I had a chance to sit down and chat with musician and song-writer Justin Dean Thomas (twitter: @JustinDeanNYC instagram: @justindeanthomas). We discussed life in general and his inspiration behind his new single, “Know One Knows”. It was produced by Jarrett Wetherell and features Andy Rourke of The Smiths on bass, Philip Sterk on lap stell, and Brandon Collins on drums. Mixed by Beatriz Artola, and Mastered by Nick Townsend. Out now on Greenway Records.
ARE YOU PRIMARILY A ‘SOLO ACT’, OR IS ‘JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS’ YOUR OFFICIAL BAND NAME?
I have such a strong cast of musicians who have supported me since the inception. If you don’t have a band name it’s harder to give people an incentive – a democracy … we’re all in this together.
But I’ve been in bands and I think that having the liberty to write stuff and be able to put it out there the way that you want it, is huge, but there is something to be said about having bands too. You have to give everybody room to express their opinions and incorporating those things in. You can learn a lot about life just doing those things with a band. But I think right now I know what I want to do with the music and how I want to record it.
And sometimes you may not agree with the band members, but in the same way it’s also a lot of responsibility, because you don’t have the same kind of support the “all for one” kind of mentality.
HOW DO YOU GIVE THAT INCENTIVE?
When you write something you have a good idea of the structure, but you have to offer it up in a way that you are legitimately and sincerely asking for that musicians input because that really colors it … but it’s also your responsibility to have your ideas really flushed out – you give them the general concept and they put their flare and personality on to it as well
The drummer that plays with me Brandon Collins – he’s unbelievable – it just so happens that a lot of things he wants to do are pretty much in line with what I play. I’m really lucky to have him and the others who I have been playing with. But I try to provide an open environment where people can give me their ideas and put their own personality on whatever we are doing. I think it’s really important to know that I wouldn’t have what I do if it weren’t for all that are involved with what I do. I really value that.
HOW DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION?DO YOU SOMETIMES END UP IN A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLACE THAN YOU THOUGHT YOU WOULD BE CREATIVELY?
A lot stays on track. Sometimes you have these ideas of exactly how you want it to come out, but it’s a good practice to step back and look at it from other people’s perspective as well. Sometimes there are certain elements in there that are part of the general concept and you have to stay true to it, but you also have to know when to pick your battles and be like, “hey, this absolutely has to make it into there”.
Then when you record it you get an actual other perspective, when producer or an engineer is like hey, “I’m hearing this”, and that’s part of a producer’s job too … not to just arrange stuff but to pick our ideas you may have somehow missed, and it behooves you to listen to someone’s ideas. Recently I worked with Delicate Steve both producing and playing on my next EP and he helped to take me out of my circuit and added this different energy that I would’t have done otherwise. He heard things I didn’t hear and brought things out that weren’t there.
So, [it’s good to] always have to be open and not preclude any ideas.
HOW DO YOU FEEL WHEN IT’S ACTUALLY THE PRODUCER OR THE ENGINEER WHO’S GIVING THE WORK A DIFFERENT TWIST?
I think that it’s very important to have a distinct idea of what it is that you want to do, because if you don’t, you leave it open for someone else to fill in the blanks.
[It] might come down to like a post-production thing like: let’s try not putting reverb on that guitar, or let’s add some percussion to it, or let’s leave this thing out, or cut out a verse and see how it sounds.
It’s good [to be open]. I had a band member who was pretty open to any ideas and wasn’t always set on any one idea or any certain way in that respect and I learned a lot from him.
DO YOU HAVE FAVORITE WAY OF APPROACHING THE CREATION OF AN ALBUM?
Well it depends on if you’re doing one song or an album, but I try to bring in what I was feeling, I try to bring that energy into the studio and embody that in a real sincere way. To step into the world I was in when I wrote that respective thing. I think an album or song can also reflect where you are at and it’s good to be in touch with all of that, good or bad when you step into those sessions.
Money can sometimes dictate the how you release thing; you [may] want to release things very DYI and you’re recording at home, and you’re really limited to four tracks or you are either doing things live … and you only have four tracks to work with … granted you have some other options. ( I did a lot of these songs on a tape recorder – a TASCAM MkII.
WAS THAT AN AESTHETIC YOU WERE GOING FOR?
I think you have to know what came before you and study those things and those things can really enrich what you’re doing. But also realize it’s not the 1950’s. It’s not the 1960’s. We have a lot of modern technology at our disposal and how you want to record is entirely up to you.
And there is no one way of doing things and I’m not a purist with things … and I do think … and everybody has different opinions on this, but I really do think there is something prevalent about analog recording that isn’t necessarily in a lot of digital music that gets lost because everybody is tracking stuff … they have the ability to have so many different tracks and you can just keep over-dubbing and making things sound perfect. I try to stay away from a lot of that stuff ( like pitch control ) even when I record digitally or analog.
Depending on what kind of music you listen to we are very conditioned right now, in the world of modern pop music to hear music in a overly polished way. I think that sometimes some of the tracks that some people find the most endearing are the ones where you find little flaws in them, little mistakes that couldn’t be completely be ironed out in the production process.
[For example] that Otis Redding’s voice wasn’t perfect on these recordings and Janis Joplin’s voice wasn’t perfect, and if something is a little bit off you can sense the humanism in that.
To me, (and not everybody), that’s the attractive endearing thing when you hear something and it sounds like you can hear the room itself. Phil Specter made a thing of that – all the musicians playing in one room so that the sound bled; it became part of the “Wall of Sound” recording technique. And it was said that he would wear the musicians out, because he would do everything in one take. So they would have to do it so many times to wear out the individualism [of ] the actual musician, so that it would be just all one big sound.
It’s funny, because I studied Judo for a while, and as your talking about this it reminds me of something sensei would say. He would say “I’m here to tire you out, because when your are tired, that’s when your Judo comes out. “
TELL ME MORE ABOUT HOW THE CONCEPT THAT “ HUMANISM IS TO LOVE DESPITE OF IMPERFECTIONS “ INFLUENCES YOUR WORK
Something which has become really important to me, specially in the last couple of years, is understanding of my own imperfections and also seeing other people’s imperfections, and loving them for it. And even when you cant necessarily appreciate those imperfections [in others] still seeing the Greater Good in [them].
So, yeah, I generally want to see the greater good in things and in the recording process I think the camaraderie, the musicianship, it really helps you to embrace and marry those things. To be like “alright, although I am a creative, this is still business. “
In my opinion one of the toughest parts that I encounter, and I think other musicians that I talk to encounter, is being a musician and also being a business-[person]. And it seems like an oxymoron because the music industry was more conducive for musicians just being musicians.
All these record labels that used have development departments, those department don’t even exist anymore. It seems like the paradigm now is: let’s se what pops on social media, on sound cloud; let’s see what people are paying attention to and we’ll grip it up. And we’ll commoditize it; we’ll monetize it. But they let the artist do most of the leg-work
Some things have a great natural following, and organic following. And there are some many things that are really good secrets out there, but because it’s kind of like a Western mentality of: “When it is something then we’ll all rally behind it.”
And some people like the idea of something being a hidden little secret, like: “Only I know about this band, and I don’t want it to be big.”
But it’s really difficult and kind of amazing at the same time to live in the times [when the ] music industry is shifting paradigms all the time… and we used to live in a world where the record industry kinda dictated a little bit [and] used to pick up on fads, where there would be this person who thought they had discovered this artist in a smoky room somewhere and would make it their personal mission and took a risk on something to make sure people heard their music.
Where now the whole marked seems to be so flushed with so many things and it used to be like this guard you would have to get by and now that’s not there any more and now there are some many more things to sift through, so many options.
DO YOU THINK THIS SHIFT IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY MAKES IT HARDER OR EASIER TO BE NOTICED AS AN ARTIST?
It makes it harder, because now you have all the tools at your disposal to get out to the general public, but at the same time some of those old-guard tactics are still there. You have to get on to certain blogs. And there are certain record labels that put their stamp of approval, and PR and things like that. Some of it comes down to how much money you have, some of it comes down to the talent you have.
But people still like hyperbole; I was talking to somebody sometime about at what point do you keep seeing something in your proverbial feed that you go and take the time to check it out?
You might hear about a band three or four different times on different mediums and then you go and check it out. Our in-boxes are full of people wanting us to check things out. And there are some many things to check out that we just feel completely overwhelmed.
DO YOU HAVE A STRATEGY ON HOW TO ADDRESS CREATING MUSIC IN THIS NEW ENVIRONMENT?
Yeah, to one degree you have to really know what’s going on – the landscape of music and the time that you live in. But at the same time if you feel and energy and if you feel and can see, in your head, what you want to do, it’s important that you really put down the bones and a foundation and try to deliver those things as well as you see them in your head – in your heart.
Sometimes you have to ignore what’s going on, because it is so over-whelming. And sometimes you have to open yourself up to everything that is going on out there and let it filter down. And then sit in your room and filter all the noise. And just sit down with all the thoughts and feelings and inspirations that you have. It’s that clinical though, for me I don’t even think about that stuff when I write. It’s kinda like when my heart opens up … it’s never clinical it’s always natural. And I think that if I’m really pulling for words or pulling for emotions – the I just stop, because that is not how I write.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR NEED TO BE A BUSINESS PERSON WITH YOUR NEED TO HAVE SPACE TO CREATE MUSIC? It’s seems like you have it figured out.
You would think so right?
Well, probably more than most.
Well, I think, for me is having a healthy balance. Being around other people – having community. I used to be a real loner ( [being a loner ] can really help that out, because you are with your thoughts a lot). But I think I have really opened up now and I really love community.
Musicians I think wanting to help on any level. But to answer your question, I think a lot of it requires leaving time open to where I can listen to music, watch documentary, read books, because that’s usually when something pops for me.
So allowing yourself the time to be inspired – going to museums and different places, and giving yourself the alone time that’s needed to just sit down and be alone with those thoughts. And maybe nothing comes of it, but most of the time for me something sparks.
But when I do get it, I have to be diligent. Because I can get lazy and if you don’t go with that energy right away you can just loose really quickly. Following through will you still have that love for whatever it is that you’re writing is a huge part of it.
TALK TO ME ABOUT TRUST – THE TRUST YOU NEED TO HAVE IN YOUR COMMUNITY AND THE MUSICIANS YOU’RE WORKING WITH. AND ALSO TALK TO ME ABOUT THE LOVE YOU HAVE AND THE LOVE YOU FEEL WHILE YOU’RE CREATING YOUR WORK.
Trusting yourself is important. I can’t speak for any other musician, but I think I always go through a little bit of self-doubt when creating a new piece, and I think that’s healthy. I think it’s a very tough line to walk if you think too highly of yourself or if you think too low of yourself.
I think that any good artist constantly questioning what they’re putting out and why they are putting it out and what their motivation is. Is it all about you? Is it all about your story? Is it to inspire the people? What’s your goal in doing these things?
It might not even be for someone else, [maybe] you just need to put a thing down on paper.
Most people are really scared what people are going to think once you put something out there. But I think everybody goes through that, whether you’re a doctor or a baseball player, painter, martial artist. I think that once you get through so many repetitions of something it becomes a little easier.
That’s not to say you still don’t get nervous when you go on stage. But sometimes you have off days, and you have to find something in that song, that you maybe sung 200 times, or find something completely different to draw on that you can see in your head… to bring that song to life, otherwise you just go through the motions.
I think doubt is part of the process, but you also have to have some type of validation. I know people like to say: “Well I don’t care what other people think.” But everybody cares what other people think.
So I think it’s important to uplift other people and other artists and be honest [about your feedback]. I think it is important to tell other artists what you find is great in their work, because I think it’s important for their path.
SO I GUESS, AS AN ARTIST, ACTUALLY BEING A LITTLE NERVOUS ABOUT YOUR WORK IS ACTAULLY A GOOD DEFLECTOR OF EGO?
Yeah, it’s funny. How it can cut both ways. People want to see so many aspects of things, when they are coming to any form of entertainment; they love to see their athletes almost as super human.
They love to see certain personas – like Bowie had personas that he would embody. And people want to see these things that take them out of the banality of being a human being or the banality of living a normal life – being super-human, or super-natural or whatever it is – and they want to see them as being these almost flawless things. But they also love vulnerability as well.
But it’s funny the duality of those things – how people want to see their performers embody their bravado and boldness that may not be prevalent within them and to live vicariously [through them] or they may [also] identify with the vulnerability,. Some people just really love sincerity.
WHAT ABOUT ARTIST RIVALRY? DO YOU ENCOUNTER THAT?
Yeah, I think we all think about those things. There was this story about Jeff Buckley when he was playing Sin-e, and everybody used to come out to see him all the time and everybody kept telling Thom Yorke, “you gotta see this kid” .. and Radio Head was already on the map … so he went and ( from the perspective that I heard this from ) he was upset that someone was doing something in line with what he was doing but also completely differently.
So I think that every artist feels a little [like] that. That there is somebody who is doing something and you can’t quiet do it that exactly that way because [what they’re doing] is theirs.
So I think there is so much work to do in that area [ of creating music ], that I no longer see things from a perspective of rivalry anymore; initially I did, but I think that for me there is so much energy to be put towards other things that even taking a little bit of that energy to be jealous or to have a rivalry is a waste.
You just have to be careful with your thoughts and what your motivation is for things. And even initially if you don’t like another artist personally just like to wish them the best, because if you hold on to a grudge or a rivalry it does nothing but hurt and slow down [your creativity].
SO HOW DID THAT STORY ABOUT JEFF BUCKLEY AND THOM YORKE END?
So the rest of that story has a good ending. Thom Yorke was so upset that someone was doing work of that caliber that he went back and locked himself in his tour bus and they couldn’t get him out. When he finally came out he had written that song “Fake Plastic Trees”
So you can inspire people I think. You see what other people are doing on a very real level. So as a musician and as an artist I think it’s important to see what other artists are doing even if it’s not what you do or what you’re into. So I think a little competition is actually healthy, and you should respect people and be like, “Ah, I see what they’re doing.”
And you might think that you can take on that and I think that’s what made David Bowie so great is that he had such a great respect and love for music. He was a great borrower and put his own signature on things. He wanted to know you as a person and he was always scouting things.
But if you have this rivalry mentality it cuts you off from being able to see the whole picture, because you only see the competition. It’s not healthy.
THANK YOU JUSTIN.
I HAVE ONE LAST QUESTION: IF YOU WHERE TRAPPED ON A DESERTED ISLAND WHAT FIVE ITEMS WILL YOU TAKE WITH YOU?
Echo & the Bunnymen – Crocodiles
Bob Dylan & The Band – The Basement Tapes
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Big Star – #1 Record
MC5 – Back In The USA
Interview: Claudia Innes – Instagram: @jarethsgirl
Photos: Peter Anderson