When Jandek takes the stage at UC Irvine Saturday as part of the continuing series presented by the Acrobatics Everyday collective, it’ll be unique in a number of ways. It’ll be the first show the Texas musician has played in Southern California, despite releasing more than 40 albums since 1978. It’ll be the first time he has played with the two performers accompanying him—Mike Watt (the legendary San Pedro bassist for the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, the Stooges and many others) and B.J. Miller (the inspired drummer for the Los Angeles noise act Health). And nobody knows exactly what will happen onstage, whether Jandek will be playing guitar, piano, singing, speaking, all of it, none of it—nobody knows except maybe Jandek himself, and, as usual, he’s not talking.
“I haven’t been contacted [by Jandek] yet,” Miller says. “I’m just going to show up and see what happens. An e-mail came to Health to see whether we’d be down for that—the promoter said he was looking for a hard-hitting drummer that wasn’t too jazzy.”
It’s all part of the continuing mystique that Jandek has crafted and maintained about his art and life. Though he did take advantage of the space created by late-’70s punk and DIY music, he didn’t specifically ally himself with those movements—or anything else. Indeed, as the excellent 2003 documentary film Jandek on Corwood details, he became quietly famous to a worldwide network of fans in large part due to his extreme personal reticence. (The documentary consists of others speaking about him.)
Jandek runs his label Corwood via a P.O. box in Houston, Texas—a label that has only released Jandek’s full-length albums; Jandek has never released anything on any other label. His public face has always been that of his music and, for a long time, the cover art on each album. Sometimes, he would be pictured, in photos ranging from youth to an increasingly older gentleman, a lanky figure often posed near or in what appears to be the same house. While he readily fulfilled mail orders, he turned down nearly all interview requests (two “on the record” discussions occurred nearly 15 years apart, and only one of them was specifically about his work) and, in the early years, was never known to have played live.
His music defied easy description. For the most part rejecting anything so straightforward as verses and choruses, Jandek’s songs often feel like free, immediate compositions—sometimes solo efforts featuring skeletal, always unusually or uniquely tuned guitar and his often moaning, murmured vocals, with other times being exultant group efforts with what appears to be a small clutch of performers or sometimes simply recited lyrics or fragments of same. Calling it rock & roll stretches most definitions of the term, but calling it anything else is equally hard.
This state of affairs suddenly changed in 2004 when Jandek appeared, completely unannounced, at an experimental-music festival in Scotland, backed by an ad-hoc band. The second phase of his career began there: He has since made similar appearances worldwide on an incredibly irregular basis, ranging from solo performances and duets to large-group-backing efforts, often including many of the musicians who have declared their fandom for him over time (i.e., Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats). One memorable Houston-area appearance led to a near-funk jam that was shared online, at once thrilling and surprising his supporters.
While one would think such a rhythm-heavy performance would especially appeal to Miller, he says he feels otherwise. “I’ve seen some of the performances on YouTube, and the acoustic stuff without the drums really struck me. I’m into songwriting in particular, anything that’s a little bit extraordinary,” he says. “The whole alternate/absolute tuning on his guitar struck me as ‘Wow—I’ve never quite heard anything like this!’ It hits me in a solemn place.”
Jandek currently intersperses releases of a number of these performances as live albums and DVDs with his own continuing studio efforts, all without otherwise changing his general approach to interviews and the public gaze. In the documentary, another longtime fan, Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records and Beat Happening, approvingly notes that “just because someone chooses not to participate in mass media does not mean that there’s something wrong with that person.”
And thus, the inevitable mystique. “That’s been the coolest part so far,” Miller says. “A lot of people are going, ‘You’re kidding! I’m coming and bringing a group of people.’ I wish I had more to expand on, but that’s the beauty of it—it’s up in the air.”
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Jandek performs with Mike Watt and B.J. Miller at UC Irvine’s Crystal Cove Auditorium, Pereira and W. Peltason drs., Irvine. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $20; advance tickets available from acrobaticseveryday.com and brownpapertickets.com. For more info on Jandek, visit tisue.net/jandek.
This article appeared in print as "Hiding In Plain Sight: Outsider-music icon Jandek brings his monastic mystique to OC."