Jesse Rifkin, the pure free agent of the music world, is ready and willing to go anywhere with anyone in order to make his music. The story behind The Wailing Wall is that it initially started out as a solo project for Rifkin, writing and preparing music to be played with a smorgasbord of musicians. While a regular band now follows Jesse often, it’s still amazing to see such agility in an artist as he adapts to so many different styles in order to create effective tunes.
After several different releases, Jesse and The Wailing Wall finally put out their first full-length album this past March, a collection called “Hospital Blossoms.” Not only does the record come in an environmentally-friendly, 100% recycled cardboard arigato pack, but Rifkin says “It is different from the other records in that a lot of the musicians on it are different. I guess the older stuff was also more lo-fi, and mostly me just playing all of the instruments. ‘Hospital Blossoms’ has a full band on it, the production is better, the songs were more deliberately ‘arranged.’ We took a long time with this record, and I am very proud of it!”
You can find even more Wailing Wall music for free online – both the self-titled debut EP and the “Hospital Blossoms” EP are available for download. As you might expect, a Wailing Wall show is always different – anything from a solo acoustic performance to a 10-piece band blowing out your eardrums. Rifkin feels that “it’s more interesting for both the performer and the audience when you never really know how or where things are going to go.” Check out a show, and check out the music! Get into the XXQ’s for a whole lot more.
XXQs: The Wailing Wall
PensEyeView.com (PEV): Tell us how you first got involved with music and becoming The Wailing Wall?
WW: Well, I took some guitar lessons as a kid, I think the first thing I ever learned was “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” which my mom taught me. When I was in high school I started getting serious about playing guitar – lots of downloading guitar tabs, reading Guitar World magazine, that kind of thing – and just assumed that if you played guitar, you were supposed to also sing and write songs, so I did. I was always too shy to play them in public though, probably because I knew that they weren’t very good. Very typical “why don’t girls like me?” or “why aren’t I popular?” kinds of high school lyrics. Once I got to college, I started writing better songs, and feeling more confident about my singing, and started playing shows and recording more things, and it just went from there.
As for the name, I always liked people like Smog, The Microphones, Silver Jews, Songs: Ohia – bands that were really just one songwriter plus whoever else was around. I also felt like many people (myself included) tend to ignore songwriters who play under their own name because that meant they were “confessional” and probably really bland. I chose the name as a joke, because I am Jewish and grew up Jewish and went to a Jewish high school. But it just kind of stuck.
PEV: Now calling New York home, but raised in Annapolis, Maryland, what kind of music were you listening to growing up?
WW: The first tape I ever owned was “Sgt. Pepper” by the Beatles, which I got when I was four. That was the only thing I really listened to until I was about ten or so, when I got really into the Grateful Dead. Around age 13 I got really into The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Talking Heads, Nirvana. My older brother turned me onto a lot of classic 70’s and 80’s punk. I would say that where I lived has never really had much of an impact on what I listened to – then or now – except for this one thing: being so close to Washington, DC I think had a big part in why Fugazi blew my mind as much as they did. And they still totally blow my mind.
PEV: Do you find now that you’ve called onto different artist’s styles for influence? Any in particular?
WW: I am constantly being influenced by things I am listening to, and constantly seeking out new things to be influenced by. I guess the mainstays have been Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Will Oldham, Bill Callahan (Smog), The Microphones/Mount Eerie, Bjork, The Mountain Goats, and Neutral Milk Hotel. I never really get sick of any of their records. Lately, the big influences have been Talk Talk, particularly their album “Spirit of Eden,” and this guy Krishna Das, who made a record of Hindu chanting called “Breath of the Heart” that totally kills me – and Rick Rubin produced it!
PEV: Tell us about your first live performance on stage? What was going through your head?
WW: My first live performance ever was playing “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion at my high school talent show. I was thinking that I was going to pee my pants.
My first ever performance as The Wailing Wall was in October 2005, when I was a sophomore in college. I set up a show on campus for this band called A Hawk and a Hacksaw, which is the current project of ex-Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes. Jeremy is one of my absolute favorite musicians alive. In an uncharacteristically ballsy moment, I decided I was going to open. I got a five-piece band together for the occasion, and burned some CDs to sell, which ended up becoming my first EP. We played five songs. I was thinking that I was going to pee my pants.
PEV: What was it like for you breaking into the music business? Tell us about the trials and tribulations of an artist.
WW: I wouldn’t say I have “broken into” anything yet. I still book my own shows and assemble all of my releases by hand! I suppose its hard sometimes – it never feels good to have people talk through/walk out of my shows, or to play to a very small handful of people, both of which happen sometimes – but mostly it just an incredible honor to be able to perform my music for lots of different people. I try not to take any of it for granted.
PEV: What can fans expect from a live Wailing Wall show?
WW: I know it’s a cliché to say “the unexpected,” but, yeah, the unexpected. It’s been everything from a loud four-piece rock band to acoustic solo sets to a 10-piece band with accordion, banjo, viola, trumpet, etc. There have been some set lineups that have lasted for a few months here and there, but I like to keep things changing. I always find it boring when bands play their songs the same way every time and are really “tight.” I think its more interesting for both the performer and the audience when you never really know how or where things are going to go.
PEV: For those that don’t already know, tell us the significance with using the name The Wailing Wall as a performer?
WW: The Wailing Wall is the holiest site in Judaism – the only remaining wall of the temple in Jerusalem. Most Jews actually call it the “Western Wall.” I grew up Jewish, and I liked the musicality and alliteration of “Wailing Wall.” But that’s all there is to it. I wouldn’t call myself a “Jewish musician.” And it is certainly not a political thing! Also, there is a Cure song called “Wailing Wall.” It is one of my favorites of theirs, off of their album called “The Top.”
PEV: Any embarrassing or crazy live show stories? There has to be tons, I’m sure…
WW: Yes, there are tons. Most recently: I received a myspace message asking me to come play an outdoor festival in Peace Dale, RI. The girl who invited me was a fan, and there was some good money involved, so I said yes, and I brought along my friends Jordaan Mason and Andre Theriault, who were on tour at the time, to play as well. As I was driving into the town, I got a call from Jordaan telling me he was there, and that things looked “kind of fucked.” Sure enough – it was a community street fair, with face painting, storytelling, childrens’ arts and crafts, balloon animals, that kind of thing. We were supposed to go on after a local band called something like “Cantina Blues,” who were composed of pot-bellied, ponytailed local dads with Stevie Ray Vaughn t-shirts.
Now, most of my songs are about death, religion, sex, and depression – not exactly family fare – and Jordaan and Andre were in the same boat. Though the girl who set it up insisted that she thought we’d go over really well if we played for all the local families, we decided not to risk offending anybody, and instead played across the street in an empty parking lot for six local teenage girls (one of whom seriously said “legal” when Andre asked how old they all were). It ended up actually being kind of fun, but yeah…really, really weird.
PEV: If you could collaborate with one artist out today, who would it be and why?
WW: Bjork. She’s kind of the best one out there in terms of collaborations – she always manages to capture the essence of what her collaborator does while still definitely making it her own thing. Anyway, it wouldn’t have to be much. I’d shake a tambourine, clap my hands, whatever. Just being in the same room would be an honor.
PEV: As well, is there an up and coming artist right now that you think we should all be looking out for?
WW: I have a lot of friends who I think are incredible. It would take me a long time to tell you about all of them, but: Chris Roush, who has played drums in WW and recorded many of the songs on our last album, has his own project called Soul Saint Marie, and he’s about to put out the second album in a trilogy he’s making called “Suns.” Also, Trevor Wilson, he’s a piano player and songwriter who lives in Bennington, VT, he put out a record called “Plants and Bodies” last year that just blows my mind. I seriously believe he is one of the greatest, most original songwriters alive today. Jason Anderson, he is on K Records, he’s been around for a while and has put out a ton of records, both under his own name and as “Wolf Colonel.” His live shows are some of the most astounding, life-affirming experiences I have ever had. There are a lot of other people too, far too many to list here, but they all are amazing, risk-taking artists who I am honored to know.
PEV: Tell us, what can fans expect from your March 2008, full-length debut album, “Hospital Blossoms”. How is this different from other music you’ve worked with?
WW: It is different from the other records in that a lot of the musicians on it are different. I guess the older stuff was also more lo-fi, and mostly me just playing all of the instruments. “Hospital Blossoms” has a full band on it, the production is better, the songs were more deliberately “arranged.” We took a long time with this record, and I am very proud of it!
PEV: How is “Hospital Blossoms” different from other music out today?
WW: I don’t know if I can answer that question. There’s a lot of music out today! With that much information available, everything is bound to be like something else that already exists. I am not going to tell you that my music is absolutely unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. But, it is my own particular take on things, and I’ve worked very hard to try and make it the best record I could possibly put out.
PEV: When you sit down to write a song what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?
WW: Honestly, there’s no one way I’ve done it. Usually lyrics gather in bits and pieces in my notebook, and chord progressions form as I am absent-mindedly playing my instrument. At some point, something clicks and I realize how things could fit together. But any time I sit down and decide to “write a song,” the results are unfailingly horrible. I often have to remind myself that its best to just let the songs put themselves together on their own schedule.
PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about The Wailing Wall?
WW: I honestly love that song “Long December” by the Counting Crows. I think it is a masterpiece. I don’t know, is that surprising enough?
PEV: How have your friends and family reacted to your career? What is it like for you when you get to go home?
WW: Totally supportive. My parents are always playing my songs for their friends and stuff, and they come to shows when they are able to. My dad checks my myspace page every day and calls me every time I add a new show or anything. My girlfriend, who I live with, she’s also totally behind me. Its wonderful to have so much support!
PEV: When you are not touring and performing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?
WW: I recently became unemployed, so mostly you can find me in my apartment, not spending money, and looking for a job. Anybody in New York need an employee?
PEV: How is life on the road for you? Good parts? Bad parts? Any fun stories?
WW: Being on the road is my favorite thing in the world. Of course, there are bad nights here and there, and when you’re traveling with someone, you are bound to get into disagreements here and there and/or wish for privacy. Sometimes, it really is hard. It can be rough to go somewhere where you don’t know anybody, play for a small group of people who aren’t really listening, not sell any records, and then sleep on a floor, but while that happens here and there, the good nights really make everything else totally worthwhile.
My favorite story that I can think of at the moment is that this past July, my friend Trevor Wilson and I were on tour together, and we were lined up to play at this art space called the Tinder Box in Brattleboro, VT. When we arrived at the Tinder Box, nobody there remembered that there was supposed to be a show, and in fact most of them were involved in another performance happening across town. Luckily, at the last minute, one of the guys there named Scott decided to stick around and let the show go on. He went out and bought a bunch of pasta, sauce, and bread with is food stamps (!!!!!!!) and made a big dinner, not just for us, but for anybody that wanted any! He set up a table outside the Tinder Box with a sign that said “free food” and offered it to everyone that walked by, regardless of whether they looked homeless or wealthy. The show ended up being awesome, and the crowd was small but very, very appreciative, and the whole experience sticks out in my mind as such an incredible example of human generosity and kindness. I am tearing up just thinking about it!
PEV: In your opinion, is there a certain city (US or International) that you find to be the best city for music?
WW: Internet City.
PEV: As well, where’s one place (city and/or venue) you haven’t played, you would like to? Why?
WW: I would really like to get out to the West Coast soon, and to Canada. I would like to play all over the world! In my ultimate fantasies – I guess it would be pretty insane if the Wailing Wall could some day play a show at the actual Wailing Wall. That would be pretty far out.
PEV: So, what’s next for The Wailing Wall?
WW: I am not actually at liberty to say quite yet, but some really awesome, exciting things are starting to come together. I think it is going to be a very good year!
For more information, check out: http://www.myspace.com/jesserifkin