||Jeff Kelly Discusses Green Pajama Country
Jeff Penczak spoke with The Green Pajamas’ Jeff Kelly to get the scoop on their new “country” album.
I understand the idea for the album started over a decade ago. What prompted its release now?
I think my playing some gigs with Joe's band, The Birdwatchers, probably sparked the album. Joe was performing some old songs of mine live, like "Last Night Was Like The End Of The World" and "I Just Wish That She'd Love Me," and people seemed to like them. A lot of the songs are older. I wrote “Last Night…” around 1978.
How did it all start? Did you have a few songs that needed a home and did everything balloon from there?
I just started it to have some fun. Yes, a lot of the songs were already written and I'd just bash them out very quickly when I would get in the mood. A couple were done for the Box Of Secrets album. "Father, Father" was. For "Isabelle Blue" we just used my old cassette demo from the 90's. There is just something about that old recording that everybody likes. I tried to re-do it once and it just wasn't the same. Some songs were written as parodies and then they turn out sounding like real country songs. Like "You Had A Way About You." Sometimes if a song comes to you, you just feel obligated to write it down.
"Why Good Men Go Bad" started in the shower and I went and recorded a little snippet of the chorus as soon as I was dried off! That would have gone on any Pajamas album. Once in a while something great like that just happens. It conveniently fits right into the country-western feel of this record.
Was it hard convincing the rest of the band to climb aboard? I know Joe’s been playing country music for years (Haggis Bros & Birdwatchers), but how did the others take to the material?
No. The fact is it's only Joe and me on the record. I did a great deal of it alone (which is very typical) and Joe is on some of the tracks. He wrote "Honkey Tonk Girls" and has been playing it for years with The Birdwatchers. I wrote "I Just Wish..." in the early 80s. Joe always liked it and suggested we do it and he wanted to sing it. I think it came out good. There are these 1970s sounding strings in the final verse. Like a Charlie Rich or Glenn Campbell single. Something like that. You don't hear any Eric and Laura songs. That wasn't by design; it's just the way it worked out this time.
The live band has performed "Why Good Men Go Bad" live and they all enjoy it. Most of Pajama Country isn't too much of a stretch to our Northern Gothic stuff like "Lost Girls" and "Cruel Night," songs we all like performing live. In fact, the band excels at that sort of thing when we play live, sort of a dark, moody...swampy psychedelia.
Were there any albums or artists you listened to to get into a “country” frame of mind?
Not really, no. I think I put on an old George Jones album once or twice. But, for instance, the new version of "She's Gone, She's Gone..." was directly inspired by P.J. Harvey more than anything else. I was sort of channelling her on the final chorus. There is an often eerie, uncanny element to her singing and she has a great rock and roll voice. Some people are blessed with that. Not me though!
And these recordings happened over a long period of time as I was recording other stuff as well. This "country" stuff goes way, way back to my childhood. I used to play Johnny Cash songs and mountain music with my dad. He had an old f-hole guitar. He learned some guitar stuff from these hillbillies he met in the army during World War Two and he taught it to me. We always watched Hee Haw with Buck Owens and Roy Clark.
I hear some Dylanesque touches in ‘Last Night’ and ‘Isabelle’. Are/were you a fan? Perhaps give your old ‘Nashville Skyline’ album a few spins?
Of course! I don't think I actually have Nashville Skyline but I do have a bunch of the older stuff. I also love Desire and Blood On The Tracks.
And do I hear banjos and mandolins in there?
Yes. Joe had brought this strange little banjo over to my house for some reason and it was there when I was doing tracks for "Winter Of 23." So I tuned it to the song and started plucking. I had a 5 string banjo many years ago but not anymore.
I used a mandolin for "Father, Father." I still have my dad's old Harmony mandolin. We have always used those instruments though - going back to Summer Of Lust and things like Portugal. I think there was a banjo on the original "Winter Of 23" from Baroquen Hearts. [There was. JP]
It also seems to be a bit of a concept album – was it difficult writing structured tracks that fit both the style and the concept or were you merely recording similarly styled/themed songs that were hanging around for awhile?
More the latter. I wrote "Night Passed Over Into Day" for the album. It's a remembrance of Susanne's father, who had recently died. He loved this whole record. It's because of him in a way. And because of my dad in way. I think the concept is just the "country" thing and that we have the thing bookended by the theme song. It was Joe's idea to do the acoustic version at the end.
Where’d you get the idea to redo ‘She’s Gone’? Have the PJs been playing it live lately or did you just want to try a full-band treatment? Although I will admit the lyrics fit the context of the album.
Just decided. Susanne had always liked that one and I wanted to do it again with the loud guitars. Tom [Dyer, head of the Green Monkey label] told me, "it's one of my favorite Jeff songs." It's one of my favorites on there as well I think, along with "Why Good Men Go Bad." A funny thing about "She's Gone" is you could put it up against the original version on Portugal and, time-wise, they will match up perfectly. Same rambling sort of arrangement because I used the original recording as a scratch track!
You’re returning to the local Green Monkey label over 25 years since they released the first Pajamas albums. What is special about your relationship with them?
Well, it's Tom. We go back a long ways and it just feels right at the moment and it's fun working together again. Tom is pretty amazing. He is very driven and has always been a big supporter of my music. And he has always been very kind to me.
I would hope to keep a good relationship with Parasol, too. They're wonderful people. Of course, Tony [Dale, head of Camera Obscura who released several Pajamas albums] is gone, otherwise I think I would be planning some crazy thing with him as well. [Tony passed away last year.]
In the last few years, you’ve begun offering some digital albums of unreleased Pajama rarities. Tell us about this project and can we anticipate future releases?
The "rarities" CDs are for those that want a little bit more. They are meant for the fans that already have everything and want to hear something beyond that. So, it's easy to stick music on-line now and, if I can please those people and also make a couple of bucks with stuff that's just lying around in a drawer, I figure why not?
So what’s up next? Don’t tell me you have a disco album in you!
Well, we just finished a video "Pass Me Another Whiskey," which was quick and fun and I've dreamt up a new, more planned-out, video for the next album's "The Queen Bee Is Dead."
The next proper Pajamas album is 3/4 or more done. Laura is going to write some new songs so I'm hoping for something from her and Eric as well. I'm not sure how it's all going to shake down yet, but there are a bunch of good song, ready to go. We put a lot of thought into how the thing holds together as an album as opposed to just a collection of songs. Joe is often very involved in sequencing the track order. We usually argue about that for a while before it's finally decided. He sequenced this country album and decided which songs should go or stay. Although he tried to sneak in an edited version of "Pass Me Another Whiskey" which I vetoed.
Laura and I have a Goblin Market record in the can. It just needs to be mastered. The songs are based on the work of the Bronte sisters, mainly Emily. Tom and I have talked about another Melancholy Sun-like set of unreleased 'solo' stuff and Susanne and I are planning - at some point - to do Coffee In Nepal Two, another million-seller…! I would also like to do another Pajamas record with all of the live band playing on all of the tracks instead of just me. So there's lots of stuff to do. I'm never bored!
Interview: Jeff Penczak for Terrascope Online, September 2011
Art & Direction: Phil McMullen