brand himself. And I don’t know if it’s an Irish thing, or just a Cathal thing, but he doesn’t.
“He almost does a thing that I did for a long time, which was sabotage myself. There was a bit of that in Microdisney and certainly a lot of that in Fatima Mansions. Just when it looked like something would break through, he would deliberately set fire to it. So he never really gets gets the accolades he deserves, but maybe he doesn’t want them, I don’t know.”
Though separated by thousands of miles, the pair quickly bonded over their shared Irish history, having both left the mother country at around the same time.
“We both left in the ’80s and it was shit and it was like it was like surviving something and it wasn’t that traumatic, but it was like: ‘Fucking hell, that was mental, wasn’t it?”
Gradually a loose concept formed around the idea of media manipulation and the arrival of public service television to Ireland in the ’60s, when the Catholic church and Irish state were inextricably aligned.
“The president at the time [Eamon] de Valera knew that it was a powerful media and likened it to nuclear power. And there was this guy called Archbishop [John Charles] Maquaid, who knew it was a very useful tool of cultural civic control.
“He got priests and nuns to go to the United States to learn how to use the technology. They were trying to establish an identity of Ireland and Irish television that wasn’t British. it meant that the TV shows were either American or eastern European, but with this weird combination of religious imagery and religious TV shows.”
Cathal and Jacknife never met while making the record, but this rough concept quickly took shape with the pair exchanging files and developing a strange cast of characters and historical snapshots. References include Irish showbands, Danny La Rue and even the tragic gold rush stampede which followed the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.
Jacknife says he pushed Cathal, known for his polished Scott Walker-esque vocals, to use his voice in a whole different way on this record.
“I use a lot less harmonic information than he’s used to,” he explains. “With songs like Falun Gong Dancer, there’s almost nothing going on, this wisp of a song. There’s not the obvious chord change to pivot the narrative, so he has to do more as a singer.
“He really did well and when I got stuff back from him, sometimes it would make me laugh out loud – like I couldn’t believe either its brilliance, or just how weird it was.”
The music, which Jacknife describes as post-punk in attitude, is actually a huge mishmash of styles from icy Kraftwerk-style electro to dub, pop, funk and even disco.
It’s a fruitful collaboration, that Jacknife reveals has already yielded enough songs for a second album, which will feature more contributions from special guests like Jah Wobble – who features on a dub remix of Falun Gong Dancer.
The duo are already in talks with Scottish experimentalist Thomas Leer and post punkers A Certain Ratio about joining the world of Telefis.
While the first album a hAon, (Gaelic for number One), concentrates on the monochromatic, heavily censored, early days of Irish media, the second will see the dawning of colour, both in a literal and metaphorical sense.
“The next record pivots to entertainment and what it means and stuff like that. We are walking a tightrope in Telefis between super seriousness, frivolity, flippancy and pop. It has a kind of a wit to it, but it’s also deadly serious, which is the way we like to do it,” Jacknife says.
“The original idea was to do a single or EP, something like that. So it was like three or four songs. And then it seemed to work so well. We got the imagery together and then it just seemed to flow straight from album one to album two. It’s been kind of fun and easy and a great opportunity to rekindle a friendship.”
Throughout the conversation, Jacknife leaps from topic to topic, going off on elaborate tangents and asides.
It’s a good insight into how he works as a producer, making musical and artistic connections that can breathe new life into the work of his collaborators.
Confessing that he rarely gives interviews, he takes pains not to be seen as ‘snotty,’ or bad-mouthing anyone.
“I’m not very good socially. I find it kind of a waste of time,” he admits. “I like making music and if I can do that with people and I want to be in a room with somebody, then that’s great.”
Mischief is a word he uses a lot and he admits to using disruption as a tool to get artists to think about new ways of working.
“I’ve got kids and they’re kind of curious as to why they’re the way they are, why I’m the way I am and then and I see people of a certain age, and I’m curious as to why they’ve turned something off- where is the mischief?” he asks.
“Mischief is really powerful as a tool for sanity and as a political tool and as a way of defiance and, you know, it’s underused as a weapon of fun.”
He goes on to cite John Peel favourite Ivor Cutler as an inspiration, segueing into an anecdote about an abortive attempt to get the late Govan-born poet, singer and humorist onto a Snow Patrol album.
He’d planned to move into a caravan with Ivor, recording him speaking about his life and setting it to music.
It’s typical of his tireless search for new approaches, ways to shake himself and others out of their comfort zone, to avoid routine and repetition.
“I got into music at a particular point, where each record would be very different from the last record,” he explains. “Take The Cure, they went from Boys Don’t Cry to Love Cats in such a short period of time. Siouxsie and the Banshees too, all these bands, they made such huge leaps record on record. Kept it fun. I’ve noticed artists are less willing to do that now.
“I like to cause trouble in the marketplace, and anomalies are what I’m interested in. I like things that make me go: ‘Fuck!, what the fuck is that? Things that upset the apple cart.”
He quotes The Neptunes and Christopher Nolan‘s blockbuster Inception as the type of disruptive influences that grab his attention.
“It’s something that instantly feels good. This is the purpose of pop culture, ” he esplains. “That’s what pop music is, but when you start trying to do it again and again, it becomes rote, utilitarian, functional. It loses its essence.”
Working with new bands, he describes as like ripping the foil off a carton of coffee, a smell, a sensation you’ll never get again – and that’s the challenge he faces when trying to get a fresh sound out of an established artist.
“My goal is to encourage bands to just expand their arsenal a bit. That’s that’s what my role in life is, the reason why I have blue hair, the reason why I’ve got so many fucking records and all this kind of thing, is because I don’t want to become complacent.”
Initially he says he carved out a niche for himself making a certain type of record – but now he finds that self-limiting.
“For years I did the sensible thing and I made functional records and they were fine, but now I know I’m making good records. [Whereas] before I always hoped they were good and they satisfied the marketplace and all that.”
As he points out, he can hardly expect bands to make the leap, if he doesn’t do it himself.
But he admits it can be a hard sell.
“It’s more difficult for the band, they’re going to have to get up on stage and deliver a new idea, when the audience wants to hear the big hit. There’s a possibility of humiliation there, it takes bravery.”
While he’s not afraid to get even the biggest name artists to push the envelope, he does confess to being awe-struck by some of the people he gets to work with.
“When I was working with Patti Smith, or now with Lonnie Holley, who’s an extraordinary character, it’s like how the fuck could I get into this room?
“It’s not like I have imposter syndrome, but when I get work in its raw form initially, I go: ‘Oh my god, this is so good!’ – I’m afraid of it in some way. But then I have to be practical, I’ve got to chop the fucking thing up. But there’s a few minutes, where I kind of can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe my name would be on it.”
Working with REM on their last two studio albums, would you imagine be just such a pinch yourself moment.
Though the band were coming to the end of their working relationship, Jacknife did not detect any tension with the group, though Michael Stipe and Peter Buck worked very differently.
Peter was fast and could write 40 songs in the time it took MIchael to finish the lyrics to one song, so Jacknife took steps to ensure that neither member was adversely impacted by the other’s process and no undue pressure was placed on the singer.
He was never told the group was disbanding after Collapse Into Now but he was invited to share in their final hours together.
“There was one moment where we were in Nashville and Peter said: ‘Let’s go and look at the stars’. And we went out looking at the stars, four of us, and it was a silent moment, it was beautiful.
“That was the last moment they were going to be together as REM. I was lucky I was invited to share in that. I didn’t know then that’s what it was.
“Now looking back at it almost makes me tearful, it was such a beautiful thing to do. It’s like ah, so that’s why Michael didn’t want to leave the studio that night.”
Working with U2 presents a different type of challenge, because the group is so open to new ideas.
“They are all about curiosity, what would happen if we did this? What if we take something of that? And this is where problems sometimes begin, because you might have 10 versions of the same song.
“And then it becomes: ‘How do we Frankenstein this fucker together, because there are so many good possibilities it can cause paralysis with a multi-producer record.”
Knowing when to let go is one of the biggest problems a producer faces.
Jacknife likens it to a documentary he saw of the artist Gerhard Richter, who paints over and re-works his compositions many times, scraping away to find sections of prior versions beneath, until he instinctively knows when it’s finished.
“I know that I trust myself and I trust my choices as I go,” Jacknife says. “Sometimes I can’t go back [and replace something] because my process is destructive, but then I have to trust that as well, to know I can make something from this.”
He retains an endless curiosity about music and deliberately works with a broad spectrum of artists – his credits range from Taylor Swift and Neil Diamond to Crystal Castles.
While as a young musician, he admits to taking potshots at others – largely as a defence against his own insecurities, he’s now refreshingly positive about the current music scene.
“The last few years has been amazing for music. It’s been really amazing – from the new jazz things happening, hip hop, African electronic music, it’s just insanely good.
“People complain about the state of music and if you do look at the Spotify Top 50, yes, it sucks, totally sucks, I get it. But if you look beyond that it’s so diverse and there’s so many great ideas happening and it’s fresh.”