By Sean Moeller
No one in New York City remembers Donna Summer when that meant Jason Forrest. They were too busy thumbing their noses at his artwork and disregarding the mash-up tracks that he was clipping together on his computer at home, those nights when he couldn't get a soul to share a beer and a bullshit session with him at a corner tavern. If there had been a little more camaraderie and way less elitist posturing, fakery and staleness in that New York art scene three and four years ago, Donna Summer may have never been re-born as a balding white man and Jason Forrest may never have had to start performing under his own name for fear of legal action, due to his growing worldwide popularity. Thank goodness for the way things sometimes work out.
Forrest, a wealth of musical knowledge with an encyclopedic recollection of albums, bands and their stories, has claimed for himself a small chunk of acreage in the larger musical landscape that grows bigger with every day. His Cock Rock Disco label is becoming more recognized thanks to his regularly well-received releases and new ones by signees like the incredible About - "Bongo" out this month - and his live shows have been in demand all across the world, with talks of taking the act to Mexico and Beijing for tours in the near future. He has the next great things in music video direction e-mailing him as nobodies and by the end of the process mega-stars like Fatboy Slim and Death Cab For Cutie (do they count as mega yet?) are sending their people to the people these nobodies don't have yet, begging to work with them. The videos - for "War Photographer" and "Steppin' Off" - have both been named by Res magazine as videos of the year in each of the last two years and he's got 12 others in different stages of production, being created by random people across the world.
He fell into laptop music as an accidental tourist and before he knew it, that was what he did. He was no longer a tourist, but he had a home, a street address, a phone number and his suitcases were in storage in the garage or attic. He was officially in, a permanent resident. He went from being a rock and roll junkie to being a rock and roll junkie who could turn rock and roll inside-out and into something that more closely resembles an abstraction of rock and roll, an oil painting that's gone into the washing machine, turning it all a colorful mess. He was never supposed to be a laptop artist, but so it goes.
"When I was a kid, I always thought that I could work with a band. I always thought that I would be a good producer because I didn't have any real musical ability, but I had a lot of musical ideas," Forrest said when he was in the Futureappletree Studio to record his Daytrotter session last month. "I met this dude in college who was doing the same thing and he had this very generic kind of band and he was really pushing them further toward the Butthole Surfers sound and doing these really amazing ads and starting to re-engineer some of their sounds and it really was a huge impression on the band. They got really big in our little local scene and I was like, 'Yeah, that's a good idea. I should do this.' That was in Columbia, S.C. at the University of South Carolina and my thought was, 'Yeah, this could be something for me. I could do this. I have a lot of ideas about music, but no ability.'
"I was a visual artist for 12 years. I went to art school and then was represented by galleries and worked as an art critic and a curator and was really serious about my visual artwork and always really thought I listened to really good music, but didn't really know if so many artists that I knew listened to good music. Most of them were like, 'Oh yeah, the new Lenny Kravitz record! It's amazing!' And I was like, 'Uh, no, it's not really amazing. You should listen to this, this Nation of Ulysses record. Now this is amazing.' And then one day I had this idea that I needed to become a DJ to become a better visual artist cause I thought that a lot of the ideas that were happening and DJ culture would affect me in a positive way, so I bought the records and the turntables and then one day I was with a friend and he said, 'We can make some music up at the art school.' I said, 'Really?' and he was like, 'Yeah, he's got a computer up there. It's got all the software.' Ah cool. It was sort of one of those ah-ha, light bulbs turned on moments.
"I didn't know anything about a turntable. Nothing. That's the thing. Nobody knows what they're doing. No band's like, 'Here's what I do.' There are some people out there who are classically trained, but nobody really knows how to do this, or nobody does at the beginning at least. So I just started playing around with the computer and making really bad noises and eventually I got a little better and then I moved to New York City and I realized that I was not interested in being a part of the New York art world. Of course there are always good people in any scene and this is definitely the case for the art world as well. There are definitely a lot of good artists and a lot of people who have the right intentions, however, there's a whole lot of slimeballs too. There are a lot of people who are very superficial, very trendy and the passive-aggressivity is really shocking. People will ask you to do these things with all these loaded intentions. It just was not the right place for me. I really felt like it was really difficult to forge a real relationship with somebody, like just two guys going out for a beer and talking about stuff. I also had this idea that there was this real artistic discourse happening. That people really did discuss ideas and that the people with the real good ideas succeeded and that the ones that didn't somehow failed and I learned that that's really not true. I learned that New York City's really about money. The idea of people really talking about art and ideas -- it happens sometimes -- but not really in a larger cultural level.
At the same time, I didn't have any money. I was working on the computer making music and then all of a sudden I would meet artists and they would literally be rude and walk away and I would meet musicians and they'd be like, 'Dude, let's go have a beer and hang out. Oh, you're a DJ. Come to the club and spin some. Ah, you're making tracks!' And so, three years later I looked up and was like, 'Oh, so I'm a musician now.' And so I did my first record for a tiny label from Osaka, Japan, and again, I was convinced that it would vanish completely. The guy sent out two copies for review. One to this big German magazine and one to Vice and Vice gave it like a nine and the German magazine named it album of the month and did all this press. Three months later, I did my first European tour and it went from two shows to 13 shows and all these people were interested and everybody wanted to buy the CD, but it didn't have any distribution at all. Somehow, four years later, I find myself living as a professional musician in Berlin. I don't really know how it happened."
The music that Forrest has made and is currently making extends boundaries to a point where they have no choice but to include Hall & Oates, The Beatles, dirty punk rock, death metal, obscure European sounds, unorthodox styles, Black Sabbath, The Ramones and a day's worth of others. He's a circus performer with his laptop, doing a myriad of different things and wearing dozens of different costumes and faces. Some tracks give off smoke because of the friction he plugs into them and the way the different snippets work together with each other, rubbing into piping-hot tear of activity. Others stroll along like a carousel, "Storming Blues Rock" from last year's "Shamelessly Exciting," for instance, moving at comfortable pace. He goes everywhere in-between as well, acting as a tour guide into dungeons, municipal parks, record stores, waterfalls, conversations, moments in reverse and time in fast-forward. He makes you want to wear a band ana and drive a real shit-kicker of a car one second and then desire to do something by candlelight the following second. He roughs things up and caresses them, smashing all of it into an incredible picture of excess made exact.
"It really is the DIY. It's the punk of yesteryear," Forrest said of laptop music. "It's the three chords and the truth, only now it's 580 filters and the truth. 580 filters, 60 chatrooms…and the truth."
*Jason Forrest on other matters:*
About the new age of the record industry -- The thing is and I really believe this: there are no rules right now. The whole business model is totally destroyed. The whole record industry as we know it is in complete flux. The people that are going out on their own and trying to come up with different solutions and different ideas are going to be rewarded for it. Like on my label, we have our own web shop, not just our own web shop, but our own mp3 store. It's eight dollars for each record and that comes for the whole record and artwork and usually some extra stuff and that's cheaper than anybody else and that's my God-given right to undersell anyone and if you think about it, with CDs, profit is what a dollar-fifty, two dollars maybe, with mp3s, that's eight dollars - four dollars for me and four dollars for the artist - everything's way better…I think one of the is sues is that the recording industry will just become further and further niche-oriented and instead of there being five metal labels, there will be 200 metal labels and instead of there being five rock labels, there will be 4,000 and everyone will have their little niche, even further sub-divided down. Certainly the big bands, the Britney Spears and all this kind of stuff is really…not working for them anymore…I just checked my e-mail before I came over here today and I had my 380 th customer in a year and we've generated more than a few thousand dollars, which is again, pretty much free money. There's some money for web costs and stuff like that, but it's not so much.
About moving from Atlanta/New York to Berlin two years ago when he was playing there too regularly to justify living here -- I was really going over there once a month and I realized I was spending all my money and time on airplanes and then I just said, 'Hell. What's the use of spending $1,400 dollars to live in New York City when we can just live in Berlin and be right in the middle of it and literally pay a third of what we do because Berlin is really inexpensive.' It was an amazing decision for both of us because my career's really blossomed there and the one thing that's funny…the only place that anyone from New York cares about right now is Berlin at the moment so all these hipsters that wouldn't give me the time of day in New York are now all excited about me coming to New York from Berlin. It's like, 'Dude…' There was this one time I played this festival in Belgium and it was 1,500 kids that went absolutely berserk, like so much screaming I could not even hear myself think and two days later, I played a show in New York for 30 people and it was the same 30 people that were there at all the other shows and that was kind of the time when I was like, 'Oh, okay. There's a big difference going on in these two scenes.'…
I moved to Berlin two years ago. I had more problems with the ideas of blind consumption than I did with political kind of situation because I was in New York for 9/11, but when I got to Europe and was there for a while I was real happy to be away from the place. It's kind of funny because I feel kind of not culturally American anymore. I feel like there's this distance between me and America, which is kind of weird. I'm not European, but I'm not really American anymore. I've been almost everywhere. There's talk about doing a Mexican tour. China, Moscow, South America, these are places where there's going to be a lot of growth, really quickly. There's a lot of cool music coming out of Mexico. There's a lot of cool shit going on in Mexico City. A lot of the musicians in Berlin lived for a time in Mexico City so there's this weird New York-Mexico City-Berlin kind of triangle that seems to be going on with these international music types.
About the popularity of laptop music in Europe , but slow rise of it in North America -- The first thing is that they all grew up going to raves and they all grew up buying their first Kraftwerk record. Whereas, we all grew up listening to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and whatever. The difference between when they grew up the record that they heard that was the big eureka moment was Kraftwerk on the radio or even house music that is this weird electronic thing and is hugely successful there. Even if you look at Abba, which is very electronic oriented. All the people, in the same generation in America, were just getting interested in Cheap Trick or a rock-oriented vibe from the very beginning. The big difference is that when people started making music on laptops, it was still electronic sounds and it didn't scare people, whereas here - just now, I'm just getting the idea that people are less scared. It's funny because I played this show in Fayetteville and I'm pretty sure it was the first laptop show in Arkansas. I played a show in El Paso and they said, 'We're pretty sure this is the first laptop show in El Paso.'
About the live show -- What I do live is, I'm really a rock guy, so I really believe in the performance and I believe there's a moment where you have to communicate with the audience and make something happen. I went to too many punk shows to know that they didn't just go up there and just go, 'Hmm, hmm, hmm, thank you, goodbye,' which is what a lot of laptop people do. They don't really give it so much. What I do is, on my computer, I have all my songs organized into musical phrases and those are broken into musical instruments and if I go through and trigger each kind of phrase in the right order then it pretty much comes off as the song on the album, but I can manipulate them a lot and I can change them. I can make medleys out of things and I have it set up so I have to do just enough with the computer to really be in it musically in my head. But I have it set up so there's just enough distance for me to really go crazy and crowd-surf or mosh around. I have it set up so it's kind of in-between. There are a lot of choices where, if I don't hit the right button at the right time then it can just go to silence and sound really awkward, where if I get really drunk, happens often.
I generate all the music. I've been really interested in sampling ever since I was a kid listening to Public Enemy. One of the things that they did that really inspired me is that they took the idea of samples and kind of extracted it musically and tried to make a new musical form out of what they already had. That's what I've been working on for years now and I've kind of achieved a different kind of musical effect by doing it this way. Very rarely do you ever actually get a full bit of anything. It's all layered with drums and different synths and other samples all collided on top of each other. It's some whole different thing….It's really physical and if the readers at home…maybe we can take a picture…the laptop is really filthy. It's really covered with lots and lots of beer and sweat and a little bit of blood. It's a really physical show and this computer is just for performing. It's just to mix it up with people. Unfortunately, early in my career, I had a show where it was kind of a weird bar situation and I said, 'Well, anyone that brings me a glass of wine, gets a free 7-inch.' What happened was that after the first one happened, everyone tried to do it. I was just downing this wine while rocking out with full intensity and I drank 11 glasses of wine in an hour and at the end of my set, instead of pushing my screen back down gently like a normal human, I just kind of smashed it down like a drunk. It just hit the table and the computer shattered in half, basically, and I'd just gotten it.
The thing that's funny about this is that ever since, people talk about it, where I'll have interviews and people will be like, 'Is it true that you smashed a laptop over your head?' And I'm like, 'Yes, yes, I did that. It was crazy that night." It was definitely crazy and I definitely was insane, but I like the idea that these myths form. In a way it's kind of like the whole G.G. Allin thing because I'm sure he started off, he wasn't all like, 'I'm gonna take a shit on a horse,' it just kept going and going. At the time, I had this really high-priced computer -- $2,000-3,000 - and this computer that I have cost me $250 and I figure that I've played almost 300 concerts with it. The problem with electronic music is that people put too much emphasis on the computer. And the point is that the computer does not matter at all. You can do a lot with a little. You can have the best computer and make crappy music. The point is that it's all about people and this is one of the things that I really try to stress is that when you're at a concert, you've got people out there and you're up here and it's about making this interaction happen.
About the amount of time it takes him to make a record and what's to be expected out of the next record -- The last record took me, really a year and a half and I literally worked on those songs every day for a year and a half. And by the end I was pretty insane. I really was totally crazy. I think it really takes that kind of dedication to make it something better than it could be. I'm super proud of the record and now, I'm just at the beginning. I'm just now thinking, 'I would like to do this and I would like to do that,' and just reaching out to more people to collaborate. It looks like I'm going to work with Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive on a few tracks. I just really want to surprise people. It will be kind of more jazzy and more screamo. I keep telling people that the new record's a cross between Steely Dan and Nation of Ulysses. I don't really know how that sounds.
About the award-winning videos -- I had this guy get in touch with me from NYU one day and he was just like, 'I want to make a video,' and I was like, 'Yeah, cool, dude, awesome.' And then I met with him again and I basically met with him over six months and basically, every time I met with him the project got bigger. Oh, we hired three actors now for it and we've got four locations so in the end it was like 12 locations, a week shoot, three paid actors and 12-13 people on the set everyday. They had a cinematographer and a producer and a costume person and it was a video that was basically a cross between Lord of the Rings and Song Remains the Same. It's got a really amazing look to it because it really looks 70s. They used a lot of stock footage and mixed it in with a lot of real footage on old cameras and stuff. This guy was just graduating from NYU - his name's Jon Watts - and after that video, he got hired by Fatboy Slim to make his next two videos and he did a big one for Death Cab For Cutie and blah blah blah, now he's really wanted. He really went from being a guy in school to beating out Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze for music video contracts all the time.