Q&A With Shipping News’ Jason Noble

One constant over the past 17 years of MAGNET has been the music of Jason Noble. First with the post-hardcore Rodan, then the classically inclined Rachel’s, the post-rock Shipping News and the theatrically concerned Young Scamels, Noble has always been involved with projects that interested and challenged us. Noble has two new releases: a live Shipping News album, One Less Heartless To Fear (Karate Body/Noise Pollution), and the debut LP from the Young Scamels, Tempest (File 13). Unfortunately, creating music is hardly the main concern for Noble these days. The 39-year-old Louisville, Ky., native was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, 15 months ago and is currently battling the disease with the determination, positive energy and modesty he has always displayed in his two-decade musical career. MAGNET is proud to have Noble guest editing our website all week.

“The Delicate” (download):

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MAGNET: I’ve been a fan of your work since about the time we started MAGNET in 1993. I first heard Rodan on the Inclined Plane seven-inch with Superchunk, Unrest and Tsunami. I really think that single still holds up as a document of what indie rock was at the time. What are your memories of that era?
Noble: Well, thank you so much for saying that. We never want to take people’s interest in our music for granted. After all these years (not to sound like a wizened foetus), I really find it incredible that we have found an audience, and I feel so lucky they still seem interested. I think it’s largely because of the labels we’ve collaborated with and the efforts of the punk community.
That time period was kind of incredible. I mean, we sort of stumbled into being a proper band. Without the encouragement of musicians like Crain and Sunspring and friends, we may never have even played shows. And when we met the Simple Machines folks, we were really inspired (and a little intimidated!). We could not believe they wanted to use our song (“Darjeeling”). I mean, we were totally unknown, and to be included with those bands was huge for us.
We also had the good fortune to tour and work with bands like Shellac, the Grifters, the Coctails, Codeine, Sebadoh, Sleepyhead, Antietam, Jawbox. It’s like, “How in the world are we even in the room?” Playing shows with Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Laughing Hyenas. “What?” Come (who were so incredible) took us on a tour with them. To us it was overwhelming, and I don’t mean to sound fake humble or like a kid. It was also really intense being in the same city as Slint and Bastro, who were clearly a big influence. We just wanted to play and make something decent. When we got to work with Quarterstick, that was beyond any of our imaginations. We were able to meet Bob Weston and that led to 15 years of working together on recordings. I feel so thankful for being part of the scene with bands like Fugazi and Uzeda. I hope that younger bands see the value of working with each other, supporting each other’s projects. It’s the only way to make it matter: human contact.

These days, all the defunct bands from that time are getting back together for reunion tours. When can we expect to see one by Rodan?
Wow. Well, I really doubt it will happen. Jeff and I haven’t really stopped playing together since 1987, so it would be kind of awkward. I love Kevin and Tara and would work with them in a second. But I don’t think we could capture what we were doing then. I’m not sure my throat could handle the scream-factor! We have been working on a compilation of the seven-inch-single material and our ’94 Peel Session and live junk. Bob Weston has mastered several songs already. Hopefully we’ll really tackle that project in 2011. We’ve talked about it for a long time with Quarterstick, and it’s actually pretty far along. I saw Polvo and the Slint and the Pixies reunion shows, and they managed to make it work! Mission Of Burma—man, they are incredible. It can be done well.

What is the status of Rachel’s these days? I am a big fan and am proud to say I got to see you guys live a few times over the years.
Thanks for that! Hope you liked the shows. We are very connected with each other and talk quite a lot. We still handle things like reprinting our records and licensing for film and theater projects, and we support each other on whatever we’re working on. We share a practice space and are more family than band. Honestly, around 2007, we decided we needed to step back and take a breath. We’d been working on that music since 1991 and weren’t sure how to move it forward. It was frustrating because we didn’t want to disappoint people or ourselves, but we didn’t feel like the music we were writing was meeting our own standards. When we finished the score material for Greg King’s film Rotating Mirror (self-released in 2008), we said, “Time out!” but it wasn’t some “door slamming argument” thing. We’ve all got other musical interests, and we just shifted the focus. We perform and collaborate with the same small group of peers, so it didn’t feel like a break-up. I hope we work together for 10,000 years. Captain America was frozen for a long time, and he seems to have thawed out pretty well. (Shameless plug for Marvel Comics’ The Ultimates Vol. 1.)

I only became aware of your Per Mission project recently. What can you tell me about it?
That project has been really fun for me and taught me a lot about engineering. I love making beats and weird noise jams, and I didn’t want to always slap that on our other band projects. I’ve only released one album so far (from 2001), but I use the name Per Mission to this day for film projects and remix material. It also collects spoken-word and poetry material. The only rule is not to steal music I would bring to Shipping News (or Rachel’s, etc.). I guess it involves being very solitary and listening to loops for hours at a time, which is really therapeutic. I made a score last year for Greg’s new documentary called Our House. It’s a film about young radical Christians who started a communal house in Brooklyn to help addicts and homeless people.

Shipping News just released a live album. Are you guys working on new material for a studio record or anything else?
The live recording was a happy accident. We were planning to make that album with Kevin Ratterman, but we wanted to play it live in the studio. We wanted it to be rough and evil sounding. But I became ill and it seemed like we’d have to wait. Thankfully, Brian Lueken and Tim Iseler had recorded several of our sets, and we realized the album may still be possible. So Kevin still worked with us, and we mixed the live multi-tracks. Concentrating on the record was actually really good motivation for me to recover and feel better. Good for the brain. And I think the live quality was actually better for those songs because we couldn’t be precious and overly uptight. We’re really excited that we’ve been able to build a relationship with Noise Pollution and Karate Body Records (for the U.S.) and AfricanTape and Ruminance (in Europe). Working with four labels—in different countries—makes us happy. It’s one small victory for cooperation and communication. And all the label folks involved are very dedicated. Regarding new music: We’re going to practice in a few weeks and get the blood flowing again. I hope we can play shows sometime soon, but it may be a while. Our next project is to make another RMSN EP, where we each make studio songs secretly, then share them with each other. Shipping News has helped me so much this year; just being with those guys makes me feel healthier.

Your latest project is the Young Scamels, with your Rachel’s cohorts Greg King and Christian Frederickson, which formed for a local production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Do you plan to do more music together?
We were really lucky to have that experience with Actors Theatre. The whole crew and director (Marc Masterson)—amazing! And yeah, we are still working together. Christian and I just recorded a few weeks ago, working on a score he wrote for a theatrical show, The Painted Bird. We had a great time working with Amber Estes; her singing and influence is a big part of what makes the Scamels have a different personality than our other music. Jeffrey V. Thompson (Caliban) was also a great collaborator. We just started planning another set of songs, hopefully adapting some new text material—probably not something as well-known as Shakespeare! That was awesome but it would be fun to look to a current author.

Louisville has always been a sort of hotbed for indie rock. How has the music scene there changed over the years?
Honestly, I’m always amazed at the diversity of music in this city. It seems like there are more bands (dedicated, original and open-minded) than ever. The changes here reflect the music world at large; it’s a challenge to get people out and get them interacting. Music comes from life and culture and not tapping on the mouse all night. It’s not just the kids; in fact, the all-ages scene here is really strong and inspiring. We’re lucky because we still have great venues (Rudyard Kipling, Kentucky Center, Skull Alley, 21C, Zanzabar and Headliners) and we have excellent public radio (WFPK), but I’m concerned. We need the people to try new music and support each other. (I say this to myself as well—no excuses!) This really goes for new classical music and lesser-known styles. We now have a major national festival here (Forecastle) and lots of free concerts on the river and cool stuff like that. We have some great independent record labels here, too, and folks like Temporary Residence, who really support Louisville bands. There’s so much good music here, from Young Widows, Sandpaper Dolls, D.W. Box, Coliseum, Phantom Family Halo to My Morning Jacket, Wax Fang, Ben Sollee, Second Story Man to bluegrass, accordion/tuba rock (Squeeze-bot), jazz (Liberation Prophecy), rap (Skyscraper Stereo and Nappy Roots)—you name it. I’ve got serious Louisville pride. I mean, there’s Will Oldham, Gold Jacket Club, Soft Cheque, Joe Manning, Broken Spurs, the Ladybirds, Frisbee, the Fervor, Rude Weirdo, Cheyenne Mize, Brigid Kaelin, King’s Daughters & Sons. This town is full of life (and weirdness). There’s also a thriving theater scene and many incredible visual artists: Russel Hulsey, Aron Conaway, Ron Jasin, Bill Green, Hallie Jones, Kathleen Lolley, Denise Furnish, Chuck Swanson, my actual mom(!), Jonathan Hawpe, Richard Peyton, Jerald Tidwell, Ted Nathanson, Doug Miller, Carrie Nuemayer and many more. I don’t know why we have so many creative people here, but it’s a blessing.

Do you still work at ear X-tacy Records? I know the store, like most indie record shops these days, has had some rocky times recently. Are you optimistic about the future of mom-and-pop record/book/etc. stores?
I do still work with ear X-tacy. I had to take a leave of absence (after six years) last fall for my health, but I work on their graphics and that kind of thing. I really appreciate your question, and I ask your pardon to ramble for a moment. (You’re probably very close to this subject already.) One thing that we always talk about is making the store an essential part of local culture, and the mission—from the owner and all the staff—has always been to encourage new music and collaboration. I mean, we do free concerts every single week. But it’s getting really rough now. I totally sympathize with people having tough financial times, but I don’t think that’s the whole problem. The ratio of music that is legally purchased versus free downloads or whatever is nearly 20-to-one. How can anyone keep their heads up? Ultimately, everyone has to ask themselves, “What are these local meeting places and businesses worth to me?” We have to be advocates for art and music, and despite the myth, very few bands or record stores make much money. They just want to work with music they love. So it’s really up to us. That goes for small labels, book stores, publishers, printers and anyone working to keep independent thought alive. The environment in the U.S. is very hostile and short-sighted right now. We need to speak up for “the other” and question anyone that is embracing corporate/pseudo-religious conservative extremism. Once again, it’s a scary time. We just had an entire election cycle where no one even mentioned that we’re fighting two wars! It was all about assigning blame and attacking people, for being an immigrant or “socialist” or anyone requesting decent treatment. I understand why people get duped by these outrageous claims and shoddy promises by the right wing. (And to be fair, the liberals have their share of inconsistencies and foul-ups.) Local culture, when it is active and engaged, makes us more tolerant, more informed and less likely to be filled with irrational fear. And records sound better than mp3 files.

Like everybody else who’s a fan of your work, I was very sorry to hear you were diagnosed with cancer last year. I know you are writing about it later this week, but I wanted to also address it here as well. How are things going for you?
That’s thoughtful of you to ask. We’ve had a wild time, but with the local culture that we just talked about, we’ve had wonderful support. My wife Kristin and I have been doing well, and my treatments are having positive results. I’m currently involved with a clinical trial, and I get chemo every two weeks. A few months ago, I couldn’t really work on much music or much of anything. I’m getting around and have more energy now, so we just have to stay with it and be patient. The doctors that we’ve worked with in Louisville and at MD Anderson in Houston have actually saved my life(!), and that is seriously heavy to think about. What can you say to that? But the joy, and sense of humor, and goodness of people around us has made all of it possible. I was a little afraid to write about all of this for MAGNET, but it felt like it might be of some use to people. There are so many decent humans who struggle in the world. I hope that I can stay alert and not get isolated and selfish. If having this “alien-hell-seed” in my body helps me become more empathetic, then I’m actually really fortunate. My wife has been incredible, and our parents. I mean, people go through this kind of thing alone! Having music in your life gives you a sense of being connected. I just want to find a way to return the good will. It turns out punk rockers stick together and they know how to help lift you up when you’ve fallen. Like the Lungfish song says, “The tiny cuts in your skin/They let a little fresh air in.”

—Eric T. Miller

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 15, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    One of the greatest humans ever. Much love to you Jason!

  2. Posted November 16, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    When I met Kris Kristofferson, he described the first time he met Johnny Cash – he said (something to the effect of) “…. I just kinda stood there and looked up, like looking a giant tree.” To be honest, that’s the way I felt the first time I met Jason Noble – he was like a giant tree, rooted, branches reaching for stars yet undiscovered in the blue-black liquid sky. He still is that way to me, more than ever. For myself (as an Artist/Poet) Jason is a giant tree – his ethic is second to none, his presence understated yet unmissable. Stare into a tree long enough and you see its seasons, see birds resting in its branches, and see new eggs crack open and hatch to take flight. Mr. Noble continues to inspire.

    May you be blessed with strength and long life my friend – always keep a diamond in yer mind – your muse is unstoppable. – Russel Hulsey

  3. pickle
    Posted November 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big fan of Jason’s work going way back. I was fortunate to catch Rodan at the Simple Machines Working Holiday festival (one of the greatest weekends of music ever put together where Jason played the Ed Sullivan host part) as well as many Shipping News shows over the years.

    Glad to see him featured here and wish him the best in his battle against cancer.

  4. Posted November 16, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Hello friends… here are a few more LOUISVILLE albums of note – please enjoy – J Noble 11/16/10

    Frontier(s)
    (Members of Elliott!)
    myspace.com/frontiersband

    Chime Hours
    louisvillenoise.com/v2/releases/noise37.htm

    Rachel Grimes
    “Book of Leaves”
    rachelgrimespiano.com/

    Shedding
    shedding.org/

    Softcheque
    myspace.com/yessoftcheque

    Cerebellum (Special Reissue + new tracks)
    louisvillenoise.com/v2/releases/noise42.htm

    The Web
    louisvillenoise.com/v2/releases/noise39.htm

    Parlour
    (Members of Crain + Cerebellum)
    “Simulacrenfield”
    temporaryresidence.com/descriptions/trr162.php

    Minnow
    (Members of Second Story Man, Black Cross & Endpoint!)
    louisvillenoise.com/v2/releases/noise30.htm

    Matmos & So Percussion
    (featuring Drew Daniel from Cerebellum)
    pitchfork.com/news/38735-listen-matmos-and-so-percussion-treasure/

    Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Review
    louisvillenoise.com/v2/releases/noise36.htm

    and many more…

  5. Posted November 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comments… be well! JN

  6. Necati Tufenk
    Posted November 24, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I am a big fan of Jason’s work since the beginniing of Rodan, following all the way from Istanbul, Turkey. I cried to tears while reading the interview. So happy to know him through the interview. Such a nice and good hearted person will definitely win this battle , I am so sure.

    I would love to promote Shipping News one day in Istanbul when they are in Europe. I think it will be good as I promoted Will Oldham (3 times), Shellac, Dirty Three, Secret Chiefs 3, Tortoise etc.

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