Jesse R. Berlin is a mysterious man. A lovely and talented one, but a tough cookie to crack. His debut album Glitter Lung is a sonic adventure of disco and glam rock, rumored to have been created while he was holed up in a studio embracing insomnia. Not only do we have the premiere of his music video for “Wash Your Boat!” but also a bizarre interview for you to enjoy. The video features a well-placed banana and appears to have been influenced by silent films, nature documentaries, and early 80s gangster films, if said gangsters were into karaoke. Before you watch it, enjoy an interview between Jesse R. Berlin and AudioFemme’s Managing Editor, about his dream woman, the feminist bookstore from Portlandia, and the importance of listening to an entire record.
Sophie Saint Thomas: So what do you do when you can’t sleep?
Jesse R. Berlin: Uh…I don’t sleep? There’s actually one thing that works pretty consistently and it’s so specific and weird. But so Hulu Plus, they have the Criterion Collection, or most of it, streaming. And you know who Ozu is, Yasujirō Ozu? He was a Japanese filmmaker for the 30s, 40s, 50s, early 60s. And his movies are…like the most slow-moving, glacial, kind of plotless but gorgeous and moving things. He made like 80 movies, and they all have the same plot. The plot is about an old father figure set in his ways dealing with a young child who wants to live with the kids! So you don’t have to really pay attention. So I watch one of his things with the sound off and inevitably it works at some point.
ST: I was reading your bio and from what I can tell at least the insomnia part is real! Tell me about making the album Glitter Lung. Did it take three years? Were you sleeping?
JB: Yeah, yeah, that’s all true, and I wasn’t sleeping.
ST: Your process reminded me of a certain David Bowie era where he wasn’t sleeping much while recording…
JB: Well there’s the famous thing where he was making Station to Station right? And he was in like Beverly Hills. And he was just like living off of cocaine and milk. The great quote is something like “I know we made it in LA because that’s what it says on the cover.”
ST: Do you relate to that at all?
JB: I can,
[although] I was consuming a lot more than milk.
ST: I heard you consume Gatorade and Milk.
JB: Well, that was like a one off thing. I’m not really big on Gatorade in general.
ST: What do you like to drink?
JB: Depends on the time of the day. I like coffee. I like a cocktail that seems like it required a lot of effort to make. Like an Old Fashioned, or a Whiskey Sour, that kind of thing.
ST: So a whiskey drinker?
JB: Yeah whiskey is pretty good. Not much of a beer drinker.
ST: I don’t drink booze anymore because it make me an asshole. I just smoke.
JB: See, that’s exactly the opposite for me. That’s so interesting. It’s really interesting how different people’s brains react to things. I can’t really do weed. I was just at the West Coast on tour, and there was like one person at every show that was like “Hey, you want to come get high?” and I think it was off-putting. I think I lost fans by saying that.
ST: Oh yeah, maybe. I feel like I’ve lost friends by not drinking anymore. So on your tour, what did you think of Portland?
JB: Portland? It was the worst show of the tour. By a pretty wide margin. I had a heckler that I had to deal with.
ST: I thought people in Portland were supposed to be nice.
JB: Yeah! I know, right. Some asshole. But the food was great, and I did try the coffee. The coffee was phenomenal. But it’s not as mythical as Portlandia will have you believe. The show was actually right next door to the feminist book store from Portlandia.
ST: I did not know that was a real place!
JB: Yeah! I tweeted something about it, not using their name just like the phrase “feminist bookstore from Portlandia.” And they found me and Tweeted back to me and were like, “Welcome! Feminism is for everybody.”
ST: That’s unbelievable. So I wanted to ask, is it true you have a wife named Misty?
JB: Yes. Well, ex-wife.
ST: Ex-wife? Have you thought about telling everyone she’s your sister? Do the brother/sister duo?
JB: Isn’t that kind of played?
ST: Yeah. So what is your dream woman like?
JB: Oh god. I try not to actually engage with that thought process. I think you sort of just got to take people as they are. It’s just about whether or not it works, right? It’s not about some kind of standard. If it’s too much about standards then nothing’s going to work out. And not just [romantically] but with anything you do.
ST: So about Glitter Lung. I played the single “How DidYouSleepLadyKite” to a friend, who said he didn’t get it. Then he listened to the whole album, and went “Okay now I get it.” What do you think of that? Is the album meant to be heard as a cohesive experience?
JB: I think that is correct. Online singles culture, I don’t like it. You have to participate in it. Well, I guess you you don’t have to, but it’s beneficial to participate in it. But you know, it’s like… did you see that movie American Ultra?
JB: Do you know about it? As a pot smoker you would love it. It’s like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart and they’re pot heads, and the government is after them. So the advertising campaign for this movie made it seem like it was going to be Pineapple Express, which I loved, and that was kind of what I was going to see it for. It wasn’t at all – it was like True Romance.
ST: Really? I love True Romance.
JB: Of course you do, that movie is amazing. And this movie was really good too. But you would never know that unless you saw the whole thing. And even like the first few scenes are like of a totally different tone. It sort of starts going in one direction and then pivots and gets super interesting. And I feel like listening to one song out of the context of a whole thing is just like seeing the ad campaign or like the first scene of a movie. Hopefully it’s enough to entice you, but it’s not going to make – at least for a record that’s like, a record, it’s not going to make a full thing, which is what I was trying to do. You have to do the whole thing. And that one song especially…how do I put it…that’s like the most Ween-like thing on the record. You know, but it’s not like a comedy record. It’s good as a single, but [my music] is about the whole thing. So I totally get how it worked for that guy.
ST: What is a Glitter Lung?
JB: It’s a fake disease that elementary school teachers and drag queens both joke about getting, where you inhale so much glitter that is slices up your lungs from the inside. And it kills you. I think it came to prominence as an Onion article.
ST: I love it. I hear your live shows are interesting.
JB: Yeah, they are interesting. What am I going for…Well, I’ve been doing this for a while, right? This is not my first rodeo. I think there’s something about playing in bands or doing singer/songwriting things where you know if you’re out there doing it, you play on all these bills with all these other people who sound pretty much exactly the same way you sound. There’s really nothing all that special or interesting about any of them, or about you, except that you know it’s varying degrees of quality. So I got fed up with that. I wanted to see if there was something I could do that nobody else could do. Whether or not it’s good, and I think it is very good – by virtue of being different. Because ultimately the thing that makes it work good for anybody is that little kernel of you. The person that shines through, right? So it was just about shaving away all the parts that weren’t that. So that it just could be that. But then you also need to protect yourself in some way. So a lot of people protect themselves by playing guitar, or looking at their pedals, or something like that. And it’s not very fun to watch. It’s very boring to watch. So I don’t play any instruments on stage. I exist as myself and I think that’s what comes across. There are scripted moments, or canned moments, which are the same sort of protection, but I think a lot more engaging.
JB: I mean I don’t want to spoil too much of it. Unlike many musical performances I would say it’s a character driven performance. There is a lot of character building and world building involved in that performance. I have pre-recorded stage banter.
JB: Yes, that is the correct response to that. My ex-wife is in the show and Josh, my personal assistant is also in the show. They’re supportive presences. Not nessesarily like emotionally supportive, but just structurally supportive. There’a a surprise cover. I like to think of myself as a student of the masters, so I spend a lot of time watching Elvis performances, Prince performances. I hope that I’m not engaging in mimicry, as much as I am part of a lineage.