I met up with Jim White in the musty back halls at Desmet Studios in Amsterdam. He is a tall, soft-spoken man with a calm demeanour though you can certainly tell he's been about... Though the interview time was restricted, I had the feeling that I could have easily chatted with him for hours, or even days; listening and learning from his stories about his various odd jobs, career moves and "life adventures". As well as film, we touched on his time as a NYC cab driver, his obsession with the TV show Hawaii 5-0, the importance of hip-hop on music world, Beck, Nirvana and his newest album Transnormal Skiperoo.
IN: So, I heard that you're a film buff.
JW: I got a degree in film at NYU, in your hometown. It was very hard... If you can make films in New York, where you don't have a car – which you do need in order to get out there and make it... It's like the song, if you can make "it" (in this case film) there, you can make it anywhere. The best thing about that school wasn't the teachers, it was the students. I was in the same class as Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome to The Dollhouse) and Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) and my best friend is a film editor; he does films with Ang Lee now. A girl that I dated is a big agent at UTA, who is Pewee Herman's agent! (Giggles)...
So now I know all these really interesting, talented people and that was the best part of going to NYU. And you know, the reason I went there was because it was close to my house. I wanted to be able to go home every day and watch Hawaii 5-0. I was obsessed with Hawaii 5-0. I still had the surfing bug in me, but Hawaii 5-0 was different, there was something really strange about that show. The lead character, McGarrett, was part of the establishment; but he was a rebel at the same time. The first four years, they did a really good job of making his character real, later on he became more two dimensional. They made one of the first anti-war TV shows, Hawaii 5-0 was a show about law and order, and yet they made a touching show about a kid who killed himself, and why did he kill himself? Well he had come back from Vietnam and was haunted by the memories. It was a really good show. You have to wonder when years later the vocabulary of the show is part of a whole cool section of society... "5-0". It's interesting.
IN: The documentary that you contributed to, helped with, could you tell me about that. (Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus, a BBC Documentary by Andrew Douglas)
JW: Yes, I think it is fair to say it is a film I contributed to and not a film I made; the film makers just pointed a camera at me and said "talk about fighting, talk about church, talk about Jesus" (laughs). So I worked on it, I think that's a fair description. That was an amazing experience showing them around my world.
IN: Going back to New York. In your biography there is a whole laundry list of things that you've done in your life and one of them was taxi cab driver.
JW: Yes, 12 years in New York. I started driving a cab when I started school. I was making a feature film, every one else was making short 20 minute films, so I would sort of just hang around and check out free equipment in between driving the cab. Actually one of the guys who I used to check equipment with was Vince Gilligan, who went on to write the X-Files. They sort of knew I was hustling, but they were really sweet. I went out to make a feature film and that film nearly killed me... you know, in a way I am talking to you right now because that film nearly killed me. I got so sick after the film was done, which happens to many people who make their own films. I was driving the cab for 3 weeks, 15 hours a day, and then I'd shoot and edit for 3 weeks, I'd run out of money and they go back to driving the cab. In the spectrum of stupid ideas of how to finance a film, right there at the top is financing your film by driving a cab. Oh lord! The film was an experimental, fantastic film about a homeless man who has been corresponding with a woman in France... Now, he has been lying, telling her that he's rich and has a house and a career when he lives in an abandoned hearse. He gets a letter from her saying that she's coming to visit, so he has to make his world look like the world that he's been describing to her. He was kind of crazy, so he sort of self-destructs in the process. I shot it all in east New York and Williamsburg, back when Williamsburg was not safe, back when it was the place to strip cars and dump bodies... It came out okay...
I am experimental, and that's not really good when you're making films. I can do that with my songs, you can always go back and replace the bass line or guitar part, but you can't always replace dialogue in films. I had a 10-year-old kid in my film, by the time I was doing reshoots at the end he was 14 and was 6 inches taller and had a deep voice...
IN: I shot both my junior and my senior films on video and then edited them down and reshot them on 16 mm. I did this for a cool visual effect as well as the fact that I couldn't afford film in the way I wanted to afford it. I needed to be free with it and also found that film was confining for me.
JW: Don't you just wish you were born years later... now it is really exciting to see what happens, what with the "digital revolution"...
IN: How did you make the video for If Jesus Drove a Motor Home?
JW: I didn't do that; I wish I were that smart! A friend of mine called me on the phone, he's an animator and he said, I want to do a video for you, and I said, we don't have any money and he said "that's okay". He did it for free and I think it's really beautiful and I was surprised because his other work didn't really look like that. It's magnificent and I'm so proud of it. His name is Zack Passero.
IN: I really liked your description of the name of the new album, and to quote your press release... "Transnormal Skiperoo is a name I invented to describe a strange new feeling I've been experiencing after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed. Now, when everything around me begins to shine, when I find myself dancing around in my back yard for no particular reason other than it feels good to be alive, when I get this deep sense of gratitude that I don't need drugs or God or doomed romance to fuel myself through the gauntlet of a normal day, I call that feeling Transnormal Skiperoo." Finding yourself in these natural states of change... have you always had music in your life?
JW: Music was a solace... it was a very solitary solace; it was a "solacetary". (Laughs) It was just something I did by myself. I never played in bands, never performed. I played in church a few times, back when I was a church going person and had to stop because I got too nervous. Generally when I bought the songs out to the world, the people didn't like them. I think that when I was writing these songs, it was back when Thomas Dolby was singing She Blinded Me with Science and Flock of Seagulls was big, and Madonna... and I wasn't doing any of that. It really started with Beck and Nirvana, when they suddenly hit the mainstream, people started moving back to this idea of eccentric people making interesting music. Before that it wasn't, it was like... a fashion show.
People moved towards what I was doing and I moved towards them. Every three years someone gets into my music and says, oh that's interesting and then walks away. Some of it was just because I had too many ideas when I was younger. They started sorting themselves out on their own. At times you have to put something away to let it become what it is to become. I played guitar sic hours a day from the age of 18 till the age of 27. Then I got my hand caught in an electric saw and couldn't play very well! ‘Started driving a cab and going to school and there just wasn't enough time between films and Hawaii 5-0... And then when I got so sick after making that film, I thought I was going to die or end up in some hospital and I couldn't even walk, it was bad. I went home and my mom's boyfriend who was this one dimensional, crackers airplane mechanic said (in a southern accent) "Hey I heeerd you likeee to playeee guitar." Well "I used to", I said, and he said, "Well I got one back in the closet, haven't played it for thirty years, you want it?" Then I said, "I guess so". It was a really cheap Japanese electric guitar with eight pick ups on it and a whammy bar and the action was like this high (like 5 cm!) and I was so sick, so I just laid in bed and stared at the ceiling and wrote songs, and those were the songs that ended up on Wrong Eyed Jesus.
It was a strange genesis, I put the music away and when it came back out, I had a different guitar and ten years of inactivity, suddenly the songs that were coming out were kind of making sense. That was good. It was a good feeling in a way. Thought I didn't really appreciate it at the time because I felt death all around me, I felt like I was going to die.
IN: Did you find that you would self-medicate with music, with storytelling?
JW: With talking, whilst I was a cab driver. That was one of the really good things about being a cab driver was that I could talk to people. There were times I would just cry like a baby. There was this one time I picked up a girl who was crying and she yelled at me for making a wrong turn and then I started crying and she said, why are you crying and I said, well I got problems of my own and we hugged each other and cried and cried. It was a strange experience. I did sort of have to talk my way out of my problems and music helped, as did the kindness of friends and people who stuck by my side even though I seemed hostile or crazy at times.
People saying "yes" helps. My sister rented me a place at Pensacola Beach in the winter, which is my idea of heaven; I just love it there. It's cold and the wind blows the sand and it makes that whistling sound. I'd just lie in bed and play these songs and once I heard clapping from outside and I looked over and one of my best friends from film school popped his head up. He said to me you have to do me two favours; one; get better and two; record that song for me. So I recorded all the songs for him and he gave it to his girlfriend who played the tape for Joe Henry's wife, and that's why I am talking to you right now. Weird, huh?
(We comment on one of the artist doing a sound check in the Desmet Studio. I think it's FINK and tell Jim a brief history about how he was an electronic & techno music maker and DJ and now he is making lovely simple folk music.)
JW: If you can take the good points of one discipline and interweave them with others, you can put all the little parts together and make something nobody else makes. I don't listen to much music as I'm real busy making music. I am working on two albums right now aside from the one I just finished and the one I did last year with Johnny Deep. So I am always knee deep in my own music, and sometimes that's a problem. I just keep going. Everyone is so adept, when a 14 year-old upstart sounds like Curt Cobain or Aretha Franklin, or the freaks show up, like the guy that can play the guitar with one arm better than Eddie Van Halen; when that happens the only direction to go is to montage and collage and mosaic. That's why hip-hop is so important and has had such a great effect on the music world because they borrowed and appropriated and use every different discipline, which is really a good thing for music. It gives us a new direction to go instead of saying, I am country, I am rock, and I am folk... Just throw it all together and see what happens.
IN: I never really thought about it like that, but hip-hop really has opened the doors...
JW: Shit man, Das EFX, when I heard Das EFX for the first time, I was like holly cow they are stealing from a TV commercial and I thought it was the best idea I ever heard. Das EFX was great. When I hear a great song, I never buy the album because I remember the song. The impact of hearing it for the first time is all I ever hear.
IN: Lastly, I would just like to say that I really enjoyed your album, I like the songs Jailbird, Fruit of The Vine... oh and Turquoise House is just adorable.
JW: Good! Well thank you. Turquoise House is sort of a children's song. When I go to my sister's, her 10 year-old comes and opens the door and dances around and sings that song. That makes me happy. I got two kids now, so a children's album is coming. My daughter plays piano really well and sings, but she won't sing in front of me!
Words: Zoe E. Gottehrer