Veteran Singer-Songwriter Jesse Malin Talks About How Music is His 'Medicine'

Concert Preview

click to enlarge Veteran Singer-Songwriter Jesse Malin Talks About How Music is His 'Medicine'
Joseph Quever
When Green Day performed at House of Blues in Cleveland earlier this year, the band recruited a long-time friend, singer-guitarist Jesse Malin, to open the show. He started things off with a 30-minute set that drew mostly from New York Before the War, one of two albums he’s released this year (the second album, Outsiders, just came out this month).

At that House of Blues show, Malin and his large band often sounded more like a classic rock act (think Springsteen) than a punk group, but they won the crowd over with his enthusiasm as songs such as “She Don’t Love Me Now,” which he described as a “dance number,” featured soulful vocals and some spirited, woozy horns. Malin has described the album as "metaphor for surviving in an ever-changing, rapidly desensitized world." Malin was the perfect opener. Like the Green Day guys, he’s been performing since he was a teen (a tween, really). And like the Green Day guys, he knows that even a punk rock band needs to have good songs.

“I’ve known them for years,” he says via phone from a rehearsal space on the lower East Side of Manhattan when asked about the Green Day connection. “I toured with them when I was in D Generation in the ‘90s. I recorded a track with them once called 'Depression Times.' It was a late night drunken jam session. To play with them at this sold out House of Blues show in front of 2,000 people, I was nervous. I don’t normally get nervous. I tour all the time. It was a special night.”

That same weekend, he also played a gig at the Beachland, where he’s set to return, and then rushed back downtown to hit the Inductions after party.

“ We went to House of Blues for some crazy after party and hung out with Paul McCartney,” he says. “It was a surreal rock 'n' roll fantasy trip.”

The trip started when Malin was only 12. CBGBs used to have a regular open mic showcase, and “New York was up for grabs then.” Inspired by young Harley Flanagan who was playing in the punk band the Stimulators, Malin put the hardcore band Heart Attack together.

“We’d been listening to records of the Ramones and Plasmatics,” he says. “We grew up with classic rock like Led Zeppelin on the radio. But once we heard the punk stuff, we realized we. We could write song with three or four chords. We jumped at it. We put out our first single in 1981. I was 13. We toured with Mifits and Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys and GBH. I did that for a bunch of years. I went to public schools that would let you go on the road.”

In the ’90s, he turned his attention to the glam outfit D Generation, a band that generated enough interest that it signed to a major label during its decade-long run.

“We were singing about things from the ’90s, stuff like the war on drugs,” Malin says. “Grunge was unattractive to us; we wanted to bring sexuality and danger and excitement back to music. We met Green Day and toured with Offspring and Rancid.”

At that point, Malin says he realized that he “wanted to be more about the lyrics and less about the mosh pit, the shoes and the hair.” He started playing acoustic guitar and released his first solo effort, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, with a little help from singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.

“He gave me some confidence,” Malin says of Adams, who’s rumored to produce a new D Generation album. “I met him at a D Generation show in North Carolina in a parking lot. We both just loved songs. We drank a couple of beers together and it was a great connection. He gave me the shot in the arm and produced my first record, which we cut in five days. I started to do shows with Counting Crows and Bruce Springsteen and different folks along the way. When I was looking to get out of hardcore punk and I needed inspiration, I found artists like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg. They made me realize that songwriting could have an edge. It could help you deal with fucked up situations.”

He made “a bunch of solo records”; New York Before the War and Outsiders might be his strongest offerings yet.

“I didn’t have a record out for a couple of years so there was a big build-up of material before New York Before the War,” he explains. “That’s how I ended up with two records this year.”

New York Before the War opens with a tender piano ballad that finds Malin singing in a tense whisper. The tempo quickly picks up with "Addicted," a catchy tune that sounds a bit like something that Elvis Costello might have penned back in the '70s. Several songs have a real swagger to them. Malin has described the album as "metaphor for surviving in an ever-changing, rapidly desensitized world."

“New York is the title but it’s a metaphor for a world that’s so disposable and fast changing,” he says “People don’t have any attention span. We’re burning through the planet and burning through information. YouTube and the Internet is cool but I like to go to shows and get in the pit. I like to have sex with a real live human being. I like getting out there and sweating under the hot lights. It’s a lot about being in the moment. You might deal with things that make you sick and disgusted, but the record is about trying to put a positive spin on it.”

“Turn up the Mains” is a great example. The song is the kind of tune that you can pump your fist in the air too. It’s that righteous of an anthem. So what inspired the song?

“Probably ‘Kick Out the Jams’ by the MC5,” says Malin. “It’s about apathy and following trends and getting fed up. Music can be a place where you blow shit away with sound and volume and feeling. It’s a traditional FU kind of song about all the things that might bog us down. It’s a way you can cut through the apathy. It’s a sleazy fun rock n roll song. It’s like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ meets Iggy and the Stooges — in my basement.

Produced by Don DiLego, Outsiders has a different vibe. Malin describes its as “really dark” and says it has "an arty edge" to it. It was done in the Poconos where Malin says there were “bears and turkeys and craziness.” The jangly title track sounds like vintage Springsteen and “Here’s the Situation” packs all the punch of Elvis Costello’s take on “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding).”

“It’s darker and edgier and artier and rhythmic,” says Malin. “Don DiLego made me be fearless. He was rolling tape and told me, ‘Let’s do this right now.’ Some songs we put together as we rolled. There was plenty of late-night tequila jamming.”

Malin says he’s been feeling particularly creative and he constantly writes down song ideas in a notebook he takes with him.

“Joe Srummer once said no input, no output,” he says. “The world is wacky and Donald Trump wants to be president and people are talking about Taylor Swift and people go around taking pictures and posting them everywhere. It provides a lot of color. If you do it every day, it’s a great outlet. I think everyone needs some kind of art. You don’t have to be a musician or a person who mediates or a person who paints. You need a way to get something out and for me music has always been the medicine and the focus.”

Jesse Malin, Matthew Ryan, Thirteen Cadillacs, 8:30 p.m. Satruday, Oct. 17, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 15611 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15 ADV, $17 DOS,
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.