Oct 4, 2005

An Interview with Jute

I stumbled across Jute’s music purely by chance. After reading a review of A Violent Narcotic on some other site, I ordered it shortly thereafter from CDBaby, and was promptly floored. Bearing some similarities to Massive Attack’s darker moments, the debut was an exotic blend of downtempo beats, exotic atmospheres, and 4AD-esque vocals. Essentially, it was practically everything I had been expecting from Massive Attack’s 100th Window (also released that year).

The following is an e-mail interview I conducted with the band over the course of a few weeks, in which they discuss recording A Violent Narcotic, their upcoming sophomore release, and the perils of being a truly independent band, among other things.

First things first. How and when did Jute get started When Jute began, was your music at all similar to what’s on A Violent Narcotic, or did it develop over time And why “Jute”?

Julie Axis: We formed in 1999 when Robb Shakespeare moved from Iowa to Chicago to work with Joe and I. We started writing and recording our first CD, A Violent Narcotic. Mike, our bass player, joined in 2001. We finished the CD that year and began playing live shows along with our first drummer Dan Smith, who had been playing in bands with Joe for 10 years. Dan recently left the band and Joe St. Charles has taken his place on drums. We also have a visual artist that is part of our band — Arturo Valle. He does live video mixing while we perform.

The first songs we wrote were “Narcotic” and “Clay,” both of which made it to the CD. I think they have a similar feel. They are a bit sad and even wistful. We are tending to move away from that type of writing and moving into a more confident sound.

Jute is twine made from hemp. It has a particular smell — resinous and earthy. I love it. It reminds me of the best parts of my childhood. My mother used to make macrame plant holders out of it and whenever I smell jute, it reminds me of a particular place and time. Instantly it draws me back. I love that about the sense of smell — the connection with memory is very strong. I chose the name originally for my side project, when I was in My Scarlet Life from 1996-2001. When we formed Jute as a band, I ran the name past the guys and they liked it a lot, so we kept it.

Listening to A Violent Narcotic, a lot of influences immediately come to mind — trip-hop stuff like Massive Attack, but also ambient artists like Robert Rich and classic groups like Dead Can Dance. But looking back, who or what do you see as influencing Jute’s sound?

Julie: Yes, Massive Attack is a big influence on that CD. Also Tricky’s Maxinquaye CD, as well as ambient/urban artists like DJ Shadow and UNKLE. Also our favorites: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, Tool, Curve. We were also very much influenced by our state of mind and the state of the world when we were writing and recording the CD. We were all a little sad I think. We felt defeated by our circumstances. No one was talking about anything of importance. After 9/11 happened, I think people started to feel the way we were feeling: confused by the commercialism of the US, a good idea gone bad, a mass hypnosis. I think we are waking up. And now we are pissed that we have been lied to.

The songs on A Violent Narcotic are incredibly lush and detailed, with many layers of sound. How do you go about creating these songs Does it all start out fairly skeletal, on just a piano or guitar Do you begin with some interesting beats or textures and work from there?

Joe Axis: Most of the songs we come up with usually start with a beat and bassline. Then we work from there, just adding things piece by piece. We jam around the groove that we’ve laid down and the melody and vocals usually just fall into place. We don’t have any set formula of writing, it just usually works out that the beat and the bass come first.

Robb Shakespeare: The way a song can be conceived varies as much as the song titles. If I find myself getting into a particular beat, I’ll try and come up with sound textures and bedding to give a foundation. Joe and I will come up with rough tracks on our own, then we hand over what we’ve been working on to each other, [and] all along Julie is adding bits and ideas for vocals. The songs then start to take shape and [the] orchestration of structure begins. Some of the songs on A Violent Narcotic had close to fifty tracks. Mixing it was pretty intense.

I hear a lot of exotic and worldly flourishes in Jute’s music, specifically the drones and percussion on “Advent Of Zero” and the middle-eastern chants on “Darksand.” But the CD as a whole has a very darkly exotic, almost spiritual aspect to it at times. Does world music influence or interest you at all, or was it more a case of these just being interesting samples that added to the music’s vibe?

Joe: Well, to be honest I am not a big fan of what has become known as “World Music.” I am definitely interested in Eastern culture and history and I love sitar, but a lot of the “World Music” that I have been exposed to doesn’t really set me off. Any middle-eastern quality to our music most likely just came about by chance. We all enjoy the cool trippy sound of middle-eastern instruments, but I would be more inclined to sit at home listening to DJ Shadow, Rage Against The Machine, or Radiohead.

Robb: I’m drawn to the darker tones that are often found in Eastern music. There is so much history in the notes that are played. So much conviction.

A Violent Narcotic was self-released, correct Why did you go that route, instead of trying to get the interest of a label to release the CD?

Julie: Being signed to a label is not always a good thing. It can maybe bring you more exposure, if you get with a good label, or it can give someone else control over your music and they do nothing with it. We decided to go with having control over our presentation. Also, I think we wanted to get the music out as quickly as possible. Waiting for a label to pick us up wasn’t in our best interest.

It may be possible that the next CD is picked up by a label, but we are not holding our breath. The labels are in turmoil. No one knows what to do. The old formula is no longer useful or advantageous. Until they get their act together, we are forging ahead on our own path. We have people who help us. We sort of out-source some of the work. We maintain control and we make sure the work gets done.

It’s been two years since the release of A Violent Narcotic. Are there future releases on the horizon How would you say that Jute has evolved musically since that release?

Julie: Yes, we are working on a second CD as we speak. We are much more confident in our songwriting and message. We are drifting away from the sadder tunes. We don’t feel sad right now. We feel a bit angry, but hopeful. We feel we can do something about it now. Our hands are not tied like before. I think that will be felt in the new songs.

Joe: Like Julie said, we are currently working on our second CD. In my opinion the next CD is going to be a greater statement of who we are. Not to say that A Violent Narcotic doesn’t represent us — it does — only I feel that we were still developing when we wrote and recorded it. Now we have been a solid unit for going on 5 years and it shows in our music. The new songs seem a bit more menacing to me. Not aggressive, but definitely more solid.

Given the amount of atmosphere and texture in your music, how do you go about translating that into a live experience What sort of compromises do you have to make in order to successfully replicate your music live What sort of things take place within the music in a live setting that one doesn’t necessarily get just listening to the recordings?

Julie: It’s not easy. It is a delicate balance. We have changed some parts in order to play them live. We have re-arranged some tunes. We don’t feel so much that it is a compromise. It is a different setting. People want to feel the energy of a song when they see it performed live. We don’t play the really slow songs live. We tried once and it put people to sleep.

If we can’t do a song justice live, then we don’t do it. Or we save it for the right setting. We did an acoustic set and performed all of our slower songs — it was the right venue and the right volume. It was a really nice show. We had several friends sit in with us — our cello player friend Dave Keller, and Amy Spina on percussion.

In our live show, we try to bring across the sensuality in a visual way. The music on the recording is image-evoking and we try to bring that to life. We work with a VJ who projects images behind us while we play the songs. Arturo Valle, our VJ, does live video mixing — he improvises the images set to the mood of our performance. It is really cool what he can do. He is an integral part of the live show. We also have back-up singers to flesh out the vocal sound. I am a big fan of harmonies and we have a lot of that going on live. I hope that people leave our show feeling energized and creative.

You mention that the new album is taking a more aggressive route, and earlier, you mentioned September 11th — all of the tragedy that surrounded that event, as well as some of the things it revealed about our current system. Is this new, more aggressive bent in response to all of that? In response to the current social and political climate? Or is it primarily a result of you growing more confident in your sound as a band Or a bit of both?

Julie: I think when we were writing A Violent Narcotic, things were confusing. I felt a nervousness but didn’t know why. No one was talking. There was a sense of [the] calm before the storm. But I don’t think many people recognized it. On the day Bush got elected, Joe said to me, “This guy is going to take us to war.” And he was right. I think now the picture is much clearer.

When you sense calamity, but can’t identify the source, it makes a person anxious and depressed. That’s where we were during the writing of A Violent Narcotic. Now, some of my feelings have been justified. And my lyrics on the new CD will most likely reflect that. Plus, I think we have grown together as people and as musicians/songwriters. We know what Jute is and what it sounds like.

The first CD identified us — as in “Jute is a piece of clay.” The second will sculpt us into a beautiful form. And if you follow the comparison to its conclusion, I imagine the third will see us fired in the kiln, and the fourth will be us sitting on a shelf somewhere holding water and flowers — being useful. So, yes, a bit of both.

Joe: It is definitely a bit of both. We’ve definitely grown as a band. Playing together for some time now has made us a more cohesive unit. I think we have a better understanding of each other as musicians as well as individuals. As far as the political/social influence is concerned, we all try to stay on top of what is happening around the world. We live in a very intense and interesting time. The issues of the world are bound to make an impact on our music as well as our lives in general.

Robb: There are lots of variables. Social climate is a factor. Also, just wanting to branch out and expand the sound plays a role. I really have no desire to make A Violent Narcotic, Part 2. That picture has been painted.

It’s pretty impressive that you’ve decided to sidestep the entire “label dilemma,” at least with the first album. The CD is a pretty professional package, easily on par with many label releases. But were there any compromises you felt you had to make in the course of recording the album? Things that you had wanted to do, but just couldn’t because of a lack of money and other resources?

Julie: Thank you. We were very happy with the production of the CD. There are always compromises, at every level. So, we aren’t unhappy at all with how our CD turned out.

We tried to work in a studio with someone else mixing the CD and us looking over their shoulder trying to direct things. That didn’t go well. It was frustrating. Joe and Robb wanted to be hands on and it was driving them nuts. They knew what they wanted as far as production goes, but translating that into words and then back into sound was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. We decided that Joe and Robb would do the production, even if it meant releasing the CD a little later than we had originally planned. It was the only way we could get what we wanted and be satisfied with it. The compromise for us usually comes down to a lack of time. If we didn’t have to work day jobs or devote a lot of time to school, we’d have 3 CDs out by now.

Joe: I think that there are always small compromises that have to be made when you are working in a group… but I never felt that we had lost anything because of them. More time and money would ultimately open more options but they could also yield a less focused piece of work. Just because you have a ton of options at your fingertips doesn’t mean you need to use all of them. I think we actually pull a lot of interesting things out of having limited gear and funds. I think it makes us work harder.

Based on your experiences, what sort of advice would you give for a band that wants to take a similar, independent route?

Julie: I think there are a lot of bands out there that are going the route we are going and I would highly recommend it, but there is a sense of despair about this route. It seems that bands/musicians are seeking some sort of validation for what they do. Being on a label satisfies them in some way. I don’t think it is so important to have someone else justify your art. I would say to other bands, take control of your life and your work. Don’t give it away to some label who wants to mold you into money and continually take a slice out of you until nothing is left. That’s not what I look forward to. I know of so many stories where bands got a label’s attention and they were excited to think they were finally going to go somewhere. They ended up worse off than before. We are already where we need to be. Our fans are finding us.

Joe:?Anyone who thinks that being a musician in a working band is easy has obviously never been in one. First and foremost, you need to love music and simply have a burning desire to create. If you are playing in a band for the dreams of striking it rich… I’m afraid you are in for a rude awakening. Music and art is a true labour of love, any success we may gain from it is bonus. Obviously it would be the greatest scenario to be able to support yourself through your art, but the odds of that happening are stacked greatly against you. It is about the need to create!

Robb: Never underestimate the power of the Internet. The web turned the record label industry upside down. It’s uncharted waters more than ever in that sense. Learn all you can about every aspect of the business. There is so much information available and it’s crucial that you find it, read it, and stay on top of it.

Networking is a must. The reality is that you can only count on yourselves, but at least you know what your motives are. You have to have the passion to make it work one way or another. What are you going to do Are you going to stop creating and pursuing a passion just because a corporate executive doesn’t think you will make the label a quick buck No… you make it work.

You mentioned a number of people that have helped you out in a number of ways. Is there a sense of artistic community in your area, something that encourages that sort of collaboration, where people interact and exchange ideas and skills? Or was it more of a coincidental thing, in that you just happened to come across these people that could help out in various ways?

Julie: I wish!!! But I think you are talking about a Utopia that doesn’t exist. A place where “people interact and exchange ideas and skills.” That sounds wonderful! Not to be too sarcastic, but I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t found that group in Chicago. Maybe they are out there, but I haven’t found them. I feel isolated as an artist in the Midwest making music that isn’t indie-rock or punk or angry chick or sugar pop or heavy. I dunno. We don’t fit in. We isolate ourselves to some degree because we don’t go out as much as before. Modern culture in the U.S. depresses me.

Joe:?I am the only native of Chicago in the band… so what does that tell you? Not that I don’t love this city for a number of reasons, but it is more of a love/hate relationship. I definitely think that the people we have been fortunate enough to collaborate with has been [by] sheer coincidence. I agree with Julie when it comes to American pop culture. It is a big void. There is some great music and art being made in America today, but you really need to dig deep to find it… so get a good shovel.

Robb: I don’t think there is lack of community in general. It’s more a lack of people in our specific box. I mean, I’m sure we would have no problem finding a larger community of people if our band sounded like The Strokes. Chicago is firmly rooted in indie-rock, hip-hop, and house. There is a large community in those scenes, but we don’t really fit into any of those boxes, so we find ourselves searching out the like-minded individuals. We would probably find this dilemma in most U.S. cities.

On a positive note, the Internet has been a great tool for communicating with like-minded people. We are in contact with people all around the world, probably more so than with peers in our own city of Chicago.