Jack Ladder: Trying To Talk About Things That You Can’t Talk About (Interview)

Today is the day Jack Ladder & His Dreamlanders release Blue Poles, their fifth studio album.

You can check out The 13th Floor review of Blue Poles here.

Additionally, Marty Duda spoke to Jack Ladder himself to get the inside story on this new collection of songs.

Jack Ladder gives a track-by-track rundown of Blue Poles, but first, he has a few things to say about the current state of music criticism.

Click here to listen to the interview with Jack Ladder:


Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: Blue Poles. What’s the…can you tell me a little bit about the title? I know there’s a Blue Mirror song, but I haven’t found a Blue Poles.

JL: The album title is separate to the song titles. There’s Blue Mirror… Well, Blue Poles made sense to me personally for a lot of reasons. I was talking … it – I mean I gotta start by saying that it is a really famous painting by Jackson Pollock, that the Australian government bought in the early 70’s. And when they bought it, it was the most money that anyone had paid for a piece of modern art at that point in time. I think it was like $1.7 million.

And the Australian public were outraged, and they thought it was something that a child could’ve painted. All those general things that people say about modern art. And … it actually wasn’t even called “Blue Poles”, the painting was called “untitled, 1953” or something – it’s the only Jackson Pollock painting that’s been given a figurative title. Lots of people say that it’s very distracting, and against the artist’s actual intent – and – I guess in the end I found it really interesting the way the public and the media and stuff can change the perception of a work of art, and how that changes over time. And a couple of years ago the Australian government tried to sell Blue Poles to pay for their education budget…. Which I just thought was really funny. And I don’t really know how that plays into my work other than… the sort of antagonistic relationships that I’ve had with the media, but to me it’s more about the … what that painting means, and the context it serves, and what the painting actually is, and how it relates to my work, is something personal. But it’s definitely about many, many different things.

I’m really interested in that relationship between the media and music journalism and musicians, and I think that it’s got very strange and quite placid over the last few years.

MD: Well you mentioned that the media’s take on it and the way it reacted affects the perception of the painting. Do you think that also happened with music, as well?

JL: Of course. I’m really interested in that relationship between the media and music journalism and musicians, and I think that it’s got very strange and quite placid over the last few years. I think it used to be much more antagonistic, and I feel like it used to be much more of an actual relationship, and I look forward …. I like criticism. I read criticism. I don’t particularly like my own criticism, but I think it’s really important. I think it’s important for artists to be critical, and I think it’s important for journalists to be critical.

MD: Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hard – well, like you say, it doesn’t even have to be antagonistic, just actual critical listening.

JL: Well, it’s become very soft – no one wants to say anything bad about anything, because no one’s really sure whether anything’s really good anymore. All the reference points –  there’s so much different stuff, there’s no… If one person says your stuff sucks, and someone else is gonna say your stuff is really good… There’s been a total breakdown in terms of who the gatekeepers are, and who says what’s good and what’s bad. In many ways it’s incredibly liberating, but in some ways I feel like there’s just this torrent of music flushing through, and it’s hard to know where to look. You just get caught up in the flood.

MD: It’s interesting because at the same time that you say music journalism is getting kinda flaccid, or doesn’t want to say anything bad, the comments in general on the Internet about anything are exactly the opposite, where everyone’s really confrontational and nasty and, you know, they don’t really care what they say.

JL: Well, yeah, that’s really true, and that’s not really criticism either. Because it comes from… often a very, like, weird emotional place, where people aren’t using their critical facilities. They kind of just – just spouting the first thing that comes into their head. Often those people are like ten – they’re like ten years old. All of those faceless… they have no real education or knowledge about things. They’re just people – everyone has a license to be critical. And then it becomes about … it becomes more about personality types.

MD: We should talk about the album. Because, like you say, it’s going to be out on May 4th. But that is interesting. Did you have, like, favourite critics, that you read and followed when you were – maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? I kind of grew up in the land of Lester Bangs and all those guys, cause I’m an old guy.

JL: Well, I can imagine those critics were much more vocal then… I remember, probably it was in the tail end of music print media where I was twenty years old, and I would buy my magazine, and I would read articles, and I would read the reviews. I don’t really remember the critics so much, but I remember Nick Kent, he was a famous critic. I read some books that he wrote and I liked his kind of… journalism. But I’m not sure about the writers. I mean, I know the local writers, who were writing about music in Australia and stuff. …Yeah. But that’s about it.

MD: Well, it just seems to be a different kind of time and place now, from say when Nick Kent was doing his thing. You know – he was right in the middle of hanging out with the Sex Pistols and – you don’t get that kind of access today, it’s very… a separate thing between the musician and the writer. And it’s all being handled by –

The first track is sort of existential … boogie. That’s really about moving to a place that’s so far away that you have no idea how you’ll get back to your reality.

JL: Well there is, there’s still the whole Pitchfork world and … there is a certain type of music journalism that’s still going on that’s fairly critical, but I’m just not – necessarily on their radar. I just feel like it’s a different … maybe I’m just not involved in it. I don’t want to say that they’re not out there, but I’m saying – that my experience… In terms of like, media in general, people are afraid to write about definitely more fringe things. The general movement is all toward a central vision of everything. So they’ve all got a proofreader tucked away, who proofreads things, and that’s fine … but maybe I’m not in a position to talk.

MD: Now let’s get back to the record – or even start on the record. It’s – you’ve got your crew back together again, with Kirin and Donny Benet and all that, so – it’s been a couple of years since the previous record, since Playmates. What can you tell us about this one, that has – how does this one differ from the previous one? It seems to me it Tounds – there’s more keyboard-oriented in it, but… you tell me.

JL: Mm. Well, the songs are different.

MD: Yes, that’s true.

JL: There’s nine new songs, and they’re about many different things. You know, the first track is sort of existential … boogie. That’s really about moving to a place that’s so far away that you have no idea how you’ll get back to your reality.

The record is the most comfortable record that I’ve ever made, in terms of artistic statement.

MD: It starts with you singing about how you’re feeling like you’re being back inside the womb, doesn’t it?

JL: …Yeah. Yeah. That’s how the record starts. And I guess there’s lots of – it gets stranger, because the second song is… my vision is, I sort of – a businessman that is living in a studio apartment, a city somewhere, and struggling with the day-to-day passing of time, and slowly unravelling as his life becomes more and more meaningless. The other song, Susan, is about – did we talk about Susan?

MD: Not yet, no. We did Dates and now we’re on Susan.

JL: Well Susan is about a woman who has lived through a car accident, and is paraplegic, and her husband dies, and she’s left in the aftermath of that, and she hallucinates in her medicated state. Her husband comes to her, and they dance, and over time he convinces her to overdose on her medication so that they can continue to dance for eternity in the afterlife.

MD: It’s a very romantic song!

JL: …It is a romantic song. I think the record has a deep kind of longing that spans different lifetimes. And I think it’s – the record thinks about… a kind of reincarnation or that type of surrendering to time and surrendering to one’s self.

And in a lot of ways, the record is the most comfortable record that I’ve ever made, in terms of artistic statement. I feel like the sound is the sweet spot between being surgically precise – which the last record to me was – and the record before being this cavernous cocoon. I feel this record is quite natural, and represents me as a person, in a way I’m really satisfied with.

MD: Cool. Now the next track on the record is called I.N.M. which I assume means “It’s Not Magic”.  What can you tell me about that?

The songs that are interesting are the songs that you can never actually describe in words… because that’s why you write the song. That’s why the song exists.

JL: Oh, that’s a kind of deeply cynical song. – That, uh, I was initially at this kind of Tom Petty road, you know, American highway song, that was talking about the antithesis of what that kind of music is about. But gradually I morphed it into this modal Meters funk track, and it’s … it’s kind of like a weird song that – it’s about exactly what it says it’s about. It doesn’t necessarily have a particular narrative. It does talk about Siegfried and Roy, and Roy being attacked by their tiger, and that was some kind of metaphor for life on stage, and how this – the whole thing’s like a hoax. We get up and we try to do our act, but eventually, most performers are killed from the inside.

MD: Oh geez.

JL: And then there’s Blue Mirror, which is a – tonal poem song… about longing and death, and then Tell It Like It Is, which is a… I think from that point on the record gets more… equal parts moody in terms of cinematic – like… what are these words? These words don’t mean anything when I say that stuff.

MD: Well I actually wrote “sinister next to Tell It Like It Is. It seemed to have a sinister vibe to it.

JL: Yeah. I guess that’s trying to talk about things that you can’t talk about. Trying to… For me, the songs that I write are things that I can’t talk about. Susan sounds interesting because I can tell you, like, this is the very basic narrative, and without hearing the song you can say “That sounds like an interesting idea.” But in a way, they’re the most boring songs to me.

Because the songs that are interesting are the songs that you can never actually describe in words… because that’s why you write the song. That’s why the song exists. It’s to facilitate the lack of language that you can use to talk about it. Tell It Like It Is is essentially a song about talking about what you can’t talk about. And the silence that exists within that. And same with like Feel Brand New. It’s a song which is about a feeling that you can’t really describe in words, when you’re … but also just to … It’s a weird between feeling, where I don’t necessarily… I think it’s hopeful and then acknowledging that the hope ends as well, and there’s an endlessness to that. So, I guess a lot of my songs deal in like a macro… moment, singing them up makes them expand, and they end up in a sort of existential, endless mass.

 If I’m thinking of someone and can’t remember who it is, it’s generally Bing Crosby.

MD: When you’re recording them, is a quick process, or do you take… is it a slow, methodical thing? I get the feeling it’s a very intense process for you.

JL: Yeah. It takes me a long time to write and record. Sometimes the songs can happen quite quickly, but just adjusting the songs, and getting them to a position where you feel comfortable, you’ve worked them so they can exist in the world. Especially since I was producing this record myself, I was writing everything, and arranging it, from the demos through to the end. And so I had a lot of control and a lot of … ability to change everything, and I… I tried to be pretty hands-off and pretty fluid with things, and I was able to leave the mistakes. When you work with other people and they can clean everything up, I was very clear that I didn’t want to… I was going to leave all the things in that you’re supposed to take out. But also – those things become intrinsic to the arrangement, and become their own arrangement in a way. And in the end it takes a lot of confidence to go, like, “yeah, that’s how – that’s what it is.”

MD: Just kind of let go, yeah. Did your relationship with the band change because you were producing?

JL: Uh, not particularly. Because I mean, the band is an imaginary idea in a lot of ways. The band played on the records, but like, we jam in the studio. Do things that way. I normally write all the music, and then I get the guys to play it. And no one’s really sitting there writing their parts, necessarily. It’s an idea and then I’ve got a live band for the most part. So, relationship was – I mean, Kirin was not so involved in this record. And we had another guitar player that was also contributing stuff to it. For the most part, it was just me working alone.

MD: And are you taking it on the road? Are you touring around?

JL: Yeah. That’s the idea. That’s how you move your innards man.

MD: That’s the way it’s done, yes. And are you going to be on this side of the Tasman sometime soon?

JL: Yeah, I really hope to be. Possibly soon, is it? I love it there.

MD: We love it when you get here. Maybe we should just – quickly, before you go, since you’ve touched on almost every song in the album, just briefly – if you can tell me something about White Flag and Merciful Reply, and we’ll be out of your hair.

JL: Geez. I mean, Merciful Reply, it’s like a song that just got dug up from … the American songbook, I guess. My take of a classic kind of ballad. Girl in the Sky, Blade Runner, or something like that. I, uh, blame whatsisname… sorry, my brain is just mush.

MD: That’s alright.

JL: I’ll have to get back to you on that.

MD: From what I understand, White Flag was the-

JL: – No, what I was thinking of… I’m thinking of Bing Crosby. That’s right.

MD: Bing Crosby, okay. Of course you were.

JL:  Yeah. Bing Cosberry.   If I’m thinking of someone and can’t remember who it is, it’s generally Bing Crosby.

MD: Oh, okay. That’s your go-to guy.

JL: Um…yeah. And I guess White Flag is … what it is. Whatever. There’s not much I can really say. It’s about a kidnapping. That’s what I’ve been saying. Emotional Stockholm syndrome.

Blue Poles by Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders is released today.