Jesse Malin's Sunset Kids
Singer-songwriter Jesse Malin talks Sunset Kids and the state of the New York music scene.
Jesse Malin has been a fixture on the downtown New York City music scene for more than 30 years since his pre-teen band Heart Attack brought the Queens native to the attention of the CBGBs set. D Generation followed in the ’90s, becoming latter-day punk icons and touring with the likes of Kiss. But Malin, as the band’s charismatic frontman, always seemed more than the run-of-the-mill punk.
So it’s hardly surprising that in the 20 years since D Generation essentially called it a day, Malin remained at the center of the ever-evolving New York music scene, while also carving out a formidable career as a solo artist. He’s long since evolved beyond his punk roots, embracing the singer-songwriter storytelling he grew up loving, working with a roster of rock and roll heavyweights in the process.
GrandLife sat down with Malin, who is in the midst of a long tour in support of his new album Sunset Kids, to talk about the album and how the New York City music scene has changed and evolved over the course of his career.
Let’s start by talking about the reception to Sunset Kids; Do you feel as though you’ve reached a new place artistically with this record?
Jesse Malin: There’s a new energy with this record that feels different to my first or second albums. I tapped into a new flow….It’s an extreme thing this time around, where I have fans and critics coming up to me, and everyone seems to have a different favorite song. We’re also playing bigger places. Things just seem to be growing….But really, seeing the fans’ reactions to the new songs live has been a major thing. It seems like the new stuff’s been connecting to people in the front and in the back.
You’d played few warm-up gigs leading up to the Webster Hall show, but that was a homecoming gig, of sorts. And Webster Hall’s a big space! Tell us about the experience…
JM: I played [Webster Hall] when I was a little kid and it was the Ritz. I opened for Green Day there. I opened for the Dead Kennedys, and the Misfits. So to headline, and to have it be my show, in my town, was amazing. We had some great guests come and join us. We did a big, sold-out show in London, too. And the Roxy, in LA, which is a great theater with a lot of history, from “Rock and Roll High School” to “Up in Smoke” to famous bootlegs. And then we are going out and playing all the smaller markets because it makes a difference; Middle America—Kansas one night, Denver the next. All that stuff is equally as important as the place where you come from, or the glamorous big-city gigs, that we all love to do. And sometimes the small places surprise you.
Did the new songs at the Webster Hall show rise to the same level as the songs people know and love?
JM: I think the song I wrote about J.D. Salinger, called “The Archer,” from the record Love It to Life, was there for the deep-cut fans and people who had heard of that song or wanted to hear the rare tracks. But then stuff from my first record, like “Brooklyn” and “Wendy,” are always in the set. We played about eight or nine new songs, and I think that was something that felt, like, Wow! The crowd was really ready [even though] the record had only been out a couple of weeks. Making records is a lot of fun, but going out and getting to play the music live is the reward for the work that we do making an album. So it’s definitely cool to see how the songs grow when you put them in front of an audience, especially when the band is getting a little dirt on the song. We come out under the hot lights. You find the right way to put the set together, mixing old stuff with the new, and trying to find that flow and that energy.
Let’s talk a little bit about the state of the music scene in New York City; What’s your take on up-and-coming bands, younger bands, and the state of the scene these days?
JM: I go out a lot and there are a lot of young bands that I see in small rooms up and down the East Village, down on the Lower East Side, or even over on the West Side. I have friends who come to town from England, Scotland, Stockholm, and California, and I always try to show them what’s going on. There’s DJs. There’s lots of bands. It might be different than it was a few years ago when Manhattan was the only place to see music, but people have spread out. So you can go see music in Jersey City, in Bushwick, in Williamsburg….None of it’s too far away and it’s all connected to the City. There’s still great music up and down Avenue A, and at places like Lola and Pianos. Rockwood, the Tree House, of course, Berlin and Bowery Electric, which I’ve been involved in for a long time. But there are cool little spots on the West Side, too; little cafes. You’d be surprised where great music pops up. It’s sad to see a lot of the clubs close. But Mercury Lounge is still there, and they just had a big anniversary—25th or something wild like that. It’s just like anything: You’ve got to find the needle in the haystack….There’s always crap, but then there’s good stuff, too. And sometimes there’s great stuff.
What are the next couple of things you have on your horizon?
JM: Right now, I’m with [singer-songwriter] Joseph Arthur. He has a record out. Joseph and I have been friends and worked on projects for a long time. We’re doing about three-and-a-half weeks in the US, then we’re going to come back to New York and do a night where we play the whole Sunset Kids album in full, broadcast on satellite radio.
I also have a show coming up on December 14 at Bowery Ballroom in celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s London Calling album. It is for a charity I’m involved with called Gates Of The West, which benefits the Joe Strummer Foundation, and also Music & Memory, [a non-profit organization] using music to fight dementia. It’s a really cool bill with David Johansen, Debbie Harry, Jeff Slate, and all these great musicians. And me. We’re going to be doing that album in full as a labor of love, The Clash being one of our favorite bands….Next year we’re playing Glastonbury, for the 50th anniversary of the Glastonbury Festival. I’m really excited about that. You know, you make the record and then you go out. You make these things, and then you go out and sell them and you live in them. I kind of go with what’s in front of me and take it as it comes, and play it hard and tight and give it everything.
This interview has been edited for length.
WORDS Jeff Slate