... in Words: Interviews
"Jeff Buckley," by Aidin Vaziri
This interview was originally published in Raygun Magazine, 1994
Jeff Buckley speaks in a code well suited for his tussle-fringed swagger. But there's no better document of this expression than Live At Sin-é, Buckley's debut four-song offering on Columbia. Composed of two snakey originals and a pair of astral covers, the EP evokes the first rate nature of luminaries like Led Zeppelin, Big Star and Van Morrison, sluggish, frail and heart racing. So it comes as no wonder to find Buckley up to his hips in raw, stark raving naked emotion throughout most of the EP - he's simply a student of his environment. He also happens to be the son of 1970's cult genius, Tim Buckley, who removed himself from Jeff and his mother before the younger Buckley even hit puberty, and died a short time later. Buckley approaches a mythical, possessed state with his just-released proper full-length LP, Grace, of which he's already feeling a slight nod uneasy about. In the meantime, he'll just have to keep prancing around New York City, hanging out in coffee houses, dragging around his tattered notebook and being the essence of cool. And there's a hopeless romantic lurking inside that body too, as his most autobiographical songs will reveal.
Aidin Vaziri: Tell me a little bit about the debut EP.
Jeff Buckley: It pretty much serves a few functions. It's like a love letter to that place. I love Sin-é (a popular East Village coffee house). Anything can happen there, and it usually does. It could be like some really crappy chick on a stool with an acoustic guitar or it can be Marianne Faithful walking in and doing a set at one o'clock in the morning.
AV: Why did you only choose four songs as an introduction?
JB: I did like five and a half hours worth of material. But at first I didn't want to do anything at all like that. I didn't want to do anything that I did in cafes. Because it was just like a learning ground for me for some very specific things that I wanted to get in touch with. I didn't even mean to be signed. I didn't want to have it on an album. And then the president called me up. It's a preview of things to come, that's just a phase in my life.
AV: What determines what makes the cut and what doesn't?
JB: I'm just thoroughly self-critical. Music exists independent of albums. You could make albums like Duke Ellington where you have a workshop with 52 charts and the album is just like six of those tunes, or you can make albums like the Cocteau Twins, just enough and then bang, there it is. And the next thing is entirely different because they're scrambling to get material at the last minute, or whatever. And that's the way this one was. I really hope...I want things to get freer, I want things to get darker. This album is fine. I'll have more compassion for it when I'm over it.
AV: Where do you draw most of your songs from?
JB: Dreams. I have notebooks everywhere I go. I'm always daydreaming. Or things that happen to me. "Eternal Life" is just a song...sometimes when you get too smart for yourself you start worrying about things that everybody should be worrying about but nobody worries about and the weight is so overwhelming that you feel rage on a global level. It's the same thing mothers must feel after they have children. And the whole world is so anti-life, especially a world ruled by men who don't want to sit, listen and understand what life is all about. There's so many countless details to just being alive that just knowing what love is or what pain is or what the reason is or all this amazing wonder and really hard, hard lessons that you've really got to be serious about. Or else you're just fucking around. There's too much of that to still be, either psychically or physically burning crosses or lynching people or coercing people or murdering people or sending people into murder. All that useless shit. I guess that's what "Eternal Life" is, I guess I'm telling whomever the shoe fits, to wear it. That if you really think this is where it's at, then it's too late for you.
AV: There seems to be a thread of wayward love as well.
JB: It's difficult living with someone especially if they touch you really deeply and there are some issues in the house like a third person, and it has nothing to do with your love. Sensitivity isn't being wimpy. It's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom.
AV: Are there some more general themes?
JB: It's just about being alive, my songs. And about even emitting sound. It's about the voice carrying much more information than the words do. The fact is, there are so many other areas you can go with other instruments going on at the same time. You can reach a trance-like state where what's really going on inside the human psyche is being sung to... the music aims at what's really going on underneath ... not what people pretend to be or what they hope they can buy at a store. The little scared kid or the full-on romantic lover is being accessed. There are really majestic qualities about people that can be reached through music. People are incredible to me even though I'm healthily cynical sometimes. It's because we are spirits and the whole tension is that we don't know that we are. Yet, music is able to touch this.
AV: I hear a heavy Big Star influence. You do "Kanga-Roo" live. Was Alex Chilton a hero of yours?
JB: Why, wasn't he everybody's hero? You know how Alex was at the time? Complete mental breakdown in the studio. Absolutely. I cry every time I hear it. It's so simple. It blows away everything I'll ever do.
AV: What about your father? What sort of relationship did you have with him?
JB: Musically? Not any. I did, but I don't own any of his records. I have a very, very, very intimate understanding of everything...I had to. There was a time when I was probably 19 or 20 when I felt like I didn't need to know, and then things started coming after me in my head. And then I just had to try to understand. But I'm not ready to communicate that right now. But the thing is, I came into music completely when I was born and fell in love with it and it became my mother and my father and my playmate when I was really young, when I had nothing. No, it wasn't him. I met him one time, and a couple months later he died. But between that he never wrote and never called and I didn't even get invited to the funeral. There's just no connection, really. I'm sure people will fill in the blanks and make up the kind of myth that they want to. I wish I did get to talk to him a lot. We went out a couple of times. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have much more influence on me than he ever did.
AV: Those are names that always come up when people talk of your music.
JB: That was the first voice I really fell in love with. Young Robert Plant back when he sounded like Jeans. He was trying to sound like Howlin' Wolf, but he didn't. He sounded like some fucking animal.
AV: What does being a songwriter mean to you?
JB: My music is like a lowdown dreamy bit of the psyche. It's part quagmire and part structure. The quagmire is important for things to grow in. Do you ever have one of those memories where you think you remember a taste or a feel of something, maybe an object, but the feeling is so bizarre and imperceptible that you just can't quite get a hold of it? It drives you crazy. That's my musical aesthetic, just this imperceptible fleeting memory. The beauty of it now is that I can record it onto a disc or play it live. It's entirely surreal. It's like there's a guard at the gate of your memory and you're not supposed to remember certain things because you can only obtain the full experience by completely going under its power. You can be destroyed or scarred. You don't know, it's like dying. Anyway, music is the only thing I've got. It's the only thing that's been really great to me all the time. There was a point where I was extremely depressed and I couldn't go near anything.
AV: Was that during high school?
JB: High school was a joke. I knew it was completely superfluous when I stepped in. Not the information, but the people.
AV: You grew up in Riverside, California, what was that like?
JB: From womb to tomb, it's thug country. I'm amazed that I had any friends at all. People grow up repressed from the spirit, day by day by day. Cable TV, it's fucked. It's misogyny, it's birth, death, work, it's misery, it's power. It's fuckin' hicks. And that's what I grew up with. I was rootless trailer trash. Now I prefer the Lower East Side to any place on the planet. I can be who I am here. I couldn't do it anyplace I lived as a child. I never fit in California, even though my roots are
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