Interview with Musician Writer Activist Painter Jean Smith
Fiercely independent, consistently evolving creatively, always challenging assumptions, hers and our own, it’s no exaggeration to say Jean Smith has influenced generations of musicians with her band with David Lester, literary rock duo Mecca Normal. Still going strong, Mecca Normal began in Vancouver, B.C. in 1984. Jean had a zine called Smarten Up! They played their first show opening for seminal hardcore punk band D.O.A. In D.O.A.’s old school bus Mecca Normal was at the heart of two Black Wedge tours, traveling with poets spreading their angry political message in an American heartland smitten with hair metal. They attracted interesting compatriots like Bob Dylan’s mentor David Whitaker. Soon they were involved with a new label in Olympia, K Records, which would grow into one of the great indies of the 90s. Dave was designing iconic punk rock album covers and Jean began sharing her writing in chapbooks and more zines. Smarten Up! Became their record label.
From the first Mecca Normal received extreme reactions from reviewers. Comparisons to Woody Guthrie, descriptions of Mecca Normal recordings as “riveting” and “radical” were balanced by critics who called them the worst thing they ever heard, one comparing their music to an insect. But one of the beauties of Mecca Normal from the start is that Jean and Dave have never been in it for the money, or glory. “When we get negative reviews, all it really serves to do is make me more determined to do more of whatever bugs people,” Jean told the Montreal Mirror in 1993.
In 1989 Jean and Dave contributed thirty original works to the Anarchist Poster Show. Jean has designed all of Mecca Normal’s album covers. By 1990 she was also experimenting with film. Her video for the Mecca Normal song “20 Years/No Escape” won the experimental video award at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. That year Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill fanzine featured an interview with Jean headlined: “Mecca Normal: it makes me wanna cry, I am so glad they exist.” In 1990 Mecca Normal played CBGB’s, and shows with Fugazi and Mudhoney.
To understand how important Mecca Normal was to Bikini Kill and to riot grrrl consider this note on a postcard Kathleen Hanna sent to Dave Lester in 1991: “The stuff you recorded in Jan. has changed the quality of my life.” Kathleen later told Network Toronto: “”I wouldn’t be in a band if I hadn’t heard of Jean.” Fellow Bikini Kill founder Tobi Vail wrote in her own zine Jigsaw: “To me, Mecca Normal is one of the only true punk bands around, in that way they are totally subversive. Maybe that is why so many of today’s young white males and their friends enjoy telling me how much they suck. I can’t think of anyone else who writes more powerful songs about what it feels like to be a woman in a world of violence against women.” The Village Voice agreed: “I don’t know of any other rock ’n’ roll so closely attuned to the realities of women’s rage.”
In ’91 Mecca Normal played at the six day long International Pop Underground Convention, the musical event that introduced the world to Seattle, grunge and riot grrrl. Jean also performed solo during the women only “Revolution Girl Style Now” opening night show. In their coverage of the event Rolling Stone raved: “At the North Shore Surf Club, guitarist David Lester erected a complex one-man wall of sound, while singer-poet Jean Smith dramatically demonstrated her superb range and control, finishing off with a feedback dance (literally) on guitar.” On the International Pop Underground Convention live album Bratmobile can be heard introducing their set saying Mecca Normal is “my punk rock dream come true.”
Kill Rock Stars launched with their first compilation that year and Mecca Normal was one of the artists included. Nirvana sent out newsletters to their fan club members claiming that Kurt would be doing a duet with Jean: “Islands in the Stream”. By 1992 the mainstream media wanted to know about riot grrrl. USA Today, Seventeen Magazine and the L.A. Times interviewed Jean about riot grrrl and women in rock. Mecca Normal’s third record, Dovetail, hit #5 on the Canadian national charts.
In 1993 Dave Lester started Get To The Point, becoming a publisher to print Jean Smith’s first novel “I Can Hear Me Fine”. Jean became editor of Smarten Up! and Get To The Point. They’ve published a series of chapbooks of poetry, political writing and artwork by community activists. One book won a major award, and another was selected as one of the top five poetry chapbooks in Canada. Meanwhile the New York Times called Jean for an interview. “Mecca Normal has inspired a large movement of feminists in their teens and early 20s who call themselves Riot Grrrls,” said The Times. “Female punk rock fans become united by the feminist messages shouted by bands such as Mecca Normal,” added USA Today.
Rolling Stone and Billboard interviewed Jean. Sonic Youth asked Mecca Normal to play a show with them in Seattle. CBC called Jean “goddess of the underground.” Alternative Press did a two-page spread on Mecca Normal. Rolling Stone featured them in the Guide to the Coolest Music and Artists Making It, alongside Liz Phair and Radiohead. Jean flew to Boston to tape ABC’s Night Talk with Jane Whitney for a show about Women In Rock. Maury Povich wanted to talk to Jean. The list of labels that have released Mecca Normal’s music is simply the cream of 90s indie labels: K, Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, Matador.
But then the bottom dropped out of the Seattle music biz specifically, and not long after, out of the music biz generally. The national level of attention disappeared. The all ages clubs and other progressive music networks so many indie bands depended on closed down all across the United States, and as interest in the Internet increased in many ways interest in underground music declined, especially live music. None of that slowed down Mecca Normal. Among the many recording, artistic, and writing projects they’ve been involved with since, perhaps my favorite is Jean’s watercolor self-portraits from 1973 to 1999 exhibited at Ladyfest Olympia. Dave and Jean continue to evolve as musicians, artists, and writers, in Mecca Normal and in other musical combinations including Mung Jung Bushi, an experimental project by Jean and David, and my own band Lucid Nation, for which Jean made this haunting video:
I found riot grrrl almost too late; my band played our second show opening for Bikini Kill in ’95. I didn’t hear about Mecca Normal then, or rather I did, but I never heard or saw them. Not until 2002 or 2003 did Mecca Normal impact my life. My guitarist’s mom was suffering a long horrible death. His spirit was almost broken. Our keyboard player at the time, a stylish zine writer and fashionista, the late Diane Naegel, insisted he drive her to the Mecca Normal show at Silverlake Lounge. There they performed their then new song Family Swan, a song with so much truth in it, my grief stricken guitarist came home as if miraculously healed.
Later we became friends with Mecca Normal, playing a couple shows with them in Los Angeles, including one at The Smell. One of the shows happened to be on the night Morrissey was coming back to town after a long absence. Our show was deserted. That didn’t bother Jean at all. She took the opportunity to deliver a pep talk to us all about what really matters in life and art. She assured us that some of the most powerful and transformative gigs she had experienced involved only a handful of people. For Jean it’s all about quality not quantity. Those talks delivered at various shows over years of touring have evolved into a workshop where Jean and David help people remember the transformative power of making honest art.
But I can’t leave this introduction without mentioning Jean’s dry sense of humor. Her recent work for Smashpipe about her experiences with online dating are simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, achieving a level of human angst that brings to mind Beckett’s take on the human condition. I can’t help but think of her as a contemporary Jane Goodall reporting on the silverbacks of the modern romantic jungle. Novelist, filmmaker, painter, event organizer, editor, musician, frontwoman and constant source of inspiration, Jean Smith is the real deal.
Self-portrait wearing a 40s blouse.
Please tell us about your most recent musical projects.
Legendary producer KRAMER contacted me in 2006 to instigate collaboration with Mecca Normal and somehow it took us six years to get together. We’d never met the guy and since he was based in Florida, a state we’d never been to, it was daunting to simply go and begin working on an album. In the beginning of plotting how to proceed, KRAMER was going to come to Vancouver as the producer — which can mean a lot of different things. When it’s a longstanding duo that doesn’t use a lot of extra effects, one wonders what the producer has in mind. You know, what is he hearing that he wants to fix, might be the question. Initially, in 2006, he emailed and said — I’ll sleep on your couch, we’ll record and then I’ll mix it back in Florida. This threw me off because I don’t have a couch. My apartment is a studio space. No dining table, no couch. There’s a swivel chair at the computer and that’s sort of it. Mecca Normal rehearses here, I write and paint here and I don’t “entertain”. No visitors. Dave’s place is similar. He does have a couch; it’s a couch I bought in about 1980, but it’s about four inches from his bed. So the couch thing was a problem. KRAMER seemed to me like the kind of guy who had a couch in a house that had a living room and maybe I didn’t care to find out what he thought of how I lived.
Dave and I had been considering how to make an album in a way that was somehow different from previous methods and we decided to take a chance and go to Miami Beach to record with KRAMER at Rat Bastard’s studio. We’d never met Rat either, so we were going in deep. KRAMER ended up playing bass on nearly every song and he added great organ on Wasn’t Said.
With every other album we’ve made, it seems like we run from the studio to FedEx to send it off to the label on deadline. It’s been interesting, and in keeping with our development of patience, that we haven’t done anything with this album since recording it almost a year ago. We haven’t let anyone hear it. I’d like there to be a really good reason to release it, something compelling that warrants such a huge exertion of energy and depletion of resources — the immense disruption of life is what likely concludes the careers of many bands and we have a history of being very cautious about how we proceed.
Mecca Normal’s career has spanned three decades of media from cassette tape and vinyl to YouTube videos. How are you sharing with your fans now?
The question is maybe best answered in a film I made called The Interview, in which I have a fictional conversation with myself, half of which was pre-recorded in an automated voice. My answers are dictated by the amount of silence I left between questions, so I’m visually monitoring the time I have to answer, as I answer, by watching the recording program.
I have been keeping up with new options in technology as they become viable to me, by which I mean I figure out how I’m going to use them as creative tools. It isn’t my primary intention to find ways to share what I do; it has more to do with the fact that what I do happens to be sharable. Let’s say you love to bake cookies (I’ll use this example because I’ve just started working at a gourmet warehouse) and so I’m wondering, is it the sharable factor that a baker loves or is it the making of the cookies which includes using a variety of tools, being creative and seeing an idea through to fruition? There are textures and smells and sounds and some people love baking cookies. I’m pretty sure that having people like them at the end is very important too. I’d say, for Mecca Normal, it’s way more about the baking than the sharing. Mecca Normal is maybe more of a sugarless cookie made with unusual ingredients that most people aren’t expecting in a cookie.
Currently I use Facebook a lot, which is connected to Twitter, so I don’t have to do a lot of tweeting. I use FL Studios in conjunction with Cool Edit Pro for music, which ends up in films I put up on YouTube.
I am aware that I like to show people the things I make. It’s a definite motivator. I think this is different than sharing, which sounds more wholesome than what I think I’m wired up for. I’m not naturally inclined to share. I get what I need, my little fix, if even one person can see it. For a long time I had a blog on MySpace that really only one person was reading — a woman who also painted, wrote and made music. Her last name was Smith too. I was happy to learn that I didn’t need more than one person to feel inspired about generating material where a small part of the inspiration came from knowing that one other person would see it. I got pretty comfy in that dynamic and then one day, she totally disappeared and I realized I was as hooked on the attention in the same way that one might be hooked on the attention of millions. I don’t like feeling hooked. I quit drinking about fifteen years ago and other than two coffee beans a day, I’m not into drugs. I’m not even sure I’m hooked on those two beans worth of caffeine, but I keep dropping them into the grinder every morning.
When Mecca Normal began in 1984, there was a record pressing plant in Vancouver. In 1985 we got a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder and most of the songs on our first album were recorded on that in a friend’s garage and then we went into a studio that another friend worked at to transfer the songs over to 1/4″ tape and mix them in the process. The objective of all of this was somewhat hazy to us, but once we went to pick up about a Toyota Corolla’s worth of LPs we realized we had no idea what to do with five hundred LPs.
I currently write a couple of columns — one is a project with David Lester for Magnet Magazine called Normal History that features one of his illustrations and my caption and a Mecca Normal download. I really did just start out to edit a caption, but somehow that turned into me writing stories that don’t always have anything to do with the illustration. I curate the section of the three components, so, in my mind there is a correlation. It’s also embedded with links to YouTube videos or online weirdness.
I love your short reports about horrible dates on Smashpipe, about which you’ve said “For me, the greatness of the writing experience made the awfulness of the dating experience semi-tolerable.” What have you discovered about our species, where are we today with regard to modern romance?
Well, that quote was a response to a friendly comment on Facebook by Marc Fischer (of Public Collectors) who was complimenting my writing and saying that I’ll never run out of inspiration. Fact of the matter is I haven’t done any dating, online or otherwise, for years. I had a couple of short relationships (that sprang from being online) that solidified an impression I had that I needed to stop selecting the type of man I was finding and the best way to accomplish this was to stop the process entirely. Near the end of meeting over one hundred men, I figured out why I was choosing these individuals. I came to believe that I was finding people with whom I would be creating an opportunity to deal with unresolved mayhem that was not essentially dormant, but in fact, compelling me to find ways to work on various aspects of whatever I’d dragged along from childhood.
The Smashpipe material is from two novels I wrote around 2005 about my online dating adventures, which, now that we’re all used to the idea of online dating, it’s really just about the male / female dynamic in romance and relationship modes. I intended for the female character to be complicit as opposed to a victim. I mean, it isn’t just a negative rant about these guys and it is definitely fiction. It was always my intention to locate a viable partner for a relationship — I wasn’t using men as research subjects. Newtopia’s Ronnie Pontiac edited what was at that time, one novel. It grew somewhat after that and I divided it in two. Ronnie’s input was very important to these texts, but even more so to my overall proficiency as a writer.
I’m currently selecting segments for Smashpipe, re-editing them to nine hundred words, which is giving me ideas about the flexibility of the stories and the economy of the writing. I think this material has great potential as a film or a play.
Mecca Normal’s last album The Observer (2006, Kill Rock Stars) is mainly about online dating, so I’m posting videos I made within the stories that are currently going up on Smashpipe. It’s this sort of ever-expanding way to keep using material that isn’t exactly current, but can still be built into new facets of use. I am really enjoying this sort of cross archiving within other projects — re-imagining uses and applications — and in some cases, meanings.
With the release of the Kathleen Hanna documentary The Punk Singer and Alien She, the first major riot grrrl exhibit, opening at Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University there’s a resurgence of interest in riot grrrl. As one of the principle inspirations to riot grrrls, how do you view it in retrospect? How do you feel about this whiff of popularity, do you think riot grrrl has a future? Did it ever?
It has been interesting to listen to, read and watch the artifacts from that era as they make their way online over the years — it’s incredible to have access to riot grrrl-related shows, articles, photos and music. I regard new technology as having the potential to expand the ways documents can be archived and disseminated with new methods that connect the dots. Other than having conversations late at night in clubs in the 1980s and 90s where you’re yelling over a band and exchanging zines or albums before you leave town and then maybe you write letters back and forth, there wasn’t a practical way to stay connected to all the great people we met on tour. I’m still finding people from the past and inviting them to the Mecca Normal Facebook page where I post old and new material as it arrives.
I think it’s different for me because riot grrrl wasn’t what got us going. The women in punk bands in the UK in the 1970s and early 80s inspired me, so I understand what it’s like to feel the energy of connection in those formative stages, but I was in my mid-twenties when riot grrrl sprang up; I’d been married and divorced for god’s sake.
It’s great that there are methods to generate culture with identifiable names like riot grrrl and Rock Camp for Girls, but I’m not the type of person who joins things as I’m better at collaborating in small groups without an existing framework, other than what we make for ourselves. If elements of riot grrrl are useful, as I’m sure they are, for young women to have an archived history to work from, then riot grrrl will continue to play a positive role, as a touchstone at the very least, and it’s got the potential for an entirely new dimension of yet-to-be-heard-from riot grrrls in various offshoots.
For myself, never having stopped doing Mecca Normal, I feel less nostalgic about riot grrrl because it’s part of the continuum. I feel like I’m still finding new ways to keep the basis of what we set out to do interesting. My history didn’t get broken up into college, arty-fun-time in band, serious job, marriage, house, kids, regret.
As far as riot grrrl having a future, who saw Pussy Riot coming? I was inspired to create a series of paintings to include in our classroom event called How Art and Music Can Change the World, which is based on bits of evidence that things can actually change. And, out of the blue, we have Pussy Riot saying that they are directly inspired by riot grrrl, so the idea of a future beyond the riot grrrl era has already been answered, really.
What’s your first musical memory?
My parents were crazy about jazz — good jazz. Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Ella, Dizzy. I grew up in the 1960s and both jazz and classical music were played on the hi-fi at volumes that spread gleefully throughout the house. My father was an ad agency art director — one of the real Mad Men — and he went to New York City fairly regularly to work on ad campaigns using top models and Vogue Magazine photographers. He went to see a lot of jazz in places like the Hickory House and later, my mother accompanied him on some of these trips and got to try on designer dresses on photo shoots and she loves jazz too. My mother’s mother had been a piano teacher, a woman who went to New York City possibly in the late 1800s to sing for men in prisons. There was an upright piano in our house and my mother played it, but she let it be known that she was just sitting down and playing what she felt, not songs and not reading music, although I guess she does read music. She played a lot of chords, built note by note, rolling along, through what I guess were keys. It all sounded the same to me, but she was both proud and happy when she played. My father encouraged her. He is a big fan of hers as an artist in general. So, for all that, there were disturbing aspects to whatever I sifted away and took with me into adulthood, I certainly was exposed to a man who was extremely supportive of a female artist. Even though he’s a guy who is pretty full of himself in general, he is quick to assert that my mother is the real deal, the real artist in the family and she liked that, it did her good. She, at one time, told me that if she could do it over again, she wouldn’t have had children. She would have concentrated on her art career, which went on well into her seventies, when she was selling a large volume of paintings — good paintings — to a dealer in L.A.
My father could sing like Frank Sinatra — and he still can, at eighty-seven — and he played drums in the navy, marching band drums. At some point in history, likely in the 1940s, there was a method of making an individual record and, since his family was poor, this must have been a commercial product that was accessible to regular people. So he had this record of himself singing and evidently, as a little kid, my brother made a remark and, in a rage, my father destroyed the record. If that gives you an indication of the degree of intensity happening.
I’d say my first emotional relationship with music was a sensation that my parents really loved jazz in a way that detached or distracted them from other sorts of moods that dominated the scene. I was one who picked up on moods and felt it was my job to bring things to a better state. When the household was in a dark phase, there was no piano playing, no hi-fi, no whistling or singing. If there was music, it was a strong indicator to me that I was off duty, that they’d found something to engage with, that I didn’t have to figure out the negative vibes. I’m talking about from a very early age — like two or even earlier. If music was being played, I was free.
When I was a little older, but still very small, my mother showed me a music box that would have hung over my crib when I was a baby — the kind with a string that you pull to play a song. She kept it in its original box, wrapped in tissue paper. She told me it was mine, that my grandmother had given it to me, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. She was afraid I’d pull the string too hard and break it. This was very frustrating. I wanted to pull the string, to make it play. If it was mine, then why wasn’t I allowed to pull the string?
You’re serious about physical fitness; do you have a favorite workout and meal routine?
I tend to do the same workout with hand weights, pulleys and weight stacks every time I go to the gym, which should be more. I’m currently only getting there twice a week. Twenty minutes with the weights, twenty minutes of cardio and a bunch of crunches. I’m not a fanatic, but I get good results, so that’s excellent motivation. Building core strength has been good for my lower back, which used to give me a lot of trouble in my twenties and thirties. My back hasn’t gone out for years now. This month is my thirty-fifth year of working out in community gyms in Vancouver.
I regard food as fuel, medicine and nutrition — what my body needs. Again, I’m not a fanatic, but I do steer away from animal fat, white flour and sugar. I’m high risk for breast cancer and having watched my mother go through it when I was ten, definitely made an impression. She was very aware of nutrition when I was growing up, so I had that advantage. Also, I’m not opposed to denying myself things. I get a certain amount of pleasure out of denying myself, but it seems that’s a big thing with people. “I don’t want to feel I’ve denied myself.” I don’t understand why. Go ahead, deny yourself. There are so many benefits to being reasonably healthy that I’d ask why people are adamant about denying themselves energy, reduced stress, pain-free mobility, etc.
What is your current relationship with painting?
At the beginning of this year I went back to Miami to participate in an artist residency program for a month. I focused on continuing the series I began after I completed a novel about a museum curator who discovers that the cure for narcissism is abstract expressionism. When I realized I’d meticulously described fictional paintings done by the protagonist in my novel The Black Dot Museum of Political Art, the narcissist, I wanted to start painting them. There are two series — No Coal and The Raven Coal Mine — that are, on one level, the protagonist’s attempts to make political art that will prevent an environmentally destructive coal mine from opening off British Columbia’s pristine coast, but as a narcissist, he’s really more interested in getting attention from a young activist.
Do you plan to make more short films?
Yes. I plan to do a lot more of everything. In a weird way, I feel like things are just getting started. Music, novels, painting, films.
You saw the rise of the indie world and its fall, then the fall of the entire music business, and now here you are still standing in the confusing new wasteland of iTunes and YouTube, do you have a favorite time when you look back, and what do you like and dislike about the current terrain?
It’s interesting to hear you phrase it that way. I’m never sure how much of where I think I am has to do with factors related to me, like getting older and not being as utterly exuberant about music in the same way as I was when I was younger because I’m in a decades-long phase of production more than I am seeking stimulation or inspiration.
I guess where we are now — and how much happiness can be wrung out of making music — depends on what part of the music business one felt part of. When we started, if you wanted anyone to hear your music, you had to play live or record so that the recording could be played on radio stations. Only the elite were recording. You only recorded if you’d paid your dues, which meant you were popular. Not subscribing to notions of popularity being equated to value, we sidestepped paying our dues (and to this day it still pops into my head; I still wonder if I have paid my dues) we recorded and released an album on our own label after playing all of about three shows and we were fairly seriously disliked for doing that and for what I was singing about and what we sounded like — one electric guitar and one very intense female vocalist.
Mecca Normal began in order to change the world, not to sell records, so, in many ways; we thrive without the dollar amount built into the equation. More people can make music now on all these programs and recording is simple, as is getting it out to the world. The only thing music doesn’t do very well now is make money, but if you weren’t really in it for the money, what’s the diff?
What is the driving force of your consistent dedication to raising consciousness by making art?
An abhorrence of injustice. In the words of American war protester and free jazz documentarian Malachi Ritscher, whose self-immolation in 2006 intended to jar people out of complacency, “Art and music can express outrage, inspire action, or soothe and distract; please think about priorities and be involved in things that matter.”
Tamra Lucid is the author of Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.