US actor Jim White talks about new album Misfit’s Jubilee, novel Accidental Contact and fleeting beauty ahead of gig at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Over the course of seven solo albums, as well as numerous collaborations, Jim’s take on southern fried goth and Americana has taken him from being “discovered” by Talking Heads legend David Byrne, who signed to his label Luaka Bop, to enduring cult status. .
And he is currently on the UK leg of a European tour, which will stop at the Wedgewood Rooms next week, for his latest album Misfit’s Jubilee.
Jim’s worldview is encapsulated in his relationship with one of his favorite haunts – J&J Flea Market – a sprawling 182-acre site on the outskirts of his hometown, Athens, Georgia.
“There is a commercial realm,” he tells The Guide on a Zoom call, “but there is also a beautiful anthropological realm – the flea market is the tidal zone between existing and non-existing objects.
“If they don’t sell at the flea market, after that they go to the landfill. The things I found – even in dumpsters – I made a series [of posts on Facebook] on a newspaper I found in the dumpster. If I had come a day later, he would have been lost forever…
“This guy in Dublin has a really fancy art gallery, he asked me to bring a display of whatever I wanted to bring, so I just brought rubbish and we called it Deep-Fried Ephemera and talked about the transience of the value of objects.
‘Our culture is so concerned with turnover, turnover, turnover. We’re so busy throwing things away, we’re throwing away so many things that make the most sense.
“It’s end-time capitalism, where novelty is the only paradigm and we don’t cling to what has value. In America it’s a hyperstate – when I come to Europe I always feel like there’s an anchor on the boat – the boat doesn’t drift, thousands of years ago from culture that hold things together.
“In America, it’s only 200 years ago, so there’s no anchor, the boat drifts in the direction the capitalist winds are blowing them. Here, culture and tradition seem to anchor people a little more. people.
He goes on to tell the story of his greatest find, in a “literal trash can” in the back of a recent home clearance sale.
“I just thought I’d dig in here and see what I found because I’m an anthropologist, not necessarily a business entity.” At the bottom of the pile, I found a stoneware butter dish. I didn’t have my glasses on, so I thought, oh, I like sandstone.
“I brought it to the lady, she said ‘$10’, I said ‘Ok’.”
As he’s about to leave, a guy rushes over to Jim, immediately trying to shove him: “He’s totally trying to rip me off: ‘Oh, look at the crack on it, that’s too bad… You know, it’s your lucky day”, offering him first $50, then $100, then all the money he has on him, but Jim refuses.
“Two days later I sold it to a collector who had the other one – there were only two in the world – for $1,200. It’s the best score I’ve ever had and I literally found it in the trash.
“There is a corollary to my music. When I go out to find these things, I also listen to what people say to me or what I hear.
‘On my last record, [2017’s] Waffles, Triangles and Jesus, I was at the flea market walking down the aisle, and next to me was a punk-rock lady and she had blue hair, and there’s this guy. It’s a real “country”. I don’t know him per se, but we know each other well enough to give each other a thumbs up. I don’t make myself look like a weirdo because I dress like him and talk like him, so he didn’t know I would take his words and put them in a song!
“He looked at this girl and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t hold on with that blue-haired thing.’ hold on with that…”. and by the time I got home I had linked him to Ernest T Bass, a character from The Andy Griffith Show [the hugely popular 1960s American sitcom] – he was always trying to find a wife, and I thought if Ernest T bass saw that blue-haired woman, he wouldn’t stay with that blue-eyed girl. “Blue Hair” didn’t work, so I changed it.
“Then the singer I brought in to sing with me, Andrea Demarcus, she has black eyes, so we made it into a beautiful love story about two people who don’t trust anyone, who’s the paranoia level 10 – that’s all southern right now!
“I turned that somber observation into a fun song, and it felt really good doing it.
‘Ernest T Bass finally finds the woman of his dreams. And this came after a flea market. The treasures I get on quiet days when there’s nothing to buy, my ears are wide open, or I’m looking for a newspaper from 1972 that has a title I’ve forgotten, I take it all home and I dialogue with it and it turns into songs.
Misfit’s Jubilee was recorded pre-pandemic by Jim with his regular drummer Marlon Patton, plus a pair of Belgian musicians, Geert Hellings (guitar/banjo) and Nicolas Rombouts (electric and upright bass/keyboards).
Jim first met when Geert handed the American a copy of his band’s demo CD after a gig in Brussels in 2009.
Jim was impressed with the songwriting and musicianship, and the two struck up a friendship that saw Jim produce the band’s self-titled debut album, Stanton.
‘We had such a great time making the record, him and the bassist, Nicolas, I’ve rarely felt as connected to people as I am to them – they’re smart, they’re knowledgeable, well-read and they’re incredibly calm and patient and humble. And they’re as good as any musician I’ve worked with – and I’ve worked with Grammy winners and all kinds of people.
“I did a few tours with them and it was always so wonderful. Then at the end of the last tour, Nicolas said: ‘I’m setting up a home studio, why don’t you come and make an album here?’
“I have my way of making records, and that usually doesn’t involve going and collaborating with two people in a foreign country.”
Jim sifted through his unused songs and found a handful in a rockier vein than his usual material, but which were “beautiful children” nonetheless. He wrote others in the same style and sent them to Geert and Nicolas who replied: ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it!’
Marlon laid down the drums in the US before Jim went to Belgium, “then within a week we recorded pretty much most of the record”.
Back home, Jim began his meticulous process of producing the album.
“It usually takes me a long time. Once I have the basic tracks, I take them home and sit with them, and listen to them like 1,000 times, and if I get bored, I start adding things or moving them . I’m a remixer – not like hip-hop guys or anything – a remixer of a different variety. All the tracks were very well insulated so I could do whatever I wanted.
The finished album was released in the fall of 2020, and now Geert and Nicolas form Jim’s band for this tour.
On this tour, Jim will also be selling copies of his debut novel, Incidental Contact, billed as “Part Memory, Part Urban Fable.”
The book has its roots in a short story he wrote called Superwhite for a new music magazine, about how he met David Byrne. The story went on to win the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2014.
Seemingly still baffled by how he won this extremely competitive award, Jim recalls, “I have friends who are writers and it’s their dream to win this award!
“I went up and did the presentation with the Pulitzer Prize winners and all that – a couple of them came up and said they really enjoyed the story, and when was I going to get my first novel?
“I had a few other stories like this that I had written. I thought they were all part of an era – that era of magical surrealism descended upon me, about 10 years ago where this crazy stuff kept happening to me, totally beyond any reasonable explanation.
“I realized they were all part of this continuum of miracles in my life, not in a religious sense, just miraculous, inexplicable things. I thought I should try to figure out how to present them as a whole because they are all part and parcel of an energetic force, basically.
With pandemic closures on the way, Jim says, “When Covid hit, I thought it was my chance…
“I have to write this bucket list book that I would never have done otherwise. The silver lining on the Covid cloud is that a lot of people have learned to take a year-long reset and do something else, which is actually fine.
“I talk to a lot of artists who say, ‘It’s been the most productive time of my life!’
“There is a very important life lesson hidden in this great tragedy, which is that maybe instead of just constantly moving forward, people need to take a year off. They call it a sabbatical in academia – maybe we should think more about it, and not just feed the monster all the time. But it is also anti-commercial and anti-capitalist…
“In countries where they support the arts, it’s much more possible. Like here in Belgium, this Jubilee album from Misfit, when Geert and Nicolas found out it was coming, they sent a grant proposal to the Flemish government and they gave us the money to cover the recording costs.
“And they’re smart – because in every interview I’ve done about this record, I’ve said, ‘Thank you Flemish government!'”
Jim White, along with Fast Trains and Olly Hite are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Tuesday June 21. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.