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Jackie O'Motherfucker Rollicks in The Freedom of Improv Rock

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/18/2004

"I think there's a really great music scene right now, better than I've seen for a long time," says Tom Greenwood, one of the many multi-instrumentalists in Jackie O'Motherfucker. "And it's one of the reasons why I like playing live music now. I would be just as happy isolated off making music and not go on tour. But I like what's happening right now. There's particularly more open-ended, psychedelic music, sound art, and more personally generated ideas, and things that aren't necessarily sellable."

Greenwood knows the not necessarily sellable. He didn't co-found JOMF in Portland, Ore., in 1994 with the intention of not introducing the band's musical alchemy into the marketplace, just that whether or not what it concocted was marketable wasn't a concern. In fact, practically everything about the band would waver from the usual m.o. of the so-called industry. Then a duo, JOMF self-recorded wiggy, wandering instrumental albums released on Portland's small IMP Records, before growing amorphously into a rotating ensemble that rehearsed, occasionally toured, and documented its improvisation-based, primal cosmic-banshee Americana on Mike Hinds' now defunct Road Cone imprint. Membership is fluid--players come and go, the threads holding the band together are a shared think-space from playing together and being a part of the band's social network.

Currently, Greenwood says there are somewhere between 40 and 50 JOMF members around the country, and when it's time for a JOMF project--tour, sound installation, recording, festival appearance, whatever--calls are placed, schedules checked, and whoever is available meets up, discusses what sort of music they want to make, and rehearses and acclimates socially and musically. That may sound pant's-seat uncertain, but it's exactly why JOMF has been an exploratory entity for a decade, and why it is a sterling example that musical ideas--like any belief system put forth with conviction--can gain momentum over time. The constantly evolving, rapturous calamity kicked up by JOMF is a direct result of, not in spite of, its rubbery approach to music making, lineups, and life.

For its upcoming string of dates, the Hudson, N.Y.-based Greenwood has come down to Baltimore to assemble this version of JOMF at the recently purchased Roland Park home of friends who have yet to move in. Tall, lean, and affably unpretentious, Greenwood stands on the front porch enjoying a post-dinner smoke with four of the soon to be eight other JOMF members: David from Montreal ("David is OK, I like first names"), Andy Cvar, Genevieve Dellinger, and Brooke Crouser (yet to arrive are Fluffy, Vas drummer Jeff Mooridian, and Theo Angell). Greenwood arrived earlier in the week, the rest have showed up in the interim, and they've been hanging out, listening to music, and making music in the carriage house out back, picking their way through ideas for guitars, Fender Rhodes bass, vibraphone, electric saw, banjo, drums, autoharp, turntables, and whatever else may strike their fancy.

Improv-based rock bands can be a conundrum: What can sound like improv may merely be something tightly articulated, where the seeds of improv generate sonic ideas that are set into wiggle-room-free composition, à la Tortoise. Other multi-idiom and pan-ethnic musical travelers use improv as the entire raison d'être, the key that ignites the band's internal engine--see the Sun City Girls, the Dead C, Japanese power ensembles such as Vajra, et cetera.

Ask which side of the improv coin Jackie O'Motherfucker falls on and its members respond yes, yes, yes, and all of the above. JOMF's only musical norm appears to be that there are no norms, and bundled up against the wind sweeping off the porch, they all appear as relaxed as big cats sunning on a plain, even though the tour starts in less than a week and, to hear them talk about, they're still not entirely sure what they're going to be doing.

"We're actually working on some pretty heavy compositions on this tour," Greenwood says. "I mean, the last time we went out together with a similar group like this we just let it all fly wherever it came from. And we've talked about trying to work on something a little differently, though I can't really tell you how it's going to happen. We actually haven't got it going yet. There's more people turning up tomorrow, so we're hoping to spend the next few days working out some ideas."

"The great thing about this kind of thing is before this musical congregation happens already a certain language that people understand has slowly developed over the course of playing together," David says. "Most times we don't even know what we're going to do until we get to the space we're playing."

That may sound amorphous, but JOMF's recorded output speaks to its sprawling ability to go wherever the moment takes it. Last fall the label side of All Tomorrow's Parties reissued a double CD of JOMF's 1999's Wow! (Ecstatic Peace!) and 2000's The Magick Fire Music (Fisheye), both vinyl-only releases that were recorded in 1998 and '99 at Baltimore's ACR studios with Craig Bowen. Similar lineups smelted both, though Wow!'s three excursions sound like Far Eastern ramblers camping out in the Smoky Mountains, while Magick hijacks Hash Jar Tempo-droning blue guitar smoke cut with John Fahey-esque sound tapestries. Like an amoeba, this band can ooze practically in every direction at once and still maintain its singular identity.

"I think there's a pretty unselfconscious feeling in this group of people," Dellinger says. "There's a great deal of support for each one of us. We're in an environment where if we feel we want to play something, whatever it is, if it's bad it doesn't matter and if it's good that's great. It's great to be in a setting where you feel like there's no wrong."

"One of the primary ingredients [for making this music] is you have to be willing to fail," Greenwood adds. "Sometimes you can have a really failing section and then pull it together and have something really spectacular at the end. Or whatever. The point, I think, is just not to give up on it, really."

Relying entirely on the moment, fearlessly trying something that can veer into ugly beauty--"There's something also very beautiful about watching a sinking ship," David notes. "I love watching the awkwardness and the fragility of people trying to levitate a building, and sometimes it just doesn't work."--and not knowing what you're going to perform until you get to the performance space: These are hardly the working maxims of a band aiming for commercial success. Yet despite its underground dwellings, JOMF does enter the marketplace's fringes, releasing records and performing shows that achieve those ecstatic, sublime moments that music so rarely reaches for, let alone attains, that muddying with quasi explanations is one of the more pointless endeavors found outside an advertising agency.

"It's really hilarious to watch this shit try to be marketed, ourselves included," Greenwood says. "I just looked at this thing from Japan, a display for Jackie O'Motherfucker, and it looks like a soapbox or something. It's just crazy to look at."

Jackie O'Motherfucker plays the Ottobar Feb. 19 with John Berndt's Multiphonic Choir and the Moonstealingproject. For more information, call (410) 662-0069 or visit

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