ERIC GAFFNEY (aka JESUS) [SEBADOH/GREY MATTER/FIELDS OF GAFFNEY] Interview
Like many grunge kids of a certain age my first notion of a massive underground US indie rock scene was thanks to Kurt Cobain wearing various band T-Shirts. Thanks to him and his fashion sense I was discovering bands such as Big Black, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the breeders and of course the lo-fi pop legends that are Sebadoh who I began to like just as much as Nirvana themselves.
Here was a band that was not afraid to pepper their beautiful summery hooks with crackly sounds and obtuse noises. I saw the band members like they were the indie rock Beatles, with their own defined personalities which would always find their way onto the finished records.
Lou Barlow would have the broken hearted soulful songs, Jason Lowenstein would contribute the raw and scratchier songs that were still held together with a pop backbone and then you had Eric Gaffney, the wildcard. Eric contributed that certain something that made the band a true original, often colouring his songs with found sounds and Skewed noises. When he left so did the thrill of not knowing what to expect from a Sebadoh album.
A lot has happened since 1993 when Sebadoh released its final album with Gaffney on board. They forged ahead in a cleaner more professional manor and found further success before going on a hiatus in 1999. Today the band are back and have just released the admittedly pretty awesome ‘Defend Yourself’ LP on Domino.
But what of Eric Gaffney? Well, would you believe a school friend of mine has just formed a record label called Happy Soul Records so I look up the details on line and see that he is about to put out a split single, one side belonging to the Scottish folker Alasdair Roberts and Ivor Kallin and the flip features an artist apparently called Jesus! I think to myself, that’s an odd name. So I read on and find out that Jesus is the name Eric Gaffney is now using. Yeah, the Eric Gaffney, the chap I chipped my indie rock teeth on and hadn’t stopped listening to for all of these years. To find out a little more I had to get in touch so a big thanks goes to Stuart for hooking me up.
WallerNotWeller: How did you get in contact with Stuart who runs Happy Soul Records about the new split 7”?
Eric Gaffney: Stu had ordered a few of my titles from Bandcamp then if I remember correctly he emailed earlier this year as to doing a single which became a split-single.
I had been trying to get in touch with record labels for the past year, must have written to about 100 in all including Domino, Matador, Drag City, a bunch of smaller labels and cassette labels as well. Really cool that the single materialized thanks to Stu & his wife. Hoping it gets some airplay as well and sells out!
WNW: ‘America’s Drug’ on the single was written when you were 15, it must have been an exciting time for you discovering music and writing music as well?
EG: Yeah, I wrote that only a month before attending my first hardcore show (in Greenfield) at the Guiding Star Grange Hall. After that experience I started my own fanzine, wrote scene reports for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, and was writing songs in typing class (11th grade) and playing drums for the first legit (practicing/playing shows etc.) band I started (Grey Matter) after which I was lead singer for No Preservatives (age 16) and then played drums in a lot of local bands through the mid 80’s (before Sebadoh). I grew up with hippies and so listened to Hendrix, The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Cliff in the 70’s on our stereo. I started collecting records (The Beatles) by 1977, then the Stones, and by 1980, The Who, then The Clash. This was also the era of MTV which I watched/listened to for whatever that’s worth.
I went to concerts from the age of 1 (Tim Buckley/James Taylor) and by 1983 had seen The Clash, Cheap Trick, The Ramones, Talking Heads, English Beat, Bangles, & B52’s). We had a great record store (Main Street Records) in town and a good college radio scene as well, so finding out about new music (Punk/New Wave/Hardcore/Other) that wasn’t on the radio or MTV was easier than for someone who was in the Midwest or wherever as far as America goes.
WNW: What music were you listening to and being influenced by at the time you wrote ‘America’s Drug’?
EG: The Clash were still my favourite band at the time & I was still playing drums along with records, mostly 60’s through 80’s LP’s. I had started buying Flipper and Dead Kennedy’s singles and some other hardcore records as that was that time period.
WNW: There were some great TV shows in the early 80s as well, did you watch them and think maybe your time could have been more productively spent with music? Was that the ethos behind ‘America’s Drug’?
EG: I grew up with television and continued to watch TV shows but by 1983 was spending most of my time trying to start bands, getting on bills, making my fanzine. My late mom used to hate the TV back in the day and would threaten to throw it out the window. I wrote a bunch of other songs at the same time (Saga of Ernie Softspot, Happy Ending). I would just write the song and keep the lyrics the same back then. I was also in high school so had to deal with that as well. The last time I watched a lot of television was when I was given the Pox and was on Benadryl for 2 weeks or something, laying in bed watching Alice (with Mel, Flo and the cast). I had a preference for TV shows from the late 60’s to late 70’s… Johnny Quest, Wild Wild West, Sesame Street, Electric Company. Used to wash all sorts of shows…. MASH, Little House on the Prairie… Facts of Life, Happy Days, etc.
WNW “The Newts and the Salamanders” was written when you were even younger, do you still have a massive backlog of this stuff or over the years have you used up your stockpile of old gems now?
EG: Actually I wrote only a number of stories in that time period (including 90 Million B.C. and The Invisible Mouse). I found a few more I plan to do something with some day. The record (America’s Drug) I put those on only really exists on Bandcamp, so I need to get that out to a worldwide audience at some point, sooner the better.
WNW: Was the release of Sebadoh’s ‘The Freed Man’ the first time you held one of your own vinyl records in your own hands, did it make it any more real for you?
EG: We did a split single with Big Stick for Sonic Life records earlier that year, but as for a full length LP, Yes. That was exciting at the time but the record was muddy and there were blips all through it and the label (Homestead) didn’t pay anything.
WNW: Was the recording of ‘The Freed Man’ a good time for you?
EG: There wasn’t a recording for the Freed Man so much as I had been writing songs and recording on cassette since 1981 or something and as well as putting out cassettes (Gracefully Aging Hippy Soloists) and then having already been booking the early Sebadoh shows just prior to when I started the band at my garage/house, we agreed to do a 30-minute cassette 1/2 and 1/2 with Lou which was a year earlier, summer 1988. I gave him his first apartment in town and we put the tape together from mixes of songs from that year mostly and some from the previous. I was still learning the 4-track cassette recorder (started Christmas 1986) and my open 5 string drone acoustic tuning I made up, after that period became slowly higher in pitch.
By the way, for The Freed Man, It was me who made the cassette cover and who made all the copies one by one, and who made a box for them and I consigned them for $1 at Main St Records. Gerard (Homestead, now at Matador) reviewed it for Conflict ‘zine after which he signed us (Feb 1989)
WNW: You were in many bands before Sebadoh but their popularity rose fast. Did you ever get a chance to sit back and enjoy Sebadoh’s success?
EG: Not really, because despite the success we had from 1991 to 1993 I couldn’t afford a room in an apartment never mind my own place. There were some good times of course but I wasn’t earning enough to do much with, just to get by I suppose.
WNW: One of my favourite albums of all time is ‘Bubble and Scrape’. Looking back on this record now are you yourself a fan?
EG: That was a strange time period. We had just signed with three labels and booked studio time with Bob Weston for Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. After that, I spent most of the summer of 1992 recording my tracks with Jason and/or alone, doing overdubs and mixing all my songs myself. I made up the title, toured for it, and was on more songs than anyone else on the record, so that was something.
I also sequenced the record, just me and Paul at Fort Apache. We sold 10,000 in the first week which was exciting. All of my tracks for the record were just spontaneous playing, with a Les Paul and whammy pedal; it was a lot of work to figure out what to put over the top for Fantastic Disaster, No Way Out, Telecosmic Alchemy and Emma Get Wild. Elixir is Zog was the last track of the summer of ‘92. The mics were being taken down on the drums and Jason said hold on, let’s do one more and asked him to play bass to the tune of a Residents number and then I put down guitars and vocals over it. Bouquet for a Siren I had actually written on bass in San Francisco the previous winter and wrote the lyrics last minute in Berlin for the final sessions for the record at the end of the year. Most everything else I made up on the spot.
WNW: That’s amazing, the next time I heard you was 10 years later on the Fields Of Gaffney album ‘There is Gold in these Hills’. Moments such as ‘Accelerated’ and ‘Oblivious’ still stick with me to this day, was it frustrating for you at the time to no longer have the relatively huge Sebadoh audience to listen to your work?
EG: Oh, the record is called Nature Walk and I put that slogan on that animal I drew…
WNW: Typical, I have a dubbed cassette copy a friend made me, no wonder I could never find the album when searching online for it.
EG: I was just getting back to starting a band all over again in San Francisco and going through a divorce and then living and working (selling shoes) on Haight Street. I booked a tour from the shoe store computer via email (which annoyed the living hell out of my co-workers) taking us through Arizona (Tuscon), Texas (Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Houston) as well as Oklahoma (OK City and Norman) and New Mexico (Albuquerque). I was proud of myself for booking a tour I have to say. We put the CD together just for the tour actually, assembling the booklets in the cases on the first night.
But yeah, there was no label, no support, no fanfare, and we barely broke even. We toured the Northwest twice (to Seattle and back) and flew to New York City for a bunch of shows early on. I liked that band and was sad to see it end. Nature Walk did ok on the radio however… got airplay on WNYU and WMBR and KAOS.
WNW: And today you have utilised Bandcamp expertly, how have you found using the resource? I rediscovered your music that way.
EG: When I first figured out Bandcamp back in November 2011 I didn’t think I could work it, meaning get my music assembled up there properly and wasn’t sure if they actually paid… I had to re-open my PayPal account and get that set up, then insert CD’s into a computer into Bandcamp and then sequence it from there, and not only that but adding in various pictures and notes, and all this for three sites.
I think it’s great that I can name the price. I started with Woolworth style prices EX: $3.98 and $4.98) but figure most records should be $5 to $7 or something. I am still looking for a label as I have about 14 titles I’d like to release properly but Bandcamp is really cool I have to say. Wish I had more sales on there. Only 3 or 4 sales a day could pay my rent.
WNW: You are passionately vegan. When did you become a vegan and what was the inspiration behind it?
EG: That’s a really long story which I’ve posted as a Facebook status before (How I went Vegan.) I was mostly vegetarian since about 1968, The Beatles were eating veggie food in India and it was sort of a 60’s thing, a trend, macro biotic and so on. I also grew up very poor, so it was especially tough. For example, I ate cheese and fish all along but in public school I often had to eat hamburger (American chop suet or suey rather) in grade school (public school). I stopped eating hamburgers in 1994 but continued with cheese/fish sometimes all the way up through to this past March 2012 when I stopped bringing home fish and then eggs and then butter and cheese was the last thing I stop bringing home. I had already recognized that for example I would only buy shampoo that said it wasn’t tested on animals, and also being mostly vegetarian for 40+ years finally I just decided it was what I wanted to do, I will sometimes relapse and get a slice of pizza but other than that I am doing quite well. And I don’t buy any products made from animals.
WNW: Was it an easy step for you to become vegan?
EG: Sort of gradual process, but mostly easy as I explained by already having been Veg for decades and decades. To better explain why it may have been easier for me personally, here’s this:
1967-2013: ANIMALS & MEATS I HAVE NEVER EATEN! (NEVER EVER) STEAK, VEAL, TURKEY, CHICKEN, DUCK, FOWL OF ANY SORT, FLIGHTLESS OR NON, OSTRICH, LAMB, RABBIT, DEER CARCASS, DUCK, PORK, HAM, OYSTERS, LOBSTER, OCTOPUS, BACON, HAM, PORK, LIVER, WHALE, DOG, CAT, PYTHON, SERPENTS, FROG LEGS, WILD BOAR, CARIBOU, YAK, EEL, SNAILS, SQUID, CAVIAR, KANGAROO, SAUSAGE, BEAR, EMU, BISON, INSECTS/GRUBS, BATS, PROSCIUTTO, MUSSELS, HEAD CHEESE, CATS, DOGS, GERBILS, HAMSTERS, GUINEA PIGS, TIGER, OXEN, MICE, GOAT, HIPPOPOTAMUS, SHARK, TURTLE, MORAY EEL, BADGER, OTTER, BEAVER, WEASEL, ALPACAS, LIZARDS (IGUANAS, SKINKS) MARSUPIALS (OPOSSUMS) KOMODO DRAGONS, SHEEP, VULTURE, EAGLES, HAWKS, BIRDS, CRABS, TURDUCKEN, SPAM, TREE SLOTHS, PIGS FEET, HORSE, BEEF JERKY, BRAINS, TONGUES (LENGUA) MOOSE, SEAL, WALRUS, ELEPHANT, GORILLA, SILK WORMS, ANTS, PUFFER FISH, RATS, HORSE, SPIDERS, CHINESE GIANT SALAMANDER, CHINOOK SALMON, GREEN SEA TURTLES, RIVER DOLPHINS, SEA URCHINS, QUAIL, DORMOUSE, LLAMA, CAMEL
WNW: Are your friends and family understanding of your food habits?
EG: My family pretty much died, meaning they’re gone so they can’t have an opinion on my Vegan-ism or what have you. I was closest to my grandmother who was a meat eater but understanding she would make grilled cheese and tomato samiches for me. She passed along and then so did my mom (who was also not vegan). They were more New Yorkers from a different generation. As far as friends, I don’t go out for fancy dinners at all… and so what I eat is what I cook for myself at home. My cat is not Vegan but is by best friend.
WNW: Any advice for anyone out there thinking of taking the step of going vegan but is a little apprehensive about it?
EG: Well, you should be apprehensive about eating meat not the other way around. Go on Facebook, friend some animal rights groups and vegans, see the horrible abuse and torture and mutilation and chopping up of animals (who were here first and have as much if not more right to exist than people) and then scare yourself into doing the right thing. Plus then you won’t be held responsible for worsening global warming/climate change which is directly linked to animal agriculture and destruction of earth’s habitat, rainforests and what have you. There is nothing ok or all right about any of it on any level, so the sooner anyone can wake up and see the cruel reality they can choose to opt out. I say Free the Animals!
WNW: Finally, what can we expect next from you, what are your plans for the future?
EG: I have to sell a thousand records on Bandcamp before I doing anything else, and I’m still looking for a label to put out some of my records I have together from 1988 to 2011. [Also, I’m] hoping to do a record release show for the single on Happy Soul.
WNW: Thank you Eric and keep up the good fight.
You can buy the new split 7″ from Happy Soul Records by following this link HERE!
Here is Eric on Drums playing one of my fave songs ever from way back when with Sebadoh.