The Jason Cooley Interview
Jason Cooley is best known to Kochalkaholics for two things: He's a dog with a robot brain (Cooley's cartoon avatar in Kochalka's comics, elevated to mythic status in the James Kochalka Superstar song "Saving My Strength," from Don't Trust Whitey), and he is a key collaborator in the creation of Kochalka's music.
He spoke to me this week about his life, his music, and his longtime association with Kochalka.
Let's start with some background, where are you originally from?
I was born and raised all over New Hampshire until I was 14, when my family was forced to move to Burlington, Vermont.
I came home from school one day to find we'd been locked out of our apartment and evicted. We were very poor and moved around a lot, usually because of a falling out with whatever landlord we had.
Why did your family pick Burlington, and how did you end up staying there? Was something different?
By that time my parents were pretty used to having these problems and having to move suddenly, so with this one my dad had already started working at a low-rent housing complex in Burlington as a maintenance man. So we had to leave our things behind and drive to Burlington that night. We moved into the complex.
How hard was it fitting in in your new community? Did you make friends quickly?
No. I was pretty mentally fried at that point from moving so much, I'd given up bothering to make friends because I knew we'd just move soon anyway. I pretty much stayed in my room the first year I was there. It sounds a lot worse than it was!
What did you do to keep yourself occupied? Music? Comics?
Yeah, totally. Especially music, all the time. I had a lot of comics too, but they were mainly terrible stuff from the late '80s, like that new Silver Surfer series, or G.I. Joe, crap like that. Most of the music I listened to back then was pretty terrible as well. I was a metalhead. Also, I was obsessed with Saturday Night Live.
When did you meet James Kochalka? During this era?
No, way later. Somehow I got of my metal phase and into punk rock, accepted my fate in Burlington, made friends, escaped high school, got a job, et cetera. It was around this time that I first saw Kochalka, but I didn't talk to him. This was in late '92. I was in a comic shop in Burlington, Earth Prime Comics.
I've been in that shop. There was a cat, and a lot of bent comics, and dust.
Yeah. Idiots. They used to stick all of the "dirty" comics in a box under this table next to cash register. I saw this blonde guy in a long green trenchcoat look under the table and I thought "Whoa, sketchball." But he pulled out this comic called "Hate", which I'd read about but figured I'd never see and when I saw that I waited until he left and I went right for the box and couldn't believe the comics I'd been reading about were considered dirty and hidden under that table the whole time!
I bought a bunch of Eightball, Hate, etc. and then got on the bus to Winooski, where my family lived at the time, and the trenchcoat guy was on the bus as well. Years later I realized that it was James, and the reason he was on my bus was because he was on his way to work at The Peking Duck House.
I just found a quote from James today where he said that Eightball was a formative discovery for him.
Oh, me too. It changed my life.
In what way?
It was crass and weird, but intelligent and well-drawn all at once. It was like a punk rock comic. Stuff like "Art School Confidential" and "Velvet Glove", or even "Shamrock Squid" were incredibly inspiring. And like when you first discover punk rock, you instantly wanna do it, too. And it's what led me to meeting Kochalka.
You did your own comic for a while, right? Skoolbus? Or was that more of a 'zine?
I guess it was a zine, but when I started it I didn't even know what zines were. I thought I'd come up with this brilliant new artform. I don't even know why I did it, I was just plain fucking driven. I worked on this horrible rag for months, thinking it would be this awesomely successful thing. It had badly-drawn comics, record reviews, and whatever I could find to fill up the pages. Then when I was almost done, I was at work reading Details magazine, and there was an article about the whole zine explosion, with R. Seth Friedman, The Goads, etc. I couldn't believe how dumb I'd been. But putting it out led me to meeting everyone that would shape my life in the past 12 years.
How did Eightball lead you to meeting James?
I met James at the movie theatre I worked at. He knew this guy there that I worked with named Eric Tronsen -- who unfortunately passed away -- and so he came in to see a movie once and Trons introduced us thinking we'd be friends because we both drew comics. But it didn't work out. James said he didn't like Skoolbus and that was that. Then I just thought he was a pompous dick for awhile.
A not-uncommon misperception, no?
Ha, I guess not. Another time I went to a party at Trons' place, and James was there passed out in a chair. I asked what was wrong with him and Trons told me "Ahhh, that's Kochalka. he's a fucking junkie." So then I thought he was a heroin addict for the next year.
Ha ha! So, how did the friendship between you develop?
Well, a few months into the Skoolbus thing some guy complained to Pure Pop (the awesome record store in Burlington that was selling them) about a dirty poster I'd put up. The clerk he complained to was Pistol who told me about it. I'll never forget those words: "Hey, are you the Skoolbus guy?" So, I became friendly with him. And he knew Kochalka and would be like "No, man. He's not a junkie. He used to draw 'Deadbear'!" which I knew and loved all through high school.
So one day I was in the supermarket and there were James and Amy. They said hi. They were buying catfood for their a cat they'd just gotten that day, I believe.
That was Spandy?
Yeah. James mentioned that he didn't have anyone to talk about comics with, and asked if I'd want to come over some time and talk about comics with him. I said okay. Then the next day my apartment building burned down.
Jesus, so, that was an historic week, from you meeting James and Amy, to them getting Spandy, to the fire. You lost pretty much everything. correct?
Yeah. The summer I started hanging out with James was the most fucked up, sad, crazy, and somehow most strangely beautiful summer I've ever had.
Seems kind of fitting, somehow. It sounds like there was a genuine confluence of events in that time. So how long was it that you went from talking about comics with James to becoming a character in his work?
Jesus, a while, actually. I don't think he thought I was interesting enough. At least three years or so.
So what went on in those three years, was there any music yet, any hint of those interests?
Yeah, well again, with the Eightball spurring me to do do Skoolbus, meeting Pistol and James, through them meeting Eugene Hutz and he asking me to join his band at the time called The Fags, teaching me how to play, meeting other musicians in town...up until then I'd always loved music, but anytime I'd start to pick up a friend's guitar they'd just yell at me to put it the fuck down, y'know? So, suddenly meeting all of these artists who were all just so fucking encouraging, it was an amazing time for me.
So did your first musical efforts include James, or did that come later?
It's scattered. The first time I ever appeared on stage was with James. I bumrushed some metal show at Club Toast and tried to play some Beck-type shit while James stood on stage silently with a "SECURITY" shirt on. We wrote a few dumb songs together for a tape once.
Did any of those songs survive into the JKS era?
Hell, no. But I'm sure he still has the tape. It's called "The Skoolbus F.U.C.K. Machine Tape", I believe. One song was called "You Are The Man" and the other was "I'm Gonna Kill You". The were actually duets. He got me a job at the Peking Duck House working with him.
As you once explained to me in an e-mail, you're not a dog with a robot brain, you don't come from the north of Spain, you don't drink cherry wine, or any of the other things James says about you in the song "Saving My Strength." Where does Jason X-12 meet Jason Cooley?
Well, I definitely have my bouts with depression. But I think James overdoes it a bit, but it's okay. It's caricature. In general I don't mind the way he portrays me. It's cute and gets me pretty good. I would say I'm not as mean or ornery as he makes me out to be. I'm actually very shy, nice and polite. But I am lovelorn and sad and that shit, too. Ugh, am I letting you down?
No, no, not at all! James has included some pretty personal information about you in his strips...your seizures and related memory loss, for instance. Does he ask your permission before doing strips about those moments? How do you feel about them?
He doesn't ask permission, but he knows he doesn't need it. I guess it's personal information, but I don't care as long as it's truthful. My only problem with the seizure stuff was having people worry about me, which is nice, but I feel bad having complete strangers worried that I'm going to die or something. I'm just glad he isn't around to document the recent shit. It ain't funny.
No, I don't imagine it is. You've written a bit about it on your online journal, and it sounds scary as hell. And I admit I do worry about you.
See? I do it to myself!
I have to tell you something, I was really intimidated when you agreed to the interview. You've kind of been built up in my imagination as a near-mythic character.
That's funny. Unfortunately I'm very mortal. James is the near-mythic one. He'll never die. Or at least, he'll grow to be a very old and goofy curmudgeon.
James's depiction of you, as a reader, makes me feel very protective of you. I think this is a function of his affection for you that really comes through in the work.
Oh, yeah. We've got each other's backs. We've been friends a very long time. I feel the same way towards him, especially because he's so child-like. I've embarrassed myself a few times over at The Comics Journal message board trying to defend him from those spirit-crushing assholes over there, but fuck it. I'll stick up for him forever. I wish I could draw comics that would make people care about him in the same way. But people care anyway. I suppose the band kind of does that in a way.
Well, I think the contribution you've made to the band has served kind of the same function -- without you, the music wouldn't endear as many people as strongly to James.
I think when you listen to recordings of James' songs, with us playing the music, we're right there with him, playing this song he wrote as best we can. Because we love him.
Yeah, it's very vital.
Why do you think so many people feel moved to write songs about you?
I don't know. Are there many? I can only think of 2 or 3.
Colin Clary told me about at least three. Would you say you and James are more Lennon and McCartney, Ike and Tina, or Peaches and Herb?
None, we're like Barnes and Barnes. Um...I'm trying to think of one...I guess we're like Richard Hell and The Voidoids. He's Richard and I'm the Voidoids...at least when it comes to writing the songs. Onstage we're fucking Jagger and Richards, man. Fuck yeah.
Tell me about the band's recording style, how does a song come together?
James will write a song in the shower or wherever and then proceed to call people up and sing it, sing it to friends on the street, on the bus, in restaurants, wherever. He wrote a lot of his stuff while working at the Peking Duck house. He'd sing me all these new songs, like "Bad Astronaut," and "Keg Party." I never thought I'd ever be playing them someday. But anyway, after torturing anyone within earshot we'll sit down and he'll sing it to me, I'll figure out the notes/chords and we'll record a little demo on a tape or something. It can be easy and hard sometimes doing this. People think that James can't sing, but he's a stickler for what notes he wants, even if he doesn't know what they're called, and he usually won't budge.
Then we'll play it live a few times and then hopefully get to record it for real somehow, preferably with Peter Katis. But I'm not the only one who writes songs with James. Katis, Creston, Pistol, now Eric Olsen is getting into it...
What's your favourite song that you and James collaborated on?
I guess it's "Monkey vs. Robot." He actually made up the words at a party at Steve Tremblay's house while jamming with the Japanese band Ultra-Bide, but then he realized what a good song/concept it was and so we wrote it. The riff was obvious and I came up with the "Gloria" coda at the end. Recording it was absolutely amazing. The Katis brothers learned it in one minute and we did it in one take. During the feedback part before "M-O-N-K-E-Y" James was gesticulating frantically at me to keep playing the song. He thought I was forgetting how to play it or something.
Living in New York City, now, what effect has that had on your work with and relationship to the other members of the band?
Um, I guess it sucks. I miss them and regret moving away a lot. James is always begging me to move back. I mean, I was Band Captain. How could I leave that? I don't know what I was thinking, I miss them all more than they know. But luckily they still seem to consider me a member of the band, so we still play together, but I'll bet there's a lot of songs I should be writing with James that I'm missing out on. I'm really proud of the stuff we've done together. Most times I can't even believe it.
What drew you to New York?
Boredom and depressing Vermont winters, I guess. I lived here before in '97 and moved back to Vermont but always wondered what would have happened to me if I'd stayed. So I had a chance and took it. Duh.
What do you do in New York, what's your day job?
I'm a freelancer working in the textile department of the production and design offices of West Elm, which is kind of like IKEA. I stare at textiles and swatches and curtains and pillows all day long. But I'm also playing bass in a great disco punk band called Heloise and The Savoir-Faire.
Does the band work make up for the tedium of working in textiles?
Yeah. Music will always make up for whatever is bothering me. Some people eat or whatever. I buy records and play bass as hard as I can.
Let's talk about [the Jason Cooley-written mini-comic] Sunturd [a parody of Kochalka's comics]. Where the hell did that come from?
Hm. Well, even though I've got James's back and all that shit, I'll also usually tell him when I don't like his newest books, and I just thought Sunburn was, um, pretentious. Not to knock anybody who likes that book, and since my first read I've grown to like it more, but the time it came out I was like "What the fuck is he talking about?" I was looking at the pictures [in Sunburn] and realizing how the pictures didn't exactly need the text, and the text didn't exactly need the pictures. Well, we were drinking and I told him my idea, and he was way into it. Then I wrote it, but we never got around to finishing it. Years went by before it finally came out.
I think Sunturd is a wonderful corrective to any perceived or real flaws in Sunburn. I now see them as essential to each other. I laughed harder at Sunturd than at any comic I think I ever read, I just laughed and laughed until tears were streaming down my face. And given how much affection and respect I have for James's work I think you really accomplished something there.
Oh, good. Wow, thanks. I'm surprised it wasn't successful, sales-wise.
Well, I've only ever seen it for sale in one place, The Beguiling. I didn't ever get the feeling there was a big sales push for it or anything. I think it should have been included in The Cute Manifesto.
Yeah, he says I told him not to put it in [The Cute Manifesto], but I don't see how I would ever say that. The thing is, I think he really does think that way sometimes.
I'm sure you're right, I think we all do. I just loved that book so much. It was the one comic I read on my Toronto trip. I couldn't wait to get home, I had to read it right there in Jason Marcy's basement.
Wow. Thanks, man. I wrote that shit in the time it took to drink one can of beer. And yeah, we all do [think that way sometimes].
You also have your own record company and record your own solo music. What are your goals, for the company and for your own music?
The company was something that Eric Olsen and I had talked about doing a lot and then one day we finally did it. We were trying to start something in Burlington outside of everything else, not to be elitist, but you know...my goal was to put out some weird, great little records that would just crush the whole hippie-jamband garbage that seems to rule Burlington because of all the Phish fans going to UVM. But you know, it's hard to crush music with other music, and frankly wrong, as well. But we're happy with everything we've done so far. We're moving a little slowly due to Eric's busy schedule and my laziness, but we're getting there.
I don't know where I'm going with my music, though. I have too many ideas. It's actually a problem.
The instrumental stuff you've done, what I've heard of it, I really like. Pensive and thoughtful stuff.
Yeah, I guess that's where it's going. That stuff comes from liking girls. Songs about girls with no words. I have a crush on or be involved with somebody and then I'm trying to make them cry with these pretty little instrumentals. When will I learn they just want to rock?
Well, you have to woo them first, then rock their world.
Easier said than done, my friend. Though I'm better at it than I used to be. I'm not as afraid of getting dissed for a kiss.
Keep up with the latest in Jason Cooley's life by reading his online journal at Icebox Records.