Does It Help When You Close Your Eyes?
An interview with Jean Smith of Mecca
Jean Smith is primarily known as a woman of words
in the acclaimed, literary rock duo Mecca Normal (her band with David
Lester) and as the author of three novels. A segment of her forthcoming
novel “Living On Eggshells” is on McSweeney’s
Painting is an integral component in Jean’s creative life, providing
a word-free balance. Recent themes in Jean’s visual work include
alcoholism, how women and girls perceive themselves, and Native land
A 20-year participant in underground culture, Jean continues to succeed
at making a positive social impact by creating an atmosphere intended
to inspire self-expression.
Let’s start out with the big number. You’re
coming up on the 20th year of Mecca Normal’s existence. That’s a lifetime
on a regular job, and
an eternity in the world of pop music. What are some of the most important
things you’ve learned in all that time? How do you manage to stay interested
When you say 20 years, it sounds like a long time,
but I remember our first show vividly. I figured memories from that long
ago would have
a distant sense, but they don’t. This is a good thing, but it also makes
experiences feel compressed. Because I avoided many standard milestones
and pitfalls of mainstream life, I measure my accomplishments by unusual
standards: single, no kids, no post-secondary education, no job, and
I don’t own a house or a car. This doesn’t sound like a huge success,
but to me it is. Getting older as an artist (musician, writer and painter)
is different than other ways of going through life. I have not been worn
down by the world; I feel my best work is ahead of me. I am healthier
and stronger than ever, resulting in less dissatisfaction requiring an
outlet; this intrigues me. It can be regarded as a shift in motivation
and a time to allow new perspectives to surface — all very interesting,
but not essentially part of the typical rock aesthetic. I trust what
I am doing as a person and an artist. I have become comfortable with
allowing my mind to work on ideas, on levels of thought that I’m
not controlling. I’ve noticed that thinking about situations, going over
details and considering possible ways to approach projects, can have
tangible results. A course of action can be set and left to operate on
In previous years, I felt I had to be 100 percent
at the helm of everything; I’m currently implementing patience and acceptance.
honing my business aesthetic. Managing how we proceed is part of the
art. For the most part, I feel connected to a group of people who will
always be about 10 years younger than myself. Maintaining a band for
20 years, as a way to document the lives of two artists, is a project
that is currently defining itself with more clarity than ever. Mecca
Normal had a blip of popularity a number of years ago, but we didn’t
want to become something other than what we started out as — a guitar
and a voice paired up to interpret ideas and experiences. Better that
it goes on as such, and not as any sort of imitation of a concept long
out of play.
Every superhero has an origin story, and after a while, you get tired
of hearing them. I’m led to believe, though, that Mecca Normal’s is more
intriguing than, well, normal. Care to give it to us?
Mecca Normal, at
any point in its history, reflects its origin. I’m looking for a part-time
job; Dave (Lester) reminds me that this is not the end
of everything. It is a way to solve a certain set of problems, and later,
things will be different. I find every day is slightly different than
any other day; even though I am still here, in this room, it feels very
different than yesterday in this room. The beauty of Mecca Normal was
recently brought to my attention (by Dave) — we are very different people.
I don’t recall thinking we were the same or different. In my mind, we
just were. But the clarification is interesting. On the creative front
I need something to work with, something to modify, manipulate, add to,
edit, change; to react and respond to. David is more comfortable coming
up with completely new ideas, from nothing. Music is communication where
men and women can participate at the same time, and a entirely new construction
results. When two men do this, it’s called fishing — not talking, simply
involved in the artifice of fishing, while feeling an innate connection.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of Mecca Normal — and conversely,
what’s the most difficult or frustrating?
We recently integrated most
of what we do around Mecca Normal performances. Our events include an
art show (both of us are strong visual artists),
and something called a workshop. I wanted to incorporate information
we might normally put across in interviews. We have a lot of ideas that
were beginning to feel separate from the songs. The words reflect a personal
level, but we want to talk about other things. The songs are beautiful
and powerful and illuminating in a whole other way, but I have very specific
things I want to get across about what it is really like to be an artist
for 20 years, a musician completely out of the mainstream, an author
entirely responsible for sorting out the publishing of her novels. We
are talking about the importance of underground culture. We have had
lots of help from our fantastic labels over the years — Kill Rock Stars,
Matador and K contributed so much. No one has tried to turn Mecca Normal
into anything other than what it is. Those are the rewarding aspects.
frustration comes when anything gets in my way. I’ve been trying to find
a job … trying to keep a long-term perspective while absorbing
the fact that jobs screw up other things. I realize I’ve had it pretty
good. I mean, the way it goes, there is tons of work around all these
projects, and no time left to make any money. So things are sort of out
of balance. Jobs so far have included giving out samples of booze in
liquor stores (interesting, as a non-drinker of four solid years), taking
old gas lawn mowers in for a rebate on new electric models for the Clean
Air Foundation, and tomorrow I start some market research survey in a
mall. Just got in from that interview. So my head is whirling, thinking
about job details and all the turmoil that goes along with it. It’s brutal
in a way that I had no plans to re-acquaint myself with. Other frustrating
things include dating, and people assuming that I am very serious and
closed, and that I don’t need or want any outside influences.
is a real multimedia entity. In addition to music, you incorporate artwork
into your performances; you’re a publicist for a number of other
artists; and you’ve written short stories and several novels which are
as challenging and interesting as your songs. Talk about how you integrate
all these cultural endeavors.
When we started adding things to the tours,
the art shows and workshops, I wondered if it would be too much. As it
has turned out, that wasn’t
the difficult part. What gets to me is the slow rate of success with
anything because the work is so spread out.
As a follow-up, tell me about
the multimedia show Mecca Normal is going to curate this September in
David and I are co-curators of a group art show on Sept.
28 at the main library. Our show is called “Does It Help When
You Close Your Eyes?” a component of a literary event called Word
On The Street. The art show — five Vancouver artists, including
ourselves — will be up for one day only. Mecca Normal will perform spontaneously
and present portions of the workshop “How Art and Music Can Change
the World” as people come and go from our gallery space. We are
organizing more events, and contributing to existing events in a similar
way, by finding appropriate artists, writers, artists to present their
work. My series of paintings for the art show is called “We Live
On Indian Land” — an interpretation of what it might have been
like when the white people showed up around here. I’ve included one painting
from the series “We’re Here Now. Everything Is Ours. Too Bad For
You.” I want to have a lot of these out in various locations (restaurants,
clubs, cafes, galleries) for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Actually, we had
“We Live On Indian Land” written on the inner groove of our
Your other band, 2 Foot Flame, shares personnel with
Mecca Normal, but is very distinct in sound. What’s the status of 2 Foot
Flame as an entity?
What’s the process for deciding which group performs which material?
Jefferies and I started 2 Foot Flame when we were living in New Zealand;
Michael Morley graciously added guitar elements. Matador released
the first album and the three of us toured in the U.S. The next U.S.
tour, Dave was standing in for Michael. Peter was Mecca Normal’s drummer
and doing his solo set, so he was in all three bands on the bill. He
barely had time to smoke! Peter and I then toured as a duo version of
2 Foot Flame in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. I played guitar
and sang, and Peter played drums and keyboards (at the same time). 2
Foot Flame songs are distinctly different than Mecca Normal songs: they’re
keyboard-driven, leaving the guitarist free to add accents and texture.
There is an unreleased 2 Foot Flame album, recorded in New Zealand after
our last tour.
You’re renowned for your confrontational live shows.
How do you manage to confront and challenge your audience while making
heard? What’s the key to being challenging and delivering an important
message without being alienating?
I don’t see myself as confrontational.
I may be loud and dynamic and intense, but there is typically an element
of humor in our performances.
I think the quality of the music, the content of the songs and that
the way Dave and I work together are intriguing. I can’t think of a song
in the last eight years in which I have been intent on delivering a message.
If people are taking away messages, that’s up to them. I’m sure there
are as many perceptions of me as there are people who have encountered
me. I am, for the most part, inspired, joyful and positive. Addressing
social issues from the stage is a gracious way to induce thought. I’m
not yelling in anyone’s face. I am a beautiful singer, singing a constant
flow of beautifully stimulating ideas.
By the time people are listening
to what we’re doing, they tend to know what they’ve gotten into. We get
a lot of support from people who find
what we do to be a way of refueling. We’re not trying to get everyone
to like us; we’ve always seen ourselves as a comparative element. Once,
a guy came up to me at a show and said he only listened to Mecca Normal.
I forget what I said, but I was thinking that was just weird. Mecca Normal
is like parsley. It lays on the side of your plate being green, a statement,
a decoration. Eat it to impress someone, ignore it, turn your nose up
at it, chop it up and throw it in a salad.
Dave and I are working new
songs and finding new places to play, to speak about why we do what we
do, and to show art. After almost 20 years of
monitoring Mecca Normal’s significance within each new generation of
music-lovers, I want to broaden our base to include other kinds of activists
working to make a positive social impact. Underground culture is an essential
component within society’s infrastructure. I hear of cities where all
ages shows are basically against the law, where physical spaces to play
music are limited, and activists (current and potential) lose out on
face-to-face interaction and the honing of organizational skills. Who
will create art and music that challenges the corporate agenda if there
is nowhere to present it? Shows are where musicians and artists assess
the impact of their work, and fine-tune thinking. Where writers and painters
and activists meet and get new ideas. If there is no exchange of ideas
and feedback, if the cycle of giving and receiving inspirational energy
is diminished, if we don’t meet people who respond to our work, if we
aren’t building alliances in real life, then how are the basic aspects
of culture are being subverted and denied, and how will this reduce our
ability to resist when it is necessary to do so?
On a related note, your
lyrical subject matter is fiercely political, but with an intensely personal
approach. Is that a difficult balance
Actually, if I may disagree with you again, my lyrics aren’t
fiercely political. I sometimes feel they should be more political —
is what I’m supposed to be doing. If there’s anything political going
on now it is my willful evolution as a person. I reveal vulnerability
and document the process of living without caving in to what people expect
of me. And, as it turns out, longevity itself has become a political
issue. I just read a review that said “retire already.” Um,
How does your fiction writing inform your music, and
Longer pieces of writing form the novels, but are often trimmed
and whittled into songs. Simple ideas for songs are expanded to go into
in the novels.
It’s a great process where everything has the potential to be stretched
or compressed. The next book is 20 year’s worth of stories in the underground
Tell us something about Jean Smith, the fan. What
do you like to read, to watch, to listen to? Is there a particular common
in the art
I spend a lot of time alone, thinking, writing, but I operate
within a band, with a partner. So there is a balance. I am interested
who work primarily on their own — self-directed iconoclasts who are
propelled by some sort of invisible force. I don’t tend to give lists
of writers, bands, influences. It feels like a loaded calculation meant
to create an impression. Find me on Friendster and see how it adds up.
tell me about Jean Smith’s greatest road-food moment, her diner epiphany.
Tabasco sauce on tour was a turning point. Free samples — olive tasting
in Williams, Calif. Andersen’s Pea Soup between L.A. and Sacramento.
We had a print-out of all Cracker Barrels on one tour. I used to eat
liver and onions quite a bit. Then there were the soup tours. With a
few super long drives, and all the extra work of putting up art shows
on the last tour, there were a few chocolate bar dinners.
Link: Mecca Normal’s Web site is at mecca_normal.tripod.com.