Friendships should never be reduced to promo stickers. At least that’s how Jesse Malin feels. When the former D Generation frontman first met his longtime bud Ryan Adams back in 1995 after a show, he never would have guessed that the then-Whiskeytown wünderkind would become a stamp of approval splashed across his solo debut. They both just dug bands like Black Flag and the Replacements, liked to pound back a few and renounced the idea of conventional hair care.
Over the course of a couple years, the two drank their way through several breakups, including both of their seminal bands and several high-profile girlfriends, and traded song tips like advice columnists. Adams even made Malin promise that, if he ever did get around to actually recording an album again, that he would get to produce it. So when Malin finally decided to settle in and record The Fine Art of Self-Destruction (Artemis) last year, it was already decided who he was going to call, never intending for it to be a marketing ploy or some cheap way to conjure buzz.
“I had sent Ryan these demos, and he said that he wanted to produce whatever I did,” Malin says. “That was cool with me. Ryan’s a good friend and super talented. It was the first record he’d ever produced, and it turned out great. We’re going to do the new record together. But I don’t know how I feel about using my friendship to sell records.”
Especially considering that Malin’s songs—gritty, gravel-caked tracks that spend their days riding New York’s subways and nights walking its deserted streets—are more than good enough to sell themselves. Pressing and depressing, most play like funeral dirges for failed relationships, guitars sighing while Malin recounts losing his nerve or watching his friends flee for Los Angeles. The rest breathe-in New York, from its stench on garbage day to the sweat on the F train. Songs like “Riding On the Subway” and the “Queen of the Underworld,” tracks that on first listen beg for open fields and crisp rain, couldn’t exist without the five boroughs as a backdrop. Others, like the delicate ballad “Brooklyn” and the grinding “Wendy,” a song that could have escaped from Adams’ last album, couldn’t exist without the tragedy that lives there.
“I just wanted to make New York a good character in the record,” Malin says. “I wanted it to come alive in a way that made people feel they were there, but also be able to get something out of it even if they’ve never seen it.”
Malin is hoping for the same thing from people who can only see him in D Generation. That might be hard for some. He was more rock god than earthy songwriter back then. He was the guy who layered on makeup and alternately embraced and shrugged off New York Dolls comparisons. He rocked like Kiss and loved flashpots. He sang about sex, booze and dirty girls with the kind of glee that only comes from copious amounts of firsthand knowledge.
While songs about growing up too early (“Almost Grown”) and finding ways to implode (the disc’s sobering title track) might gush out of Malin these days, it would have been hard to predict a few years ago. Nothing about him said he’d transform himself into dirty urban cowboy with a jones for Big Star. If anything, he seemed headed toward a freaky Ziggy Stardust phase complete with elaborate costumes and cheap mysticism. Malin says this is what he was destined for.
“I always wanted to make this kind of record,” he says. “Before it was more about rocking out. Now it’s the lyrics and the songs that matter. That makes me a bit happier. Plus, there are a lot less arguments about what a photo should look like or what we should do on stage.”
In fact, the only argument Malin has had recently was with Adams. Rather than opt for standard studio procedure—recording several versions of each track, picking a favorite and punching in corrections—he convinced Malin to do only one take per song. It made Malin nervous as hell. The whole album was recorded live in the studio. The session wrapped in just six days. At first, Malin was anything but happy.
“I thought the record was complete garbage for the first week,” he admits. “I didn’t like the way it sounded. I didn’t like the feel. It took some time and a few beers to get to the point where I really understood what we’d done. We really captured something. There’s an urgency about it. It’s a snapshot in time. You capture the moment, and that’s it. Now, it’s a moment I’m really proud of.”