||This article possibly contains original research. (June 2009)|
Jandek performing at the Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival in Montreal, Canada in 2007
|Birth name||Sterling Richard Smith|
|Born||October 26, 1945|
|Origin||Houston, Texas, United States|
|Genres||Folk, blues, experimental, rock, outsider|
|Instruments||Guitar, bass, keyboards, harmonica, piano, drums, organ, accordion, vocals|
Jandek is the musical project of Sterling Richard Smith, an outsider musician who operates out of Houston, Texas. Since 1978, Jandek has self-released over 70 albums of unusual, often emotionally dissolute folk and blues songs without ever granting more than the occasional interview or providing any biographical information. Jandek often plays a highly idiosyncratic and frequently atonal form of folk and blues music, often using an open and unconventional chord structure. Jandek's music is unique, but the lyrics closely mirror the country blues and folk traditions of East Texas. The name "Jandek" is most commonly used to refer specifically to the main—often sole—performer, rather than to the project.
Only a handful of people claimed to have successfully contacted Jandek before he began regularly playing in public (see below). He releases albums through his own record label Corwood Industries, keeping a Houston post office box so fans can write to Corwood for a typewritten catalogue and order Jandek’s albums, usually at low prices. Many of his albums feature pictures of a certain man at various ages; although it seemed likely, it was not until Jandek's live debut in 2004 that it became certain that the man depicted on the album covers was the principal performer.
Jandek now often performs live with other musicians, but these collaborations remain the extent of his engagement with the public.
It was widely accepted that Jandek's real name is Sterling Richard Smith (probably born October 26, 1945); a review of Ready for the House in OP magazine, the first ever national press given to Jandek, referred to the artist as Sterling Smith, checks written to Corwood were returned endorsed by Smith, and Smith is listed as the claimant in the copyright records for Jandek's albums at the Library of Congress. This was permanently resolved when his February and March 2014 two-part cover interview with The Wire magazine (Jandek's first-ever face-to-face interview) openly identified him as Sterling Smith in the opening line of the article. However, a small mystery remains, as the editorial of the February edition refers to him as "Sterling P Smith", rather than "R". Corwood has never used the name in connection with Jandek, and, in turn, many of Jandek's fans respectfully maintain this separation. He lives in the area of Houston, Texas, another factoid confirmed in his The Wire interview that was widely believed by his fanbase, as this is the location of the post office box (No. 15375) which has been used by Corwood from the beginning. There is also a telephone number for Corwood Industries listed in the phone book for the area. Corwood happens to share the number with "Sterling Smith Corporation", which appears to be a stock and securities broker.
Smith has kept his personal history an almost absolute secret, revealing only one story about his pre-Corwood years: he wrote seven novels but burned them upon rejection from New York publishers. Aside from that anecdote, virtually nothing is known about his life. He was rumored to have grown up, or at least spent time, in Providence, Rhode Island. This suggestion is not baseless – a handful of early Jandek songs mention either the state itself or the Rhode Island town of Point Judith. In the February part of the interview with The Wire, he confirmed that he, at least, had bought his first guitar on around the early 70's. It has also been suggested that he is well traveled, as several album sleeves depict locations that have been formally identified as being outside the United States. This, however, presumes that all pictures that do not depict Smith were taken by him.
Jandek's first album, Ready for the House, though obviously a solo work, was originally credited to a band called The Units. As explained in an interview in the first issue of Spin, Smith was forced to change the name by an identically named Californian group already in possession of a copyright. All reissues of this first album and all subsequent Corwood releases have been credited to "Jandek". In Trubee's interview, Smith claims he came up with the name Jandek while on the telephone with a person named Decker during the month of January. Smith's initial use of a plural band name (and Corwood's curious tendency to refer to Jandek as "a representative from Corwood Industries") has led some fans to suggest that the reclusive artist intended his oeuvre to be perceived as the work of an anonymous collective rather than that of a single man. Indeed, though roughly two-thirds of his records are solo affairs, the other third have variably featured female vocalists, different male vocalists, bass guitar, electric guitar, drums, and accordion. These contributions are usually credited to outside collaborators, but in the Spin interview as well as a letter to DJ Irwin Chusid the artist admitted to having overdubbed parts himself on occasion, such as on the album The Rocks Crumble. No proper credits list has ever appeared on an album, but song titles have included "Nancy Sings" and "John Plays Drums", though those pieces are two different versions of the same song.
One early theory suggested that all the music was recorded in a single, feverish, possibly manic phase and that after 19 albums the releases would stop. This appeared, at the time, as if it might have some validity – the 21st album, Lost Cause, finished with a sidelong piece called "The Electric End", a crazed instrumental featuring shouted vocals, electric guitar, and microphone feedback. Instead, this seems to have marked the end of the "first band phase." Then the 22nd album arrived and returned to the acoustic and vocal sound that is found on most of the first six Corwood albums (often referred to as "the first acoustic phase"). This continued unabated for seven albums until, in 1999, The Beginning was released, which featured a side-long work of instrumental piano. This ushered in the most controversial period of albums in Corwood's history – three albums of unaccompanied voice. Seemingly recorded on a voice-activated tape recorder, these "spoken word songs" ran up to half an hour in length and taxed even the most devoted followers. After these albums, though, the direction changed again and Jandek returned to a voice and guitar (with occasional harmonica) mixture, though things were different. The guitar was often electric and the voice was decidedly older than that on the previous albums. Further albums have continued the solo approach, though the instrument used has occasionally been a fretless bass, and the songs have stretched progressively longer and the lyrics have become even more personal. Though Corwood still releases albums like this (the most recent is What Was Out There Disappeared), they are now alternated with releases of the live band shows, which are remarkably different and feature unusually tight playing. He currently records at Houston's Sugar Hill studios.
Some of Jandek's allure stems from his small but devoted fan base that includes Sonic Youth, Bill Callahan, Mike Watt, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, Low, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes and K Records founder Calvin Johnson. In the 1980s and 1990s most fans stumbled into the world of Jandek after hearing his music on college radio or freeform stations like WFMU and WCBN-FM, but as the 21st century approached Jandek was just as likely to catch fans through the internet. An "unofficial Jandek website" was founded by Seth Tisue in 1997. It includes complete descriptions of each album and concert and the archives of the Jandek Discussion List.
In the media
Jandek has given only two phone interviews in his entire career, the first conducted by fellow outsider artist John Trubee, for the aforementioned Spin article in 1985. In it, he admitted to having had musical training earlier in life, and refuted an OP magazine reviewer praising "May he never tune his guitar!" by stating that he did indeed tune his guitar, albeit usually to open tunings of his own devising. The Spin article was Jandek's first major press; as the '80s drew to a close, the magazine proclaimed him to be one of the Most Important Artists of the 1980s in a special end-of-decade issue. Outsider music expert Irwin Chusid conducted the second interview and brought quite a bit of attention to Jandek by including an account of his own dealings with Corwood Industries in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music, the accompanying album featuring a track from Ready for the House after Jandek called him in response to Chusid's request for information. Texas Monthly reporter Katy Vine tracked down the "Corwood Representative" and gave an account of her experiences in the August 1999 issue. At Jandek's request Vine kept his name and address a secret.
In 2004 Unicorn Stencil Productions released the first documentary on Jandek, entitled Jandek on Corwood. It was directed by Chad Freidrichs, and produced by Freidrichs and Paul Fehler. Amongst the extras on the DVD release of the documentary is the entire unedited tape of the John Trubee-conducted Spin interview. No one from Corwood Industries is represented on screen, but the label did suggest several people to be interviewed for the movie, including music critics Phil Milstein and Gary Pig Gold, and Katy Vine. Corwood's recommendation of Vine for the documentary is seen as essentially endorsing the contents and confirming the authenticity of the Texas Monthly interview. In October of the same year Jandek stunned the alternative music scene by playing live for what was probably the first time (see live performances section below for details).
In September 2006, author Danen Jobe announced the completion and publication of the first part of his Corwood-sanctioned novel Niagara Blues, released through Scottish publishers Single Cell Press. The book, representing Jobe's imagination of a possible biography of the artist, is almost entirely fictional; its protagonist shares with Jandek only his stage name, song catalog, and a few other facts. British publishers Halfcut Publications announced they would be releasing the complete version of the book in July 2011.
There have been a handful of live shows each year since 2004, and Corwood intends to release all of them on CD in addition to its studio albums. In fact, Corwood puts out more Jandek releases now than ever in its history, releasing five albums in 2005 alone. Summer 2006 saw the release of the first Corwood DVD, a video version of Glasgow Sunday, Jandek's first live performance.
Duality of Self, a record of Jandek's performance in Toronto in September 2006 was premiered at the SXSW Music Festival and Film Festival in March 2007. Produced by Colin Brunton, Jim Mauro, Gary Topp and "The Representative from Corwood", the two-hour concert film was directed by Brunton and editor Ryan Noth, using a five camera set up.
"Tuning the Pulse" a new documentary on Jandek, produced by Ashkan Soltani and Craig Matarrese, premiered at 2013 Chicago International Movies and Music festival. The film follows Jandek and a group of musicians from Minnesota during the rehearsal and the concert. The film's trailer features Jandek discussing his music and interacting with the musicians during the rehearsal and the concert in Mankato. "Tuning the Pulse" mainly focuses on Jandek's creative process as an artist rather than Jandek as a cult figure in music world.
Smith/Jandek gave his first-ever face-to-face interview to The Wire magazine in late 2013; the interview appears in two parts in the February and March 2014 issues, and Smith is the cover artist on the February issue. In the article, Smith clarifies a multitude of theories held by fans about his personal and artistic life, while debunking or dismissing other rumors.
Since Corwood persistently declines to provide any further information, Jandek's fanbase has become fertile ground for various interpretations of both his music and persona. The range of different theories and beliefs are impossible to sum up, but they tend to fall on a spectrum between two extremes. The first see Jandek's persona as entirely transparent – not really a persona at all. They view his albums as a sort of "musical diary", contending that the feeling in his music is too personal, guileless, and extreme in its emotions to be entirely or even (for the stalwarts) partially imagined. As a result these fans are more likely to be interested in the artist's biographical information and are more likely to believe that he is Sterling R. Smith, and that a conceptual separation between the two is largely meaningless. This stance was more popular earlier in Jandek's career.
The second camp take up the opposite stance: they believe that Jandek is an artistic persona bearing little to no resemblance to any specific person. For them the questions regarding Jandek's "true identity", such as whether or not he is Smith, are completely irrelevant. Instead of seeing the Corwood catalogue as a "diary", these fans see it as the work of a self-conscious artist, its lyrics closer to fiction than autobiography. Many of Jandek's newer fans prefer some degree of this stance, and usually prefer to call him "the Representative from Corwood Industries" or "the Rep" for short, rather than Jandek.
For its part, Corwood has stated many times that the listener's impression of Jandek's music is far more important and interesting to the principal performer than his original intent for it.
The mystery of Jandek's identity was partially resolved in October 2004 when he performed live at the Instal 04 music festival in Glasgow, Scotland. This was Jandek's first known live appearance and he performed with Richard Youngs (bass) and Alex Neilson (drums). The man on stage was obviously the same man who appears on the album covers. Per Corwood's stipulations, the performance was not publicized in advance, nor was it identified as it happened or at any point afterwards. This performance, and all the subsequent performances up to the All Tomorrow's Parties one, seem to have been initiated and organised by Barry Esson, whose company Arika stages music festivals in Scotland, including INSTAL and Music Lovers' Field Companion. David Tibet of Current 93, who had headlined the festival the previous day, advised fans not only that none of the other artists knew of the performance but also that the word "Jandek" was never used, the man who performed alongside Youngs and Neilson being identified only as "a representative of Corwood Industries" (the full text of Tibet's messages to the Jandek mailing list can be read at Seth Tisue's website, linked below).
In May 2005, however, Jandek made appearances at the Music Lovers’ Field Companion festival in Gateshead, England, and at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Scotland, again with Youngs and Neilson. The Gateshead performance was another guitar/bass/drums trio similar to the performance as Instal '04 while the Glasgow show found Jandek playing piano with Youngs on bowed contrabass and Neilson on percussion. It later transpired that, as rumored at the time, this performance was a single song in many parts titled "The Cell". It lasted around 90 minutes and has been described as lacking the dissonance often associated with Jandek, instead being gentle and melodic with many of the piano parts resembling Erik Satie. These first shows have since been released as Glasgow Sunday, Newcastle Sunday, and Glasgow Monday.
On August 28, 2005 he performed in Austin, Texas (as scheduled) at the Scottish Rite Theatre and Temple to a sold-out audience. It was notably his first time ever to appear on stage in the United States, and he performed with Nick Hennies (drums), Chris Cogburn (drums), and Juan Garcia (bass); this performance has been released by Corwood under the title Austin Sunday. He also did two nights of gigs in New York City. The first night has been released as the double CD Manhattan Tuesday. He was scheduled to play in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 2, 2005 but the show was canceled due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A Chicago show was announced only two days in advance, then cancelled the next day because Hurricane Rita was approaching Houston.
In October 2005, Jandek played three sets on two different days at Instal 2005 in Glasgow (including a collaboration with Loren Connors and a set with Youngs and Neilson, the latter being released in 2008 as Glasgow Friday) and also performed alone in London, accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar – to date, this is the only engagement the "Corwood Representative" has undertaken without additional musicians. In November, he played in Hasselt, Belgium and in Helsinki. On March 10, 2006, he made his (unannounced) first performing appearance in his hometown of Houston, backing Loren Connors and Alan Licht on bass and harmonica during their second set at Live Oak Friends Meeting House.
He also performed on guitar with a full backing band on April 20, 2006 at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, with Sam Coomes of the band Quasi on bass and Emil Amos from Grails playing drums, plus backing vocalists Liz Harris ("Grouper") and Jessica Dennison. He returned to the UK in May to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival at Camber Sands as well as playing two sets in one night in Bristol and making a low-key, short notice return to Glasgow, once again in the company of Youngs and Neilson. A further London show was canceled without explanation.
Jandek performed twice in September 2006. The first show, in Toronto, was performed at Centre of Gravity, a renovated Vaudeville theatre/circus rehearsal space and continued the semi-classical/jazzy aspects of Glasgow Monday, this time using a unique lineup of cymbals, double bass and a guitar played more for sound patterns than melody. The artist himself played the Korg keyboards again (as he had in Manhattan), and the performance was one extended piece. By contrast, three days later he played a high-amped rock set at the Empty Bottle in Chicago with bassist Josh Abrams and Tortoise drummer/producer John McEntire that featured lyrics recounting a prison stay. Jandek played a show in Seattle, Washington at On the Boards on October 27, 2006 with the same lineup as the Portland performance earlier that year, and he ended 2006 with a concert in Indianapolis on December 9, 2006 in a church sanctuary attached to the Harrison Center for the Arts. That show included Nathan Vollmar of the band Rivulets on drums, and a female vocalist who also played viola and sang lead on a few tracks and a flute player, a first.
Reeds were experimented with more in Atlanta and Richmond, Virginia. At the former, he returned to piano, but was backed by violin, percussion and bass clarinet. At one point the group played a lengthy free-jazz song, with the Corwood Representative attacking the piano before slowing down, performing a song, and then returning to the free jazz. Richmond returned to a bluesier sound, but added saxophone. There were also (intentional) props at this show representing a living room and featuring items from Corwood covers (a mannequin, a guitar case, a gaudy couch, etc.). Jandek performed at the 2007 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas on March 17, 2007 to a sold-out audience of 500 at Central Presbyterian Church.
On June 8, 2007, Jandek performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston at a show arranged by local curatorial entity The Critique of Pure Reason (Stacie Slotnick). For this performance, Jandek played fretless bass guitar, and was supported by local improvisational musicians Greg Kelley (trumpet), Jorrit Dijkstra (alto saxophone, lyricon), and Eli Keszler (percussion). This was the first live performance where Jandek played the bass. The show was sold out, with an audience of over 300 witnessing the two-hour-long performance.
Jandek performed at the Rose Marine Theater in Ft. Worth, Texas on July 21, 2007, with Texas musicians Will Johnson of Centro-matic (drums), Ryan Williams of Baptist Generals (bass), pedal steel player Susan Alcorn and Austin banjo player Ralph White. This Cowtown line-up also performed on Saturday March 15, 2008 at Austin's Central Presbyterian Church as part of a SXSW showcase of Houston-based experimental music curated by Signal to Noise magazine.
Jandek performed in Ann Arbor, Michigan on May 17, 2008 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre with James Cornish (trumpet) and Christian Matjias (harpsichord) in a free concert event curated by WCBN-FM. The Corwood representative played hollow-body electric bass guitar. This performance was the first to feature a modern improvisational dancer, Biba Bell. On Friday June 13, 2008, Jandek performed a solo acoustic set in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. The performance was accompanied by an exhibition of Jandek album covers and a catalogue published by the gallery. On July 25, 2008, Jandek performed at the Bug Theatre in Denver, Colorado, his first-ever in the state and one of the few in the west.
On October 10, 2008, Jandek performed in Columbus, Ohio at The Wexner Center for the Arts. The lineup featured Jandek (rumored to be playing a Korg synthesizer), C. Spencer Yeh on violin, Derek Dicenzo on elec. bass, and Ryan Jewell on percussion. This was his first-ever show in Ohio. On December 1 that same year, he made his first appearance in Florida at the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, performing on bass and harmonica alongside Rob Rushin on guitar and Chad Voight on drums.
On April 5, 2009, Jandek performed in Houston, Texas at his first-ever public performance in his hometown. His only other appearance in Houston was a walk-on with improvisational duo Loren Connors and Alan Licht in 2006. The performance was a matinee show held at Rudyard's Pub and was coordinated by Andy Bradley, chief engineer of Sugar Hill Recordings. Andy paired Jandek with two session musicians for the live event which consisted of a bass and drum funk improvisation accompanying Jandek's guitar and vocals. Jandek used a black pearl Godin Freeway SA electric guitar directly into a Line 6 Spider 2x10" combo amplifier.
Jandek performed with David Keenan on drums and Heather Leigh on bass in four venues across Northern Ireland in July 2009. Billed as Jandek's "first ever tour", it took place in Larne, Bangor, Belfast and Derry, with Christina Carter providing support.
On December 8, 2009, Jandek performed on electric guitar with Jeffrey Allport (drums), Wendy Atkinson (electric bass), Josh Stevenson (EMS Synthi AKS), and Rachael Wadham (zither) in Vancouver, British Columbia. On December 9, 2009, Jandek performed with Dave Chokroun (double bass) and Jeremy van Wyck (drums, also in Shearing Pinx) in Victoria, British Columbia. Local duo Forms (Will Ballantyne on guitar and drums, Ethan Lustig on drums and piano) opened.
On Thursday, April 27, 2010, Jandek performed basically an hour and a half of free-form noise improvisations in a duo with the infamous Thurston Moore in Portland Oregon at the historic Hollywood Theater.
On August 5, 2010, Jandek performed at the Pittsburgh Center For The Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was accompanied by Dean Cercone on guitar, Andrew McKeon on percussion, and Spat Cannon on double bass.
On November 12, 2010, Jandek performed at the Davis Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis, California. He was accompanied by Christian Kiefer on guitar, Alex Jenkins on drums, and Greg Brucker on double bass. He recorded a solo acoustic set for KDVS's "Live in Studio A" program the next day, which was broadcast the following week.
On April 10, 2011, Jandek performed at Oberlin College in Ohio with Aaron Dilloway, Robert Turman, Peter Blasser, and Austin Vaughn.
On April 26, 2011, "A Representative from Corwood Industries" performed two songs, LIVE on-the-air on KTRU Radio, 91.7 FM, Houston, Texas (Rice University Radio), with just vocals and acoustic guitar. For the first time ever, he addressed his listeners directly and introduced the two songs ("Prelude from a Tear" and "For Emma"), both of them written specifically for the occasion, before playing them.
On August 21, 2011, Jandek performed unaccompanied on acoustic guitar at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio.
On October 1, 2011, Jandek appeared at the Flywheel Arts Collective in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He sang and played bass in a group comprising pedal steel guitar, banjo, fiddle, drums, and a female vocalist.
On December 17, 2011, Jandek performed on acoustic guitar at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.
On January 13, 2012, Jandek performed at Garfield Artworks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He sang and played lead guitar in a group comprising Rachelle Lalonde on co-vocals and rhythm guitar, Jason Dowling on bass guitar, and Red Bob Jungkunz on drums.
On April 1, 2012, Jandek performed at Big Star Bar in Houston, TX. He played guitar and sang written as well as stream of consciousness vocals. The band was composed of Spike the Percussionist on electronic percussion and sample loops, Mike Naus on bass synth and Benjamin Wesley on keys.
On Sept 28, 2012, Jandek performed at the third edition of the Cropped Out Festival in Louisville, KY. Jandek played guitar, harmonica and sang, Catherine Irwin of Freakwater played bass, Dane Waters of Sapat sang and played synth, Chris Wunderlich played Moog and ipad and Jordan Richardson of Tropical Trash played drums. The performance was recorded but has not been released.
On February 14,15,and 16, 2014 Jandek performed in Cafe Oto, London.
On March 21, 2014, Jandek performed at Saint Louis University's Billiken Club in Saint Louis, MO. He sang and played acoustic guitar for the first two songs, and then was accompanied by Sheila Smith, Joseph Hess and Matty Croonfield for the remainder of the set. All four rotated between drums, keyboard, electric guitar and bass while the representative and Smith switched between vocals.
This is the discography of Corwood Industries; the record company releases only albums by Jandek.
- Jandek: Discography
- FINRA – About FINRA – List of Members – S
- LCD 22 | Jandek – The Original Disconnect
- Jandek interview in 1985 on YouTube
- http://tisue.net/jandek tisue.net/jandek
- Wexner Center for the Arts official site.
- "Jandek: Live". Tisue.net. Retrieved 2011-06-21.
- "[Jandek] Gainesville Monday". Mylist.net. Retrieved 2011-06-21.
- [dead link]
- Volcanic Tongue News Archive Accessed June 20, 2009
- Corwood Industries homepage
- details on feature DVD Duality of Self
- Guide to Jandek by Seth Tisue
- Jandek on Corwood, a documentary film
- Single Cell Press publishers of "Niagra Blues: Slingerland" by Danen D. Jobe
- "JANDEK: The Great Disconnect" by Irwin Chusid
- 1999 interview with Texas Monthly at the Wayback Machine (archived October 12, 1999)
- Playing with Jandek, an interview with backing musicians on Dallas music blog We Shot J.R.
- Jandek discography at MusicBrainz
- Jandek on NPR, December 10, 2007
Media related to Jandek at Wikimedia Commons