Background Noise, Volume 88: Gregory Jacobsen

Gregory Jacobsen

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have more than a passing curiosity for the grotesque. Maybe it was Elton John’s Heironymous Bosch-inspired cover art for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy lying around the house throughout my entire childhood. Maybe I watched Faces of Death too early. I’ve always been drawn to things that are different…things I can’t look away from.

I guess you could call Gregory’s artwork grotesque, but it’s grotesque in a really beautiful way. Despite many of his oil paintings showing off humans and animals with drooping pockets of fat, exposed flesh, and muscle tissue, and textures that give you that uneasy feeling just enough to make you shiver a bit, the paintings are colorful and sometimes even humorous. It’s a perfect mix.

Gregory loves music. A great deal, actually. As it turns out, as a result of his great taste in music, he and I actually corresponded 15 years ago, before I was even aware of his art. He had a blog I followed called Cake & Polka Parade, where he (under the name Fatty Jubbo) posted great, weird songs that I ate right up. He also had a radio show of the same name on WFMU, whose blog I was also a contributor to. Small world, indeed.

Oh, and he has an excellent band called Little Lovely Girls which puts out music on the envelope-pushing Skin Graft label out of Chicago. I tried numerous times to write a sentence here to describe what the music sounds like, but none of it did it justice. Just watch the band’s video after the gallery below and see for yourself. (Gregory made the masks, art directed, and co-directed the video as well).

Check out his detailed answers to my questions below and maybe even listen to his excellent playlist as you read.

What was the first album you bought?
Michael JacksonThriller: I loved Michael Jackson and believed I was able to dance like him. I remember being on my bed and doing lewd crotch-cupping dances to PYT. Ha! I would tell everyone on my block that I was a dancer and demonstrate my ridiculous dance routines in the middle of the street.

What was the last album you bought?
Evil Sword Agony of the Wart God: Evil Sword is a weird band from Philadelphia. It’s really stripped down and raw, sorta like Caroliner Rainbow, but with more melody. Their stage show is very involved- they have a giant set as if they’re performing in some haunted woods.

What was your first concert?
Rollins Band at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ 1992 – I was Black Flag and Rollins obsessed at this time, so it was very exciting to see this show. City Gardens was an incredibly strange venue. It was a giant warehouse in a terrible neighborhood in Trenton. My friend’s dad drove us, as it was part of his divorce visitation rights. My friend would just have him drive us to record stores or to City Gardens every weekend. He would go somewhere and probably drink until the show was over.

COC opened and was playing when we got there. I immediately went towards the stage, snaking through the crowd. It felt like my ears were going to explode; I had never experienced such intense volume, and I quickly retreated to the back of the venue, next to the bar. Rollins was there, next to the bathrooms, arms crossed, looking very focused. I tried not to pay attention, but my friends were very excited and went up to him to say hello or whatever. He was very cordial. He was doing his pre-show routine, and I didn’t want to fuck with that!

Last concert you went to?
The last show my band, Lovely Little Girls, played. It was in early January as part of a three-day/multiple-venue fest of mostly Chicago-based bands. We went on way too early and played to almost no one. I was hoping to see Tropical Fuck Storm in April, but the pandemic came rolling in. I haven’t been going to see live music much lately. I’m a bit jaded, and it usually cuts into my work schedule. Once I’m out of the studio, I usually don’t want to go back, so I force myself to stay in. The FOMO dissipates with time.

Was there one album that made a significant impression on you?
There are too many to list, so I’ll limit it to three.

The Fall Grotesque: My high school art teacher was really into all the original Manchester punk, and would always be playing it during class. All of it was good, but hearing The Fall was something else. I had never heard anything like it before- from the strange playing, the odd dissonant guitar, the lumbering bass, and then the singer, good ol’ Mark E. Smith. His vocal delivery was captivating. It was forceful and snotty, but not in a cliche way that I had come to expect from punk and metal. And what was that strange accent? and what’s up with all the “-uh”s at the end of each line? I played Totale’s Turn daily. It’s a live record, extremely raw. I have always had a mental image of the show; that’s how vivid and impactful the performance and shitty recording is.

It was Grotesque that really cemented my obsession, though. The songs are even weirder- like an avant-garde rockabilly group that is about to fall apart. The lyrics and delivery are so dense and cryptic. I played my cassette dub every day for a few years. I still marvel over the lyrics. They’re so cutting, insightful, baffling, yet so poetic, conjuring up images and situations through a garble of disconnected ideas and phrases.

US MapleSang Phat Editor: US Maple really crafted something so fucking bizarre with their second album Sang Phat Editor. Every element is like a perfect puzzle piece that illogically locks with everything else, and it still swings, and despite all the structural-fuckery, the songs are memorable pop gems. The bare-bones recording of this album is something fantastic as well; I can visualize them playing this in a completely barren white room, every musical element is laid out naked. It was also very special seeing them play this material live in the mid-90s. It was note-for-note like the record.

Arrigo Barnabe Clara Crocodilo: WFMU had a blog in the 00s that posted a song from this record. I immediately had to track it down as it checked every box I was looking for in music: odd rhythms that were still funky, crazy time signatures piled on top of each other, an amazing horn section, weird 12-tone melodies, eerie but playful female chanting vocals, an idiosyncratic frontman acting as a storyteller of sorts, a back-and-forth between male and female vocals. Barnabe often gets reduced to being “the Brazilian Zappa” by lazy writers, but it’s nothing like that.

Who is your musical hero?
I guess anyone that has created their own world and vocabulary through music and has let it evolve through the years and has strived for innovation rather than retreading their past glories. Some people I know personally that do this, and who are always inspiring, are Thymme Jones, Weasel Walter, and Todd Rittmann. They have been in it for the long haul.

How important is music to your creative process?
I focused on sound art and performance when I was in art school. I didn’t do much painting. Sound and music seemed so much more exciting and vital. Having this background has informed my work a great deal in that I’ll make decisions based on rhythm and color. My musical and sound interests have always revolved around the dissonant and odd. I’m always experimenting with wrong color combinations, I’m always rearranging my compositions until they click, but still feel slightly off.

I have been performing with bands since the early 2000s as a singer/front-person. My onstage persona has informed my paintings in my gestural use of my body, or how I might frame myself with a musician on stage. Every moment is a potential composition. It also goes the other way- the way I make a painting influences the way I lead the band in the songwriting process. I am a big proponent of erasing. Nothing is sacred. If it doesn’t work, trash it, or put it to the side for later. So maybe we are working on a song- our work is really compositionally dense, kinda prog-ish, if a part isn’t working, trash it. The same goes for my paintings. You would not believe how many other paintings exist underneath the final surface. Start with excess, reduce it down to a line, and work it back up from there.

As far as music when I’m painting- I go through cycles, and it’s often dependent on which process of the painting I’m working on. I like silence. It’s underrated. Music is complicated stuff and should be treated more than a background soundtrack. But then I’ll go on long jags of only listening to music; it jump-starts my brain. I also listen to a lot of talk – podcasts, etc. It’s lonely in the studio. This is probably why I often listen to The Fall while working- Mark E. Smith’s delivery and lyrics are like eavesdropping on a conversation on the train or a couple of seats over at the bar.

BONUS: Is there any music, in particular, getting through this strange time we’re living through?
My routine isn’t that different at this point. I have always been cooped up for days! weeks! months! painting and drawing. I have no life. I was built for quarantine. As things get more terrible, I would think I would put on the ol’ nihilism playlist like Flipper, early PIL, etc, but I’m mostly listening to very disco-ish, rhythm-based stuff, usually spanning 1975-84, or revisiting 70s chart-hits that I mostly remember from the roller rink or carnival. I have been going back to a lot of shit I wrote off when I was a kid because it represented normal boring culture, everything I tried to run away from. Once music is stripped of its associative elements, I can enjoy it on its own merits. I heard Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer the other day, and I thought, “huh, I like his delivery.” I resisted Spotify for so long, but now having it is great- I can go down so many rabbit holes that would be too time-consuming in the past (i.e.: downloading from Soulseek, organizing files, actually listening to files, etc.) As I get older, I think it’s important to keep up with new popular music, because if I don’t I feel old and out of touch. When I was in my twenties, I totally divorced myself from it. I prided myself on it. I was in a pop-culture black hole from 94-01. That whole era is lost on me. Now, I want to find every song that sounds like Bodak Yellow where some lady complains about shit over a really skeletal beat; it’s kinda like The Fall!

“No Guilt” – The Waitresses
“Que Pasa / Me No Pop I” – Coati Mundi
“Walking Betteriewoman” – The Carla Bley Band
“Desamor – Ao Vivo” – Arrigo Barnabé, Luiz Tatit, Lívia Nestrovski
“Money to Burn” – james chance
“Is It All Over My Face? – Female Version” – Loose Joints
“Hurricane Edward” – The Fall
“Letter to ZZ Top” – U.S. Maple
“In My Head – Live” – Black Flag
“Into the Crypts of Rays” – Celtic Frost

Check out Gregory’s playlist below on Spotify. Be sure to like Background Noise on Facebook for updates on future episodes. You can browse ALL the Background Noise episodes right here.

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