INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MISERY: An Interview with Lucas Nathan (Jerry Paper)

For WVFI’s fourth annual RadioThon, we interviewed Lucas Nathan, pop deconstructionist and host body of the prolific musician Jerry Paper. His latest record, Toon Time Raw! — a collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD — was released last summer.

Adrian Mark Lore
First of all, am I talking to Lucas Nathan or Jerry Paper? (Laughs.) It seems important that I clarify this…

Lucas Nathan
Lucas Nathan.

AML
Your alter-ego reminds me of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Kevin Barnes’ Georgie Fruit. What went into the genesis of this alternate musical persona? Did you draw from other musicians who have done the same?

LN
No, it just kind of came naturally to me. I didn’t feel comfortable going onstage and being myself, so I felt like I needed some sort of proxy to live through, and through [the Jerry Paper ego] I was able to be much more comfortable being onstage. Like, I always had a ceremonial action — I needed some sort of ritual action before I went onstage. And I still do always wear some sort of costume or something — there has to be some sort of transformation, otherwise it just doesn’t feel right and I don’t feel like I’m able to be as honest as I can be if I’m not wearing the Jerry mask.

AML
That makes a lot of sense to me. Is the kimono part of that getup?

LN
Not anymore. Not since a little over a year ago.

AML
One of my favorite Jerry Paper records is International Man of Misery, because I think it really captures the essence of your creative project. Also, perhaps ironically, that EP helped me through a difficult time, its quasi-whimsical depiction of misery unexpectedly liberating.

LN
Thank you, I really appreciate that. That was a very difficult little album to make, because I was kind of struggling with my own depression, and the only thing that helped me through it were other sad songs. And for some reason sad songs are the only thing that make you feel better when you’re going through that kind of experience, which seems counter-intuitive. It seems like it’s wallowing, but really what I’ve found is that hearing people express those emotions made me feel less lonely, and I felt like I wanted to do something like that so people who were going through what I was going through [could be] less lonely — during the kind of experience where you just feel empty and isolated and you feel like nobody understands. Except music is a rare art form that can penetrate that. It doesn’t always; if you’re suffering from very intense depression sometimes music doesn’t work. But mine was circumstantial, so I was able to work through it through other things in life — but a lot of it was music. So, I’m really glad that worked for you. I figure, also, that painting it in a cartoonish way was a good way to see the absurdity of the situation in the first place.

AML
Speaking of cartoons, Toon Time Raw! is totally different from what you’ve done in the past, insofar as you put aside some of the synths in favor of jazzy, almost baroque-pop arrangements. What was behind this transition to a folksier, more acoustic sound?

LN
Umm, I just got bored doing the same thing over and over again, and I wanted to try and challenge myself. Again, I would just sit down at the synth, and that was my writing process. I was just feeling like, if I keep doing this the same way I’m gonna get bored and then the music’s gonna get boring. So, I figured I would try to write songs on guitar, which I hadn’t done in a really long time. I just made a bunch of demos on guitar and then sent [them] to my friend [Matthew Tavares], who plays in BADBADNOTGOOD, and then they were like, “Yeah, let’s do a record.” It just, kind of, all fell into place: with me trying to try something different, collaborating with other human beings was a new challenge but also really interesting and really fun. Yeah, I don’t know — it all fell into place.

AML
Speaking of which, how did that collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD (credited as Easy Feelings Unlimited) come about? You mentioned it a bit — so you’re friends with members of the band?

LN
Yeah. About (hesitantly) six years ago — I have no idea how long ago — but right around when I released my first tape, called “Vol. I” — the very first thing, the mission statement of the Jerry Paper project — I put that out, and then [Tavares] who plays [the keyboard] with [BADBADNOTGOOD] found a download of it on some music message board or something, and then e-mailed me and was like, “Hey, this is good – what’s up?” And we kind of became friends over e-mail, and then every time they would come through New York I would go to the show and hang out with them, and we kind of became friends. Yeah, like I said earlier, I was just working on these demos and trying to figure out how I wanted to present them, ‘cause I wasn’t really able to record acoustic instruments — I just didn’t have the setup at my house— so I just e-mailed [Tavares] the stuff and was like, “Hey, do you wanna help me do this?” And he was like, “Yeah, sounds great! Just come to Toronto and we’ll do it.” So, I just flew there and we did like … I think it was nine days of fourteen-hour days — like, nonstop working on the record. And BOOM.

AML
That’s awesome. Because it seemed quite random at first, but it totally worked on the record.

LN
Well, you know, music people have very varied consumption habits, so [Toon Time Raw!] is a little closer to music that I actually listen to, really. So much of what I listen to is Brazilian music from the ‘70s and Steely Dan — stuff like that. When we were making the record, we were like, “How do we make the record sound like this.” It was really fun to take records that I listen to and try to figure out how to take sounds from that. It really just worked out that I could work with equipment that I would never have access to: we had a recording studio and a lot of nice synths and nice microphones and stuff, whereas my home recording setup is … minimal. (Laughs.)

AML
Just for fun, tell me about a dream collaboration: if you could make a record with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?

LN
Maybe … Stereolab? I don’t know. I like Stereolab a lot, you know — I want to see them live. (Laughs.) Yeah, I don’t know. Collaboration is a very complicated thing. It’s not necessarily who you like the most, it’s who you belong with the most. Yeah, [Tavares and I] work really well together. I think collaborating with him is probably as good as it gets for me. We very much feed off of each other’s creative energy, bounce a lot ideas off of each other and have very similar tastes.

AML
Yeah, and you could hear that on the record too.

LN
Thanks.

AML
Back to the normal line of questioning. (Laughs.) In the past, you’ve branched out to experiment with various media, including film and game design. But, if I recall correctly, Toon Time Raw! had no such accompaniment. Do you have any plans to pursue multimedia projects again in the future?

LN
Oh, yeah — it’s just a money problem. Just a mundane, mundane cash problem. For the last record, I really wanted to do a cartoon music video for each song — to go along with it — because [the record] was so concept-oriented and cartoon-driven. But cartoons are so hard and expensive to make, and the label just didn’t have the budget for it. I definitely have a lot of big, crazy ideas that are grounded by the fact that there’s just no money to make things move so people get paid fairly. So, that’s the main problem. Music is my full-time job, so I have to use all the money that I get from music to keep myself alive, instead of being able to pour it back into creating more detailed and intense things, which is what I would really like to be able to do. But, you know … I’ve got a whole lot of ideas and not as many ways to actually do them. All of the time I’d like to make more interesting ways to engage with an album, but it’s not always feasible, unfortunately.

AML
Nowadays, most musicians — even very successful ones — have to support themselves with some form of employment on the side. When you’re not touring or making records, what are you up to, professionally and personally?

LN
Music, mostly. Trying to sell T-shirts and stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t tour that much, so I do have to figure out other income streams. Generally, I’m trying to do a lot of score work — like soundtracks and stuff like that — and other projects. Like, I did this video for Adult Swim with my friend Steve [Smith]. I’m just trying to supplement my life with smaller, non-album-related projects.

AML
More generally, what’s next for Jerry Paper? I noticed that you’re not touring at the moment — could it be a sign of new material to come?

LN
Yeah, you know, I’m gonna be taking a break [from touring]. I mean, I don’t tour that much anyway — it’s just not that much fun (laughs) and it’s not the lifestyle that I really want, and it sucks ‘cause I’d like to play shows for everyone that wants to see it, but it’s very difficult logistically, and I like to hang out with my girlfriend and my kitties — stuff like that.

AML
(Laughs.) Yeah, I hear that.

LN
You know, I like being at home. I’m starting to wind down for a little bit, so I can focus on other projects. Hopefully that will be finished and released at some point. (Laughs.) But, yeah, I have my fingers in a lot of pots right now. Definitely working on a new record, for sure; that should be done sometime next year, hopefully.

AML
One last question: What have you been reading, watching or listening to lately? Any recommendations for the station and our listeners?

LN
Yes! This morning — I’m just finishing up this book that I’m really loving. It’s called Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s a collection of his early ‘80s articles for Scientific American and then a bunch of postscripts — it’s really, really, really good. There’re some sections that are a bit, like, dense math that — as for me — I gotta skip over; there’s no point in my reading it ‘cause I don’t understand it. But it’s really, really, really good. He’s such a smart, wonderful person — the way he writes, the themes — and I can’t recommend his work enough. That, and also the new George Saunders novel is really good — Lincoln in the Bardo.

AML
You said, Metamagical

LN
Metamagical Themas. It’s an anagram of “mathematical games,” because he took over for Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column. Yeah, it’s super great. The section I was just reading was about something called the “prisoner’s dilemma” — setting up different iterations of the “prisoner’s dilemma” and figuring out motivations for cooperation and for defection in normal life, and how you can create a society that cooperates. It’s really great — can’t recommend him enough.

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