"USE WHAT YOU WANT. I get pretty out there when I talk about this stuff." It's true. The mind of Tom Greenwood seems to traverse a similar path as his longtime, free-form Portland collective Jackie-O Motherfucker, taking occasional detours and roundabouts while still making complete sense.
That "stuff" he speaks of is the band's sprawling, mindfully mindless body of work—and in particular their latest long-player Earth Sound System, an album that continues Jackie-O's skewed take on Americana. In true fashion, it's an off-balance, occasionally jarring collection that collides lilting folk with free-form jazz and psychedelic squalor.
It would be easy to assume that this group of miscreants—which over the years has ranged from one to more than a dozen members—are strictly in it for themselves. On the contrary, Greenwood insists there is a reason for all of this.
"We're all big music fans so we're kind of an audience ourselves. The work we do is meant for other people," he says. "For me it's kind of political—if you don't like what you hear on the radio, go make music and put it out in the culture."
It makes sense then that for the past 15 years, Jackie-O has released new material at a steady clip—perhaps the only predictable thing about the band. The band's latest incarnation features its steadiest lineup in years with Greenwood, multi-instrumentalist/producer Brian Mumford (Dragging an Ox through Water) and brothers Nick and Jed Bindeman, who currently make their own spacey noise in Eternal Tapestry.
The members worked on Earth Sound System through the summer of 2010 as Greenwood split time between Portland and Southern France, where he's working on a residency project for video projection. The album was recorded with vinyl in mind, and both sides are almost mirror images of each other, split by "Raga Joining" and "Raga Separating," a pair of potentially divisive "songs" that string together odd scrapes, bleeps, and squeals. As Greenwood describes it, "It's almost like you're inside the human body."
Interestingly enough, early reviews of Earth Sound System have accused Jackie-O of not being experimental enough, as if the members have completely lost their sense of adventure. While the core lineup has added some stability to the ranks, onstage the band still has the potential to fly off the tracks, which has landed Jackie-O its share of mixed reviews ever since their inception. For Greenwood the prospect of falling flat on your face (with the equal chance of melting faces) is still thrilling.
"There's something about failure that I find beautiful," he explains. "Something about the fragility and desire to see it through."
And hearing Greenwood explain the process, even when it's well thought out, is thrilling in itself—he wasn't kidding when he says he gets pretty out there while talking about it. Earth Sound System's greatest diversion actually comes in its final minutes, with the interplanetary garage rock of "Where We Go." It's probably the loudest, most primitive song the band has put to tape—written and recorded in one day—and just straightforward enough to keep people wondering what might come next for Jackie-O Motherfucker. It's anyone's guess; I don't think even Greenwood knows exactly what the future holds.
"Some of the highlights of working with this group is playing with 12 or 14 members," he says. "There's nothing that can replace that spirit of experience and creativity."