- 18 Jun 20
Super-producer Jacknife Lee on his cracking new solo album, the pioneering brilliance of LA hip-hop, and the current state of rock. The U2/REM producer tells us about his leftfield electronica opus The Jacknife Lee and more.
Celebrated for his work with the likes of U2, REM, Weezer, and Snow Patrol, Dublin native Garret Jacknife Lee has now released a self-titled solo album, which mixes electro, glitchtronica and hip-hop to brilliant effect. The Jacknife Lee took shape over the course of several years, as the producer experimented with different sounds during breaks from other projects.
“My studio has stuff from the ’50s, and stuff from the early ’70s, though I also record digitally,” explains Lee, speaking from his LA home. “I’m intrigued by what’s happening now, but also what went before. Probably like most people currently, I’m not that interested in where somebody’s from – I’m more interested in the attitude behind it.
“It’s not like Daft Punk, for example, where they use specific equipment from a certain period and stay within that frame of reference. What probably ties it together is a chaotic spontaneity; I didn’t spend much time doing it. I’ve noticed that things start to go wrong for me when it’s a cerebral interaction, as opposed to a more physical or sensual one.
“It’s not necessarily forever, but with this album, I was excited about getting a new piece of equipment, or a new record, and exploring it.”
That sense of adventure sent Lee down some fascinating new avenues.
“Generally, the impetus comes from a new guitar pedal, or a synth or a drum machine,” he notes. “Then I just record it. I’m not overthinking it and I follow the idea where it takes me. There’s nothing really behind the record other than it was fun to do. I’m not really an artist: I used to be but I’m not now. That bit doesn’t interest me – but making noise does.”
As well as appearances from Aloe Blacc, Beth Ditto and Petite Noir, there’s also a memorable appearance from Open Mike Eagle on the single ‘Open Mike Eagle’, a delicious slice of psychedelic hip-hop with a wonderfully trippy video.
“Mike’s made a good few records,” says Garret. “He’s a big hip-hop head in LA; he’s quite well-known here and very respected. I was a fan of his stuff for a while. As well as hip-hop records, he also does stand-up, and he has his own show on Comedy Central. I was a fan, so I tried to find out more about him, which Instagram is great for. Most of the time when I reach out to people they just ignore it, or say they can’t do it.
“However, I knew Mike’s management from Wichita, which was Bloc Party’s label – I’d done some work with them. He passed on the beat to Mike, and then Mike came up to the studio. I’m a middle-aged white Irish guy, and he thought it was almost impossible that I’d made these beats! Even when I was doing it, he didn’t really believe it was me. He was looking at me going, ‘You did this?!’
“I went, ‘Yeah!’ So he went away and came up with ‘Made It Weird’.
Honestly, for people in hip-hop to do more than 16 bars is a big commitment for them. I was really appreciative when he came back with this full song. It was based around a sample I’d discovered, which I was amazed no one else had used. I didn’t do much to it, to be honest. I’ve also done some work on Mike’s new record, which has Madlib on it. He’s really great.”
LA hip-hop has produced some of the most brilliant and visionary music of the last 10 years, courtesy of artists like Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and more. Living in the city, Lee couldn’t help but soak up their influence.
“Flying Lotus is really responsible for turning a lot of people on to leftfield stuff,” he enthuses. “There’s certain people who give artists permission to be more exploratory. For bands, it’s probably Radiohead. They’ll listen to them and go, ‘Fuck, they can do it, so why can’t we?’ Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, was very supportive of weird, out-there ideas. It gives people that sense of, ‘You can do this.’
“It’s happened in certain places, like Tony Wilson with Factory Records. You need figures like that, because there’s a tendency for people to go towards where they get most attention. It’s one of the reasons I stopped doing pop sessions. I don’t think everybody is fully aware of what’s happening, but you can see that if someone has an idea similar to what’s currently popular, everyone jumps on it.
“They’re doing it subconsciously; it’s just because it’s been a hit. But it happens the other way. Like, To Pimp A Butterfly is such an amazing record. If you take the break in ‘U’, it’s like something from a ’90s Warp Records album, really abstract and avant-garde. Because the artist is being so fucking brave, people go, ‘Shit you can do that on a record and get away with it?!’ Or you have the break in Kanye’s ‘Bound 2’ – there’s a hard edit, because Kanye’s very touch with ADHD and knows how people listen.”
Lee observes that these LA acts have had a profound impact on the wider culture.
“Stuff like that has seeped into everybody’s consciousness in LA,” he continues, “and there are other great artists too, like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. They create ripples that everyone feels. I was actually praying for something like that to happen, because I was really sick of the stranglehold people like Max Martin and Dr Luke have on what’s considered to be acceptable. People generally respond to anomalies. If you can do it smartly, like Pharrell Williams, it’s very powerful.”
Meanwhile, the debate on rock’s future – if indeed it has one – continues. As was chronicled in Lizzy Goodman’s outstanding book Meet Me In The Bathroom, the early noughties New York boom that gave rise to The Strokes, TV On The Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem was perhaps the last great rock scene.
As someone who was worked with some of the genre’s most iconic acts, does Garret think we’ll have another great rock band?
“Yes,” he replies without hesitation. “It’s interesting that the last great rock scene was in New York in the early 2000s. People forget how derivative that was; it wasn’t a new idea. When I first heard The Strokes, I could hear elements of Iggy Pop and Tom Petty. I mean, it was a backward looking scene. The pressure on rock and roll to be new is unreasonable. But the advantage that rock and roll has, generally, is that’s it’s a collective thing.
“With solo artists, obviously, it’s a brand and an individual identity. Whereas, with a band, it’s more, ‘What happens if we put all these fuckers together and they’re pushing and pulling in different directions?’ Because there’s so many people involved, it’s hard for bands to survive. I mean, Madonna’s producers or Bjork’s collaborators might change. But for a band, it’s just the members and it’s tough.”
Lee also notes that – particularly in the gruelling world of today’s music industry – it can be a difficult slog for bands.
“So many can’t last the distance,” he reflects. “The ones that do become big and headline arenas. With groups, there’s a lot of excitement around the idea that it’s a gang and it’s an exclusive thing. Like, when you saw a picture of The Ramones, you knew that you weren’t going to be able to hang out with them. It’s the same when you saw The Strokes – there’s an exclusivity to it that’s really compelling. Or NWA: you’re not allowed in.
“Bands should be leaning into the experimentation and artistry of today’s great music, like To Pimp A Butterfly – that album doesn’t give a fuck whether you like it or not. It’s just a personal expression and you have to listen.”
- The Jacknife Lee is out now on Slow Kid Records.
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