slow magazine the revolution will be photocopied

slow #1/spring 1998

I can think of no-one Iíd rather have pull a switchblade on me in a seedy Soho alley. Which is lucky because thatís what happened.
Who is Jim White? Itís tough to describe the man, as even heís not Jim White himself in reality. Brought up in Florida, he was heavily involved at various points in his life in the Pentecostal church, drugs, and pro surfing. Add to these time as a model on the catwalks of Milan and financing his way through film school via a stint in New York cabs. That stint was ten years long, and eventually illness and exhaustion forced Jim off the road and into bed, where he now had time to pick up an electric guitar. Through the usual route of stuff just kinda happening he released his debut album Wrong-Eyed Jesus via David Byrneís Luaka Bop label last year. Fantastic stories in a beautiful country style that, at times, ache with the sorrow of the misunderstood, and, at other times, are just downright strange. He is the nicest man Iíve ever interviewed.

Why did you change your name – was it a music biz thing?
Thereís two reasons. One of them is practical and the other is esoteric. Well, one of them is slightly esoteric and the other is crazy, letís put it that way. When the record company called me and said that they wanted me to perform I thought Iíd prefer to be executed, and they said ďYouíre gonna have to do this if you want people to hear your songsĒ and I said ďWell maybe I wonít do it.Ē I talked to my friend Jim Creek and he said ďItís gonna help people to hear your songs so you have to figure out a way to do itĒ – so I took his name Jim and another friend of mine who has always encouraged me and been kind to me – Steven White – so itís an homage to them first of all; itís a way to hide myself cos this isnít me, this isnít me here. But the second part is I had a lot of spooks and ghosts chasing me around, and I had a hunch that when I changed my name they wouldnít be able to find me. So far itís worked, Iíve lost them. Itís like Iím standing in the midst of them and theyíre looking around for me saying ďWhere is he, so we can scare him?Ē
Surely wandering around the world telling people that you've changed your name would alert them?
No. Itís exactly what you have to do. If you try to hide you become conspicuous, you know what I mean? When this started the record company said ďYouíre gonna have to decide whether or not youíre gonna tell people you have another nameĒ and I said ďOf course Iím gonna tell them I have another name.Ē It would be the wrong kind of lie, yíknow – thereís the right kind of lie and the wrong kind of lie. The right kind of lie is said with a wink, and everything I do I hope is permeated with a wink.

You've had quite a career path so far, are these changes of your own making or do you just wind up in situations and see what happens?
Itís a function of a lot of things. Itís a function of the fact that I donít have a conspicuous ambition, like I donít necessarily want to be something. Iím not convinced that thatís a fruitful path for me so I let things occur. And because I let things occur kinda strange and remarkable things that wouldnít happen in most peopleís lives take place. Iím sort of free of a certain amount of inertia that other people get into. But I say that having driven a cab for ten years in New York City, which is a pretty long time and I was almost caught in that, the inertia of driving a cab.
Feeling that this was where you'd end up?
Yeah, getting stuck. I wasnít going to do it much longer – the record company said ďLetís make an albumĒ and then kinda dragged their feet. It took two years to actually make the album.
So you were still driving at this time?
Oh yeah! The last time I drove, believe it or not, was one year ago right now. It was my birthday, tonightís my birthday.
Happy birthday!
Thank you. Iím 41 years old and when I turned 40 I went from 39 to 40 in a cab and let me tell you that was a fucking depressing moment, heh heh, I mean it was depressing as hell.

You said in soundcheck that you have different hats for touring and recording. Do you really think this one travels any better? It's pretty beat up.
Well this one has a story. It does travel better, look! (he folds it up and scuffs it around) You couldnít do that with my other hat. But this hat... I played my home town — no-one knew I was Jim White, they all knew me by my old name — and people started hearing about me and came to the show. One of my ex-girlfriends, who resents me leaving her, showed up. She stayed for about two minutes and left in kind of a weird huff because I had my new girlfriend with me. Four oíclock in the morning, the showís over, my band members are drunk and staggering around and when Iím loading the van by myself I hear a car start up down the street. The headlights come on and it starts racing at me, it swerves really close and out the window comes this hat! It hits me in the face and she drives away. So Iím wearing this in honour of my friend Tara, who is a complex girl who I admire in some ways.
What does it say around the band?
ďJim Whiteís Travelling Hat.Ē What else would it say? Any hatís good if you let it sit on your head long enough, youíve just gotta let it find out how it belongs to you.

You're contracted for six albums – do you think music will hold you for that long?
Thatís sort of a misdirection, the whole idea of being contracted for six albums – what theyíre saying is they have the option to do six albums. If this first album hadnít come out well there wouldnít have been any talk of two or three or four or five or six. Itís been well received. They know Iíve written thousands of songs already and that I could write a new song every day.
Do you?
When Iím at home, yeah. Not when Iím on the road – when Iím on the road I just have to keep thinking ďYouíre Jim White youíre Jim White youíre Jim WhiteĒ – itís distracting. So when Iím at home I can just let myself float and be a more amorphous being. And so there will be a second album certainly; if I learn how to make a living at this there will be a third album.
Have you record anything for it yet?
No. I have all the songs written, I have most of the songs written, weíll be playing some tonight for you to hear. You see, the first album I was sitting on the edge of the world when I recorded it, really fearful of death and really haunted. With the second album Iím feeling a little bit more cocky about things, so thereís going to be a little bit more defiance in it.

Music's the thing that's going right in your life, then?
You know I canít say somethingís going right because I could take a step here and die.
You were saying you feel more confident.
Itís nice to have validation from the world. Itís also nice to have it not mean very much to ya, heh heh heh, you know what I mean?
Yeah, like it would matter whether people think you're bad or good at what you're doing?
Well, if they said I was bad I wouldnít let it bother me that much, I wouldíve gone and done something else. I have faith in myself that I can do something, but itís nice that Iíve stumbled across something that thereís a pretty big consensus that Iím doing a good job. Thatís nice.
But would you go back to something you'd done before, or try something completely new again?
It depends on the context, you know. I mean Iím gonna go back and start surfing again pretty soon. I moved back to my home town recently. Who was it, Emerson I think, said ďA foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.Ē I donít want to say that Iíll never do something again – I wonít ever drive a cab again — unless the Russians take over the world and consign me to a cab-driving prison or something. Not that I have anything against the Russians, itís just an example.

What's you relationship with religion now?
Well itís a question I have a pat answer for Iím sorry to say. I donít care much about religion. I love religious people, but personally it doesnít have that much appeal to me. I like to watch it. like you like watching TV.
It's more an interest in spirituality?
Yeah. Iím interested in finding my own little abstract path to God, which has nothing to do with an organised attempt through community. I love people and I try to be humane and decent and all those things, not because Iím looking for some reward but because I like the idea of the world being a better place. I donít know if thatís spiritual – spirituality to them is sort of like when you have all the numbers in front of you and then you get a different sum.

Are you interested in being famous?
Did you hear at the end of the album? Way at the end thereís a desperate voice saying ďYou famous people! Let me in!Ē Iíll tell you something – I went to see Iggy Pop the other night and I was more interested in meeting the bouncers and the cook than I was in Iggy Pop. I mean heís a fabulous person but I like marginal people who have never succeeded, yíknow. So no I donít care about famous people.
My problem is with people who think they're more famous than they are.
Heh heh heh. Oh well thereís always some little twist of fate which can prove them contrary. Itís a ridiculous term to begin with, there are degrees to fame, like I was famous in my little town when I was a surfer. Kids that Iíd never met would walk up to me and say ďHey! I heard you won the US championships! How Ďbout that!Ē and ďI heard you got a new surfboard, itís blue and purple and seven feet long!Ē I mean I didnít know it was seven feet long. Your reputation precedes you, and I didnít much care for it at the time. I donít like walking into a place and having people think Iím something, so If that answers your question... Every person I meet I want them to look at me and I wanna look at them and I wanna say ďOK – who are you and who am I?Ē I was just touring with David Byrne and all these people would come up to him after the show, and they were like rabbits in the headlights. They werenít looking at him as a human being, they were looking at him as...something... I donít know. A mirage.

You're a very gifted storyteller – have you published anything other than your songs?
I published one story in the New York University Press, they have a little book that comes out every year. Itís called Kimosabe and it was really like the literary origin of where all these other stories come from. Itís the first story I wrote where I said ďUh oh, this is my voice.Ē Iíd written lots of stories and struggled with who I was and how to say who I was for a long time and suddenly I understood the voice that I needed to depict who I was with. Hopefully thereíll be other things that come out – I have a whole collection of short stories, I have feature films, I have all kinds of things that Iíve written. Iíve been real busy, I just havenít taken it out to the world, just like the songs.

What was your film The Beautiful World about?
The film I made was about a crazy homeless man who was corresponding with a beautiful woman in Paris. Heís told her heís young and handsome and successful — theyíve never net, theyíre penpals. Itís all lies, heís built his world on lies. She suddenly decides to come and visit him and he has to find a way to make lies true, and because heís crazy he settles on a bad scheme. Thatís the storyline – thereís an idea of redemption in it, a lot of confused metaphors and symbols – sometimes they work and sometimes they donít. I look at the film and feel itís very flawed. Film-making isnít really my medium because to be a film-maker you have to be a special kind of person that can do everything well. Iím good with the ideas, the dialogue and things like that but Iím not good with the realisation of it, cinema-wise.

I saw the video for Book of Angels on MTV. Were you responsible for the concepts shown there?
Really? Me and my friend Steven White — whose name Iím using — shot it down at my best friend Tylerís house down in, itís a bunch of inbred people, really crazy people, down in Mayport, Florida. We thought ďWell, letís do the white trash night from hell!Ē and we went out and shot it. Itís imperfect, once again I donít think my strength is in production. I made a version of it which the record company said we canít use cos there was guns and we were setting things on fire, and a lot of drinking and smoking. They had to sanitise it so that it could be broadcast.
You seem surprised that it's been shown, are you taken aback by the recognition you've received?
I took a lot of beating, yíknow, and when youíve taken years and years of beating you flinch at every movement. When the movement is not only not a beating but itís some sort of consoling – youíre surprised.

A naive question to end on – how clear is your vision of heaven?
Well, I see moments of heaven, I mean I donít think itís a bad question. I see moments of heaven where Iím free of myself. I think that true heaven is to be in union, and to be in union means that you lose your identity, that there is nobody there. I was doing this show in Washington DC, we were wedged in between two western swing bands and the line-dancing and the whole thing, and as soon as we got on stage man – phew! – that dancefloor was empty! I do most of my set with my eyes closed because I canít concentrate looking into peopleís eyes – I look at their faces and think ďwhatís that personís life like?Ē – but I had my eyes closed and the floor was empty and every once in a while Iíd open them and the floor would still be empty. And I was singing the song Still Waters, I was singing the part about how this guy stumbles across this man, this drunk whoíd hung himself. He was dead and swinging in this tree and it was a sad, mournful sound and I opened my eyes and these two people were line-dancing to it! And at that moment I felt like I was in heaven. Thereís two ways to get into heaven I guess – when everything is perfectly right and when everything is perfectly wrong – and Iíll never get to heaven the perfectly right way.


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