Lockdown has affected people in myriad ways. Some go stir-crazy, some get bored to death, and some develop an unhealthy obsession with the contents of their fridge – or their sock drawer. Garret Lee was two weeks into lockdown with his family in Topanga Canyon, California, when he made a rather worrying discovery about himself.
“I just realised that my life is no different than before,” says the musician and producer from Dublin. “I work from home and get up really early, around six, and get so much work done. Then I do my vegetables and my gardening. Everyone’s complaining about this lockdown, but this it what I do anyway. I think for people who aren’t used to being by themselves, or are in a relationship that’s not very healthy, it’s gotta be hell.”
Luckily for Lee, he lives in splendid isolation in the mountains outside Los Angeles with his wife and two college-age daughters. Out there in the sticks, social distancing isn’t much of an issue.
“I grow vegetables in the garden, I’ve got a little recording studio, I’ve got tons of records, and I’ve got my family. And we actually like being around each other. One of my daughters is just back from her first year in college – she’s doing a sculpture degree – and my other daughter is almost going to college, so I think we’ve had a real gift now. We’ve actually had a chance to enjoy each other so, aside from the crazy political situation, the racism and death, personally for me it’s been really interesting, and a good time for my music-making, so I can’t complain.”
It's 9.30am on the US west coast when I call, but the man known as Jacknife Lee has already been up for a few hours, working hard on several projects he has on the go, featuring a number of artists you'll know very well – and some you'll get to know well pretty soon. Lee spends much of his time locked down in his home studio while the rest of the world goes by, but that doesn't mean he's oblivious to what's happening outside his front gate.
His new album, The Jacknife Lee, showcases an artist plugged so hard into the wider world, you can hear the buzz of kinetic energy off it. Take the recent single from the album, I'm Getting Tired, featuring Earl St Clair and Beth Ditto – an urgent chant over a driving beat and a rolling synth bass line. The accompanying video is a barrage of media clips and memes, veering from the political and portentous to the banal and bonkers – not the work of someone out of tune with current events. As we speak, anti-racism protests are raging across America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody.
“First thing I do in the morning is check my phone, because I don’t know how crazy it can get. So I check to make sure there isn’t a war. Then I find myself oscillating between that and something stupid like people falling over. It’s just a barrage of images. One minute you’re watching cops killing somebody and then you’re watching a cat slip on ice. It’s weird – maybe it’s all some kind of Clockwork Orange experiment. So the video is a sort of anxiety attack – should I even be watching this stuff? Also, a lot of the acid-house videos had a similar quick-edit style, so I wanted to emulate that. Plus I had no money.”
Tracks lying around
Making a new album under his own moniker was not something on Lee’s to-do list for 2020 (its been seven years since his last one) but, as many artists have found, the music often demands to be heard, and the artist has little choice but to do its bidding.
“I had no intention of making a record, but I kept on doing these writing sessions with artists, and when we’d finish, they would say, that was really great fun, but I can’t use that song because it’s just way too left-field or just too odd. I was getting very frustrated, so I stopped doing those writing sessions, and then I had about 40 tracks lying around that no one had sang on, and I thought, I’ve got to do something with these, because it pains me when I’ve done something and it doesn’t get out. So I just decided I would do my own thing and see what happens.”
Lee called up a number of people that he admired – including Genesis Owuso, Sneaks, Haviah Mighty, Petite Noir, Muthoni Drummer Queen, Bibi Bourelly and rapper/comedian Open Mike Eagle – and invited them to join him on the album. "I like doing collaborations, the surprise of giving something to somebody and they come back with something I didn't think was possible.
“I guess I miss doing my own thing, because I work in the service of other people, which is great, but I just wanted to try something myself.”
Working in the service of other people is what Lee is best known for. His CV of production, engineering, recording and co-writing credits is an expanding universe of its own; he's produced albums by U2, REM, Snow Patrol, Kodaline, Two Door Cinema Club and The Killers, and worked on tunes by Taylor Swift and One Direction. Michael Stipe has hailed him as a studio guru, with an uncanny instinct for good sounds.
It’s a long way from his origins as guitarist in Dublin punk band Compulsion to becoming the go-to guy for musos in search of musical enlightenment
“I like working and I’m very fortunate that I’m in a business that allows me to do this, but I need to do it. If I’m not involved in music making or making noise of some sort I go a little bit… unusual. I get very grumpy.”
Lee is used to working with other musicians via a variety of media, so the lockdown restrictions haven't curbed his collaborative style. Two of the tracks on the album, Flutter featuring Genesis Owusu and Sisa Wabaya featuring Muthoni Drummer Queen, were created remotely. "Genesis is in Australia. I sent him the beat and he sent me back his vocals. And Muthoni Drummer Queen, she's in Niarobi. But everybody else came here."
Dancing in the Middle Ages
And, Covid-19 notwithstanding, he's got a full diary ahead of him. After we hang up, he'll be straight to work on a new album with none other than Microdisney misanthrope Cathal Coughlan.
“He sent me a vocal this morning, and it was outrageous, so funny and caustic and brilliant that I just burst out laughing. “
He's also just completed work on what could be the ultimate 1980s drum battle: a collaboration between Lol Tolhurst from The Cure and Budgie from Siouxsie & the Banshees. "They're two of my favourite drummers from the post-punk era." The singer on the album is Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, who once bashed the sticks for The Jesus & Mary Chain. "It's kind of drum-based," deadpans Lee.
He's reuniting with his old mate Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol, with whom he formed the indie "supergroup" Tired Pony. It's a "medieval home disco record – it sounds like if you were dancing at home in the Middle Ages."
Sure aren’t we all dancing at home in the Middle Ages these days.
Their Tired Pony bandmate Peter Buck also dropped by to make a "dub electro" album with Auteurs leader Luke Haines, another musician mash-up that sounds intriguing to say the least. Add in projects with Elderbrook, Raury, Beaches and Twin Atlantic, and this pandemic will be long over before Lee gets a chance to lift his head out of the console.
I ask Lee if he’s got anything in the pipeline with his old muckers U2, but he deftly deflects my question: “They’re always working; they have the energy of teenagers. And they’ve got the curiosity, they’re probably the most inquisitive artists I’ve ever worked with, almost to the point of madness. They can’t stop asking things like, what would happen if we did this? They just keep on tweaking and tweaking and going and going, and then they’ll hear something exciting and they’ll want to work with it…” I’ll take that as wait and see, then.
So, at fiftysomething, Jacknife Lee is in a position envied by many dads: he’s in tune with some of the best new music around, and his kids actually think he’s cool. Any tips for us terminally uncool dads to boost our suburban street cred?
“Someone said when people get to 30 they stop looking at new things. This is my outfit, this is my haircut, this is is where I go on vacation. For me, if I do the same thing, I get bored. My daughters get mad at me ’cause I can’t listen to the same thing twice. In the car, I have to have it on shuffle, and my iTunes library is about 10,000 songs just going around, really odd music. I can’t hear anything that I‘ve heard before. For me there are so many great things happening in music. The last couple of years have been some of the best years of music that we’ve had.
"When people start saying, well, things were better in my day, first, it's not true, and it just says they miss their youth. I like the way Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen or Wes Anderson or Pina Bausch, when they get older they just get better. It's not a given that rock 'n' roll is all about youthful rebellion. I like when people get more awkward and more like a stone in the shoe as they get older. Because you've got a richer palette.
“It’s like when you go to New Orleans, and on a street corner there’s a jazz band playing, and there’s a really old guy, and next to him, playing a horn, is a really young guy. It’s the interplay between those two forces that make something different and exciting and relevant. It’s like this feedback loop that goes between the two. I think when you get collaborations that cross generations, it’s really exciting. My daughter and I turn each other on to different music – she’s a big fan of Can and she sends me clips from the Old Grey Whistle Test. It’s great when you can listen with fresh ears. I hear old music completely freshly. Things I used to take for granted – like Bob Dylan’s first record – when I hear it now I go, wow, that’s incredible.
“When you listen to new things you get to hear old things in a different light.”